1. Have the idea
It might sound like the most simple step, but for me, it’s the part that takes the longest. Everyone has different motivations or ways of coming up with a concert idea. For me, every concert concept starts with a piece I’m super excited about: the kind I just can’t stop listening to. I’ll often have a bunch of these disparate pieces floating around in my head for months or even years before I find that final piece that satisfyingly slots everything else into place like a jigsaw.
Regardless of how you come up with your concert idea, one question I’d recommend asking yourself first is “what does my concert do that other concerts near me are not doing?” If your goal is just to perform a piece you love with friends, and audience numbers aren’t all that important to you, by all means, go ahead regardless! But finding a point of difference, and being able to articulate it is integral to successfully marketing your show. This in turn will vastly help in making your shows financially viable, and it’s also a big thing most grant boards will be looking for.
2. Work out how you’re going to pay for it (or not)
This doesn’t mean you need a lot of money — some of the most engaging and exciting shows I’ve been to have been put on with a shoestring budget. However, you do need to work out how you’re obtaining the things you need to make the show a reality, like performers, instruments and a venue.
You’d be surprised at the number of things you can make happen without much money being involved — ask around and get creative! However, you do need to make sure you’re upfront with everyone about payment, and what form it’ll be in. No-one got paid much money in the first Dots+Loops shows, but I was always very clear about the financial situation. There can be reasons other than money for people to want to be involved in your projects, and I was lucky to have a bunch of great friends who were as excited about my concert ideas as I was.
Nevertheless, if you do ever want to pay your performers more than an honorarium, chances are you’ll need to apply for some grants. Grants applications may seem scary at first, but so long as you have a relatively good idea of what your project is going to look like, all you really need to do is carefully read and follow the grant’s guidelines. It’s also a skill you build up with experience — you may get knocked back a few times, but the more you do, the better you get. And always make sure to give yourself ample lead time to get everything ready, which leads me on to the next point…
3. Make a schedule (and give yourself more time than you think you need)
Figure out the major milestones involved in preparing your concerts, such as rehearsal periods, concert dates, and grant application deadlines (if you’re applying for any). Write them down. Then give yourself fifty percent more time in between everything than you think you need. Trust me: I haven’t yet had enough time to do everything in four years of putting on shows.
4. Find the performers
When booking performers, put yourself in their shoes. Why should they do the show? What will they get out of it? Again, it doesn’t necessarily need to be money (though that definitely helps), but you’ll need to make sure it’s worth their while somehow. Even just an opportunity to play a piece they’re excited about or getting a good quality recording of the performance might be enough. Again, having a significant point of difference between your show and anything else can really help interest people in your production.
Secondly, each performer brings particular skills to the table. It’s important to also consider areas they may not be so strong in, and what you can do to help. Reliability is a huge aspect: you can really assist by being as organised as possible yourself, and double checking everything with everyone involved. No matter how talented someone is, if they have a habit of bailing on things last-minute they may not be worth the stress.
5. Book the venue
Venues can make or break a concert. A fancy venue in a great location might help to entice audiences, but can quickly suck up all your budget and then some. You definitely need to consider accessibility to your audience, but beyond that my first piece of advice is to think outside the box. We’ve ended up with some super cool and cost-effective venues, just by asking around and using unexpected spaces creatively. An unusual space used well can also really contribute to giving your show a point of difference. However, you do need to make sure that the performers have what they need in the space in order to do their job properly — consider aspects such as a green room, acoustics in the performance space (can they hear what they need to?) and lighting (will they be able to see their music?).
When you do find a good venue, work to maintain a good relationship with the people who run the place. Going beyond basic courtesy in terms of communication, making payments on time, keeping the space clean, and ensuring the venue is mentioned and thanked in marketing will give the owners reasons to do well by you, and can easily translate to future discounts or preferential booking.
6. Finalise schedules and equipment (early)
It’s so much easier to find mutually convenient times for rehearsals if you book them with everyone a few months out. Once you’ve done this, put the schedule in multiple places. At Dots+Loops, we will send out our schedules via email, put them up on a Facebook group, and as a file on Dropbox. I’ll also make sure to send confirmation messages a week before the rehearsals start, and text message reminders the day before every rehearsal. Everyone is busy, expect people to forget things. It’s your job to help them remember.
