With the music industry suffering from dwindling album sales, the number of touring acts has naturally increased. This has led to much competition among promoters who must contend with corporate giants, like the now infamous Live Nation, who are slowly swallowing up smaller grassroots organizations. In an attempt to get a better understanding of the growing field of show promoting, I sat down with two of Montreal’s biggest promoters – Meyer Billurcu, co-founder of local promoting company Blues Skies Turn Black, and Daniel Seligman, co-founder of the POP Montreal festival – to get an insider’s view of the impresario world. These tips and tricks will help you to navigate the tricky world of promotions, from relishing in the joy of selling out your first show, to contending with the harsh realities of not selling at all.
1. Be Lucky
All promoters have their niche market. Every promoting company tends to cater to a certain genre, from mainstream pop to the most eclectic indie. But actually breaking into the field is probably the most difficult part. Even though many people may like the idea of hosting gigs, the history of promoting is riddled with examples of people who have tried to start a promoting company and failed.
As with many music industry jobs, both Billurcu and Seligman got into promotions by a happy accident. After finishing university, Seligman began to help out with his brother’s then-unknown band, Stars. While on a train, he happened to sit next to Peter Rowan, the creator of Halifax Pop Explosion festival. Because he was, as he put it, “a little naive and didn’t have anything to lose,” Seligman propositioned Rowan into co-founding what has become a hugely successful local festival, POP Montreal.
Billurcu started out as a DJ on Concordia’s campus radio station, CJLO. He and BSTB’s co-creator Brian Neuman decided they wanted to have bands play live sets on their show. Unfortunately, “it was really difficult because we realized that Montreal wasn’t on many bands’ touring circuit,” he explained. Inspired, the duo decided to start a label while doing promotions on the side “as a good way to meet bands.” But demand grew to the point where BSTB, as a promoting company “sort of overtook everything.”
2. Make Friends with Agents
The fact is that, as a promoter, you hardly ever deal with the band directly. For most acts, it’s simpler to hire a booking agent that takes care of all the boring touring details. So the best way to get gigs is to get to know agents. As Billurcu explained, “Most of our business is through booking agents [and] it’s usually them coming to us.”
The process is simple: to begin, a booker will have a roster of artists who are looking to tour North America. This will lead the booker to email a promoter with a specific time frame as to when the band will be in town. Then it’s up to the promoter to decide if they want to take the offer or not. This involves weighing a variety of factors, from record sales to overall popularity. They will also need to consider if the band is newly formed and has received little to no press, or if they are an international act guaranteed to have a fan base in the city. As Billurcu underlined, “There’s nothing worse than paying a band a lot of money, only to realize that there was no push for the band.” If the promoter decides to host the gig, a tedious back-and-forth exchange over contracts and money agreements will begin – not to mention the organization involved in finding a venue, determining ticket prices and getting the word out.
3. It’s good to know the bands
Knowing booking agents is important, but sometimes knowing the band means that they’ll want to work with you the next time they’re in town. This can also be useful if you need to put on a show on a specific date.
In Seligman’s case, the fact that he runs a festival means he can’t be as accommodating as most regular promoters. Apart from a few gigs that he promotes throughout the year, POP Montreal’s four to five-day run means that he needs to find bands that can be in Montreal at that time. Thankfully, a big part of the festival’s ethos is to help out local bands. This means that a lot of the performers will get in contact with him. “We have about a thousand bands that apply to the festival, so we get to find out a lot about emerging bands,” Seligman explained. “We also try to keep our ear to the ground to find cool new bands.” Not to say that he won’t also be contacted by agents themselves, though he adds that “Being a festival, you’re going after artists a lot of the time – so the power dynamic between the promoter and the agent automatically shifts in favour of the artist.” So finagling an arrangement can be a big part of being a promoter.
4. Don’t expect to get rich
Promoting is all about taking risks and hoping they pay off. When somebody is just beginning, chances are they won’t make any money. “When we started [â€¦] we would usually give 100 per cent of our earnings to the band,” said Billurcu. But as your company develops its reputation, it becomes important to calculate the risk factors for every show. This means picking the right venue and taking time to promote the band properly. This can be hard to judge at times, and Billurcu knows many stories that do not end well.
“I remember when [â€¦] we did our first show that lost a few hundred dollars, it was really hard because I actually had to go to an ATM machine and take money out of my bank account,” he recounted. “Funnily enough, this band was The Walkman, who aren’t doing too bad for themselves now,” he added with a laugh.
And organizing a festival doesn’t make things any easier. In the end, it all comes down to reputation and finding a way to get money, because as Seligman said, “If you have more money, then you’re more likely to get an artist.” In the case of POP Montreal, grants and donations help fund the festival, as well as sponsors who can cut costs in exchange for a display of their logo and a big thank-you.
5. Don’t become a promoter
Either these two were in cahoots or they really meant it, but both answered the question, ‘What would you tell somebody who wants to get into promotions?,’ with a self-deprecating but resounding “Don’t.” But there must be something about the business that keeps them going. “I mean, do it if you love it, but there are a lot of other ways to make money,” explained Seligman. “There aren’t really any tricks. Just hard work and perseverance.”
This was echoed by Billurcu when he described promoting as “a risky business [where] everything depends on timing.”
Being a promoter basically comes down to loving music. As Billurcu explained, you need to be ready to say â€“ as he once did â€“ “Wow, I may have just paid $1,000 to see that band!”
But if your heart is in it and you can stand the stress, then promoting can be a rewarding career. As with everything, getting started is the hardest part. So it all comes down to dedication and a belief in yourself. For example, Seligman described how, when the Osheaga festival first started, he had “Made bright pink silkscreen posters that said ‘Our festival is better’ and posted them all over the Osheaga site. [â€¦] For me, it was important to stand up for yourself.”
So whether or not promoting is for you, next time you go to a show, make sure to shake hands with whoever is standing by the door. You don’t know how much they may have riding on this concert, and a shows of solidarity from music lovers may just make that $1,000 show a little more worthwhile.
Check out upcoming Blues Skies Turn Black shows at blueskiesturnblack.com and POP Montreal show at popmontreal.com