Here’s a question from a talented professional musician. Maybe you’ve wondered about this too, and want to book more concerts?
“I have a goal to book more of my own performances, such as solo recitals and collaborations with other musicians. I have some repertoire that I’m interested in preparing to present but I wonder how I should balance preparing a program that interests me and what I think will interest presenters.”
Musicians often make a number of false assumptions about what presenters actually want and how they decide who they’ll book. So let’s clear up some common misconceptions.
Welcome to the world of arts presenters
Arts presenters are the people in charge of programming at their venue (might be a university, library, festival, community center, or club). Presenters choose the artists (often the potential season is put to a vote with an advisory board), and they oversee the contracting, publicity, and finances for the series.
There are many many different types of series and venues. These can range from libraries with small budgets that bring in children’s programs a few times a year, to large university series that program a wide range of music as well as dance, theater, and more.
That’s why it’s so important when you’re working on booking your own concerts, that you do your research. Read the series’ site in depth, along with their press releases. Likewise the mission statement and history of the series. Make sure you also check out the artists and programs that the series presents to make sure you are at the appropriate level of experience to be considered.
This information is needed so you can pitch effectively. If you truly want to book more concerts, your email pitch should clearly state why what you offer is a great fit for that particular presenter’s series.
Because there’s such a range of types of concert series, it would be a mistake to think that all presenters think alike. However, here are some of the overarching truths about presenters:
1. Concert series presenters book performances with the balance of their entire series in mind. This is why you need to take a close look at what they tend to book on their series to see if you’d be a good fit.
2. They aim to book performances that will attract, engage, and enlighten their community. Do you have an especially compelling program—something that might surprise and delight their audience?
3. No matter how much they love any performer, presenters still have to balance their budgets, so they need to pay close attention to what performances will “sell well” in order to be able to keep their series viable.
4. Ticket sales only cover a portion of their overall budget, and the rest has to be made up of donations and grants. It’s not easy. And this means that much of the work of presenters is focused on fundraising and donor relations. This makes programming even more important—it needs to clearly resonate with audiences and donors.
5. The portion of the budget that’s covered by ticket sales matters. Ticket sales are not only necessary to balance the books, they also are an indicator—at times a painfully obvious one—of whether or not the community is interested in what’s being presented. Do people show up?
6. The presenter needs to not only believe that the artist is an excellent performer but that the program she or he brings is something special that the audience will find compelling.
So how do presenters choose what to book?
To be clear: most presenters do NOT choose what to book simply based on the artist’s name and reputation. Nor do they choose solely on the program the artist is offering.
It’s the combination. Along with the context—the venue space has to be conducive, and the particular program needs to sit well in the calendar as well as in the budget for the rest of the series.
Keep this in mind when you are sending out pitch proposals and not getting as many “yes” responses as you’d like. A rejection is not necessarily anything to do with you or your performing skills. It might simply be that they’ve already booked a brass quintet for next season and can’t propose two because they need greater variety.
So what kind of programming would create interest?
Think about it from the presenter’s point of view. If she or he books a relatively unknown artist to perform a recital of standard repertoire, what are the chances of this performance selling well?
After all, the audience can stay home and listen to recordings of these same masterworks by any of their favorite artists. For artists without much name recognition, innovative programming is the answer.
This means programming that creates context or a through line around the works you are offering—a thread to help audiences connect with you and the music you love. One way to check on whether or not your have a cohesive program is to write out how you’d introduce each work on the program when speaking from the stage.
Focus on the experience you want to offer your audiences. Think how you might help the audience connect to each individual work and to the sequence of pieces—the totality of their experience with you.
Focusing on the audience’s experience can help you refine your programming choices. That can make your pitches more effective so you can book more concerts—and deliver performances that make more impact.
9 Ways Energize Your Concert Programming
- Premieres of new work (especially by a local composer)
- Unusual pairings (e.g. Baroque ornamentation and Contemporary improvisations—a program exploring the parallels between the two, with classical and jazz works)
- Music that explores a thematic idea (but that avoids clichés). Find surprising links among your programmed works. Examples of non-cliché themes include envy, resistance, nostalgia, retribution, chemistry, outsiders, mysticism, machinery, or healing.
- Pieces inspired by myths or legends
- Works inspired by dance forms, the visual arts, or theater
- Music from a particular country or era: music of WWI, or of the break up of the Soviet Union
- Celebration of a local event, person, holiday, organization, or anniversary
- Collaboration with a guest artist from the local community: a musician, actor, dancer, a video artist
- Music inspired by literature or pairing of music with spoken word collaborations
Note: This doesn’t mean you come need to come up with a theme and a title for your concert. But you do need to clarify your own rationale for presenting these works in your particular sequence. And you need to be able to pitch the program as a cohesive and engaging experience—one that piques the interest of the presenter and her audience.
Follow these tips for more creative programming and more empathy for the presenters you’re contacting and their audiences!
If you want to book more concerts and have particular questions about it, hit me up in our free Facebook group. Happy to have you join the conversation and the supportive community!
Dream Big, Plan Smart, Live Well