The Business Of Live Performance

Live performance is glamorous and exciting. But performers often forget that club owners have a different perspective on music than musicians do. For venues, it's business, a very serious business, fraught with risk and considerable competition. The question for you to keep in mind when approaching the booker of a live venue is; why does this club book certain artists, and not others? What is the criteria to get a gig at this venue? The bottom line for club owners is they need to make a living at their profession, and the only way they can do that is to book acts that fill their club.

Artists who wish to get booked should have a list of their accomplishments to present to a booker. The booker needs to see your promotional kit. The promo kit contains a cover letter, a bio, a photo, a selection of press clips, possibly a Fact Sheet, and, of course, a CD (CDR) or tape of your music.

When sending a demo, always be sure to put contact information on the label, and the J-card or cover of the CDR, (as well as every other part of the promo kit). Only three or four of your best songs should be on the demo. The demo for a club can be a live recording, unlike studio-produced recordings sent to radio station specialty shows. If you send a CD, mark three or four songs that are most appropriate for the venue.

There are many kinds of live venues. Besides clubs, there are:

bars and taverns conventions
coffee houses music conferences showcases
festivals industry showcases
fairs non-profit charity organization shows
concert halls association functions
schools street corners
churches raves
book stores house parties
record stores frat and sorority gigs
shopping malls restaurants

How many more live music venues can you think of?

This is just a partial list; the point is for you to think about all the alternatives you have for playing your music in front of an audience. If you do well at non-traditional venues, the nightclubs may be more inclined to book you - especially when they know people have been coming to your shows in droves.

When dealing with venues, keep in mind that many have a business agenda that may determine whether or not you're qualified to perform at their venue. Each venue is out to achieve its mission or goal...get people to have a good time and drink a lot of refreshments, and/or eat a lot of food, or donate to some worthy cause. Your job is to convince them that your music will help them achieve their goal.

Artists who are just beginning to perform live have a tough time getting their first shows. You can't get a gig unless you've gotten other gigs, and you can't get other gigs until you get that first gig. So be it. Everyone has to start somewhere, and many artists frustrated by this situation have simply rented a space, gotten a permit, rented a sound system, and put on their own show. At least then they can say they have performed live.

It's the job of the bookers to be aware of what new acts are causing a stir in their own backyard. It's also their job to listen to the demos that come in the mail by the dozens every week. This brings up the issue of protocol. Yes, there is an etiquette for all areas of music marketing, and the protocol for dealing with bookers is: mail the promo kit, wait a week to ten days, and then call the booker to ask for their response to your kit. Believe it or not, politeness and respect are fairly uncommon virtues in the music business. Make sure not to interrupt meetings. Ask the person if now is a good time for them to talk. If they request a call back, do so at the time requested.

Artists and bands that think they're ready for prime time may not be. It's a good idea to have at least two or three hours of prepared material that can be performed live. If you have only half-an-hour or an hour of songs, the clubs will not likely be interested in booking you. Different clubs have different needs. Some offer special nights for open mikes, or showcases for unproved acts. Be sure to check the booking policy of each venue.

It's a good policy to not be too picky about what venues to play. The more resistant venues may become friendlier if your act is out in the local scene and your name is listed on radio station concert calendars and print media calendars. The venue bookers check out their competition. If you're out there playing gigs, the bookers will eventually take notice. That's part of their job.

Once a venue books you, they add you to their schedule and include you in their press releases, calendars, posters and flyers. This doesn't mean that you should leave the promotion of the concert to the venues. On the contrary, you should notify your fans with a mailing notice, print up your own posters and flyers, and promote your shows in any creative way you can think of.

Performance Contracts

The music business is very fond of contracts. The record, publishing, merchandising, and management sides of the industry are contract crazy. In the performance arena, there are indeed contracts, but in the beginning they are more of the handshake or verbal variety. When your act gets more established, you can rest assured that the written contract will be around. This doesn't mean that a beginning act shouldn't try to get something in writing.

The verbal contract between a club and an artist may simply be an agreement that the artist will perform on a certain date, at a certain time, for an agreed upon length of time, with what specific other act, and how much will be paid. Many venues require some kind of written confirmation of a verbal agreement made over the phone. This is to the advantage of the artist anyway.

Without a doubt, the single most contested area is how the artist will be paid. The act may receive a flat fee, a straight percentage of the door or ticket sales, or a flat fee plus a percentage--where the artist receives a guaranteed fee plus a percentage of the door after the venue (or promoter) reaches a break-even point. Remember, the venue is concerned with making and not losing money, so the break-even point for a show is based on the costs of putting on the performance, which include promotion costs and any "guarantees" that may have been made to the artist for their performance.

