How to organize a show



Overview

There is a recipe for organizing a good show. Follow the recipe and you are almost guaranteed success. Try a shortcut and failure is very likely... But it's really not complicated and just requires time, effort and a modicum of social skills. It's best if there are multiple people involved but a successful show can be organized by a single dedicated person. The key thing is generating a buzz about the event. My friend Ben Manski says he knows he's done a good job at organizing an event when he's hearing about the event from people who don't know he's the one organizing it.

Some of the points below are specifically relevant to politically-oriented performers like me, others are more generally applicable, but what is basically here in a nutshell are strategies for publicizing a good, political, and relatively unknown performer who is not working with professional agents and promoters and labels and such, but relies entirely on DIY, fan-based publicity (and really a fan-based existence without people like you I'd be pulling espresso shots for a living).

As someone who has decided to organize a show, I encourage you to consider this an opportunity to support your community and, um, me. Hopefully you're doing this because you think organizing a concert in your community will help:
  • bring people together help you and other people and groups network with each other
  • inspire the progressive community to keep on keeping on
  • educate people about new ideas and enrich their knowledge about social movement history
  • build for future events coming up in the community or region
  • perhaps even raise money for a cause (or at least keep me on the road)
For further advice than what's below, and even for help organizing the event (from afar), you can also contact my friend and comrade Paula DeAngelis, who does that sort of thing! And of course you can also ask me...

Enthusiasm

You don't need to believe I'm the new messiah, but you need to be very enthusiastic about the event you're organizing. "This guy is pretty good" will not bring people to the event no matter how much publicity you do. No need for any wild exaggeration, but you need to think the performer in question (me) is really very good. He'll inspire you, make you laugh and cry, teach you fascinating new things, etc. If you can (honestly) do better than that, go to town...

Venue

If there's a university in town and you have contacts there, organizing a show on campus can be wonderful, provided there's a student group or other campus group with a budget involved. That way I can be paid by them and the show can be free, oftentimes. Free shows on campuses are great, but if there's no sponsorship from a student group it's always better to use an off-campus venue.

In that case, what we want, ideally, is a venue that regularly has good music, that everybody knows about, people know how to find it, it's easy to get to, and it does at least a little of its own publicity. This can apply to a music venue, but also to a Unitarian (or other) church concert series, where they may have a loyal following from the congregation as well as other people in town.

If we're relying on what comes in the door to raise money, the venue needs to be one where we can charge a cover or in the case of a church it might be called a "suggested donation," but either way the idea is to have someone sitting at the entrance hitting up every person who walks in for a $10 donation (or something along those lines).

It's preferable if the space has nice acoustics and nice lighting, but if the only room we can get for free or cheap involves fluorescent lights, c'est la vie. I don't travel with a sound system, so if the room is a noisy place or we're anticipating a large audience some kind of sound system may be needed. Usually what's built into the ceiling in a lecture hall or church is not adequate for music. Ask me if you have questions about this, but basically what we need is a stand-alone thing with a very small mixing board running into a vocal mike on a boom stand, a DI for my guitar (or I can plug in direct to the board if it's near the stage), and a couple of speakers on speaker stands.

Every Show a Benefit Show

It's a win-win to make every show a benefit show. What the general public doesn't need to know is that it's probably only really a benefit show if it's well-attended. Here's how it works: money logistics vary depending on the gig, where it is, what kind of travel is involved etc., but just for the sake of simplicity, say I aim to make $500 to do the show and I'm not asking for a guarantee for this one, but just for show organizers to aim for $500 or so. Advertise it as a benefit, charge $10 at the door. At the end of the night, after taking out your expenses for organizing the show, the first $500 gets split 80/20 between me and the cause (I get 80%), and then for anything over $500 the cause gets 80% and I get 20%. This way if the gig is only modestly-attended I still make a living, and if it's well-attended then it can also be a good fundraiser for the cause. Other benefits to making the show a fundraiser below...

Finding Cosponsors

Especially if the show is a benefit, you'll find it's amazingly easy to find cosponsoring organizations. If you smile nicely and don't smell bad you may be shocked at how everybody other than your local NRA chapter will react positively to your personal appeal. Some people have told me that 100% of the organizations they asked said yes.

Here's how it works. You approach local nonprofits, activist groups, NGO's, religious institutions, small businesses and/or gainfully-employed individuals. Tell them you're organizing a benefit show for the local chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War (or another group that's active in your community). Ask them if they want to be listed on the publicity materials (posters, emails, perhaps even a program booklet) as a cosponsor. Tell them you're asking cosponsors to help spread the word about the event through their networks and to donate $50. For their contribution they get 5 advance tickets to the event, which they can either use themselves, give away to staff, volunteers, supporters, friends, etc., or sell to people who want to go to the show and make their money back (thus getting to cosponsor the event at no expense to themselves).

