How to Get Gigs: A Guide to Booking Concerts in West Virginia
Since the show began almost two years ago, A Change of Tune has highlighted some of the best up-and-coming artists out of these West Virginia hills with podcast-y chats ranging from Bishops to Rozwell Kid, The Sea The Sea to Bud Carroll and more.
But those interviews have been a bit infrequent, and since West Virginia Day is upon us (not to mention A Change of Tune’s second birthday), we thought we’d do something special: 30 days, 30 brand new #WVmusic interviews that range from Morgantown alt-rockers and Parkersburg singer-songwriters to West Virginia music venues and regional artist management and beyond, all of which contribute to this state’s wild and wonderful music scene.
And on this West Virginia Day, we’re turning the focus from the artist to the places that they play, the venues where #WVmusic starts on a Friday night, ends in the wee hours of Saturday, and kicks off again that evening. But how does a band end up in one of these venues? And what can fans do to help? We spoke with some of West Virginia's favorite venues (including Charleston's The Empty Glass, Fayetteville's The 35th Star, Huntington's The V Club, Morgantown's 123 Pleasant Street, and Thomas' The Purple Fiddle) to come up with a guide on how to get your band booked across the Mountain State and beyond.
Before you start looking around for a gig, it might be good to brush up on your #WVmusic venue history.
Since its doors first opened in 1985, Charleston's The Empty Glass has been a staple for both national and local acts in West Virginia. The Drive-By Truckers, Justin Townes Earle, NRBQ, Joss Stone, and John Inghram’s Slugfest have all hung their musical hats at this #CharlestonWV establishment at one time or another.
Although it's the new #WVmusic kid on the block, Fayetteville's The 35th Star has hit the ground running with acts like Dinosaur Burps, Sly Roosevelt, and Black King Coal since opening its musical doors late last summer. The venue is located on the grounds of Cantrell’s Rafting, a space that hosted West Virginia bands for well over a decade before The 35th Star's opening. Any local band that played there can testify to Cantrell’s being an enormous asset to the #WVmusic scene, so when the opportunity arose to make the area bigger and better, the space was revamped with a stage and professional in-house PA system to turn it into a year-round destination rather than just a spot for rafting season. Oh, and the venue's name? It comes from the 35th star on the American flag, representing West Virginia's statehood.
I scream, you scream, we all scream for... The V Club! In the 1930's, Huntington's The V Club was actually a split building that housed a neighborhood grocery store and ice cream parlor. Once prohibition was repealed in 1933, the ice cream parlor began selling beer, and that was the end of that. This summer actually marks The V Club's tenth anniversary as a #HuntingtonWV music destination, and there's a lot to celebrate when you look at the venue's gig history. Before they were household names, once little-known acts like Chris Stapleton, Josh Ritter, and Jason Isbell performed at The V Club. The same could be says for up-and-coming locals like Ona, Tyler Childers, and The Horse Traders.
In the 1980's, it was known as The Underground Railroad. In the 1990's, folks referred to it as The Nyabinghi Dance Hall (or The Nyabinghi for short). But for almost two decades, Morgantown music fans and friends alike have called this little piece of heaven 123 Pleasant Street. Consider this West Virginia's 9:30 Club, with acts and styles ranging from Guided By Voices to Bo Diddley, The Flaming Lips to My Morning Jacket and even local talent like Todd Burge's 63 Eyes and upcoming Mountain Stage guests William Matheny and Qiet.
Greensky Bluegrass. The Avett Brothers. Crooked Still. These are just a few of the acts that have called Thomas' The Purple Fiddle their musical home away from home (three times, in fact, when it comes The Avett Brothers). Located in one of the coolest and coziest towns in West Virginia, The Purple Fiddle is a combination healthy food restaurant, high quality beer bar, and music venue with a colorful name that shows how differences can blend and dissipate (red + blue = purple) when we share the common experience of a great concert.
So how do these venues scout for talent?
For some venues, booking isn’t a problem. John Bright of The Purple Fiddle says the venue has had no trouble filling the schedule with bands that contact them. “More times than I can name, I have heard that musicians are told by other bands that they have to play here,” Bright says.
