Booking a show is not easy. And sometimes, it’s not fun. It can be stressful, tiring, and frustrating. Especially when you’re doing (almost) everything on your own. But when it all comes together, when things go right, there really are very few experiences that compare.
Like most major cities where on any given night there could be several paid shows happening, any number of bars with bands playing for free, festivals - involving music, or food, or both - and other special events taking place, Cincinnati (and Newport and Covington) can be a tricky environment to try to both put something together and make it stand out.
I’m not a professional, in any sense of the word, when it comes to booking bands and bringing them to town. My experience has been with relatively small bands that not many people have heard of - first at a DIY art and music space, then in a more freelance manner when that space shut down. And I’ll be perfectly honest, I’ve had many more failures than successes - and those that I would consider successes absolutely were not accomplished on my own. But what has drawn me to do this, over and over, successfully or not, is the connections I have made with the bands that have come to play, and regardless of turnout, have left with a positive experience.
Recently, I had the privilege of bringing one of my favorite bands making music right now to Cincinnati for the first time. It had been almost a year since the last time I put a show together, and happened more out of coincidence than anything else. Twitter, it turns out, really is as magical as you’ve heard. What I’ve always believed - but, have continually struggled to reconcile with the reality of the situation - is that you have to really get behind any given show you’re working on, you have to be a fan of the band to really, truly sell the show as the experience you want it to be for others, one that you want to genuinely share. I think that goes for all sizes of shows - be it a basement show for 20 people, or a room that holds 1,000. So it helped, immensely, knowing that I was bringing a band to town that I respected so much musically and professionally. It also made me seriously reevaluate how I would go about setting things up - the where, the how, the who - all of those pieces had to fit the right way, because to me, this was a big, big deal.
After fretting for a week about finding a venue - and not just a venue, but the right venue - I was able to hold the show where I wanted, where I felt like we had the best chance to bring a good amount of people out. At that point, I already had one local band involved, with the possibility of a second already in the works. It wouldn’t be until about 3 or so weeks before the show that I would take a chance and put another band on the bill, this one from out of town, like the two touring bands I had booked originally. It was very much a gut feeling-based decision, and in the end, it certainly feels like it worked out for the best.
So you have the venue, you have the bands. How in the hell do you convince people to come out to a show to see bands that so few people have heard of? Of course, that’s all relative. We all have our own musical tastes, whether they be mainstream or niches within sub-genres within genres. There are fans for just about everything. Luckily, the two touring bands had some name recognition, and both are on the verge, so to speak, of bigger, better things. But you still have to sell it, you still have to get the word out.
Find some friends who can do graphic design, get them involved. Think about your options for both physical and digital promotion. For me, for this show, I had some advantages going in, and I am not at all too proud to say that I really believe they made all the difference. A good friend found the time to make two really amazing pieces of promotional material. A member of one of the local bands playing the show is a graphic designer/letterer by trade and created a beautiful show poster for the night. And of course, writing for CincyMusic.com meant that I had a built-in outlet for reasonable amounts of promotion on the internet.
With the (admittedly incredible) promotional artwork put together - and I will always, always, always be a fan and practitioner of physical promotion - and a schedule of interviews/show previews set to post the week of the event, plus regular contact and interaction with the bands playing, it felt like a lot of the necessary pieces were in place for the show to be a successful one. Don’t rely solely on Facebook or Twitter or Tumblr, but make sure that if the bands have any kind of noticeable presence on any social network, you’re working with them, mentioning them, involving them in the promotion process as much as possible.
Make sure your expectations are reasonable, and do not, under any circumstances, try to oversell things to either the bands or the venue. I don’t necessarily think I’ve been guilty of that in the past, but I know that, for me, my expectations are one thing - I always want the best possible outcome - but I’m sure they’re something else entirely for a band. They are putting their very livelihood in your hands, asking you to make sure someone is there to listen to and watch them play music they have spent months or years creating. Granted, it’s up to them to let their fans in the area know they’re going to be in town and when, so it is a two way street. Which is why I recommend actively engaging with all the bands, however you can. Make it personal. Take things personally.
Whatever weird alchemy went into making that night a success I’ll probably never be totally sure of. What I do know is that attendance was double what I had anticipated, all of the bands had a great time - 3 out of 5 of them had never played in Cincinnati before, but you can be damn sure they’ll be back, whether it’s because I set things up, or someone else does. That’s the kind of night it was. There was a free show on Fountain Square, there were several other club and bar shows happening at the same time, in different parts of the city. But these bands were good enough, the awareness was there, and the vibe was just… right.
And I’ll be honest - Cincinnati has disappointed me in the past, despite my best efforts and intentions. Some shows just simply didn’t work out, and I can accept responsibility for when that happens. This one, though… This one showed me that Cincinnati should and can be taken seriously, and should be seriously considered when a band that’s never come to town is routing a tour. I hope I can be a part of that in the future, no matter how big or small the band or bands. I can say again, emphatically, that it was an absolute privilege to be a part of this one, right here, right now. So thanks for that Cincinnati. And thanks to the bands for giving me the chance to do this one right.