As you recall, I recorded an acoustic album, and after nearly one year of labour I released it into the wild. It has become a tradition of the songwriter community to celebrate any album release with a concert. I chose to follow that call, and organized a release concert for my album.
Here are some of the lessons I learned from that endeavour. Some of it will sound like a bitter settlement with the Calgary music scene, some of it might be very specific to my personal circumstances, but the combined account of my negative experiences will hopefully be helpful for other recording/performing artists.
Nobody Likes You
Every concert lives through its audience. If nobody comes out to listen to your band, you might as well keep playing in your garage.
Organizing an elaborate show with various well-rehearsed and skilled band members is a pointless exercise unless you have a vibrant fellowship. Vibrant as in “whenever I post an event on social media, it takes me less than two days to get positive interactions with 20 people.”
And I’m not talking about clicking the “Like” button, which takes next to no effort; I refer to people who actually write a response. No matter how great you think your friends are, how positive the direct interaction with your fans is, remember that most people still are full of shit.
More than half of the people who tell you how excited they are about your show won’t have any recollection of said word exchange when the show time comes. Some of them will have legitimate excuses, such as a reunion with a dear family member, or simply their inherent inability to manage their own schedule.
But people who tell you that they “didn’t know” about the show are most likely either lying or incapable of maintaining attention. I contacted plenty of people directly, who then still claimed that they had no idea that I was making an album, even after ten months of marketing.
Directly after my album release, I had contact with about half a dozen people who tried to attend my show one or two weeks after it had already happened. There is nothing you can do to prevent that. I gave people handbills, and even saw them typing the associated information into their mobile devices; they still managed to mess up their schedules.
As a German, I find it very annoying when people are incapable of reading their calendar, but as an artist I also find it forgivable. Humans make mistakes; it’s no use to dwell on them.
By far the greater tragedy, both in (lacking) attendance numbers and in the level of perceived nuisance, are the “shit people.” I struggle to find an alternate term for that kind of human; nothing else appears to have quite the same descriptive power.
Unless your fan base consists entirely of beloved relatives, it is inevitable that more than half of your fellowship is full of verbal diarrhoea. It is relatively easy to walk up to a musician after a show, and tell him/her that the performance was very enjoyable. It is comparatively much more difficult to actually become an engaged fan of said artist, to react to a call for attending a future show, or even helping him/her to promote it.
There are dozens of “friends” that I have played for over the years, at jams, shows, or open mics, who assured me that my music is splendid, and that I should record an album and play shows, because they so very much enjoy listening to me.
When those same “friends” play a show or start a crowdfunding campaign, they do not hesitate to ask me directly to share and like their social media posts, yet to date the majority of them has not “liked” my artist page, interacted with my funding posts, reacted in any way to the events that I organised, or shared any of my posts on their own social media pages.
When I say “you are full of shite”, I mean exactly that: you ask me to organize a show, but you don’t actually intend to attend it. Nobody needs this kind of false encouragement. I have plenty of musician friends who share this experience.
Remember that most of your virtual friends, no matter how well you communicate with them, are still just friendly assholes. Do not build yourself any alternative illusion. Your “friends” are not your “fans”. Most of your friends are full of praise and poop, and you won’t be able to tell the difference until you count the number of smiling faces at your release concert.
But not to worry, your fans won’t come to your show either. One of the disappointing truths about life in Calgary is that there are more artists than patrons. No matter how far ahead you announce your show, most of your fans will have something else to do at that time, and be it only the folding of laundry.
They don’t actually want to hurt you – they only disappoint you unconsciously. Much of this is built on the idiotic premise that “one person less won’t actually make a difference”. Right-winged political parties have always celebrated great success by embracing that idea.
In order to acquire a good number of paying audience members, you need lucky connections to the right people. Despite all the contrasting tales that people tend to tell you, there is no actual lack of time or money.
I have seen Calgary artists gather $5,000 for a trip to England within a week, without great reason or rhyme or any personal benefit for their patrons. People with money will gladly part with it for your personal benefit, but you need to find those people first.
If you don’t know them at the beginning of your campaign, you should not count on meeting them through your campaign. The campaign for your album release primarily targets and affects the fan base that you already have. It does not grow that fan base.
I did not know that when I started to plan my album release, and it had disastrous consequences.
To put my experience into perspective, here follows an account of the effort I put into my album release concert.
When I began recording this album, I immediately started an advertisement and funding campaign for it. For nearly 10 months, I shared weekly updates to all of my social media channels, and linked them to my presale campaign on the PledgeMusic page.
Those updates were not advertisement spam, but rather comprehensive snippets of information. Video updates from the studio, photos of instruments and session musicians, stories about the recording process, and music videos with updated rough cuts of my songs.
After 10 months, my campaign managed to draw support from five individuals: JF, a friend who is immensely engaged in the music community; Mercy and Jim, who are both emerging artists and great friends of mine; Ralph, one of my former professors and friends at the university; and James, a musician who plays on my album. Five supporters in 10 months – that is quite a catch.
Of course, funding campaigns and pre-sales are only one measure of success (or lack thereof). As soon as I had determined time and date of my album release concert, I created a ticketed event on Eventbrite, and shared it on my dominant social media platforms.
