HOW TO ORGANIZE A SHOW
Most of my concerts are organized for me by people concerned about social change, human rights, jobs with justice, the environment, and peace. Some of the venues are established, but many of them are new. They include churches, schools, union halls, community centers, meeting houses, living rooms, coffeehouses, etc. I am asked to perform for parties, celebrations, demonstrations, commemorations, conferences, conventions, political candidates, fund raisers, educational events, summer concert series, colleges, high schools, and children's shows. For some people, it is the first time they have ever organized a music event, but the basic principles are the same as they would be for other organizing.
Sometimes I am solicited to do a show. However, you may have received an email from me because I am going to be on the road in your area. I have sent you a bio, a sample poster, and a concert review. If you are interested, and contact me for a show, please don’t do so in a frivolous way. People contact me all the time, say they want a show, sometimes set a date, and then, for a variety of reasons, do not follow through and I am left with an open date that becomes too late to book. To protect myself, I work more and more with contracts committing to the terms on which we agree. When we set a date, the venue should be known, time of event, length of concert, contact person/people, and financial arrangements in place. BEFORE setting the date, it is important to check the calendar to see if any other big events are happening that night. Once the date is set, it is critical to ANNOUNCE it asap to community groups so that another group does not book an activity that same night. Let me repeat. Once the date is set, it is critical to ANNOUNCE it asap to community groups so that another group does not book an activity that same night. This is the first REALLY IMPORTANT step. The sooner it becomes a community event, the better the turnout will be. This is particularly important for fundraisers.
People like you bring in musicians like me because you believe in the message, are committed to the work, and see the relevance, value, and importance of the music to the work you are doing. The concerts are a great way to have fun, do outreach, build community, and raise money if you want to do a fund raiser.
Because of the social justice content of my music, I do not usually get commercial airplay and the publicity and promotion that come with that. My list of corporate sponsors is rather small. It will be you and others in your organization and community who promote the show through posters, radio airplay and interviews/articles (where possible) on the air and in the papers. If you have a community radio or campus station, odds are they have someone with a program who will play my music and announce the show. I can send CDs to them, the earlier the better. I also regularly do phone interviews.
A very effective way to reach people is to announce the concert and/or circulate handbills/posters at other events and meetings preceding our event. Put up posters. Refer people to my website. Coffeehouses put their menu on the back side of a concert poster. My music can be heard on Sound Click at http://www.soundclick.com/tomneilson.
Aside from the previously mentioned media sources, email is a good way to contact people, (with attached poster) followed up by a phone call because a lot of emails do not get opened. Groups you should contact include peace and environment groups (Sierra Club. anti-fracking, tree and other burning incinerators, nukes, mountain top renoval), Quakers, Unitarians, Humanists, Ethical Society, AAUP, Alliance for Democracy, labor unions, AFSC, Jobs with Justice, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Code Pink, progressive student organizations on college campuses, Raging Grannies, etc.
Invite area groups and organizations to bring their info to the show. I realize that tabling at a small venue is not practical, but groups can still bring info to share with the audience.
Invite a local business or group to co-sponsor the show. A co-sponsor buys $50 (or whatever you determine) worth of tickets and then gets their name on the poster as an official co-sponsor. Ask them to announce it on their email list, put up a poster, etc. This is a very effective way to generate publicity and get community interest. Remember that we are doing outreach for your organization and building community.
A potluck is not necessary, but food is a good draw. If not a potluck, a group can sell drinks and treats to make a few extra dollars for their organization. Some venues do a raffle.
Most communities have local ministers, imams, rabbis, etc. and/or congregations with a Peace and Social Justice group.
Some groups like to do advance ticket sales, e.g. $12 advance or $15 at the door; or $15 and $20. My range is usually between $15-20 dollars. Some venues are not allowed to “charge” admission so we say there is a “donation” of $15, etc. If people know it is a fund raiser, they are often willing to kick in more money for admission., but you know what the going rate is for a show in your area. If you make the admission too low, say $5, people attribute less value and maybe think it not worthwhile to come. Plus, you won't make any money. And neither will I. Unless you live in a seriously economically depressed area where people can’t afford to go to a movie, and 3$ is all they have, then that’s different. A sliding scale can work in a poor area where low income can pay the low end of the admission. I also will put "Or Pay What You Are Able," as another option, on the poster. Passing the hat doesn't work. People put in a dollar or two and this barely pays for gas.
