Show Promoters: How Well Do You Know Your Business? Part 1

I’m just waking up from an uncharacteristic late night out on the town. Yesterday was Dilla Day all over the world and we celebrated it in grand style in the home city of the late great music producer – James “J Dilla” Yancey. I was especially happy to see a seemingly-capacity crowd at TV Bar. Both rooms were used with House Shoes and Dez running things in the main ballroom (including performances by Finale, 5 Ela, Phat Kat and Slum Village) and Sicari and K-Fresh spinning in the lounge. If you were to be a n00b to the Detroit hip hop scene and last night was your first experience, then you might think we have the most awesome scene on the planet. It looked to be so much love and comradery that you might believe that we always party like that. Au contraire, this party was definitely a one-off. Detroit only parties big on special occasions. J Dilla is worth it though, without a doubt, holiday or not. I just wonder how the promoters of this event plan to replicate that showing at future events. Actually, I doubt it is really possible, but I wonder if they are taking measures to retain patrons. My guess is no.

I set this scene and the clarification of its relevance to start the conversation behind the business model of promoting events. As a semi-retired show promoter, I am very familiar with the downs and occasional ups of the business. I always find myself giving up on throwing shows as the effort that goes into coordinating an event, promoting the event and setting up the event is just so taxing that the potential payout never seems worth it, especially when you are most likely going to lose money. I mean, to the average entrepreneur, this probably makes no sense to you and I totally understand that. The thing is, many show promoters do not get into the business of throwing them with the idea that they are going to become rich from it. Many of us do it because we are passionate about music and want to contribute to the scene; of course, it helps that you can actually potentially make some money doing it too.

I started throwing shows 5 years ago, because there was a bit of a void of quality events that I wanted to see in my old college town in East Lansing, MI. I used to try to book myself on my own shows, but that got old quickly. It was just too much work to try to make sure the show details were in order and keep all my queues in order with my DJ for our set. Besides, I had a problem with remembering my raps and that was embarrassing. I need to focus on one thing.

I had a good run. My best shows have been my birthday parties (this very fact is instrumental to my current view on how to properly run a event promotions company). I eventually moved my events from Lansing to Detroit and I saw even greater success, but usually my shows were in the red in terms of money. I had to take my first retirement when I attempted to book my biggest show that required a 4-figure guarantee to the headliner at a venue that was just opening and was off the beaten path. I made less than $900 at the door. I have to admit, the work that was put into this show was not my best. Mind you, I was in no real position to throw this event as I believe I was having trouble making ends meet at home. My car was on the fritz and I rarely drove anywhere, so I was not getting out and flyering. In this particular show, I had a group that came from out-of-town to perform and I wasn’t able to pay them anything, not even gas money. Luckily, they were humble enough to accept that and I appreciate them for that to this day. I had a local rock band that I guaranteed money to and I wasn’t able to pay them either. They were not as understanding and that bummed me out. I still have that on my conscience to this day. I like to be a man of my word and that show totally ruined that reputation, at least that’s what I think, so I gave up throwing events for a while. I got back at it in the summer of 2008, but only to witness a dying music scene filled with jaded, apathetic and/or spoiled people. I immediately packed it back up after a couple of shows with no attendees.

With the music industry in such a decline, I find myself very interested in what it will take to help artists sustain a living. I have a couple ideas and most of them hover around the concept that artists need to see themselves as a business, which is totally the opposite of what “true artists” want to be seen as. As the major labels crumble though, you cannot expect to be discovered anymore, so new ideas have to be developed. I think one avenue that artists will be looking to gain more traction is money from touring. It is obvious that album sales can no longer be relied upon, so income streams need to be diversified. That is why I want to talk about the people that are instrumental in making sure these artists are given the best chance at maximizing their time at the concert venue. Promoters need to do their jobs better – simple and plain.

This is the end of part one, but feel free to leave comments. I’d love to moderate a discussion on the future of show promoting in regards to the changing needs of artists that have their backs against the wall. On the next part to this series, I will be unveiling some of my personal tenets to becoming a successful promoter in the Digital Age.

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  • Milena

    Well – I’m 100% with you. Artists need to think like business people.

    10% art, 90% business. That’s the sad reality.

    Talent is maybe the last thing you need – the rest is selling that 10% you do have.

    So if you are an artist who wants to take it to the next level, if at the very least you aren’t walking around with your demo CDs in your pockets, a website up running contact info and appearance dates, trying to get played on local/internet/mainstream radio, singing/performing EVERYWHERE you can, even for free just to get your name out – you aren’t doing your job.

  • Milena

    Well – I’m 100% with you. Artists need to think like business people.10% art, 90% business. That’s the sad reality. Talent is maybe the last thing you need – the rest is selling that 10% you do have. So if you are an artist who wants to take it to the next level, if at the very least you aren’t walking around with your demo CDs in your pockets, a website up running contact info and appearance dates, trying to get played on local/internet/mainstream radio, singing/performing EVERYWHERE you can, even for free just to get your name out – you aren’t doing your job.

  • Anonymous

    Looking forward to reading Part 2! One thing I have found is that by working a traditional 9 to 5 job for bill paying, it has really freed me up to work on my music at my own pace without the stress factor that accompanies having to rely on one’s art in order to eat and have shelter.

    No matter what happens in the “outside” world, the musician will always be “in control” because the musician is the one that creates the content that others can consume, thus the money factor that you are discussing. I like to look at it this way, being a musician is like having your own grocery store, even if no one comes in to buy the produce, the grocer is always going to have something to eat.

    Keep up the good work with your writing, this is going to be a good start to get those of like mind on the same page. Where we go from there will take care of itself.

    :)

  • Anonymous

    Looking forward to reading Part 2! One thing I have found is that by working a traditional 9 to 5 job for bill paying, it has really freed me up to work on my music at my own pace without the stress factor that accompanies having to rely on one’s art in order to eat and have shelter. No matter what happens in the “outside” world, the musician will always be “in control” because the musician is the one that creates the content that others can consume, thus the money factor that you are discussing. I like to look at it this way, being a musician is like having your own grocery store, even if no one comes in to buy the produce, the grocer is always going to have something to eat. Keep up the good work with your writing, this is going to be a good start to get those of like mind on the same page. Where we go from there will take care of itself.:)

  • Ardamus

    Good read. I often have wondered what goes through the mind of a promoter. Having said that I haven’t had the best experiences with them.

  • Ardamus

    Good read. I often have wondered what goes through the mind of a promoter. Having said that I haven’t had the best experiences with them.