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DIY Music Tips: Become a DIY Promoter

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Since I appear to be the resident historian around these parts, I guess I’ll focus most of my content on how we did things in the old days. Let me start with a little background:

I’m 36. Yes, that is old in people years. I’ve been listening to, playing in and writing about punk/indie/underground/alternative music since I was 15. That’s 21 years, longer than most of the writers on this blog have been alive. I don’t mean to brag at all, but it sets up my perspective on things. Back then, punk rock was not a mainstream marketing demographic at all. It was eschewed by most normal folks. We were mocked when we walked down the street, threatened with bodily harm and singled out as outcasts. We couldn’t go to the mall and buy our hair coloring, crappy Billy Talent CDs and bondage pants at Hot Topic. The Internets were not even a sparkle in some geek’s eye yet. Glossy magazines pretty much ignored any bands worth caring about. And, MTV only cared about guys with spandex pants, fluffy hair and endless guitar solos.

So at the risk of sounding like the old guy who sits outside the corner store and talks about his days in the trenches back in the big WWII, I’m going to regale you with tales of resourcefulness, making things happen and not having easy access to music and venues. In other words, I’m going to talk about the Do It Yourself (DIY) mentality that kept punk and indie music alive for so many years—before the term indie was usurped by corporate record executives.

I spent most of my teenage years in a small, Northwestern college town. If one wanted to experience live music, they had a couple options; either catch a crappy “college radio” band at a house party or college show (“college radio” was a term aligned with what is now called indie pop—think very, very old REM stuff, The Smiths, etc.), or catch a death metal music marathon at the local Elks lodge where they’d fill a relatively small room with enough PA gear to out-noise Motorhead at a stadium gig. When it came to punk/hardcore shows, our resources were few and far between. As we got further into the music, we began to read national fanzines like Maximum Rock’nRoll (MRR), Flipside and numerous handmade, photocopied fanzines that our friends and distant compatriots put out. This began to spread the notion that you didn’t have to rely on clubs or promoters to experience the charge of a punk rock show in person.

As we neared our senior year in high school, we began to find ways to bring more music to town, organizing our own shows. We’d do them anywhere we could find. Venues ranged from rented grange halls in the middle of nowhere, pole barns on rural property, to two-car garages and storage units. Sometimes the property owners would be in on it and approve it and sometimes we had to fly things under the radar. In doing this, we created a scene. A music scene. Suddenly, touring bands knew about us, and they’d book shows. Some of the most amazing shows I’ve ever seen or played were in garages and basements. Bodies crammed up against one another, people screaming along with songs in unison—energy.

During these years, I had the fortune of seeing some legendary bands play, as well as several bands who will remain unknown to this day. For instance, before Zach De La Rocha sang for Rage Against the Machine, he fronted a Straight Edge Hardcore band called Inside Out, and they rocked my friend Bill’s garage into oblivion. Before the Foo Fighters existed, their rhythm bass player Nate played in several punk rock bands like Diddly Squat, Christ on a Crutch, Brotherhood, Galleon’s Lap and Sunny Day Real Estate. Most of those bands played shows in Bellingham in small, unexpected venues. I hate to sound stupidly nostalgic and grandiose, but those were amazing times. The best part? These shows were either free or $5 or less to get into. And, they were all ages.

While I want to emphasize the importance that ‘zines played in all of this, I’ll save self-publishing for another article. The main thing I want the younger generations to take away from this is: don’t settle for the music that the corporate record labels and big clubs force on you. There is an entire world of amazing music out there that will never find a mainstream audience, and that is just fine. Create your own scene, your own band, open your own club, put on your own shows. Don’t wait for someone else to do it. Get involved and undermine the mainstream version of “punk rock.” Do it yourself.

