This is part of a sort-of series of rants and guides for musicians that I file under ‘helpful.’  You can check out the rest (updated as I add more) on my Resources for Musicians page, or if you’re interested in reading more about music and ideas, visit Secret Frequency.

I’ve been a ‘Talent Buyer’ for a decade; first, booking a local bar called The Montreal House, then moving on to become the Artistic Director for the Peterborough Folk Festival from 2006 to 2013. I’ve been a juror for the JUNO Awards and FACTOR, and run a multi-arts festival called Artsweek.

I’ve found that artists tend to make the same mistakes over and over, and I hope that by laying them out fairly bluntly I can help emerging artists understand a few things about the bookers’ side of the music industry.

Read on for things you can do to avoid being that jerk I use as an example and never book again (or in the first place).

1. Many talent buyers are also artists, often musicians.

Very few children grow up thinking “When I’m older, I want to be a Talent Buyer!”  In fact, the talent buyers I know are also musicians, graphic designers, musicians, photographers, musicians, painters, musicians, and  hackers.  Don’t come at them with the attitude that they don’t understand what you do or that you, as the ‘talent,’ are somehow superior to them. It’s better if you behave as though you’re dealing with a peer, no matter what your general assumptions about talent buyers are.

2.  One phone call, one email.

If you find yourself calling again without a reply to your previous call to pitch yourself, it’s because I get a lot of these calls/email and I don’t have time to respond.  It’s not because I missed your message or email.  I get tonnes of messages every week, and people who email/phone repeatedly to hassle me for gigs compound the problem. When I want to book you, I’ll get in touch.

3. Rejection doesn’t mean that you suck.

I can’t say this enough: 850 submissions this year,1 25 slots. My short list was 150.  The final decision can be a painful process of whittling away very good acts I really want based on whom I’ve already got, and when it gets down to the final choices, it’s a matter of very excellent band vs. very excellent band.  Not getting booked may come down to a million factors that have nothing to do with your talent.

4. I pay what I can pay, and my budget is largely out of my control.

Whether I’ve been booking for a bar or the festival, the money I’ve got is all I’ve got.  I’m not trying to cheat bands out of money, and I don’t have a secret reserve hidden away somewhere.  Last year2 after booking the festival, I came in $50 under budget, which went to something else we needed to spend money on.Â’  I also run a free festival, and don’t have to worry about ticket sales, so I’m not blowing half the budget on one headliner; everyone gets paid within a reasonable range of each other.3

5.  It’s a business, and if you don’t like business, you don’t have to be in it.

I hear people complain all the time that they don’t like writing bios, selling themselves, etc.  – the whole “I just wanna be an artist, man!” schtick.  And that’s cool.  If you want to play music in your mom’s basement for your cat and your significant other, go ahead.  People who want to get paid for gigs have to work at the business side, and spend as much or more time on that than on rehearsing and playing and writing and recording.

6.  I didn’t just fall off of a potato truck.

In fact, I’ve been doing this longer than many of you have been in bands.  So any line you feed me I’ve heard about a million times, and any tactic you take I’ve seen played as many.  Be calm, be polite, and be professional.  And for chrissakes, don’t be cool.  The respect of a peer plays better  than what comes across as the disdain of an idiot.

7. I book musicians, not buddies or boyfriends.

I’m not Paris Hilton; this is not a competition to be my BFF.  Becoming my new best friend at a conference or a bar (or god knows, on Facebook) doesn’t mean I’m going to hire your band.  And it doesn’t matter how cute you are.
If you’re a friend and I don’t book you, it’s not necessarily because you suck.  See point #3.  Most of my friends are musicians, and I can’t very well book all of you, because then I’d be one of those nepotistic jerks.

8. No one is entitled to a gig.

Played in this community for twenty years?  Been booked by every promoter in town except me?  The most brilliant genius of our time? Spent a year caring for lepers?  Help old ladies across the street?  Good for you.  I don’t care.  If you aren’t what I’m looking for musically, I’m not going to book you.  I have a responsibility to my audiences, my staff, my venues and my funders to book appropriately, and I’ve got my professional reputation to consider as well.  If every other promoter jumps off a bridge, I’m not going to follow. Also, see point #3.

9.  Always be nice/polite/respectful to staff and volunteers.

When you walk into a venue for the first time, you have no idea what the dynamic is or who people are.  Be respectful; the woman in the pushup bra working merch might also be the promoter, and the frazzled guy with the ripped jeans might be the AD. And if you’re a jerk to any of my volunteers or staff (seriously, that kind of behaviour enrages me), you’re not coming back, and everyone I know is going to hear about it.  I know you don’t think being nice is very rock’n’roll, but word gets round.

