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Bodies on the Floor: Improving Show Attendence

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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

    Facebook posts
    Facebook ads
    Google ads
    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.
    Radio ads
    Newspaper ads
    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

initiated Oct 18, 2011 in Business Models by Matthew Bile (1,090 points)   3 6 15

6 Responses

1 like 0 dislike
One thing stands out to me in this and that is the competition you're facing from other entertainment sources.  Have you ever thought about applying the old addage: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em?  It might not be the sexiest solution or revenue source, but how about some how ingratiating yourself to the W.o.W. fans?  Start a Band Clan?  Use W.o.W. as another promotional platform?

Obviously promotion is key, and you're clearing doing that.  How about some kind of performance art included in your show that would fit with your artistic sensibilities?  I'll use the Ozzie Osbourne example.  Your average guy on the street might not be able to name more than a song or two of Black Sabbath, but they'll all know the story of him suppossedly biting the head off a bat....
response added Oct 19, 2011 by Timothy Geigner (500 points)   2 3 5
@ronalddumsfeld I'm glad that you brought this up and I think your idea of "joining them" is the leading edge of where the music industry is going. Half my band are gamers and have been addicted to W.o.W. at various points. They've also told me that when Star Wars: the Old Republic comes out I can basically expect not to see them for a week or two. This used to bug me a lot (now it only bugs me a little), but they've been able to do some awesome promotion within the game for our band. We recently had someone get our maskot tattooed on their arm. This guy met our drummers in W.o.W., checked out our stuff and became an uber-fan. I keep trying to figure out ways to use this, but am having trouble brain storming. I'll take this to my band for our next business meeting and see what we can come up with.

The performance art idea is one that I love! We're a more theatrical band anyway. We've been working on expanding our lighting rig and upping our show value. I've made a shirt with rope lights woven into it. As far as stunts go, we've joked about a lot of things, but it seems that whatever happens needs to be fairly organic and within the realms of what a person might normally do, otherwise it comes across as inauthentic. But I'm sure there's still things we can do.
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Really interesting post, thank you. I admire the sheer amount of effort that you must be putting to get that kind of an increase in attendance. Can I ask how much effort goes into the promotion work (hours/week)? One of my challenges (and I suspect for a lot of people) is trying to find the time to do practice, promotion and the day job (we all have bills right?) and it would be really interesting to know what kind of hours you're putting in.

In terms of other things you might do, you've obviously got a fair number of gamers in your current fan base, it's not unreasonable to assume there'd be an extrapolation to a wider gaming base. Do you get any conventions or anything like that coming through the town or local area? Can you get a gig at any gaming-based events?
response added Nov 24, 2011 by drew stephenson (3,370 points)   3 10 22
Thank you for your interest!

I start promoting about 5-6 weeks before our events. It probably takes 8-12 hours to drive around and hang up all the posters. I like to do that in that first week. Some of my band mates help, but I also go out on my hour lunch break and then also after work.

I budget about 2 hours to pass out fliers at the larger shows. Sometimes it's over in 30 minutes, the longest took 3.5 hours. I also make sure to bring band mates or members from the other local bands to help out, otherwise there's too many people exiting the venue to keep up.

I take about 2 hours each Friday before the show to hit up the local clubs and re-hang up any filers and hand out handbills. If there are shows going on in my genre (heavy metal, hard rock), I'll stick around and hand out hand bills.

I put in about 2 hours setting up, paying, and reviewing the radio ad.

The internet ads take about 1 hour per week to maintain.

I haven't really ever thought about playing conventions. I've always figured that we wouldn't be a good fit, but I'll have to check it out!
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I wanted to do a follow up to this post since I've done a few shows since I last checked in.

Our show in October was sort of rough. There were a few things that were different: we had a traveling band with $10 tickets on Halloween weekend. Metal can sometimes be a tough sell and this was definitely one of those weekends. I still spend $600 in promotion, had about $1200 in expenses, but lost about $150.

We held off from doing shows in November and December because of the holidays, but just did two shows this last weekend. Each show was in a different market, so I wasn't able to combine advertising budgets for the shows.

