A primer on how to organize a small event in your town, with an intro on why such a primer is so necessary for folks trying to organize things in the US today. It can also be found at davidrovics.com/organize.
I used to have a section on my website for folks thinking about organizing a show somewhere, explaining how to do this. It was becoming very outdated. Rather than rewrite it, I thought I'd put these ideas down afresh, as many things have changed, and keep doing so regularly.
I'll say at the outset, these words are intended for US readers, primarily. I say this because in other countries where I travel, things tend to work differently. In other countries there are organizations that have meetings, budgets (often coming from some branch of government), and that own buildings in which to host events.
In other countries, when I put the word out that I'm doing a tour, people will say things like, "oh, my group is having a meeting on Wednesday, let me bring this up with everyone, and we'll discuss a date and other details for organizing your concert in our building."
In the US, messages are far more likely to be something like, "oh, if you ever manage to make it to the state I live in, I hope you play near my town, I'd love to hear one of your concerts live."
I don't know all the possible reasons why there is such a stark difference in reactions between my fans in the US and my fans in other countries when it comes to the question of organizing gigs. I know a lot of them, and they are too many to bother listing. There are lots that I can't do anything about, like the fact that Europe has 100 times as much funding for the arts as the US does.
But I increasingly get the impression that other factors involved with this phenomenon have to do with the atomization of US society compared to other societies. This atomization is fueled by many things.
The way most social media platforms operate is one major factor, for various reasons.
- Social media is usually designed to bring people together globally in various ways, but not locally, and in fact the net effect there is to distance people from their actual physical communities in this process.
- Using social media to promote local events is increasingly hampered by algorithms that encourage us to spend money in order to effectively spread the word on the platforms.
- Reliance on social media as the main platform for communication about and promotion of events invites the trolls, who know they can have the most impact in that kind of online-intensive organizational environment.
- Efforts at using social media to do organizing since these platforms have become so dominant, particularly in the US, has meant that many groups don't have physical meetings anymore, and are unable to do effective organizing, too busy calling each other out for their perceived transgressions or engaging in other counterproductive activities not related to effective organizing.
Even if you're not part of an organized group of any kind, and it's just you, if you've got time and energy and you get started on the project way in advance, you can pack a room full of paying customers to come to a show, for sure.
It does involve a lot of consistent time and effort, as well as good timing for those efforts. There are many factors that will affect turnout, and some of them are less controllable than others.
Before I get into how it does work, a few words on how it usually doesn't work seem useful to share, because they involve such common misconceptions. While it is often the case in Europe that organizing a concert is a matter of suggesting to a person you know who's involved with a socialist group with a venue that they put on a particular artist, it almost never works that way in the US. What especially almost never works is suggesting to someone you know who runs a venue that they have a particular artist play there, so you can come to the show.
If a little-known artist is going to do a show almost anywhere in the US, it's inevitably going to involve way more than making a suggestion to anyone. It's going to involve someone putting in a whole bunch of time and effort to organize an event, and if you're the one who thought of the idea, that probably means you, not somebody else. And if that somebody else exists, it's very rarely going to be someone who runs a music venue of any kind.
OK, on to the how-to, rather than than the how-not-to...
Establishing the goal
Operating on the economic margins here, if the goal is to organize an event where hopefully 50 people will donate $10-20 each to hear a show so you can raise some money and awareness for a cause and pay the artist $500 so they can afford to get to your part of the country in the first place, then what needs to happen in order to reach that goal is finding a good venue for the event, and then promoting it effectively.
Finding a venue
There are rare music venues that do a good job of promoting events at their venue. There are also concert series that take place in Unitarian churches and other venues, where they promote actively in their own circles. The vast majority of the time, though, a venue is just a space to hold an event in, and all the publicity will be up to the event organizer, not the venue management.
It's increasingly hard to find appropriate venues in the US, depending on which part of the country. But what we're looking for is generally a space that's free or very inexpensive to use, that can seat at least 50 people, and in which we can charge at the door and keep all (or the vast majority of) the proceeds.
In decades past, such venues were easy to find. A function room in a restaurant or bar used to be a common venue, and the bar or restaurant owner would be happy selling drinks and food to the attendees, and let groups use their function rooms for such events in exchange. Such arrangements can still be found, but they're less common. More common are various rooms in churches, which are often the closest thing a town has to publicly-available spaces for holding events, that are free or inexpensive to use.
Other things to consider when looking for a venue is it's always a plus if a lot of people have heard of the venue, know where it is, and if it's easily accessible by mass transit and/or easy to park nearby.
Finding a venue is something you do many months ahead of time, generally. Serious promotional efforts need not start so far in advance, but finding the venue needs to happen many months in advance, ideally.
The goal in promoting an event may partially or inadvertently be to spread awareness of a cause or an artist, but the overriding goal is to get people to physically come to a show. So the focus of promotional efforts is as local as possible.