10.  If you want to know why I didn’t book you, guess or make something up.  Don’ phone/email.

I don’t have time to tell every one of the 825 bands I rejected this year4 why they didn’t make the cut.  I get a lot of passive-aggressive and sulky messages from artists or their agents every year when I hit ‘Not Accepted; don’t make yourself memorable because you were a sore loser. It’s not going to recommend you for next year.5

Ah, and here’s a bonus:

11.  If you know me, and you’re thinking of sending a jokey email or something about how you do some of these things, stop yourself.

There’s y’know, no point.  If I like you, it’s going to make me uncomfortable, and if I dislike you, it’s not going to help.

  1. 2009 []
  2. 2008 []
  3. And we do have minimums that we stick to religiously. []
  4. 2009 []
  5. I’m going to be honest: 3 years later, I’m not sure I still completely agree with this one. I mean, I agree that you shouldn’t send a sulky email, nor make a bitchy phone call, nor an angry Facebook post on my wall, nor say something passive-aggressive in your band newsletter about how we didn’t book you, again.  But I think there are professional ways to ask why, and most of the time I’m happy to tell you that it’s because I think your bass player sucks or because I’ve already booked one Balkan-influenced brass-heavy band or because if I book one more act with banjo my audience will probably mutiny. []
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22 Responses to 10 Things I Want Musicians to Know

  1. Paul says:

    # 6 reminds me of billy bob thornton’s recent interview.

  2. tim readman says:

    Beautifully written and right on the money. Funny as hell too. My hat is off to you. I will share this with my team.
    Tim Readman
    Artistic Director
    CelticFest Vancouver
    http://www.celticfestvancouver.com

  3. Jeez Candace I couldn’t have said it better myself!
    Concise, humourous…brilliantly put!
    #5 is especially true and I wish more musicians would get this.

  4. John Marlatt says:

    Well said…. It’s like a song you hear that you wish you’d written.

  5. Ania says:

    Love this! I appreciate honesty always and this is truth that I wish every musician would know! I get it…many don’t.

  6. Everyone in the Whole Wide World says:

    Talent buyers and agents should consider themselves any different from retail store merchandisers. All the food companies want their products on the shelf, too. But in this business, there are more personality disorders to deal with.

    You assume that the talent buyer is like you, apparently on the level and reasonable towards talent. How about this advice for talent buyers and agents who choose not to behave as you do?

    If the talent acts like a gentleman and a businessman, as above, just tell him he didn’t get the gig. Don’t flip him off by telling him he doesn’t have what it takes, that you hired a better act, that he’s too expensive for what he offers, that he won’t bring in a draw, that you couldn’t pull anything from the gate off him, that he ought to spend more time “honing his craft” and then come back, or that an upfront fee might open doors for him.

  7. Honest, informative and to the point! Thank-you. It’s nice to hear the perspective of a festival promoter.
    Best,

    Jacques Pardo
    http://www.atlas-soul.com

  8. Candace says:

    Thanks everyone – it’s really nice to know that other professionals are finding this helpful and interesting!

    Re: Everyone: I can’t speak for all talent buyers – some are going to be jerks – but the people I know are honest, hard-working music lovers.

    If you’re getting a lot of that sort of feedback from several different buyers, I think it’s time for you to take a long, honest look at your craft and the way you do business.

  9. Steve says:

    This list is, to me, a mix of common contempt with really great advice.

    The really great advice: “It’s better if you behave as though you’re
    dealing with a peer, no matter what your general assumptions about
    talent buyers are.” And “Be calm, be polite, and be professional. ”
    And “Always be nice/polite/respectful to staff and volunteers.”

    HEAR, HEAR!!

    These are things that swollen-head musicians (there are far too many
    of these) ought to try and remember at all gigs. Too many don’t. Those
    who hire musicians and help musicians get through gigs deserve
    respect, thanks, and good manners. After all, to almost quote
    Chilliwack’s song, “Rain-o”: if there ain’t no presenter, there ain’t
    no show.

    The common contempt is in other parts of the advice. At least five of
    those remarks can be paraphrased as follows: “I’ve got more important
    things to do, or to worry about, than you musicians.” Number 2–don’t
    call me a second time if I don’t reply the first time; I’ve got other
    things to do than respond to everyone. Number 4–I’m not ripping you
    off; I have bigger things to worry about in my budget than you.
    Number 7 and 8–I don’t care what you’ve done; I have more important people than you to answer to. Number 10–don’t ask me why you didn’t make the cut; I have more important things to do than tell you.

    We all seem to accept the implication that the musician (band, act, soloist, whatever) is the least important factor in presenting a gig.