“Being as old as it is, The Empty Glass is on almost every touring directory there is in the United States and abroad,” says Jason Robinson of The Empty Glass. “I don’t have a lot of time to scout for new local talent since we book seven days a week, but I try and keep my ear to the ground and find new local talent.”
Word-of-mouth obviously plays an important role in getting booked, especially if you have someone outside of your band being able to vouch for you. Whether it's fans, band friends, or local radio figureheads, it's all about leaving a great impression with your music and professionalism.
“We are fortunate to personally know many of the bands that we book and count them as our friends,” says Sean Kinder of The 35th Star, “Our friends in bands turn us on to new bands that they enjoy and respect, which gives us a deep well of talent to draw from.”
What is the best way to reach out to a venue for booking consideration?
A well-written e-mail with links to your band's audio or video seems to be the venues' preferred way of being contacted. While you might be tempted to message them through Facebook or another social media outlet, using the channel they set up specifically for booking (i.e. email) will help them help you.
Bright says, “300 shows a year is a lot to juggle. E-mail is searchable, so I can always return to previous conversations about specific dates, times, and money. E-mail prevents simple mistakes based on miscommunication.”
“E-mail is preferred,” agreed Patrick Guthrie of The V Club. “Don't be discouraged if there is no response to your email the first time. Sometimes there are too many to filter through.” But, he says, he will get to it.
L.J. Giuliani of 123 Pleasant Street says, “[Make sure to send] links to the music, so we can get an idea if there’s interest in the band. Also find out if there are local bands interested in partnering [for a show]. If you see bands you want to play with, let us know, or contact them yourself so they can play [with you at the venue].”
Kinder adds, “It’s also helpful to include a specific, finely-tuned description of your band’s sound and influences. Hopefully that will let talent buyers and venues know what kind of energy you bring and how to best promote your music.”
How does social media play a role in booking talent?
Being active on social media is important for a variety of reasons. For starters, it gives venues a way to gauge a band's popularity and guesstimate how many folks will come out to see them live. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram also give the venues a taste of the band’s interactions with fans and whether they use the platform enough to promote their music, their shows, and their venues.
“We think the best use of [band] social media is to showcase high-quality audio and video that really reflects a band’s live show,” says Kinder. And when they say “high-quality,” they mean no shaky hands and no weird filters. Keep it clean, keep it crisp, and have it be the best representation of what you can bring to the venue.
“I think what buyers are looking for is that the band is working hard to promote their band and staying busy touring,” Guthrie says. “It’s certainly a good rule of thumb for bands to have [an active] social media presence to help them grow their fan base.”
“It has become a very important and handy part of the business… and sometimes a necessary evil,” says Robinson. “It’s always good to check Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook and see how well the bands promote themselves and how organized they are with promoting.”
A band has booked the show. What do they do next?
A recurring theme for all venues was promotion. Yes, it is the venue's responsibility to promote a show, but they also believe the bands needs to promote it themselves.
“It’s the responsibility of both venues and bands to promote and get people excited about events,” Kinder says. “Sharing videos on social media sites, posters, and inviting friends are all very important parts of getting people interested in an event and getting the band repeat gigs.”
“More bodies in the room means more money for your band and a higher chance of performing at the venue again,” Giuliani says.
“Just because the show is booked doesn't mean the work is over,” Guthrie says. “They need to take responsibility of help getting the word out by promotion.”
What are mistakes a band will want to avoid?
“One mistake we see local bands make is overbooking themselves in a small area. While you may be able to get booked five nights a week, the band and the venues both lose out when you oversaturate the market,” says Kinder. “Showing up late to a show can make for a stressful environment. Crowds definitely pick up on that, [so] show up on time and be happy to be there.”
Robinson echoes those sentiments. “Not promoting themselves or being unprofessional during the show [are the worst attributes of a booked band]. Being organized and professional goes a long way.”
“For our venue specifically, [the worst mistake is] a band thinking a great crowd one time means they will get [another great crowd] the next time [or] every time,” says Bright. “Very rarely does a band bring us their crowd. A few do bring maybe up to half, but we always match it with unsuspecting tourists who just happen to be in the area and know to come here to see a good band.”