Local people need not only to hear about the gig, but to show up. This requires more than just hearing about it. Probably only 5% of people who hear about it, even with well-targeted promotional efforts, will actually come to the gig, for a whole lot of different reasons.
Those 5% who do show up are likely to have heard about the gig from at least three different sources. They're not just fans of the artist -- or maybe they're not fans of the artist at all yet -- but there was a buzz around this event that was effectively generated, and they got caught up into it enough to buy a ticket and show up.
Promotion: Word of mouth
Talking with people you meet or with people you know one-on-one at other events where you run into like-minded folks, or by calling or messaging your friends and comrades, is the single most effective form of publicity.
Communicating one-on-one with people, whether in person or through some form of message or phone conversation, can't be overstated as the main way to get the word out about an event. Personal communication, that conveys to your friends and comrades how excited you are about this event and how much you'd appreciate it if they came to it and perhaps even helped you get the word out a bit.
Promotion: Going to other events
If you're a local and you're at all active in your physical community, you hopefully have some idea of other political or musical events that might be a good place to leave flyers or handbills on tables or chairs, or hand them out as people are entering or exiting. Making announcements, when there's an opportunity for such things, is very good.
Putting up big, catchy, graphic-intensive posters, ideally with wheatpaste or other more weatherproof methods, creates a physical presence for upcoming events that can be very influential on creating a buzz around an event. They occupy physical space, like we'll be doing. They let people know these are real people promoting a real event in the real world.
They are also much more likely to be seen by actual local people than most of what you might post on most social media platforms or elsewhere on the internet. The reason it remains a popular method for promoting gigs is because it tends to work, especially on streets with lots of pedestrian traffic that are near other types of places that attract the sorts of people who are likely to come to the gig.
Promotion: Mainstream media and local radio
Although most people never even think of local terrestrial radio or local mainstream media anymore, they're both still useful ways to promote events. There are still people listening to your local community radio station and your local NPR station, among others. If there are relevant music shows or event calendars maintained by local radio stations on air and on their websites, these are worth getting an event mentioned in and listed on. Same goes for the local newspaper's local "what's on" listings, even if it's now entirely online.
Promotion: Email lists
Contrary to popular mythology put out by pretty much any tech corporation out there, email lists are still the most effective way to promote an event online. That is to say, as far as online promotion goes, email lists are still where it's at, more than all the social media platforms combined. If you have some kind of an email list, use it. If you know of any relevant announcements lists in your area that you never think about anymore, try to find out if they still exist, and use them. If you know of relevant people or organizations who you're trying to rope in to help promote an event, make sure to ask them to mention the event to their email list if they're willing to do so, not just to share your posts on social media.
Promotion: Graphics and pictures
At the root of any promotional campaign, both in the physical world and online, are good graphics and pictures. The poster needs to be graphic-heavy and eye-catching, as does the graphic you use to promote the event online, the online version of which should ideally be square, to suit the biggest variety of platforms. Other than a catchy event graphic, pictures of posters wheatpasted or taped onto a wall or pole tend to get attention on Facebook in particular, the way its current algorithms seem to work.
Promotion: Social media
If used effectively, social media can play a significant role in local event promotion, but it has pitfalls, even when used wisely. There are many major platforms I have very little familiarity with, such as TikTok. But here are some bits of advice that I know to be useful:
- Sharing spiffy graphics or pictures with the basic info on them tends to work better than sharing links.
- When you make a Facebook Event page, make sure the location is properly in place. Then encourage local people to use the Invite feature. If you have the location in properly, this will then give them a list of Suggested Friends to invite, who are likely to be actually local to the area where the event is happening.
- Encourage people to post on their social media platforms of choice a graphic about the gig, and encourage them to introduce the graphic with a few words about why they're going to this event and you should, too, not just to share info about the gig with no introduction.
- Come up with good reasons to mention the gig on different social media platforms regularly. Like, "today's the anniversary of this event David wrote a song about, and by the way, he's performing in town next month!"
Promotion: Other listings
If the person you're organizing a gig for is me, you don't need to worry about this part. But if it's someone else, it's good to know about Songkick and Bandsintown. These are platforms that a lot of avid fans of independent music in the US and other countries use to keep track of artists who are performing in their area.
With these platforms, ideally we get the gig listed as much in advance as possible, to give local people time to hear about the gig. This is because if you list a gig on Songkick, then anytime someone is listening to my music on Spotify, YouTube, or Soundcloud, if they're paying close attention they may see a listing on the side of their screen about the fact that I'm playing a concert in their area. Most of my shows involve at least a couple people telling me they heard about the gig that way.
Both of these platforms like to include listings for online ticket sales. It's a good idea to set that up, on any number of platforms available, so a ticket link can be circulated publicly. Also very good to make it clear that people can buy tickets at the door as well (if that is indeed the case). Questions related to advance tickets or buying tickets at the door are the most common questions I tend to get from people wondering about upcoming gigs of mine, along with "what time does it start?"
This little tutorial is over. I hope to see you on the road and in the streets, as well as in a venue at a gig you might see fit to organize sometime!