Union scale for colleges is $500. Otherwise fees for concerts generally range from $400-$500, depending on resources. At fundraisers, most groups prefer to split the gate. Splits range from 80 (for me) 20 (for the host) to 75-25, 70-30, 60-40, 50-50. I can work off the split or the fee, whichever you choose.
One church decided to have a Fair as a fund raiser with food, games, tables from different community organizations, and an open mic for members of the congregation to perform. One group levied a donation for each song. Of course there are waivers to this and "scholarships" from benefactors in the audience. In that it is a fund raiser, think of fun ways to get people to donate. Use your imagination. Keep it fun. CMN auctions off cookies (the same ones multiple times) (Or auction off a t shirt while that person is wearing it..or bid for him/her to keep it on). A silent auction is another idea. Make a game of it. Have a radio station do a give away of a ticket or 2 if the listening audience can guess some piece of trivia about me or the music.
I usually do two 45 minute sets. But it is up to you if you want to lengthen or shorten. An intro helps to start the show. Please have someone who can work the stage to intro the first set and bring me back for the second. It is also important to have someone close the show. Sometimes the audience is clapping for an encore. A performer likes to be brought back by an MC. It an be awkward for a performer to bring him/herself back on stage. Especially when a second encore is requested, which has happened.
When I am brought to colleges and high schools for concerts, teachers assign my shows to the curriculum or make them extra credit. I have done concerts through collaboration with the following departments: international studies, sociology, anthropology, English, political science, history, economics, music, religious studies, ecology, and education.
I also do a workshop called Music for Social Change. Sometimes we write songs. Sometimes we talk about how to use the arts to present social issues. Sometime we have discussions on such topics as race, class, gender, sexual orientation, media, health, etc,
I am also available to do residencies to teach musical theater or music as social history. I have a readers theater piece with music about labor history. It makes a good independent study project at either college or high school levels. It is a very moving and vibrant piece where students take on the roles of historical figures. The speaking roles are interspersed with songs.
SETUP: Barring transportation snafus, I like to arrive 1½ to 2 hours before the show. I need a table for my CDs and literature. A card table will suffice, but bigger than that is much better, as I have posters, and other paraphernalia. It should be in an area that can be lit and accessible during intermission and after the show.
STAGE NEEDS: I know it is not always possible, but is nice to have a quiet room to tune and prepare. I need a chair with a flat surface or small table or stool to put my picks, capos, other props, and a glass of water on, where I’m performing.
Once I had an MC interrupt my first set right at 45 minutes. PLEASE do not do this. Also, the MC is not an opening act. Keep the intro short. I can provide one if you want. I once had an MC go on for 10 minutes as if he were a stand up comic. He wasn’t.
Outdoor concerts require sound support!!! There are birds, dogs barking, cars, lawnmowers, frogs, mosquitos, and the great outdoors that carry sound away. Mosquitoes are very bothersome to the audience and often carry them away.
I don’t play in bars. There is too much talking. I was booked once in Portland, ME and the venue even refused to turn off the basketball game. At Bus Boys and Poets in Washington DC, the manager opened up the music listening room to diners who didn’t pay admission and talked (loudly) through the show. When I and audience members politely requested that the diners respect the music space, the restaurant manager appeared and, interrupting the show, came up to me on stage and told me it was all right for people to talk during the show. There were more than a few words spoken between the listeners and the diners. Then there was the young man in Indiana who, during the show, began playing a video game…ding, buzz, zip, boom… It is the responsibility of the venue to provide a dedicated listening space.
My concerts are interactive with audience participation and distraction nullifies this connection. Having a quiet space for audience and performer should be a given and understood by all, but it isn’t.
When sound support is required, it is the sole responsibility of the host to provide. The venue provides the engineer to set up and run the equipment. If there is cost, it is assumed by the venue. It does not come from my share of the gate if that is how I am being paid. If we are using sound support, I require 2 mics. 3 mics are necessary if I have a back up vocalist, but we will know that well before the show. The sound check should be done before the audience arrives, one to 1 1/2 hrs before the start time.