Is it important that a local opening act match the sound of a headlining national touring act?
Attaching a local opener to a show with a larger draw as the headliner is important for all parties. It exposes the audience to new local artists that they might not have gone out to see on a normal bill. But is it important that the two acts sound similar?
“It’s not always necessary to have the same genre, but it really depends on the type of show,” Guthrie says. “It sometimes makes for an interesting night. There are times when a patron walks away from a show exposed to new music they would not have found otherwise.”
Other venues would prefer the genres complement each other, but they realize this isn’t realistic due to regional availability. “Being in Charleston, we don't always have that option, so it’s good to at least have a good contrast of music and try and make sure that the listeners of one type would like or appreciate the other genre,” Robinson says.
“It’s nice, but a lot of times it’s not possible,” Giuliani says. “So at that point, you try to recognize a band whose audience is the kind that would still dig the band. You try to match them up the best you can, think of the audience that would come to see a show like that. If you have a local band drawing well, then it’s easier to bring in a regional or national act that isn’t too well known in the area. The biggest thing is originality, if they can draw heads, and if they can engage an audience.”
Bright agrees. “It’s more important to us that the energy of the acts is complementary, so they don’t necessarily need to be the same genre. We’ve had some really fun nights blending bands that don’t play the same sort of music. There can be a common thread between bands outside of having the same instrumentation or style. It works when you really deliberate (read: obsess) over the headliner/support dynamic, and it’s incredibly satisfying to give our audience those unexpected match-ups.”
At the end of the day, how important is #WVmusic to the venues?
“The West Virginia music scene is the life blood of our venue, and us as people. It’s why we’re here. We are truly fans of these artists,” says Kinder. “Our favorite thing is to see our regional and nationally-touring bands’ reactions to the level of talent our local acts bring to the table. They’re blown away by what we have going on in our music scene. If we can provide a space that supports our state’s exceptional musicians and songwriters while still exposing people to new artists from across the country, we have accomplished our mission.”
Guthrie says, “The local shows are our heartbeat of the club and community. They are our friends and family that create our music scene, and if they’re not playing a show, they are the ones supporting another show at the venue. [So] we try and support as much West Virginia music as possible without oversaturating the market with the same local bands. There is certainly a lot of different formats and genres to West Virginia’s music scene, and we try accommodate as much of it as we can.”
“It’s very important [to foster local talent at 123 Pleasant Street], but I also know that West Virginia is a very regionally-dictated kind of state,” says Giuliani. “A band that might be doing really well in Huntington or Charleston might not do well in Morgantown, and vice-versa. [Due to Morgantown’s waning and waxing student population], the audience can be somewhat fickle. Cultivating talent can sometimes be a tricky thing, [but at least] we’re blessed with a lot of great local talent.”
“It sets a standard of excellence that makes West Virginians very proud,” says Bright. “People like Kathy Mattea and Tim O’Brien keep the mountain music traditions alive. [It’s] important to stretch the limits of what a ‘hillbilly band’ sounds like, [which is] nothing like you think.”
Final words of wisdom from venues to bands?
“Raise the bar until you have all the facets of a great band combined in one,” says Bright. “Strive to improve the smallest of your weaknesses. Find a successful model in another act or other musicians, people doing what you aspire to do and emulate their dedication and practice. Surround yourself with people better than you are, and then rise to the challenge (and, if you can, put them in your band).”
“Open mics are always the best way to get a foot in the door,” Guthrie says. “And just because you played here before doesn’t ensure you another spot on the calendar. Another way [to get booked] is to try and make friends with local bands that have an established fan base at the club and see about opening for them.”
“Take it serious. Be organized, have fun, and be professional,” says Robinson.
“The biggest thing I could say is, yes it’s the venue's responsibility to promote your show, but it’s not our only responsibility. It’s yours as well,” says Giuliani. “A venue won’t have your back if you’re not going to bring heads in and generate business, [so] go out there and spread the word!”
“Work! Write, practice, and interact with your audience,” says Kinder. “West Virginia’s a small market with a huge amount of talent to choose from, with more bands popping up constantly. Skill is great, but audiences also want to see acts with heart and soul going for it as hard as possible.”