How to Become a DIY Promoter:

  1. Find a Venue: This is the important one, because without a venue, there is no show. This can be as simple as a garage, basement, pole barn, field—anything with power and room for a band. It also doesn’t hurt if you can avoid getting noise complaints, so sound proofed or somewhat isolated are important factors.
  2. Find a Backup Venue: It’s only a matter of time before you run into venue problems, so why not be prepared? Sometimes a venue will close for repairs or financial reasons. Sometimes they will get cold feet. Sometimes you don’t have enough money for a deposit, so make sure you have a backup plan. There’s nothing worse than having the bands booked only to find out that you don’t have a place for them to play.
  3. Book a Headlining Band: You may want to start small with some local bands to get a feel for the process and pitfalls before you invite a touring band to play. Pick the band you think will have the biggest draw. Sometimes this doesn’t necessarily mean they will be a good band, but they may have lots of friends or fans. The key is to get a good turnout. Remember, touring bands are often sleeping on floors, living on crap food and playing to small, unforgiving crowds, so think about how to entice them. Offer them a place to sleep, a nice, home-cooked meal and work your tail off to get them a good crowd. Also ask them how much they need to make for gas and expenses. And if you are cooking or providing food, make sure you know if they are vegetarians, vegans or omnivores. Some bands will want a guarantee, meaning they need to make x amount of dollars each show. Your best bet, if you are a small promoter, is to avoid such bands. Avoid contracts. Just promise you will work hard for them and deliver.
  4. Book Opening Bands: Most DIY shows have from 3-5 bands play. I think 5 is way too many, and 4 is pushing it, myself. Opening bands are important, and I suggest you look for local bands with a good fanbase for your middle opening band. The first opening band can easily be a new band, or your band. They should play the shortest set. The middle band should be a big local draw. If the touring band has a supporting act with them, even better. Sometimes, the touring band will need to leave early to get to their next destination, so you may have to put a local band as the headliner. Unless the touring band asks, never put them on first. And a good secret: the middle slot is usually the best slot. People tend to show up late and leave early.
  5. Get Organized: Plan out a budget. Target how many people you need to attend to break even. Determine your cover charge for people to get in. Buy a hand stamp so you know who has paid. Figure out how much the headliner needs to be paid, then allocate a little for the opening bands. Also make sure to budget in some profit for yourself after covering your expenses (flyers, phone bills, etc.). The profit can go towards your next show. Also decide how many people each band can have on their guest list and make sure they turn in their guest lists before the doors open. You will probably have to chase a band member down before the show to get this info.
  6. Confirm Everyone: One week or less before the show, make sure you confirm all of the bands AND the venue. Be organized, telling them when they are going on, what they need to bring (i.e., do you have a PA system, or do they need to bring one? Will you have a Merch table so they can sell stuff?), and what the venue is like. Some bands are particular about stage setups, so make sure there are no surprises. This way, if someone is flaking, you will find out in time to replace them.
  7. Promote, Promote, Promote: I cannot stress the importance of this step more. You need to get the word out. You can’t rely on word-of-mouth, and it is your job to make sure people are there to see the show. I can’t tell you how disappointing and disheartening it is to be a touring band, drive miles and miles and miles in a hot, smelly van, starving, to play a show to three people in the middle of nowhere. Print up flyers, plaster them everywhere. Get your friends helping out. Talk to people. Make them promise to attend. Use the Internets. E-Mail people. Start a MySpace page for your shows. Anything! And don’t rule out non-punk people. Where I grew up, we often got all kinds of people to show up, because it was live music. In some cases, people even discovered a favorite new genre or band.
  8. Plan the Event: Get some help here—get someone to help get stuff for the bands. Get someone to watch the door and take money. Make sure you have some cash for change. Get someone to run the P.A. Come up with security contingencies: How will you deal with unruly kids (and there will be some)? Get everyone to be on their best behavior by explaining that you can keep doing shows as long as nobody messes them up. I also strongly advise you bar drugs or alcohol. If you should get reported for noise violations, that will only make things worse. People can have fun without those when music is involved. Also damage protect the venue, especially if it’s your house. Hide valuables, protect fragile items. People will go off and that’s to be expected, but be prepared.
  9. Put on the Show: If you’ve done your homework, everything should go well with little bumps. But be prepared for the unexpected and deal with it calmly and logically. If you are renting a space, the owners will be impressed by your professionalism and won’t be dubious about putting on future shows. Make sure, also, to clean up the venue when you are done, leaving it like you found it. Often, rental venues will require a security deposit and you don’t want to lose that to laziness.