    As you correctly point out, being a festival Artistic Director
    means respecting a lot of people other than the talent: the staff,
    venues, funders, and (by no means the least important) the audience. (To properly quote Chilliwack: if there ain’t no audience, there ain’t no show.)
    And every one of those groups, it seems, has higher priority than the
    talent. To speak of money alone: the venue rent has to be paid–the
    sound people have to get paid–the cost of the liquor license has to
    be recovered–the transportation for the musicians has to be paid
    for–the hotel has to be paid–and so on and so on. All of these come
    before paying the band. They’re just musicians. After all, you can
    safely rip off a singer without harming your festival; try stiffing the
    sound company, or the hotel, and see what happens to their
    contribution to the next event. So musicians shouldn’t be surprised
    to learn that there are more important things than the musicians to
    be looked after.

    Heck, I just got stiffed this month by a presenter who, when
    approached after the gig about the money the entertainers had been
    promised, actually said, “They’re just musicians.” Of course.

    It’s just that eventually one gets tired of being treated like the
    lowest slug in the swamp.

    If I’m not of the stature of Leonard Cohen, or Frankie Armstrong, or
    Billy Bob Thornton (sorry), all I can do is apply to a festival. Then
    I wait. If I don’t get hired, I don’t get told. And I don’t get told
    why not. And if I wonder what’s the problem, all I can do is remember
    what you’ve said here: “Behave with respect, as though you’re dealing
    with a peer. I’m not going to hire you, but it may not be because you
    suck. Anyway, don’t expect me to return your respect by responding to
    you. I have more important things to do.”

    So, I guess I’m saying that the really good advice referred to above
    should cut both ways. Presenters, ADs, club owners, talent buyers–
    they also need to remember to deal with musicians as peers, and
    remain calm, polite, and respectful to musicians, no matter what
    their general assumptions about musicians are, and especially no matter whether they’re hiring them or not. After all, to almost quote Chilliwack
    again: if there ain’t no music, there ain’t no show.

  10. Crystal says:

    I agree with all points above but my problem is this. If you pay a fee to be considered you deserve a proper reply. Just receiving an automated – NOT ACCEPTED – email hardly makes an artist feel as though respect goes both ways. We personalize AND PAY FOR our applications, but the responses are not personalized. NO value for money spent.
    In order to be sure they are indeed being heard vs being scammed (and you can’t tell me some of those Sonicbids apps are not money generating scams) it would make sense to offer some kind of response that is directed to them specifically that confirms that indeed their application was read/listened to.

    And here’s the deal – if an AD could not possibly have time to attend personally to 750 applications, then they should not accept that many applications with the fees paid. That’s money taken for a service you know you can’t offer. They should stop at a reasonable amount of applications – not leave it open til the last moment of the deadline. They should accept only the amount they could feel confident about having the time to attend to personally. If after reviewing those applications they have not found all the acts they are looking for, they could return to the process. OR don’t charge a fee for consideration…that way when you ignore any requests for feedback on an application you can rightfully say you get what you pay for.

  11. Candace says:

    Re: Steve, I really think the contempt you’re finding comes from a misreading on your part, not from what I wrote.
    I’ve been hired to book acts and run the organization. My priority is a good gig for everyone; my team are all terrific, smart, skilled, kind, ethical people – administrators, volunteers, artists, audience.

    Re: Crystal, When you send resume to a job, you don’t hear back unless they want to talk to you; submissions are exactly the same. You assume that an employer looks at your resume in good faith, and you have to assume that a talent buyer does the same.

  12. Ben says:

    I enjoyed reading this.its the things that everybody knows that we need to be reminded of, you read and it and you go, oh, yeah , I know this.
    I have to slightly disagree with you on point number 9, I don’t think it matters if you are the AD or the portapottie technician, everyone is due the same treatment,whether it helps your career or not.

    if an AD is a prick, we are supposed to take it lying down or we are the bad guy, if a volunteer is rude or snotty or whatever, its forgotten or at least has no long term effects, but if an artist is a jerk, rude, unfriendly or whatever everybody finds out quickly and the long term effects can be very damaging, but that has a lot to do with a very small pie and too many berries! thats been my observation. The main thing is there are no devils and angels here, its incidentals to circumstances, thats all.

  13. Candace says:

    Hey Ben, Thanks!
    I agree; you should treat everyone with respect, no matter what. I probably could have worded that better.

    I also agree on your next point; ADs and other talent buyers don’t feel the effects of bad behaviour like artists do. I know one promoter who constantly ripped people off, was banned from several venues and worked over in parking lots by angry musicians, but people kept working with him. I guess it’s harder to get the word out.

    I don’t have patience for anybody who walks into a situation with an attitude, whoever they are; I think hipsters and divas are desperately insecure people downloading their issues onto everyone around them. Whether artist, volunteer, or whatever, I won’t work with anyone like that. No one is so skilled or talented that I’ll put up with a crazy-maker.

