When I began playing shows in New York with The District, the size of our crowds escalated pretty quickly. There were six guys in the band, and we were all in college so we had a strong network of friends and family that we were able to drag out to gig number one. Some of those friends and relatives brought their friends along for our debut. We rehearsed obsessively for hours and hours on countless days before we ever took the stage. The first show had maybe fifty people at it and by my own humble estimation, we kicked ass and took names. Most of the people at the show seemed to have a blast, so they told more friends. The next show had around 100 paid audience members (our tickets were $5 each in the beginning). We kicked ass that night, too. This became something of a tradition; we’d play a great show and the people who saw us would spread the word so attendance at our next show would be even better. A few months after our first gig, we were regularly selling out small clubs in The Village. (Of course, some nights we sold more tickets than others; there’s going to be something of a fluctuation in ticket sales for almost all artists.) We didn’t perform so often that our newfound fans got sick of us, but we didn’t space out our gigs so far that people had a chance to forget about us. In time, the project grew and grew and we were eventually traveling to play shows around the region (and then, the country).
When you’re starting out, you need to get your show on point before you roll it out in front of people. Your friends and family will come see your band’s first show, and if it’s good, maybe some of them will keep coming back and God willing, bring along more friends. Most people (even ones who really love you) won’t come see your fourteenth show in town if the previous thirteen weren’t entertaining. I have four points here:
1. Don’t play shows until you’re ready. Rehearse your show until you’re blue in the face and can play it backwards, forwards and sideways. Remember that when you get on stage, you’re going to need to entertain as well as play. (That’s why they call it the “Entertainment Business;” you need to entertain the people who pay to see you. If your show isn’t entertaining, they’ll spend their money elsewhere.)
2. Make your ticketed shows cheap at first. You want to show that you can sell tickets (so you should charge something), but very few people want to pay $20 to see a show if the band is brand new. Good rule of thumb: If your early shows cost more than a beer at the venue where you’re paying, you’re probably charging too much.
3. Once you’re ready, play shows close to home. If you live in New York, play there. There’s also a bunch of markets within driving distance, so play there, too. (This is true for most places. If you don’t live close to Boston/Chicago/Philly/New York, maybe there’s a college town within a five hour drive of where you’re at and another one that’s three hours in the other direction. You don’t have to focus exclusively on huge markets if there aren’t any within a day’s drive of where you live.) Build an audience in all of the markets that you can reach but make sure they’re different markets. (You probably don’t need to play in D.C. and Baltimore on the same tour, unless you have sizable fanbases in each town. Most D.C. fans will go to a Baltimore show and vice versa. Be mindful of that when booking shows; don’t put them within too few miles of each other.) Being able to sell tickets in one city is cool, but being able to sell tickets in a bunch of markets starts to look like a career. You’ll need to promote these shows so that people come out to see you, but that’s a blog post for another day.
4. How often you should play in a given market is not an exact science. You’ll need to figure out how many shows your fanbase will support in the market within a certain amount of time. Odds are, very few people will want to see you every week. What should you do to keep the band playing? See answer #3.
Reason To Ignore This Advice: You’re James Brown. He was probably great from day one and didn’t need to consider any how/when/why; if there’s any semblance of order in this universe, I hope he just got on stage that first night and the world said, “Yes sir!” Godfather of Soul. Good God, just jumped back and kissed myself! Huuuuuhhhhhhh!