Here's the information you'll need to complete a live performance contract:

  • Name of Purchaser or Buyer (Name of the Club Promoter):
  • Name of Artist
  • Terms of the Deal: The deal you accepted and the amount of money you'll get paid.
    Here are the four most common deals you will encounter:
    1. Flat or Guarantee: Example: $ 300
    2. Versus: Example: $ 300 versus 30% door
      (which ever is higher)
    3. Plus: Example: $ 300 plus 30% door
    4. Points/Split: Example: 50/30/20 of Net
  • Date of Event
  • Set Length
  • Deposit (if any)
  • Who will pay to whom, how much, and when
  • Admission Fee (Ticket Price)
  • Capacity of the Venue
  • Act of Nature (Force Majeure):
    The force majeure (literally "superior force") clause is applied when there is an unexpected event that causes performance of the contract to become impossible; it releases one or both parties from their rights and obligations.
  • Cancellation Fees
  • Recording by Permission Only
  • Promotional Commitment:
    This, for instance, specifies the minimum amount of money you, the band, expect the club to invest in advertising the show.
  • Merchandise: How much the club takes from the gross of merchandise sold.

Booking Agents

You won't need a booking agent to book your local or regional shows. Booking agents (for the most part) are people who make their living off established artist and bands who have a steady stream of income coming in from touring regularly. You may be attractive to an agent's services when your live performance career has grown to the point that the attendance at your shows and the amount of shows you are doing are taking up more time than you can handle. Once you've accumulated a solid list of accomplishments, it's possible that agents will be interested in you and may even seek you out. It's also possible that you will be approaching them.

In other words, when you can prove to an agent that you are a money making act, then they be interested in working with you. An agent will (help you) decide which markets to hit on which route, select and book clubs, take offers and negotiate deals. The agent is responsible for you having venues to play at on your tour.

Here are some important points to remember when considering signing a contract with a booking agent.


The agent often asks for a contract of three or more years; you will want to keep it to one year. Shorter is better for you, because you can split if things don't work out, or squeeze the commission down if things do. If you give more than a year, make sure you have the right to get out after each year if you don't earn minimum levels. Note that there's a very good chance you will never sign any papers at all. This varies with the policy of the agent.


When you are a new act, it may be difficult to give an agent less than worldwide rights. However, as you move up the ladder you can sometimes exclude territories outside the United States. This is often beneficial, because you can use agents in Europe or elsewhere who are skilled in those markets. In fact, many U.S. agents often employ a local subagent for foreign territories and you can thus eliminate the middleman. On the other hand, the U.S. agent doesn't just sit idly by while a subagent does the work. The agent oversees the foreign agent and makes sure the shows are properly promoted, that you get paid on time, etc. (Please note that-at any time and level-you might want to reserve the right to book local shows yourselves.)


Agent's services are primarily to book concerts and they are only paid for the area where they render services. So never give your agent a piece of your income from records, songwriting, or publishing. Usually agents don't even ask for this, but be careful of union forms. Agents are regulated by unions; such as the American Federation of Musicians and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The maximum these unions allow them to charge is 10%. The AFM and AFTRA printed forms have a place for you to initial if the agency commissions your earnings from records. Watch out for it and never do this.


Each of these agreements has a clause saying you can terminate if the agent doesn't get you work for ninety days.


You want to make sure that the bands on the agent's roster play the same type of music you do. You ensure that the agent will book you into clubs that are appropriate for your music and you'll be saved from embarrassing experiences.

Also, make sure that the agent does not have too many bands on his roster. If there are more than six to eight bands on your agent's roster, your band will probably not get enough attention.


An agent should be genuinely enthusiastic about you and your music; a persistent person who fights for his clients. Remember, you don't necessarily have to like your agent's personality!

Check out the Pollstar Agencies Directory or the Recording Industry Source Book to research more agents.

A good habit for young acts is to have a member of the band's team count the ticket stubs collected at the door. This is a fairly common task that assures you of getting a correct count of the number of patrons who came to the show. More established artists who are dealing with booking agents can demand as much as 50% of their performance fee up front, before they perform. Even more established acts can demand their whole fee before they perform.

Some Do's and Don'ts for Dealing with Booking Issues:

  • Research the venues you think are appropriate for your music. Read the local music papers and magazines and check out the venues in person.
  • Network or talk to other artists that have a similar style and ask them where they have played.
  • Put together eye-catching and creatively designed press kits. Always make sure that your contact number is on your CD or cassette J-card and labels.
  • Doing the mailings and making the follow-up phone calls can be tedious. If you've got more than one person in your group willing to help with booking, split up the grunt work for follow-up calls.
  • Write up a general cover letter to include with your press kit that answers some additional questions a booking agent will want to know; your style of music, what your draw is and whether you are looking for an opening spot or a headlining spot. What kind of guarantee or terms are you willing to accept, and most importantly what are you going to do to help promote your show. Will you send out mailers to your mailing list, put up posters, handbills, and buy any media print ads?
  • Send press kits out well in advance. Most venues want two to three weeks time to review your music before they will even talk about booking you.
  • Always plan your bookings well in advance. Booking agents usually have their calendars full by the fifteenth for the next upcoming month. Also, touring acts will put "holds" on club calendars for two to three months in advance.
  • When doing follow-up calls always have your calendar in front of you. Most of the time you'll be leaving messages on answering machines. Make notes of your phone calls and messages. When leaving messages be friendly and brief. These guys get hundreds of calls per week. State specifically what you're looking for.
  • Know that the bookers will be calling you only if you bring in crowds and the venue makes lots of money selling booze and other refreshments.
  • Don't give up. If your music is as good as you claim it is, and your audience continues to grow, that is the best news you can give any booker.
  • Calling back to a venue about once every two weeks is plenty and shows your interest and professionalism.
  • After you get the details, write a letter to the venue (or fill out a contract) summarizing the details.
  • Start planning your own promotions early. Get posters up in the venue and elsewhere a couple of weeks before the show.
  • Get handbills distributed around the town. Hit your mailing list the week before. Call and remind your fans, and be sure to use the internet to promote your shows and send email reminders to your email list.
  • Network. Find other bands who are compatible with your music and trade shows with them.
  • Be patient about getting the hot gigs. It takes time to get those headline gigs on Saturday night. You will usually start out with a weeknight gig and work your way up to the headliner position if you draw large crowds.
  • Send thank you cards to the bookers after your first show, and after all significant shows thereafter.
  • Don't overbook yourself in the same area and spread your audience too thin. Move around. Three or four shows a month is plenty in one city when you're getting started.
  • Spread out slowly to other areas around your hometown. Then define your region, and work that circuit.
  • Don't burn any bridges. You may encounter some conniving people in this business, but watch out what you say about anyone. It could come back to haunt you.
  • Remember the venue's priorities - to get a lot of people into their venue so they will make lots of money selling alcohol and food.

Selling Your Music At Live Shows

As far as a record label is concerned, the sole purpose of supporting an artist's tour is the strong possibility that sales of the artist's records will increase.For the independent musician then, the cardinal rule regarding sales at live shows is this:Never perform live without setting up a way to sell your CDs.

Selling your CDs is the ultimate goal of music marketing. All the activities that have been discussed, all the planning and coordination that a label puts into marketing a record have as their ultimate goal the sale of CDs. Live performance sales can provide you with the largest percentage of profit, per unit sold, than any other method of distribution or sales. Make the most of this opportunity, and never even think about doing a live show, without mentioning to the crowd that your music is for sale at the venue.

The income you receive from your live sales can help pay for any expenses you may encounter while being on the road. In many cases the amount of money you receive from live sales of your CDs will be much higher than any performance fees you may receive.

Most live venues allow performers to sell their music releases. Some may ask for a percentage of sales (from 10-30%), but most smaller size venues just let musicians sell their merchandise without taking any percentage of sales. So, sell your CDs, Tapes, Vinyl releases and any other paraphernalia you may have, like T-shirts, caps, and other clothing with your logo on them.

Be sure to have a mailing list available for your fans to sign. This is really Marketing 101 when it comes to taking advantage of a fan's enthusiasm. There is no better time to catch the emotional high of a music fan than at the moment of their peak excitement.
It is also a good idea for every member of a group to spend some time hanging out at the sales table. Fans like to have autographs, and what better opportunity to offer this gift to your fans than when you have them waiting around to buy your music.

Keep accurate records of each transaction. If you have a laptop computer create a spreadsheet to keep track of your music product. If not, get a receipt book and write up each sale separately. Remember, you are making money from each sale, and like every other tax paying citizen you need to report your income from sales to any relevant local, state, or federal agencies.

I have had many discussions with musicians about live sales opportunities, but one incident stands out. A client arrived in a city where a major chain store had put up a beautiful display of the artist's latest CD and went all out to welcome the artist to the in-store autograph party. Later that evening my client called to update me on the event, and said something like this: " The record store was so nice to me that I have decided not to sell my CDs at tonight's concert. I will just ask everyone to go to their store after the show". I was speechless and said, after a long pause, " Why did you hire me? Didn't I tell you that the cardinal rule for live performances is to sell your CDs at every show? What I want you to do tonight is this. At some point in the show, stop and thank the record store for their support and then tell everyone that after the intermission your CDs are for sale in the lobby."

The next morning I was waiting in a hotel lobby for my client when I saw her approach. She approached me and said "Chris, stand up for a minute." I did. " Put out your arms", she said. I did. She gave me a big hug and said, " I sold a ton of CDs last night, and actually made more money from those sales than I did from the fee they paid me."

I rest my case.

The business of live music is a world unto itself. The tips I've given here are a basic introduction. Marketing, for an independent artist or label, means taking advantage of any and all opportunities to reach a potential fan. I see live performance as a very special chance for recording artists to interact directly with their customers. I encourage you to learn more about what's involved in live performance.

Throughout his fprty year career in the music business, FourFront Media & Music's Christopher Knab has shared his experience at many industry conventions and conferences, including the New Music Seminar and the Northwest Area Music Business Conference.

Knab was owner of a San Francisco music store, co-owner of the 415 Records label, and station manager at KCMU Radio in Seattle.

He currently provides a unique consultation and education service for independent musicians and record labels. His new book is entitled "Music Is Your Business".

Christopher Knab