Then, carefully list everything you'll need at the concert (and in rehearsals). I find it helps to visualise myself in the concert, both as an audience member, and as a performer, and take myself through the process of what I’m doing and what I’d expect to be there. Again, you’d be surprised by the amount of things you can obtain just by asking around, but always have a backup plan for sourcing any vital pieces of equipment. Also, if you are going through hire companies, make sure to get a few quotes as they can vary wildly.
7. Promote it!
For years, I was sure that there was a secret to marketing, and that I just needed to work it out to do it well. Sadly, there isn’t one. It just takes a lot of time.
Firstly, it really helps to have eye-catching promotional material and photos. Spending a bit of money to get something nice done up can be really worth it, but you can always just ask your most tech-savvy and stylish friend to help out too. Just make sure to get promotional material in a range of formats: in addition to a poster, get Facebook event banners, an Instagram square, and perhaps even an eye-catching .gif animation or video intro made up.
Social media is your biggest asset to promoting your show. Make a Facebook page and event for your concert, and attach an Instagram account. YouTube, Twitter and Snapchat can be really useful too, but it’s important to keep any platforms you use up-to-date, so don’t sign up to something unless you’ll have time to post regular updates. Keep in mind that you will likely have to spend a bit of money promoting posts on these platforms to get enough reach—we usually end up spending at least $100 on social media advertising for our shows. If you want to go to the next level, a standalone website will really help your event stand out and look professional, and platforms like Squarespace and Weebly can help you have a slick website up quickly and cheaply.
Next, work out what ticketing platform you’re going to use. Your venue might be sorting this out themselves, but if not, create your own online prebooking account. Trybooking and Eventbrite are two popular platforms for this. Though many of your audiences will likely end up buying tickets on the door, having a cheaper prebooking option can really help start to drum up numbers and interest.
Once you have all this done, write a concise and exciting blurb for your show. Describe who’s playing, why people should come, and why you’re excited. Make sure to include when and where it is, and where people can find more information and tickets. Attach photos and the eye-catching material you’ve had made up, and send personalised emails to every influential person, blog, magazine or press outlet you think might be interested. We end up sending almost fifty emails for each show. But if you want more than one in ten replies, you have to make sure to really sell your concert, and what makes it special. Sweetening the deal with free tickets (or tickets to give away) can really help too.
Finally, make use of the people around you! Almost every big magazine or website feature we’ve had has come from a friend or someone who knows someone. Similarly, the single most effective form of marketing is word-of-mouth, so get everyone involved in the concert on board, sharing the event and talking it up!
8. Look after everyone involved
Always be mindful of the time and expertise anyone else involved is giving to make your concert dream a reality, and don’t take it for granted. As the concert organiser, it’s your job to make sure everyone else can do their job as easily (and enjoyably!) as possible—whether it’s performing, running tech support, or just manning the door sales. Make sure everyone knows what’s expected of them and that you’re providing everything they need to do their job. Keep everyone up to date with schedules. Remember to thank everyone. And little touches, like bringing snacks to rehearsals, can go a long way.
Furthermore, people work better when they feel that they’re a valued member of a team, with their own degree of artistic ownership over the project. Let people help. Listen to their advice. It’s beneficial for everyone involved.
9. Be prepared for things to go wrong
No matter how well you prepare, something will go wrong. A performer will pull out a day before the first rehearsal. Your venue will suddenly inform you they’ve double booked your show, and you’ll need to find a new space in two weeks. One of your funding sources will fall through. It may seem stressful at the time, but almost everything can be worked out with a clear head, creativity, and a bit of help from your friends. Take it as a challenge. We’ve had some of the most weirdly unexpected pitfalls leading up to shows, and I’ve weathered a number of sleepless nights because of them. But in four years, we’ve always worked everything out in the end, and sometimes what initially seems like a disaster can end up producing an even better end result.
10. Take a chance!
This should probably be the first step on this list, but almost all these steps could come in any order, and sometimes end up needing to happen all at once. My point is, it’s actually a lot easier and a hell of a lot more rewarding than you’d expect—you just need to take that first step. Start turning your ideas into action, and you’d be surprised at how many things just sort themselves out. Just always keep your goal in mind, and what made you passionate enough to start working towards it. If you take any advice from all this, just give yourself a bit more time to do it all in!