Vol 4, Issue 4: Going Grassroots

Last summer, I found hope in the oddest of places. Anyone who knows me is well aware I’m pretty set in my ways musically-speaking and that “the dark arts” have never really struck my fancy. But, there I was at a metal show in the basement of a burnt-out near-condemned hotel, finding myself inspired by the efforts put forth by a trio of headbangers.

Armed with a mere $50 to cover the cost of room rental, a homemade P.A., and close family and friends acting as both the door and soundmen, Presumed Dead successfully managed to not only put together one hell of an event, but also housed one of the most energetic crowds I’ve witnessed to date. Oh, and did I mention this was the band’s DEBUT performance?

This story is important for you to take note of because it highlights the essentiality of taking on a “grassroots” approach when it comes to maintaining a competitive edge in today’s oversaturated industry. Basically, the situation is as follows: with the recent closures of the once popular Embassy, Wick and Salt within our own local scene, not to mention Toronto’s 360 and Big Bop (among many others), simply stated, we are increasingly finding ourselves in a predicament in which we have TOO many bands, and too FEW venues.

The true kicker however is not merely the fact that these venues went under. Rather, it’s the reality that all of the aforementioned establishments once served as homes to up and comers providing them with a chance to showcase their abilities and establish followings. In a nutshell, if it weren’t already difficult to get booked in the first place when you’re just starting out, it’s just become that much harder!

From a booker’s perspective seeing as the goal of running an establishment is to make moula (again this is the music BUSINESS), the result of this is that for the few clubs that still do exist, stipulations in order to get a booking have been upped. Typically this means one of two things (neither of which are encouraging) for bands:

1) you can’t get into the venue as a new band WITHOUT paying a hefty rental fee which may prove to NOT be worth your while at all if there’s NO guarantee you will be able to at least break even through ticket sales

2) if you have NOT previously established a draw within the given touring territory of the venue in question, you will NOT be considered at all; a situation very much akin to the job search dilemma in which you can’t get a job without experience, but you surely cannot obtain any experience without first being given a shot.

While some bands are willing to go to great lengths AND empty out their pockets just to be able to put on their resumes that they rocked certain joints, considering that most musicians are on tight budgets, this isn’t the best attack strategy, in my view.

One rule of business that I learned early on from both of my entrepreneurial parents is that, “(s)he who speaks first loses.” In other words, if you put yourself out there as a band who is so desperate to play anywhere that you’re willing to be mistreated and give into unrealistic expectations just to get a gig, you are nine times out of ten gonna get screwed. Don’t kid yourself. Word gets around. If you even do this once, don’t be surprised if other venues try to pull the same routine with you.

To tie this all back to the opening story I shared, the point is that whether you find yourself playing in your friends’ backyards or renting out small unlikely spaces in order to get up and running, it really doesn’t matter. If people like your act, you’d be surprised at the places they’ll show up to in order to see you live. While these sorts of gig opportunities may not seem as “glamorous” as let’s say rocking out at Call the Office, a music venue which has housed legends, in my experience, you need to be READY and WORTHY as a band to earn such a privilege, and that doesn’t happen overnight.

Oftentimes bands (because of their egos, an issue we addressed last time) over-exaggerate their popularity in order to get booked into exclusive renowned venues, such as CTO. But when these bands don’t deliver the goods (again venues want to make money by bringing acts in), guess what? They end up getting blacklisted from ever playing at an establishment like that again (or at least for a very long time). I think it goes without saying that that is not the sort of list you ever want to find yourself a part of. Lesson of the week then: be creative, but also realistic.