Booked: How your favorite bands choose the venues they play

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The process by which bands are booked into venues is, for the casual music fan, opaque. It may even be mystifying—especially if you just can’t understand why your favorite band is playing your least favorite venue.

Booking, say local pros, is both a science and an art—and like the rest of the music industry, it’s built on relationships. “It’s basically the relationships between the buyer, who would be me,” says Tamsen Preston of Sue McLean & Associates, and booking agents, “who would be the representatives of the artists.”

Most touring bands work with booking agents: people whose job it is to help the artists maximize their financial success on the road while also helping to ensure that the shows are accessible to fans in terms of ticket prices, location, and atmosphere. “We discuss different artists [that agents] represent, what they’re looking for coming through the market,” says Preston. “My job is to try to find the [type of] venue that they’re looking for.”

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The Turf Club in St. Paul // Photo by Nate Ryan, MPR

Booking agents work with local bookers—also known as talent buyers—in each market: people who are in a position to cut a deal for a band to play a particular venue on a particular date for an agreed-upon sum. Many bookers represent venues directly; in other cases, bookers represent promoters (like Sue McLean & Associates) that contract separately with the venues.

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Photo by Nate Ryan, MPR

Agents, explains Eli Flasher of First Avenue, “will reach out and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got so-and-so band coming through your market on these five dates, this time frame.’ We go back and forth on an offer, and then settle on a date that works for both parties.”

First Avenue is a leader in Twin Cities music booking: they not only book their own venues (the Mainroom, the 7th Street Entry, and the Turf Club), but also work with a wide range of other venues to help place artists in the best spots for their shows to succeed.

Flasher explains that he and his colleagues book artists at venues not owned by First Avenue “if we’re already booked at one of our other venues, or if we think it fits better style-wise or size-wise with the band we’re working with. Then we just pay a room-rental fee and handle the ticket sales ourselves.”

What makes a venue the right spot for a given show? Ideally, it should be the right size and have the right vibe. The Cedar Cultural Center, for example, “is typically known as a listening room,” says the venue’s booker Grace Evenson. “It’s usually a very attentive audience, and shows that really require the audience to pay attention work well in our room.” The Cedar also has a lot of room for dancing, notes Evenson, when artists like Femi Kuti come through town.

Evenson and her colleagues book the Cedar directly, but not every show at the Cedar is booked by the venue. “We have relationships with other promoters in the Cities,” says Evenson, “and if it’s an artist or an agent that they have a strong relationship with and they just need a different room, our space is then available for them to rent. We also do co-presents with other promoters; again, it usually depends on past experience with the artist and agent.”

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First Avenue not only book their own venues, but also work with a wide range of other venues to help place artists in the best spots for their shows to succeed // Photo courtesy First Avenue

This is why relationships are crucial: booking agents and talent buyers (i.e. bookers) often work together over extended periods of time, with both parties having a shared interest in developing bands’ careers so that the artists can return to town again and again—ideally drawing bigger crowds every time.

“Our goal,” says Flasher, “is to have a band that’s going to, say, first time through they’re going to play the Entry and there’s going to be 50 to 100 people. If the band’s good enough, we’re going to work with them throughout the next couple of years and build them up so they’re [eventually] playing the Turf Club and then the Triple Rock and then the Mainroom.”

Next page: Financials, openers, and more

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