Straight Talk from Band Bookers

Straight Talk from Band Bookers

Byline: ROBERT L. DOERSCHUK

You couldn’t find two midsize music venues that are more different than the Ark and the Exit/In. The first is a homey space in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with table seating, healthy treats at the bar, and a preference for acts that encourage listening rather than dancing. The second is an agreeable dive in Nashville, where scuff marks cover the black dance floor, the aroma of ancient beer fills the air, and the best places to sit are among the spilled nachos at the bar or outside on the curb. The vibe at the Ark is relaxed but cultured, with cool old photos lining the entryway. The Exit/In, in contrast, is the only club I’ve ever visited where, in order to get to the men’s room, you have to walk onto the stage, practically in front of the band.

Yet these two places have much in common. Each has been around for more than 30 years, and both are close to college campuses – the Ark is but a short walk from the University of Michigan, and the Exit/In is within P.A. feedback distance of Vanderbilt. Both have long track records of breaking artists who have since become as legendary as the clubs themselves. R.E.M., Hootie and the Blowfish, and, more recently, Nashville Pussy, Ben Folds Five, and Jason and the Scorchers played some of their initial gigs at the Exit, while the Ark played a formative role in the careers of Reverend Gary Davis and a young U of M drama student named Gilda Radner, among many others.

In other words, there’s plenty of experience built into those tabernacles, meaning that the people who work there know a lot about what it takes for an up-and-coming performer to get attention – and to get booked.

WORD OF MOUTH

“The first plan, when I started out, was that the artist had to be as good as me, which was like having no plan at all,” Dave Siglin laughs. He’s the Ark’s artistic director and has been onboard there since 1968. “Then [the criteria became that] they had to be better than me, which established a basic level. Then it had to be that we learned something from them. We asked our performers who they thought should play the Ark, not just who could play there. That expanded our pool, so we weren’t dealing with auditions or anything like that.”

Similarly, T. C. Weber, operations manager at Exit/In, relies heavily on buzz as an alternative to auditioning acts or having to wade through demo CDs. “If you get to the level that you need to be ready to play this room,” he says, “I’m going to know about you. I’m all over the Internet. I’m constantly talking to other club managers, reading the newspapers, the magazines, everything. If you’re drawing in smaller clubs, I’m going to know about you.”

Siglin, on the other hand, makes it a point to listen to every one of the 800-odd CDs he receives from hopeful performers each year. He’ll pull the ones that get his attention and pass along others to younger members of his staff. “I’m … old,” he shrugs. “My rules are going to be different. For example, if I listen to a songwriter, I want to be able to hear the words. I don’t want to hear an intelligent songwriter backed up by a band so heavy that you can’t hear the voices. On the other hand, somebody 25 years old might be looking for exactly that.” (Out of that 800, incidentally, maybe 40 eventually earn a return phone call and some discussion about playing at the Ark.)

THE ART OF THE DEAL

Once you’ve gotten the booker’s attention, the next step involves talking business. For Siglin, that means finding the right intermediary. “If somebody calls me out of the blue and I don’t know who they are, I don’t listen,” he says. “So you’re better off having someone book you than booking yourself. But make sure it’s the right agency. Every agency expects something different from its clients. If it’s William Morris, they expect you to hit it big. If you’re with someone smaller, they’d expect you to play a certain number of jobs a year and bring in a hundred, three hundred, maybe four hundred bucks a night. Do not go with an agency that handles the Greg Browns or Gillian Welches of the world; you can’t do them any good, and they can’t do you any good either. Instead, make sure they have other clients, maybe four or five, who are in a growth stage, as well.”

Weber cautions new acts to be realistic about what they can expect. “I get beat up all the time by bands who call and say, ‘Hey, we want to open for a national act.’ Well, when was the last time you went to a show and paid attention to the opener? That’s when you wander through the door, you talk to friends, you see who’s there, you check out the cute girls, get yourself a couple of drinks. You get acclimated. Now, if the band that’s opening is terrible, you’ll notice them. But even if they win you over, I don’t see much of a carryover. If you say, ‘Hey, this opening guy’s not so bad,’ do you keep that knowledge all the way up to the next time you see in the paper that so-and-so is playing again? That just doesn’t seem to happen.”

Rather than go for the glory at a place like Exit/In, Weber strongly advises prospective bands to “find the small club in the area – a 50- to 100-seater – show up there, and bang it out. Do it like guerrilla warfare: get in, rock the house, and leave.

“And make good friends with the bartender,” he adds. “They’re walking advertisements, especially in college towns, where it’s normally college people who are bartending. Every day somebody says, ‘Hey, you workin’ tonight?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Who’s the band you got down there?’ If you’ve gone out of your way to make friends with the bartender, he’s going to go, ‘It’s so-and-so. That band’s great!’ But if you’re a pain in the ass, or if you try to get free drinks out of the bartender, somebody’s going to say to him, ‘Hey, who’s playing?’ ‘That fuckin’ band. I can’t even remember their name.'”

TREAT ‘EM RIGHT

So often, even in this miserable business, civility goes a long way. The key, Siglin and Weber insist, is respect. “Showing up on time is important,” Siglin offers. “Of course, everybody makes mistakes. We’ve been late. Our soundpeople have on occasion shown up late, and the act has to wait out in the back. And the act is pissed off, which is understandable. But vice versa: If our soundguy leaves his job early so he can be there at 4:00 – when we’ve insisted the act shows up – and he sits around until the act waltzes in at 5:30, that’s starting off on a bad foot.”

Weber seconds the point. “Niceness overcomes so much. Look at Edwin McCain. He hasn’t had a hit in a while. He’s not the greatest songwriter you’ll ever meet in your life. But you know what? He’s made a connection with people over the years because he’s such a nice guy. He can pack a room with rabid fans, based on the fact that he’s a nice guy who sings music that’s all right.”

In the end, you get the clubs on your side by building your buzz up from the bottom. That’s what Weber would do if, God forbid, his little brother decided to play music: “I’d throw him in the van, tell him to do 60 dates in 45 days, come back home, and do it all over again. I guarantee that in a year his chops will be up and he’ll be breaking into those markets.

“And, oh yeah, be sure to pay the soundman extra so you can be rude to him.”

The Bottom Line

Club owners are a misunderstood, overworked breed – or they think they are, which amounts to the same thing. Don’t think you can come out of the blue and win them over with a phone call and a smile. “Every performer who calls me says his act is tremendous,” Siglin says, “which means they all say the same thing, and there’s no way for me to tell which one is right and which one is wrong.”

It’s a numbers game. That means it’s better to sell out a 50-seat dump on your first tour than it is to draw the same 50 people to a warehouse like the Exit/In. Go after the bookings where you know you will make an impression right away, and be patient for the bigger action that lies down the road.

Be nice to everyone, not just bartenders. When you’re in a new town, spend downtime at the hot record store or wherever people hang out who can tell their friends about how friendly you are or how cute your guitar player is.

Shop around for a booking agent and hire the one who convinces you that you are exactly the kind of talent that he or she appreciates. If there are any doubts, talk with other musicians, and keep looking.

Finally, don’t take things too seriously. Enjoy the fact that you’re doing something insane for a “living.” “You’re not doing anything that’s never been done before,” Weber says. “So why hinder yourself by acting like it’s more important than it is? Just do it, and let’s have some fun. That’s why we all got into this in the first place.”

onstage*hotlinks

www.a2ark.org Visit the Ark, read up on its history, and see who’s booked for next month.

http://nashville.citysearch.com/profile/9319092 The Exit/In doesn’t have a functioning Web site, but you can get schedules and info at this URL.

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