Guest post by Lance Tobin (@ltliveboston) who runs a musician-based tax accounting firm and is an independent concert promoter in Boston.
One of the most advantageous relationships an artist or band can have is with a promoter. At the local level, there seems to be a mystery as to what exactly the promoter does. "Does the promoter promote? Shouldn't the promoter be responsible for bringing all the people if I'm putting everything into the music end?" These questions resemble those I hear from local artists on a semi-frequent basis. While that logic may seem like it makes a lot of sense, it can ultimately hurt the artist in the long run.
To answer the question; yes the promoter promotes. However, the promotional push varies at different levels based on the expected effectiveness of the promotion. For example, a large national act or regional touring band has a recognizable name. If I'm promoting a show with a headlining act with a solid fan base, investing in print ads, radio spots, and other means of advertising may make a lot of sense. The average concertgoer will see that name and make it a point to go to that show. The context of the promotional push is much less important at this level. Whether you see a Facebook post from your favorite band or a flyer at your bus stop, you're going to that show regardless of how you found out about it.
At the local level, it may be a completely different story. Local promoters frequently encounter bands that are looking to get their foot in the door and are still working on building a solid fan base in their hometown. They're completely focused on the music, and spend 99% of the time before their scheduled show practicing and honing their sound. Of course, practicing and putting on the best show possible is something that should be a primary focus. However, it goes back to the saying "If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?" This is the same premise with a live show. If a band plays a flawless set, but the only people there to hear it are bartenders at the venue, was it really a live show? Truthfully speaking, you may be able to salvage some kind of benefit from this scenario, but it's almost as if you just moved the location of your practice onto a stage, and that has very little benefit to your band.
The reality of the situation is that the local band developing their fan base lacks the notoriety of a regional or national act. The fans most likely to go to see this band are people who know the band, be it family, friends, classmates, or co-workers. This is where most bands start. At this level, it makes much more sense for the band to reach out to these people rather than the promoter. The band knows EXACTLY who these people are, and can reach them more effectively. If the promoter makes the same push for the local act as they would for the regional or national act, it may not have any added benefit. For this type of show, the promoter may scale back and do things like flyers and "let-outs" (waiting until a show is over and passing out small handbill flyers to each person who leaves.)
The local promoter makes his money off of his share of the door sales, and possibly off a percentage of the bar sales, if they're lucky. The typical split I use with local artists is 80/20, where the band receives 80% of the total ticket sales. The first question most often asked is "Why does the promoter take a percentage if I'm doing all the work promoting the show?" Think of the promoter percentage as a return on investment. Their job is to rent the venue and give you a great place to host the live music for your fans. The room rental fee must be paid whether the show makes or loses money. In this sense, the promoter is taking a risk on your band, and they believe in you to put on a great show and bring out enthused fans. If the show flops, the band lives to fight another day.
While it hurts to play for an empty room, they're not liable for the room rental costs, and they most often take much less of a financial hit than the promoter. That loss may severely impede the promoter's ability to rent rooms, pay guarantees, and pay the bills. When thinking of it in that context, 20% is a fair percentage for taking the risk on the band. The successful promoter can single out the local acts that are less risky, and have a firm grasp on what it takes to bring people out and expand their fan base. However, every band has to start somewhere, and most local promoters have to take a chance on a new band every once in awhile.
By pushing your shows and doing your part as a band to bring fans out, you'll build a solid relationship with promoters who can really make things happen for you. The most lucrative concerts for a local promoter are with touring bands with a large fan base in the area. More often than not, these bands are looking for the promoter to build a solid bill of local support that can help sell the room out. These headliners are often paid bonuses at sellout capacity and take a large portion of the ticket sales. The more people that come out, the more the headliner makes. Once your band has developed a large enough following, the relationship with the promoter can gain the necessary exposure to make some things happen.
In the new music business, artists truly have the opportunity to take charge of their careers and expand their fan base. The sooner they can single out who their fans are and reach out to them in the right way, the sooner they will take off and gain the ability to perform as a full-time job. The role of show promotion is something that should be shared between the band and the promoter. At the local level however, the band generally has much more leverage in bringing the fans. Make friends with your local promoter and show him you can bring fans out. Your dream of playing in a band as a full-time job will become much more tangible.
Image via OakParkHistory