I have been playing in a folksy/bluegrassy/whatever band in Milwaukee for a little over four years now (shameless self promotion, hey). Any musician in the city will probably tell you that one of the best things in the 414 are our summer street festivals. Not only does it give us an excuse to get out in the sun and day-drink in a socially acceptable environment, but it also allows us to reach a new audience who might not attend our later evening shows. This makes these performance slots coveted and not the easiest to obtain. Because of this, I have compiled some tips and tricks for up-and-coming bands to nab a spot on a bill next summer.
1. Plan ahead. Like, really absurdly almost-too-far ahead.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am bad at this. A lot of these fests solidify their lineups at least six months in advance. It doesn’t matter how polished your electronic press kit is. It doesn’t matter how well-worded and polite your email is. If you don’t reach out months ahead of time, someone will have already beaten you to the punch. Check the festivals websites or social media accounts in the winter (and even the fall). They may post something saying they are looking for submissions, but they might not. Regardless, if there isn’t snow on the ground, you’re going to be SOL.
2. Perform at bars/venues near the festival you want to book.
Some festivals do all of their booking centrally, while others have individuals booking for separate stages. For example, if you really want to be a part of Locust Street Fest, you should be trying to play at Linneman’s and/or the Riverwest Public House throughout the year. These places book their own acts. It is not only wise, but entirely essential, to basically prove your worth prior to booking time. If you can fill their rooms during any other time of the year, you can demonstrate an asset you will be to their festival. Another piece of this, which I hope goes without saying, is that you need to build a good rapport with these employees. Be courteous. Don’t get black out drunk and pee all over the bathroom. Don’t disrespect the bartenders. Actually care about the lives of these people. They help your local music scene more than you might know (and they usually have some super cool stories to tell).
I never thought about how much prep work goes into a street festival until I talked about it with one of my bandmates. Set up and tear down is impossible without the help of people from the community. If you can help out, it means you might have to wake up way earlier than you wanted to on a Saturday, but suck it up and deal with it. Another thing that should go without saying is to not do this self-servingly. If you don’t actually want to improve the quality of these festivals and are only wanting to help so you can get your foot in the door, it will be apparent.
4. Have a social media presence.
Honestly, this might be the most important. If your band doesn’t have a Facebook page and somewhere to stream at least one song, drop everything you’re currently doing and set that up. Invite all of your friends to like your page. Have your friends invite their friends. I can almost guarantee that this will be taken into consideration. If you have a page with a handful of likes and one post a month, you’re doing it wrong. Build your internet presence. Do you need a Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, blog, website, etc.? Not necessarily, but it sure as hell doesn’t hurt. If you suck at social media, delegate these duties to someone else in your band. Just make sure it happens.
5. Don’t publicly complain about not getting the gig.
Nothing is private on the internet. If you have posted something that can be captured with a screenshot, assume it has been. Also, us musicians can be pretty full of gossip (guilty here). If you wanna blow off some steam, buy yourself a 12-pack of Hamm’s and shotgun a few cans and blast your playlist of choice. Go for it, annoy your neighbors for a little bit, but don’t post about it online. Don’t complain to your possibly trustworthy friends, because they’ll blab about how bad you’re taking it. Take a nap. Call your mom. Do whatever.
6. Don’t suck.
This is a tough topic of conversation. If you’re following the above protocol and are consistently coming short, take a step back and accept the fact that you might not be what they’re looking for. It might be a genre thing. They might take into consideration the kind of things that are currently popular. The hardest thing to swallow might be that you’re just not that good. The cool part of that is that you can change it. Practice. Listen to your music from an outside perspective. Ask your best friend of many years who is great at that “tough love” thing to give you their honest opinion. Bonus points in this category go for not sucking as a person, which ties into tip #5. Adults talk just as much as they did in high school, and everyone is going to know that you’re not fun to be around if you’re a little turd all the time. This leads me to #7.
7. If you get to perform, don’t be a diva.
I have a small hand in booking shows. There is one band that comes to mind that I will refuse to work with because of their attitude (all of my friends reading this know who I’m talking about, so I guess it’s not that anonymous). They draw. They get booked a lot. I’m not fond of their music, but they definitely don’t suck at what they do. They also don’t treat venue employees the way they should be treated. I haven’t experienced this firsthand, but have heard stories from many friends about experiences that left bitter tastes in their mouths. This band still gets booked, but I won’t work with them. This is perhaps the most common sense thing on this list, but it gets overlooked. People don’t want to work with you if you don’t understand respect. Venues are opening their doors and letting you play on their stage. If you burn all of your bridges, where are you going to play?
Not sure where to start? Here’s a non-comprehensive list of Milwaukee fests to check out:
Locust Street Festival of Music & Art
Brady Street Fest
Bay View Bash
Burnhearts/Pabst Street Party
Center Street Daze
Milwaukee Psych Fest
Arte Para Todos
Did I miss something? Do you see it differently for your city? Do you completely disagree with everything I’ve said? I’m not the absolute authority on this, so comment below and let me know.