[Editors Note: This is a guest blog written by David McMillin, singer, songwriter and frontman of Fort Frances (check out their latest release, “Alio“). He holds several songwriting awards and has helped to soundtrack shows on PBS, NBC and The CW.]
Every band wants to experience the glory of the road—seeing new towns, meeting new people and feeling the thrill of a new stage night after night. In most cases, though, the first steps toward success are only a few miles from the front door. Before building a national or global profile, it’s important to create the buzz that turns you into one of the most talked-about bands in your town.
If you’re aiming to climb to the top of the scene in your market, here are five tips to make your local shows feel like major events.
1. Book Small
Every band should aspire to play the legendary clubs in their respective towns, but it’s important to balance ambition with reality. Selling tickets is super challenging. My band worked our way toward selling out our favorite 200-capacity club in Chicago, and we decided to make the leap to the 500-capacity room we all loved. We weren’t ready. We sold 260 tickets. We made less money—due to much higher production costs—than the smaller room, and the half-full show felt like a bit of a disappointment. After that mishap, we played our next release show in a sold-out 300-cap room.
The lesson: when you’re at home, you don’t want open seats. You want a line waiting outside the door to get in.
2. Think Big
You may be booking a small room, but you should strive to make your show feel massive. In fact, don’t think of it as a show. Consider it an experience. Don’t just go play your songs. Bring them to life in a bigger way than you might be able to at the other end of the country. Since you’re in your hometown, your overhead expenses are much lower. You’re not paying for gas or a hotel. Invest that money in something that will make the evening more special for everyone in attendance. When we’re touring outside of Chicago, we’re a four-piece, but our hometown shows are a six-piece that includes a horn section. It’s become one of the favorite pieces of the night for our fans.
Think about what can take your show to the next level. Can you hire someone who really knows your songs—the hits in the chorus, the tempos, the out-of-time sections, etc.—to run lights? Have you always wanted to have a string quartet on your acoustic songs? Is there a special guest you can bring out to appear in a verse?
Whatever that piece of extra magic is, your hometown show is the place to make it happen.
3. Get Personal
As you’re putting in extra care for how the evening will sound and feel, there’s another area that needs your focus: marketing. In your hometown, promotion shouldn’t simply rely on mass communication. Your social media presence is a critical piece of building your community, but you need to use a more intimate approach to connect with your friends, family and neighbors. Set time aside to send individual emails to everyone you know.
Make them feel special with a personal note about the new record you’ve been working on and why you want them to come to the show.
4. Act Confident
You may be playing a show for an audience that includes 30 of your closest friends, your cousins and your roommates, but when you take the stage, remember that you are in a coveted place: on the stage. So let yourself go. Embrace the spotlight. Dance. Sweat. Shred. Do whatever verb is best done to your music.
Because when your friends wake up the next morning, you don’t want them to say, “I went to see my friend’s band play last night.” You want them to tell their friends, “Holy shit. I saw the next [Bob Dylan/Beyoncé/The Beatles/whatever Hall of Fame-level comparison that makes sense for your act] play last night. You have to check them out.”
5. Be Scarce
Once you start finding success in your hometown, it can be tempting to accept every offer that comes your way. It’s good to get on-stage as often as possible, right? Wrong. You need to create some demand around your shows. If you’re playing in town every other week, it becomes easy for your fans to say, “I’ll just catch the next show.” Give some healthy distance between your dates, and each time you play, do something different.
Debut new songs. Learn unexpected covers. Crowd surf your way to the stage to start the night.
Make people cry or scream or pump their fists to your songs. Be unforgettable, and they’ll always come back for more.