Smaller capacity venues are vital to the touring industry. From opening new markets for established bands, to introducing emerging artists, to giving fans a more intimate experience with their favorites, small spaces matter in music.
In this post, we’ll explore guidance on navigating relationships with bookers for the smaller venues on your next tour.
Since spring of 2019, Jeff Rogness has been the talent booker at the Tractor Tavern, a venue in Seattle’s historic Ballard neighborhood. Jeff calls Tractor Tavern Seattle’s “country and Americana stalwart.”
Acts like Margo Price, Sierra Ferrell, and Billy Strings have all graced Tractor Tavern’s stage. It’s a four-hundred and thirty standing capacity space that tends to host artists right before they become household names among fans of their respective genres.
We recently sat down with Jeff to get his tips for tour agents, tour managers, and anyone else who books venues and plans live shows for bands.
As we covered with Heather Wilton of Portland’5 Center for the Arts, your relationship with the venue bookers is a key ingredient to tour success.
The aim of this article is to let you in on the venue’s side of the process so you can make your working relationships to bookers even better. As Jeff puts it,
"I don't think that this stuff needs to be a secret, and the more people know, it'll just make it an easier process for everybody."
Here are five best practices you can implement on your next tour project.
Jeff regularly gets emails from agents for bands who have never played Seattle before that expect their hometown draw to carry over to an untested market.
Some of these agents will try to use the artist’s monthly Spotify listens in Seattle as evidence of their potential draw. Of Spotify listeners, Jeff says,
“It’s a metric, [but] it’s not a great metric.”
First off, even the most enthusiastic Spotify listeners might not go to live shows. Those monthly listeners may also not be fans of your band specifically. They may have gotten to your band’s music via a genre playlist or by Spotify’s suggestion based on their listening history.
All of which is great for your artist, but doesn’t necessarily translate into local ticket-buyers.
Jeff estimates that for most bands, maybe ten percent of their local Spotify listeners will actually come to a live show, though he stresses that it varies based on the band.
If you’re looking to open up a new market for your band through touring, Jeff suggests building a bill with a similar local band with a proven draw.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to a venue that doesn’t necessarily line up with your artist’s genre. While country and Americana are Tractor Tavern’s bread and butter, Jeff would welcome inquiries from agents representing artists outside those genres.
This is partly because attracting audiences from outside Tractor Tavern’s surrounding North Seattle neighborhoods can be a challenge.
Booking the right bands can be an incentive for audiences outside Tractor Tavern’s usual area to make the trek north.
“I'm trying to get the word out that we're good for regular rock and roll and garage rock and psych and stuff like that,” Jeff says. “This isn't the easiest part of town to get over to. So we have a hindrance in getting people from [nearby] Capitol Hill to come over.”
So your not-the-typical-programming genre could actually be a selling point for venues looking to bring in more diverse audiences.
As an agent or manager, you play a central role in building a band’s career. A strategically planned tour can make or break a new or emerging artist, and venue bookers are valuable allies in that planning.
Jeff utilizes Conor Byrne Pub and the Sunset Tavern, smaller venues that still carry clout, to present bands that aren’t yet a strong fit for Tractor Tavern.
“Very intentionally, we help artists gain their presence in town."
For example, notable country singer-songwriter Tyler Childers’ first Seattle venue was Sunset Tavern in 2017. At the time, he didn’t have the draw for the larger Tractor Tavern. He built his presence with his Sunset Tavern show. By his next visit to Seattle in 2018, he booked a thousand-seat venue.
Also consider that for a venue like Tractor Tavern, the stakes are much higher for weekend shows than for weeknights. For a band that isn’t right for a weekend, but also a little too big for a smaller venue, booking a weeknight can solve this with less pressure on ticket sales.
Investing in relationships with bookers can help you play the long game regarding strategizing your band’s growth through live shows.
For example, an emerging band with no history in Seattle might start with playing Tractor Tavern on a weeknight and drawing about a hundred people. A few months later, that same band might come back to town as an opener for another, more established band.
And the following year, they might have the established presence to headline at Tractor Tavern on a weekend and Sell. It. Out.
Don’t automatically go with the higher offer when deciding between two venues at a given tour stop. You could be leaving opportunities and money on the table.
"I wish there was more negotiation, honestly. If my offer is a sell out offer, there's not a lot of room for negotiating because that’s just all I can offer. But if I’m offering just a little bit less than that and they just go with another venue because they got more money than it’s like – well, let’s talk about it. I wish there was more… ‘This is what we got from another place, can you match it?’”
If your preferred venue isn’t giving you the best deal in town, it’s always worth asking how much flexibility they have. With most of the negotiating process happening over email, it can be hard to pick up on whether a booker is open to negotiating. They may be waiting for you to ask!
For a couple of reasons, tour managers who don’t join the band on the road aren’t ideal for venues.
“There’s plenty of tour managers who tour manage from a [remote] location and not with the band,” says Jeff. “My preference is for tour managers to be with the band. [When they’re not], it’s just more back and forth.”
For example, let’s say a venue booker has a question about advancing the show a few days before the show date. If you’re not physically with the band, it can take a few days to get them an answer.
If you’re physically with the artists, however, it’s easier to facilitate a more seamless process between them and the venue, which is ultimately the goal.
Another reason to be with the band? Stuff happens. If an incident involving disrespect or a safety issue occurs, it can be extremely helpful for the tour manager to be present.
Jeff shared an example of an individual at a show who claimed they were friends with the band and who was causing trouble for the venue staff. When Jeff later reached out to the band manager, who was not present at the show, he learned that it was a misunderstanding and that the individual was not affiliated with the artists.
Having the tour manager onsite at the show could have helped clear up the situation in real time.
We’re grateful to Jeff of Tractor Tavern for taking the time to share his experiences with us. Take a look at Tractor Tavern if you’re planning your Seattle tour stop.
And be sure to check out our interview with Heather Wilton of Portland’5 Center for the Arts for more tips on building positive relationships with venues!
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