Many people interacted with the event, some even shared it. That my session musicians were not among the people who shared the event with any regularity (except for James, again!) is, in the end, my fault. I should have asked them to do so. I could also have given them an incentive: if the concert had attracted enough paying costumers to exceed the production costs, everyone would have gotten paid.
We will talk about finances further down, but it is generally a good idea to provide your collaborators with a financial incentive, so that they get personally invested in your project. This makes the difference between session musician and band member – one is there for the gig, the other for the journey.
My concert event page was up for about eight weeks. I linked every album update, every music snippet, and almost every Twitter blurb to that event page. I received plenty of interactions, and lots of promises, but when the time of truth drew near, I still had only two tickets sold – to family members of one of my musicians.
So I increased my enthusiasm for posters and handbills; everything I printed contained the line-up of session musicians, a web address, and QR code. The payoff for my perseverance was barely noticeable: the number of paying audience members at my release concert was one lower than my number of musicians on stage.
Mind you, half of these audience members were close friends or family members of my musicians, the other half were dearest friends of mine.
Then, of course, there are the “poor people”, fans and friends that can’t afford the $20 fee for a three-hour concert (which included the album on CD), and I had various “friends” asking me if they could attend the concert free of charge.
Don’t worry about those low-budget fans. Give them all the tickets that they want; they won’t show up anyway. If people are not personally invested in a project or event, they won’t have any reason to attend it.
I contacted about 30 people who I owed favours to, who sold me an instrument that I recorded for my album, or who have otherwise been of support throughout my musical journey. Of those 30 people, about half replied and requested the free tickets that I offered to them. Of the 20 free tickets that I gave away, only four were used. Four! I had more volunteers at the show than I had takers of free tickets.
That’s it, that’s the payout of 12 months of campaigning, hanging up posters, handing out flyers, playing at open mics, talking to friends and strangers, preparing videos and sound bites, updating profile pages, organising rehearsals, and planning out a whole concert from scratch: nine paying attendees; five, if you count only those who actually reacted to my campaign.
If I had not run any campaign at all, and instead just booked a one-hour slot at any of Calgary’s readily available bars, I would have gotten the same number of attendees. Don’t try to correct me – I actually tried that approach a few years ago.
With a random show at a coffee shop I gained the same audience count. People who hear one of my songs usually stay for a few more. Thus, I know that the problem is not my level of performance. If I had used my spare time to serve coffee at Tim Hortons, instead of running a social media campaign, I would have made approximately $2,000 CAD. That is more than twice the amount of money that I spent on my album release.
I don’t want to prevent you from running a campaign yourself; I actually encourage you to do so. But be aware that said campaign will be fruitless if you don’t already have a vibrant and engaged fan base. Friends are not fans, and, therefore, won’t buy tickets.
The Costs of Putting on a Release Show
If you have been around the music scene for a while, you will know that making music costs time and money. Release concerts in particular are notorious for sucking at your finances.
My first intention was to give a great show; a spectacle of sound, a celebration of that long artsy process that started over six years ago when I picked up my first guitar, and culminated in a beautiful acoustic album.
I wanted control over the venue, so as to eliminate the random drunk hobos and hecklers, and make the show enjoyable for its entire audience. That obviously meant I had to pay to rent the venue, and it took me a month to find one that was relatively cheap, yet big enough for 50 to 100 people, which was my expected attendance level at the time.
After considerations of various schedules and prices I booked a Sunday afternoon at the Royal Canadian Legion. It was cheap, available, child-friendly, and situated in a great location. Calgary downtown is easily accessible via public transportation, and the afternoon time slot enabled parents with children of any age to attend, and still be home early enough to get plenty of sleep for the upcoming workweek. That particular Sunday did not conflict with any concerts, conferences, or grand celebrations; I checked for everything!
Of course, people found excuses anyway. “I thought it was in the evening,” “I did not find a parking spot,” and “I worked that Sunday” are some of my favourites. We determined above that most people are full of horse manure, so these lame excuses are no longer surprising.
Also vivid: “I need to clean my apartment.” OCDs are on the rise, so you can’t actually argue against such a notion without sacrificing your political correctness. Instead of renting the Legion for $360, I could also have had the Red Bush Theatre for $75. That would have sufficed for the meager turnout that my concert gained, but you don’t know that beforehand, do you?
No matter how much upfront support you are promised, I strongly recommend that you count on an audience number that is about twice as high as that of your regular shows. That approach will prevent you from booking a venue that you can then only fill to 5%.
If your venue of choice does not have a sound system, you need to rent or borrow one. My friend Jonathan has a good sound board, and he himself is a very capable sound manager, so I spared myself a couple of big bills in that regard.
Similarly, L&M has relatively low overnight rental rates for sound and lighting equipment. Two huge speakers with stands and cables cost about $40, and my lighting technician asked for a separate investment of $50. We also “lost” one cable at the end of the show, and had to pay $30 for it, so including rental insurance I paid approximately $130 for equipment. That part went pretty well.