  14. Ben says:

    My song ‘Who killed the last folksinger?’ kind of deals with this stuff. on the outset it sounds like a typical musician complaining about the biz etc, but if you really listen you realize the narrator is saying everyone and no one are to blame including the folksinger, stuff happens and people are desperately fallible, some have thicker skin, some don’t give a crap, some are guided by what they think they should think or say, some were drunk when they wrote that, some were pandering to their agent, some were preaching to the converted, some didn’t mean to come off that way, some weren’t interested, some were annoyed by the million calls they had already had n which they were pretty kind and that one just got off unlucky,, some were misunderstood, some were already so far on the defensive they didn’t actually read the thing and jumped to the wrong conclusion, some expected to be treated that way….

    ha ha, its pretty great when you take a step outside and really look at it all. Anyway, we all go through shit and some of us deal with it better than others. I am glad you wrote this, whether people take it the right way or wrong, instigators and triggers are what gets brains spinning, thoughts a rolling and dirt cleared out of the way. I am writing too long here, back to the songs, three this week, the first in moons.
    cheers

  15. smartygirl says:

    brilliant! i work in funding, and i kind of wish everybody in the world would read this post and take it to heart… sigh.

  16. BB says:

    I say we need more, yea, many more festivals@25 acts each ..it would seem that maybe 33 or more, to start with..I’m lucky I suppose, that I don’t have to be on the defensive when I put on our Grand Garden Picnic. I simply call acts I would like to see in the space with each other. Thats the way it was done friends..at least in the early days of festivals. Someone says..I’d like you to be here next year..and then the application is a formality to remind them of your availability.
    Some Ad,s must really be uptight.. In the 10 Commandments above I see someone who really needs therapy, and a week away. It seems so pushy, like the last breath of a long day. Now, me I have a tranquillity garden …come to my Garden…any garden..
    Folk fests are only one part of the music scene and there are hundreds of nice little gigs out there..I enjoy opening places up or making my own work. there’s way too much desperation in what was and should remain a big friendly family. People have forgotten the root of it all..Playing for the love of it. Sharing it. Passing it on. I really miss the little circles of music that happened between pickers in the 60s.-70.The sound systems where folky enough that you could play and hear yourself in the park .Bruce Cockburn and I enjoyed picking under a tree at Miraposa ’69 for an hour while people came and went. His,”Goin’ to the country”, must have been played 40 times that morning. I miss that “sit down and pick” thing.
    The 800 left-over musicians, and only a few will come, hired or not, only need a day pass or at least a shady secure place to check their instruments, and they get to play a bit on the grounds and be part of the big picture.networking into a stronger community, future voice of the people, etc etc. I think a few song circles takes off a lot of steam, and contributes endlessly. Some musicians are bound to be discovered and the organic process is secured for the future.

  17. Candace says:

    Re: BB, Ah, the good ol’ days. I keep hearing about those. But I’m pretty convinced that the good ol’days are now.

    I could put on an excellent festival with just a bunch of my friends, over and over, every year. But my responsibility is larger than just my own taste and friendships – I receive public funding, and I believe that with it comes a responsibility to think about the wider community, not just my buddies. I make new friends every year with the people I book; we’re a family extended across Canada, not just my neighborhood.

    My festival’s free, but we pay performers, and we have workshops and unamplified stages and jams and lovely, unexpected moments where people come together. People from all walks of life come through the festival park, because they can afford it – young families, teenagers, large families, seniors, new Canadians, people riding their bikes on their way somewhere else who stumble across the festival unexpectedly.

    I’d hire more musicians if I thought I could decently pay more; I would feel like a slimeball if I paid any less than I do. Love’s great, but it doesn’t pay for your food and gas from Nova Scotia to Peterborough.

  18. Steph says:

    I’m not in the biz, but this post is fantastic and I’m just stopping by to lol at the sad, self-aggrandizing nonsense that “BB” wrote.

  19. Jd McCallen says:

    surprised i haven’tread this yet….good points. don’t take any shit from those prima donna/ delicate orchids. i’ve been turned down for lots of gigs. I’ve also played hundreds more. I don’t bitch about not receiving responses, i understand the amount of submissions promoters/booking agents/bar owners deal with all the time….it’s unfortunate that most of the aforementioned i’ve worked with aren’t as professional as you are…thanks again for the great read.

  20. Hi, I came across this thread and quite enjoyed it. Having acted as both artist and talent buyer it is nice to see another buyer opening the door to conversation about all the above. I cant help but endorse your sentiments in treating every single person on a festival site with the same respect, be it the merch person or parking lot attendant. Programming a free festival is tough, and having played yours in the past years ago it is good to see it surviving still. Too many come and go. Best of luck with your last year!
    Gordie Tentrees

  21. […] lot of info about approaching bookers and promoters, and in particular, I wrote an article called 10 things I want musicians to know, which does what it says on the […]

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