Show #1: Missoula. We kept the ad budget within the $300 guarantee from the bar. This was less than half of what we did for our last show. I skipped doing newspaper print ads, managed to get a better deal on posters and handbills, did less total radio ads, and did more Facebook event ads. The FB ads didn't get as good of an RSVP response as previous shows, so I was very worried that we were going to have a smaller show. However, 150 people still turned up. I'm thinking that I picked a good weekend to have a show (with college back in session), but was also building off the promotional success of the previous two shows. We're really beginning to see a lot of return fans and as a band, we're interacting with those fans a lot more.

Show #2: Great Falls. This is an air force base town and a city that is our home away from home. We started doing shows there about 4 years ago. We were getting about 100-200 people coming to our shows, but the venue closed down. A new one opened up on the edge of town. We had a lot of problems getting people out to our shows at this new venue. If we were able to jump on the "festival" type shows, we'd see 250-500 people there, but our own headliner shows only saw 30-50, which is definitely not enough to pay for gas and hotel. This time, I reached out to the supporting bands and started coaching them on some of our methods for promotion. We paid for the fliers and handbills. One of the other bands put up $100 for radio ads. We had better RSVP success with a smaller budget FB event campaign. One thing that was unfortunate, but also helped turnout, was that the club had a pipe break on them a week before our show. The bands reached out to the club and repurposed our show as a club benefit show (since the club is run by friends and musicians). We were able to get 150-200.
response added Feb 3, 2012 by Matthew Bile (1,090 points)   3 6 15
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There are a lot of arena's that you can submit your "art" to. Have you considered posting live shows to live music archive? the trick here is to get your art noticed. you are thinking on a local level where you should be looking at the global level
response added Oct 18, 2011 by G Martin (160 points)   1 1 1
@teknosapien I hadn't even heard of, so I'm definitely going to check it out! We have been playing around with a little bit and even did an event back in February with it. We had a couple of family members tune in. We're also working on trying to get some kickass live footage together - which has been an interesting endeavor. We have friends who have been helping us film, and with some very nice cameras. The sound hasn't been that great, though. We have a show coming up on the 28th where we'll be trying something different. Our drummers' father will be running sound and recording into a live session while we video the show. Hopefully we'll be able to get a good clean sound and be able to mix some video to it.
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Intersting stuff.  How is it working?  i.e., for the $700 spend on promotion, are you seeing good ROI?

I'm also interested in the sponsorship stuff.  How well has that been going?  How did you determine pricing for that kind of thing?  What kinds of sponsorship deals have you done?
response added Oct 18, 2011 by Mike Masnick (22,930 points)   59 99 160
@mmasnick With the $700 spent on promotion we've been able to break even on show expenses and seen a slight uptick in merch sales. The biggest "wow" factor is seeing our crowd attendance go from 30ish people to 150ish. My hypothesis is that exposure will equal more fans and that more fans will equal more merch sales and the ability to bargain for higher guarantees. My gamble is that by getting more people to come out, we'll better create those experience that lead to "true fans".

Soliciting sponsorships has gone better than I expected, but worse than I want. For our show coming up, I worked deals with the radio station, ticket outlet, and copy shop to trade advertising on our posters for reduced advertising costs. For the first show I solicited, I asked for $10 for stores to get on everything. I was able to talk a CD store and music shop into doing it. My success rate was about 75%. For this show, I branched out and asked a lot more people. The CD and music store said no this time, but I was able to get a tattoo parlor to pony up $100. I might have a heads up on a lot of people who solicit since I used to work in advertising. Once you do it, you sort of feel out how much to ask for. I also know that asking for $10-$20 is not unreasonable since a day in the paper or a couple spots on the radio costs a lot more than that. However, I was flat out refused for most of the places I tried for the second time. I'd say a success rate of 10%. My expectation is that I will be turned down a lot in the beginning. Then as businesses see the penetration that our advertising receives, I'll be able to work in better sponsorships. Then as people continue to come to our shows and become fans, I'll be able to parlay that into gear or drink sponsorships.

I understand that I'm just in the beginning of this, but having toured with a band that had a lot of sponsorships I see the keys include: persistence, politeness, and putting people in the party.
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Do what Jeff Ament did, move from Montana to Seattle.
response added Dec 7, 2011 by Abhijeet G (240 points)   1 1
This is definitely something that I and my band have been considering. Maybe not to Seattle in particular, but to a larger metro area.

Side note: Jeff Ament lives in Missoula again when not touring with Pearl Jam ;)
@matthewbile Once you've made your millions, you can always move back too ;) Seattle is pricier than it was 30 years ago, but the wealth of small venues is remarkable.

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