IN CAFÉS: Everyone pays admission. Regular clientele do not come in free. My experience is they come in, say they have no interest in the music, and talk throughout the show. Talking is just unacceptable and it is the venue manager or coordinator’s responsibility to remind the audience. I have been in venues where the rudeness was extraordinary. If you don’t talk at the movies, you don’t talk at a concert. I have had to stop shows because the audience couldn’t hear me and I couldn’t hear me either.
I do children’s shows, but my satire is not a children’s concert. The themes of my songs can be very sophisticated for a child. There is playfulness with sexuality, altho probably nothing a nine year old hasn’t heard, and for younger kids it is over their heads. I use only one FCC censored word which is “tit.” Children running around are distracting. It is like talking. Other than my high school material, most of my children's music is in the 4-7 yo range.
FLYER FOR SHOW
I will send you a sample poster. Please send me a copy of the poster you are going to use as soon as you have it completed and I can then send it to contacts who may not be on your mailing list.
Woody Guthrie was once asked to play at a fund raiser and he asked the organizer what he could pay him. The organizer responded that they thought he would play for free because it was a good cause. Woody replied that he only played for good causes. I have done hundreds and hundreds of benefits and raised several thousands of dollars for groups. The reality remains that my music is not a hobby. It is a business. I can’t travel and perform if I am not paid for playing. There are many people who expect me to play for free. One anti-war group coordinator in NY even abruptly called me a war-profiteer because I make money by writing and performing music for social justice. I need your respect in return. An unfortunate fact of life is I need to make money from my music or I can’t travel with it.
Necessary. I am not fussy. When I'm in my truck, I travel with a mat that I can put on the floor. I have a sleeping bag. A bed is more than enough. This ole bod can still sleep just about anywhere. No smoking please; cats and dogs ok. Noise at night is un-desirable.
THE HOUSE CONCERT
House concerts are a very popular venue and a favorite one of mine because of their intimacy. They often are preceded by a pot luck. Or deserts at intermission. The importance of house concerts is that they provide a venue when there is not an established venue available. Or for reasons of song content, established venues consider my lyrics too “controversial.” We announce with all the environment, peace and justice groups, local media, and send posters around via email. Some people have established house concert series where they bring in musicians every month. Other people open their living rooms up to me, entirely to support the music.
CONFERENCES AND CONVENTIONS
When I am asked to play at conferences and conventions, the registration fee is waived and if not on my route, transportation is compensated. My music is often used to start the day, introduce panels and plenaries, close them, close the day, and usually have a time slot to do a set of songs. Please do not schedule me to sing as backup or when something else is going on in the room. In the business this is called “throw away music.”
I have been invited to play at conventions and conferences and then been completely ignored by the audience who had no interest in the music. And on one occasion in Chicago, I was completely ignored by the organizers who invited me. I never played while waiting the entire weekend. If you are not serious about and committed to the music, please don’t invite me. If I give my time to you, I need your respect in return.
THINGS NOT TO DO
Once in PA, a person said he wanted to organize a concert for me, but said he wasn’t able to do so, but he said I could stay at his place for the night and when I arrived, he said that 4 or 5 people were coming over with instruments to swap songs. Fine. No problem, but 4 or 5 people were actually 30 plus people with no instruments coming over. He had invited them for a free house concert w/o telling me. Please, please don't do this. It is exploitation. It is dishonest.
Also, please don’t tell your friends they don’t have to buy my music because they can copy the free one that I gave you for hosting. And please don’t tell them this in front of me. It happens.
If you have booked me, please then don't ask me to find a venue, cover any rental costs, feed the audience, do publicity, or supply a sound system. This is the host's responsibility. Re publicity, I will contact groups with whom I am connected or of whom I have knowledge, but I am too busy to do publicity for your show.
Please don't ask me to save a date for you and then disappear on me. No date is firm until the contract is signed. Please don't book me and then not publicize the show. Musicians share info as to the good venues and people; and the ones to avoid.
THANK YOU so much for your support! It is you who keeps the music alive and our (I speak for all my activist musician friends) gratitude goes out to you. This will be a lot of fun.