It is frustrating as hell when it seems like a venue is more interested in profiting from liquor sales than in making the music accessible to fans of all ages. After all, who can better appreciate the noise of an angsty band than people trying to survive high school?
I was lucky enough to grow up in a city with a strong all-ages music scene, and I remember being surprised to find out that people my own age organized many of these shows. Although a lot of work goes into putting on a show, it isn’t as hard as you might think. What better way to incite cultural change than by creating culture your own self?
And so, here’s a guide to hosting an all-ages show in your town.
1. Figure out your resources.
If you’ve never planned an event before, it can be intimidating figuring out where to begin. For starters, see if local entertainment committees or promotions teams already exist at your school. Rachel, 22, a student at SUNY Binghamton, was able to join a group on her campus called Binghamton Underground Music Presents that was given an annual budget by the student association to book bigger acts like Xiu Xiu and Titus Andronicus. After joining that organization, Rachel focused on booking the bands she wanted, including more female-focused acts. “There have been more female and queer musicians booked during my time in BUMP than in previous years, when it was mostly hardcore bands with burly dudes in them,” she says.
If you’re not in college, your options might be more limited, but keep your eyes open: does your high school or community center book bands for dances? Do you think they could feature more diverse talents? Join a planning committee—you might find that you’re given the power and the resources to bring your favorite band to town.
If things aren’t happening through established channels, you can always do it yourself. The first thing to do is find a group of friends, or at least a partner whose work ethic you trust. There is power in numbers, and this is supposed to be fun, so you don’t want to end up overwhelming yourself by taking on more work than you can handle.
Part of the benefit of working with others is that you can combine your available resources—time, connections, and money. Events cost money, and it’s easy to spend too much. Make a budget, and figure out how you’re going to recoup your investment, if not make a little profit. Your expenses, in general, will be: a band’s fee for playing (this is your biggest expense, but appeal to your favorite bands’ sense of fun and their commitment to encouraging young fans to organize on their behalf—they might cut you a break), fliers and other promotional materials, decorations, and backstage goodies (pizza is a good bet; have bottled water back there too), and any extra equipment you might need to rent (more on this in a bit). How are you going to pay for this stuff? How are you going to recoup that money? Do you plan to charge for tickets to make up the difference? Do some math: how much do you need to charge per person to break even? What kind of equipment does your venue already have? Do you need to rent anything else? Does your venue have a house sound person, or do you need to hire someone? What can you borrow or get for free? Know the answers to these questions before you move on to step two.
2. Find the venue.
People tend to associate live music with bars or clubs, but you don’t have to limit yourself, because you don’t need to be somewhere that serves booze. Be creative—independent coffee shops, record stores, and art galleries are sometimes willing to host music performances. Do you know someone with an amazing backyard? If there are electrical outlets, that’s a good place for a show. I’ve seen shows in parking lots, in basements, in parks, on rooftops, in record stores, in bookstores, in libraries, and on street corners. Anything can be a venue, so long as you have enough power to plug in a few amps, as well as enough space for a band and their instruments, plus an audience.
Remember your audience when you’re booking; is this a place that will be difficult to get to without a car? Are the only timeslots available late on school nights?
Erica from Jurassic Shark and Cat Butts is a high-schooler who felt frustrated with the spaces available to her when she was trying to book her first show earlier this year. “It’s horrible—a lot of the smaller venues [where I live] are bars,” she said. She was ultimately able to find what she describes as a “super tiny DIY space” that is used for events and readings. Bigger is not always better; smaller places can allow for more intimate, intense shows.
When you’re trying to figure out where to put on your show, talk to the owners of the venue in advance. Here’s what you want, ideally: a space with a backline (amps for guitars, bass guitars, and keyboards; and sometimes also house guitars, basses, keyboards, and drum kits), which will at least split the door money with you. (They’ll typically keep all the money they make from sodas and other refreshments.) Some places will charge you to put on a show there—make sure that you’ll get that money back from ticket sales. If the band is selling merch, they’ll keep that money. Ask the venue if they’ll need you to give them a deposit before the show, or if you can pay them the night of the event, from the ticket money. Do you have to arrange for online and in-person ticket sales, or will they do that? If you have to do it, buy or print out tickets, and get a responsible friend to sit at the door. If you want to arrange for online sales, there are lots of websites that do this, for a price—a decent one is EventBrite.
Other questions to ask of a venue: Where are the power outlets? Do they have a PA? Do they have a good relationship with their neighbors? Are you responsible for cleanup? What is the maximum capacity? Make sure you are well aware of all the space’s policies and rules, and prepare yourself to enforce them. You want to build a good relationship with independent venues in your town, so be professional and considerate when using somebody else’s space.
The price of venues can range drastically depending on where you live; the people I polled listed fees ranging from $75 to hundreds of dollars. Find out if you have to pay this upfront and out of pocket, or if you can to pay at the end of night, after you’ve sold tickets. Calculate your expenses (paying the band, renting equipment, buying promotional supplies) and figure out what a reasonable ticket price would be, based on your conservative estimates of the turnout. Decide beforehand how any extra money will be split up between your co-organizers and the band. Lots of times the band might be willing to play for free in exchange for being able to set up a merch table, but out-of-town bands might need their expenses covered.
Make sure that between the band and the venue, you’ve got all the necessary equipment. If you are missing anything, you’ll need to find it on your own. Always see what’s around before you rent. “Usually if you ask around, people are happy to let you borrow things,” says Erica. This is another reason that it’s great to network in your local music scene; as you make friends, people will be more willing to help you out in a pinch (later, once you become a show-organizing pro, you can return the favor).
If none of the established venues in your town seem welcoming or financially reasonable, make your own venue. Again, backyards, rooftops, etc., can be great for shows.
Once you’ve found (or created) a venue, get some dates from them, which you can offer to your favorite band or bands. Which leads us to step three:
3. Find the bands.
The reason you’re doing this, I’m guessing, is that you’re a music fan. What are your favorite acts? Your budget will help determine which ones you can approach. Like, you’re not gonna be able to book Grimes your first time out, but is there a local band that you love? Small local bands tend to want exposure, and you won’t have to worry about coordinating with their tour schedules, finding them a place to stay, or covering their expenses. Also, local acts tend to have a built-in fan base nearby.
Most bands have a web page (at least a MySpace) that lists an email address and/or phone number for bookers. You are a booker, so this contact information is for you! Call/email that contact and tell them what you have in mind. Let them know how much you can pay (don’t leave this open-ended!), and ask them about the dates that the venue gave you.