Case study for increasing attendance at local shows
Situation: My band lives in Missoula Montana. It's a small city (100,000 people) with a liberal arts university, and significant access to outdoor recreation. I've been playing and putting on shows here for 10 years.
Some of the unique issues that we have is that there are a lot of musicians here but not a lot of live music venues. Most venues over the past decade have had a "pay to play" model, knowing that each year a fresh batch of college kids will pay the fee in order to play for their friends. We dealt with this issue by renting smaller halls for a lower price, hauling in our own PA equipment, and running everything on a volunteer basis. The early shows were rough and in hindsight, our promotional efforts were laughable.
Another issue we encountered was entertainment competition. Nothing in my years of research prepared me for the competition of W.o.W. raids and house parties. Or the sheer immensity of how much stuff there is to do in this town. We countered by increasing the visual element of our shows, which was a natural and authentic progression anyway. In addition to home entertainment, was outside ventures. Summers and winters are rough for shows here. I've learned to use both of those seasons for writing and recording material.
My most recent band started attracting a core following of about 30 people, but couldn't seem to break over that. We also couldn't seem to break into the bar scene here either. All of us local bands figured that our scene could only support about 20-40 people. Two things happened to change that perspective.
1. We started getting more national acts coming through. We started seeing thousands of people coming out to these big metal shows.
2. I did a fill in gig as a guitar player for a nationally touring DIY metal band. I was able to grab some insights into what they did and how they were successful.
Since that time, I've formulated an approach that has helped grow our audience from 30 to 150 within one year.
Promote. Promote. Promote.
It seems basic and too simplistic, but I still hear other people (including members of my own band) say it doesn't work, even as it's working. Here are the parts I use.
1. Utilize every means of promotion that you can. For us during this last years, this meant
Adding event to every local calendar
Adding event to every online listing
Putting up posters in every store that will take them
Handing out handbills at every other local events
Handing out handbills to strangers in Wal-Mart, Target, etc.
Utilizing a street team
All in all, for our last two shows, we're spent approximately $700 each show in advertising. Considering that our first album cost $1400 total, this blows my mind. I'll get some people saying handbills don't work or Facebook doesn't work, but I tried them as all pieces in a greater puzzle. Maybe the handbill by itself doesn't work. But when Joe Schmo takes the handbill from the show, gets in his car and hears the radio ad and then sees the ad on his Facebook, he can't help but notice and wonder who these guys are and where they came from.
2. Get sponsors. I came from a big punk DIY background, so I thought any kind of solicitation on my part was "selling out." However, I've decided that selling out shows and stopping losing money was more important. I only approach people and businesses that I like, but I trade spots on my fliers, handbills, newspaper ads, and radio spots for cash or other perks such as drinks or give aways. I hold raffles for the give always and help defray some of the advertising costs.
3. Start early. In Missoula, the wisdom is to start promoting the weekend before the show. I now start 5 weekends before the show. This gives me ample time to hit a bunch of shows and to really achieve brand awareness.
At this point, I feel like years of reading, planning, and preparing are starting to pay off. In the beginning, I thought the most important thing was to play whenever and wherever. And that might work in other scenes. But I'm beginning to figure out what's working for us in our scene. Our scene needs less shows and greater awareness.
We lost a lot of money traveling to Portland and Salt Lake City unprepared. We still buy physical CDs and stock a lot of merch even though we technically don't have the fan base to support all of our decisions. Half of us have families and most of us have some kind of school or medical debt. We don't meet half the criteria of traditionally successful bands. But I'm an addict and will keep doing this. I'm hoping that once we reach a level of sustainability that we'll show future bands yet another path to achieve a certain level of success.
P.S. Here's my bands Facebook