Now we get to the beefy bit. My idea of a concert requires musicians. Unfortunately, not all of the musicians that I wanted to play with were good friends of mine, so I actually had to be prepared to pay. I will spare you the gruesome details, and will only talk about the costliest chunk.
My violinist of choice got sick just before the show, so I needed to hire one. The violinist that I was referred to argued that, considering she only had one week to practice, she would need $200 to commit to the concert. I didn’t have much choice in the matter, and ate the costs.
But even that is a relatively mild investment, compared to the other item on the same cheque. My original violinist requested sheet music of her parts. Apparently classically trained violinists don’t like to improvise on stage, so I had to hire someone to transcribe all of the violin parts from those four songs on the album into notes on paper.
Oddly enough, such service is not available for free, so I spent another $400 just to make my fiddler happy. Had I known that transcriptions are so expensive (you only get the bill once it’s done), I would have rejected the request of my original violinist, and instead I would have hired a fiddler who was willing to play a spontaneous improvisation on the theme.
Please note that no one else on stage replayed the album sound, and I personally prefer a rehearsed improvisation over a sight-reading concerto. Splendid – $600 for just one instrument. Whether or not you want to spend that amount on your release is up to you, but you really want to consider carefully how much a particular instrument part is worth to you.
The more elaborate you want your concert to be, the more money and time you should be prepared to invest. Ideally you will have a budget. It is not generally a good feeling to be constrained by one’s finances, but it really is good to have some numbers to work with.
After the disastrous outcome of my album campaign, I had virtually no expectations towards my release concert, and therefore I did not prepare a budget for it. I had a few thousand dollars in my bank account, so I was able to pay all the necessary costs upfront. That also meant I did not need to make any money with the show, which was great, because I didn’t. Without talking details, I made approximately $210 at the door, which translates to a net production cost of about $850 CAD for the whole concert.
In hindsight I would have made many of my decisions differently. I would have booked a smaller venue, maybe even a bar, so as to pay less or even no money for the venue itself. I would have drastically changed the violin booking, or just rejected it completely. The violin remains one of my favourite instruments, but it is not worth $600 for four songs. At least not for a concert with only 10 paying attendees.
Your own thought process probably differs from mine, but you should ask yourself “just how good is ‘good enough’ for my audience, and how much money do I want to invest, considering that this concert probably won’t make its money back?”
Broken City Calgary (Not To Be Confused With The Venue Of The Same Name)
Much of this blog may read like a hate tirade against all of my false friends, which really is awfully close to the truth. It is, however, also a word of advice, and a very wordy opening for my testament on Calgary’s music scene.
Calgary is a broken city; that is no longer a secret. This city has a vibrant arts community, but sadly the latter mostly acts as its own benefactor.
Whenever any of my musical friends organizes a show, I try to attend it, and the majority of audience members that I see at those events are other artists. The communities of Money and Art very rarely overlap in Calgary, and I know few Calgarians who are able to support their music through their music.
In order to create a successful show, you need to gather sustained support from an audience that is a) willing and able to part with money in exchange for entertainment, and b) prepared to attend your concert, despite the tragedy of having to move one’s own body through the door frame.
Gaining the support of those people takes years, if not decades. That is why I won’t try for that support anymore, at least not in Calgary. I attended hundreds of open mics, went to dozens of album release concerts and other shows, shot photo and video at those shows, and used those images to promote later concerts. Barely any of the many artists that I supported over the past five years has made any effort to return those favours.
After spending five years on Calgary’s stages, I have grown tired of the lies, the ignorance, the false sympathy, and the selfishness. I won’t spend any more time on the arts community of this city. I will play shows, if I get invited to do so, but I don’t intend to organize any myself.
If I want to play a show without audience, I can do so in my living room. If I long for an unpaid show in front of a drunk and inattentive crowd, I can play an open mic or go busking downtown. Wait, the latter actually involves payment. It is true, I have made more money through busking than I ever made playing at venues in Calgary.
I continue to love and make music. Maybe I will even make love to the music, but that is none of your business. However, I won’t put any more effort into building a “Calgary fan base”. I have tried for five years; my hands are worn, but still empty.
Please stop bugging me about visiting that one place, that one website, one jam, one venue, event, or community that will change everything. It does not exist. The one ring is a myth, not a miracle.
It takes decades of dedicated labour or a big box of luck to get your art the attention that it deserves. I have neither, so I won’t bother anymore. I sincerely thank all of my true friends who have walked this path of disappointment with me, and wish them the best of luck for acquiring recognition in this broken city.
All of this sounds bitter and depressing, but life is essentially a bitter cup, so you might as well drink it as such.
You can still grow as an artist in Calgary. You can gather appreciation and loyal fans. Just don’t use this city as your primary resource. Go out and explore the world. If you don’t have a huge supporting fan community, don’t organise big shows. Keep it small and simple. Just you and your three best musician friends, on a pretty little stage, on one bill with two other bands, in a venue that regularly showcases music.
If you only get two fans to show up, you still have the six fans of the other bands to keep you company. And should you actually sell the place out, you can book a bigger show next time. Live and learn. Grow and sustain. Baby steps, and all in good measure.