Most of all, have fun. Putting on a good show is stressful, time consuming and somewhat crazy. But it’s also very rewarding. Now go forth and conquer the legions of rock!


Written by BretV

June 11, 2008 at 3:42 pm

14 Responses

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  1. Dude, that is so cool. Awesomeness! THE BEST UNCLE EVAR STRIKES AGAIN.

    “metal music marathon at the local Elks lodge”

    I got a very vivid mental image of this. I don’t know why. It just struck me as something I could see a lot of in Bellingham.

    Marshall B

    June 11, 2008 at 4:25 pm

  2. damn dude very informative!

    When I get enough money to buy a place, I’ll create a scene for Metal in the mid west along with Central Illinois and Maryland.


    June 11, 2008 at 4:25 pm

  3. Oh yea Marshall has a cool uncle 🙂


    June 11, 2008 at 4:26 pm

  4. Thank you very much. A friend and I have been talking about putting on shows in my garage this summer, and this was a huge help.

    Marshall was right, you’re a very cool person and uncle. My uncles are all alcoholics.

    Jacob Z

    June 11, 2008 at 4:45 pm

  5. He is a real cool son, too! 🙂


    June 11, 2008 at 4:55 pm

  6. Marshall: That was the nice thing about Bellingham back then. The metal kids and punk kids often got along great and co-existed at shows quite comfortably. The skinheads were the only real problem.

    Rippingcorpse: Yeah! Go for it, man! I wish I was half as cool as I was getting credit for here.

    Jacob: That is awesome. Garage, house and basement shows are still my favorites. So much more personal and intimate. Have a great time with that.

    Mom: I can’t hide anywhere on the Internets! 🙂


    June 11, 2008 at 6:57 pm

  7. Really? Metal kids and Punk co-existed?

    I’ve always thought they be natural enemies. Although the comradity between the two could be also because of the coexistent of crossover and thrash.

    haha I don’t know, I wish I was alive back in the days of raw music energy of punk and thrash.


    June 11, 2008 at 11:04 pm

  8. The whole DIY thing was really interesting! If I ever get anywhere with this DJ Equipment and what not I will try and throw some party’s. Although in New York the only venues that you don’t get noise complaints from are bars and clubs, and like you said in the beginning, I am a youngin’. I am not even permitted into those things yet.

    Other than that things are a lot more simple, if I am going ahead with this whole DJ thing. I don’t need opening acts, and I can plan everything by myself.

    I have always wanted to put my trombone playing to a better use and start a ska band though…


    June 11, 2008 at 11:34 pm

  9. This Bellingham, is that Bellingham Washington?

    Jacob Z

    June 12, 2008 at 12:16 am

  10. Yah! It’s a cool town.

    Marshall B

    June 12, 2008 at 1:30 am

  11. I have a friend that lives there!!!J!OMGZ!!!

    Jacob Z

    June 12, 2008 at 10:56 am

  12. ZOMG!!1!! I think Bret was born there? I dunno. I’ve spent time there with family. It’s gorjeeus.

    Marshall B

    June 12, 2008 at 4:01 pm

  13. I was born in Portland, actually and lived in Bellingham from the time I was about 10 – 19 years old. Bellingham is a beautiful area, but I have to be honest, by the time I moved away back to Portland I was happy to leave. It’s a small college town and there’s only so much one can do there. I like the Portland area better because it’s a bigger metro area, there’s more going on musically, socially and culturally and Mt. Hood and the Oregon Coast are both less than 2 hours away. Also, I think we get slightly warmer weather here. 🙂


    June 13, 2008 at 10:09 am

  14. Great article/instructional tool…I grew up in Montana and all we had was whatever we were willing to put on ourselves. When the kids in MT got bored we went to live in seattle..many a great house party show i remember…I’m a major collector of Northwest concert posters and flyers….seriously, it’s in all likelyhood the largest collection amassed of that region…while I do sell off the extras, my main motivation has always been just to be able to save a bit of history that otherwise would be lost, many of my favorites in the collection are for just the types of unknown shows and bands you’re talking about.

    Jacob Grossi
    “Over 4000 Original Concert Posters And Flyers”

    Jacob Grossi

    August 22, 2008 at 11:47 pm

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