5 Tips to Make Your Local Shows More Successful

[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

Tom Windish, founder of the Windish Agency, offered some expert advice in a Los Angeles Times interview last year. “The right place to play is the place that sells out,” Windish said.

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.

Fort Frances TuneCore Blog
Fort Frances playing a local gig in Chicago

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

One of my favorite books that I regularly consult on my coffee table is The Musician Says, and it includes some wise advice from Marilyn Manson: “If you act like a rock star, you will be treated like one.”

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.

  • Eric Vera

    Really cool article. I want to tour in my hometown, there are more than 40 venues that I’m interested in playing at. Bars, stores, public spaces, clinics, libraries, theaters (not the big ones) I want to play live like you said, give every night something different, and keep a “healthy distance” between my dates. But one day somebody asked me this, “give me some details to the tour you want to make”, What does that mean? Are there types of tours? Also, I’ve seen that at some venues, they charge you for using guitar amplifiers, from 10 to 20 to 35 bucks, depending on the area the venue is located, the extra 15 dollars are just in case something goes wrong, is that normal? I’ll appreciate any kind of help I can get for this question. Thanks for Reading.

  • Alan Buffington

    Sound is also an often overlooked issue. Every venue can have different settings on your PA and your guitar to get the best sound possible. Lots of glass is a reflective feedback issue and requires good EQ to avoid high treble. When the place is empty the settings you use may not work when the place is packed with warm bodies. If you are lucky there will be an FOH mixer to help balance out your sound. We carry extra slave amps to power additional speakers when performing outside. Spreading out the speakers helps fill the venue better. I often check out the site before hand if playing outside for any wind issues. You want your stage amps and speakers aimed with the wind and not against it. This helps the organizer of the event place the stage better. Acoustic guitars are a pain to play at a volume that fits with the band without getting feedback. Switch to an electric and use an Acoustic emulator pedal instead.