Advance Ticket Sales

In addition to selling advance tickets in packages to cosponsors, sell them to friends, comrades and coworkers. Especially if the event is being billed as a benefit people are usually happy to contribute to the cause, especially when the contribution is connected to a concert ticket -- even if they might not go to the show. Many people buying advance tickets will be doing so to support you, me, the cause or all of the above (depending on the person), whether or not they show up to the event. This is a good thing! (Though of course it's ideal if they actually come to the show...)

Targeted Leafleting

Make little leaflets about the event and hand them out or leave them on everybody's chair (or both) at events in the weeks leading up to the concert that would tend to attract a sympathetic crowd.

Conventional Publicity

Event organizers often have the hope that if they reach out to the mainstream they'll attract the mainstream to come hear someone like me do a concert. It rarely works that way. It's more like you have to work outwards from the left, if you know what I mean. Just random publicity received by people who probably aren't into acoustic music and very probably have never heard of me will tend to have little impact. It's still nice to put up posters around town, get the event listed in the local papers, etc., but don't expect much to come of that. If the local paper can be convinced to do an article with my picture on the cover, that's another story -- that will help.

Community Radio

Encouraging local community radio programmers who have folk music shows or news shows to play my music and to have me on their shows as a telephone guest in the week leading up to the show is a good thing, and may help bring some people in. What really makes the difference, though, is if you can get folks at the local station to make a PSA (Public Service Announcement, sometimes called a "cart") and play it daily during Democracy Now (or another popular show if there is one) for a couple weeks leading up to the show. This will bring in people, but only if the PSA is played regularly and during a popular listening time for the station.

I can send CDs to radio programmers who'd like them no problem. They can also lots of my songs for free download in high-quality MP3 form by going to www.soundcloud.com/davidrovics and other sites.

Email Lists

The vast majority of people don't open emails that come from a list, even if they signed on to the list in the first place. It's important to publicize the event through as many relevant local email lists as possible, but don't operate under the illusion (as many people do) that this will bring in the masses -- it won't. I don't know how many times I've heard a variation of "I don't know why only five people showed up. There are a thousand people in this city on our group's email list." If you have a really good email list that people like to read, maybe a hundred of those thousand bothered opening your email. Of those hundred maybe ten really read the thing. Of those ten, maybe five of them came to the show (which in a sense is quite good -- that's 50% of those who actually read the email!).

But if there are multiple relevant local lists, then it can eventually have an impact if the show is mentioned on various lists numerous times by different people. The key to that happening is to call or email people individually who you know have a good email list and ask them to help publicize the show. (Again, if it's a benefit they will be much more likely to want to do that.)

Facebook

I could mention other social networking sites, but at the time I'm writing this there is only one that's particularly relevant. And it's quite relevant. The way to take advantage of what Facebook has to offer is to create an Event page, tag all your local friends on it, and keep posting that event page to the top of your Profile page regularly. Tag me, too, and I'll do the same on my page. With luck this can create a good viral effect and increase attendance a bit, or maybe more than a bit...

Aside from creating an Event page it's also nice to do new status updates and such in the weeks leading up to the concert where you connect people with a particular song I may have written that's relevant to a current story in the news or a current date in history, or to share a random song or essay I've written, anything new that gives you a decent excuse to plug the show again without just saying the same thing you said last time.

Using My Website

At http://www.davidrovics.com you will find links that can help in various ways. A brief overview: on the "bio" link you'll find a brief bio, which along with a couple quotes from the main page of my website can work fine as a press release (along with info about the show). It's often best if you say it in your own words though. If you follow the links for "posters" you'll find a spiffy generic David Rovics tour poster with a blank space on the bottom for filling in local details. Find a good printer for printing out the first copy, fill in the local details, then make some photocopies. With enough lead time I can also mail you posters. Follow the "photos" link and you'll find high-res photos perfect for print media to use. Follow the "audio/video" link and you'll find all of my songs available for free download on SoundCloud, SoundClick and videos you can share with people via YouTube. And of course follow the "contact me" link and anybody who wants to email me or call me for any reason can easily do so!

Summary

Each one of the different publicity strategies I've gone through here will, by themselves, only bring in a limited number of people. In combination they are a nearly sure-fire guarantee of a successful, well-attended benefit concert that will most likely see me and the cause do well, and hopefully also help in your efforts to build your group and to invigorate the local progressive community a bit. I've pretty much organized this section with the most important publicity strategies closer to the beginning, but all of these publicity strategies have an important role to play, at least potentially. Hope to see you on the road and in the streets!