Concert planning and logistics: at booking

I like to have lots of lead time for planning concerts, and checklists help ensure nothing is missed. It can be challenging to juggle multiple engagements at different stages: concerts under discussion, concerts happening this week, and concerts coming up that need publicity.

I’ve found the easiest way to keep track of everything is to have a manila folder for each venue to hold notes of all discussions and what I’ve sent. The tab of each folder has the venue name, and concert date and time. The folder contains a big index card with:

• Venue name
• Address (and mailing address, if different)
• Contact name/phone number/email
• Whether they have an ASCAP license
• Dates of prior performances
• Who I performed with
• Name of the room where I performed
• How much the venue paid

I keep a copy of all the concert programs I’ve played at that venue, to avoid repeating material, as well as hand-written notes, posters, a map, directions, etc. Folders for venues with upcoming concerts sit on my desk in a vertical file, and folders for completed venues get filed until the next time I’m looking for venues. I also note due dates in my calendar. It helps to use email for correspondence, because it can be searched, even several years later.

When booking an engagement, I like to cover certain key points in the first conversation. When talking to a retirement home (and sometimes other venues), I assume that first conversation is the last time I’ll actually get to speak to my contact on the phone, and the rest of the arrangements may happen over email and voicemail. Activity directors at retirement homes aren’t paid to sit in an office and talk to musicians. They spend their time taking residents on outings, teaching classes, and helping entertainers who are onsite that day. Church music directors can also be hard to reach: they’re conducting choir rehearsal, practicing the organ, or leading worship. It’s a delicate balance to get the information needed to plan, and keep in touch to make sure plans are on track at the venue, without hounding your contact. Sometimes it helps to have an inside contact, like a resident who’s a friend of yours, or a handbell musician who invited you.

When cold-calling a venue, try to get a contact name from someone who’s performed there, or a resident or parishioner, and say that they referred you. If you don’t have a name, ask for the activity director at a retirement home, the music director at a church, or the public events coordinator at a venue like a museum. I always check that a) I’ve called at a good time for them and b) they’re interested in having me perform there. Come up with a 15 second explanation of what you do and why they might like to book you. If they don’t know you, they may ask to see a brochure or website. If you’ve performed there before, have the date handy. They’re more likely to book you if at least a year has passed, and they remember you fondly.

The lead time for engagements varies tremendously. A church or secular concert series may book you more than a year in advance, so they can issue publicity for the entire season. A retirement home may consider you on 30-45 days notice, if they have an opening they’re trying to fill (but don’t count on it). Most of my engagements are arranged 2 to 6 months in advance, but I have been contacted about events a year ahead of time. Book Christmas concerts the prior December, to get prime dates.

Here’s what I like to discuss at time of booking. There’s a lot of information listed here, but it can be covered in 10 minutes, if you’re prepared.

Date and time of performance – Some venues have a specific day they host concerts, like the third Wednesday of the month at 2 pm. I know the parameters of my accompanist’s availability, and will either accept the date offered, or explain that my accompanist is a piano teacher with regular teaching commitments, and ask if they have any flexibility. If they can’t accept a different date, I may offer to give my handbell lecture, which I can do on my own. Sometimes the calendar is wide open, so I’m prepared to suggest a couple of dates that would work for us. I always ask that the date be tentative until I can confirm with my accompanist, though I’ve usually checked with her before calling to get a rough idea of any scheduling conflicts, especially at Christmas.

I like to spread my performances out over time, at least a week apart if possible. However, during busy times like December, it’s more efficient to schedule two performances on consecutive days. Then I can leave all the equipment in the car overnight, locked in the garage. I don’t need to practice, because I just performed the day before. I try to avoid scheduling concerts 2 or 3 days apart, which means I have to bring all the bells upstairs to practice, then pack up and load the car again.

It’s difficult for me to perform very early in the morning because of transport and setup time. If that’s necessary, as for a church service, I arrange to set up and dress my tables the day before, and leave them there. I’ll talk more about this below.

Load-in and set-up space and time requirements, plus the instruments needed – I ask for a level space 12 feet across by 5 feet deep, with good sightlines to a recently-tuned piano. If I haven’t seen the venue before, I look for a photo online and arrange a visit if possible, taking a measuring tape with me. Often it’s worth snapping pictures of the performing space to show your performing partner(s). I check the load-in situation, parking, lighting, acoustics, instruments, dressing arrangements, etc. I’ve been offered venues without a piano, which is doable, but requires a complete reworking of my plans to perform with a harpist or organist instead.

At this point, the contact will most likely ask about your fee (if it hasn’t already been discussed – sometimes it’s the first question they ask). There’s more information about payment below. If they don’t have sufficient space, an available date, a piano, and the budget to pay whatever you must have, that’s the end of the conversation. You might ask them to keep you in mind if anything changes, like if someone else cancels.

Ask to have the performance space reserved for the specific time needed for your setup, warm-up, performance, and teardown. I neglected to do this once and found that the hosting church had a tenant Korean congregation whose afternoon worship service fell right in the middle of my setup and warm-up time. We worked it out, but it was stressful. The first time I perform at a venue, they never believe I really need to arrive 2-3 hours before and stay an hour after the concert. Once they see me unload half the contents of my living room from the Bellmobile, they understand.

My lead time incorporates the knowledge that I may arrive to find the receptionist is busy, or someone has parked in the space reserved for my unloading, or my contact is at lunch, or it may be raining and take longer to unload and dry everything off, etc. Often I can unload my car in a convenient place but can’t leave it there throughout the concert. I need time to move it after unloading, and before reloading. My accompanist is punctual, but traffic or parking problems could cause delays. I’ve never felt like I had too much time to set up for a concert, but I have run short of time. I want enough time in hand that I can wait 5-10 minutes for someone, or get lost on the way to the venue, without feeling stressed.

Program length and restrictions on music – Most of my concerts are one hour. I sometimes participate in longer concerts with other musicians, and I need to know the time allocated for my portion so I can plan. If I’m doing it in a single segment, I consider transitions between pieces, possibly with a short piano piece to cover my setup. One time, I learned late in the planning process that the venue didn’t allow Christmas carols at a holiday concert. Very few handbell soloists have such an extensive repertoire, or can learn new music so fast, that they can exclude Christmas carols from a December concert on short notice! Another concert venue doesn’t permit overtly secular music. That’s easier to work around, but still important to know up front. Sometimes a venue will ask for something special, like honoring mothers at a Mother’s Day concert or singing Happy birthday to residents at a retirement home, when my concert is part of their monthly birthday celebration. All of this is easily managed with sufficient notice. If they request specific music, we’ll offer to do it on the piano, explaining that the arrangements available for solo handbells are very limited, and copyright considerations may prevent me from arranging it myself.

Publicity arrangements – I’ll write more in-depth about publicity another time. The key thing to cover up front is who is responsible for it, what they need from me, and when they need it. At a retirement home, where I’m performing for residents for a flat fee, they generally want a blurb and a photo about a month in advance to put in their newsletter and on a poster. I’ve learned to provide the poster myself, because otherwise I’m advertised as a handbell choir, but more people attend when they see my picture and recognize me from prior visits. Having a high-resolution photo on your website means you can just send a link. Some soloists also put a master program and/or poster on their website.

A public concert requires much more effort, including getting the information into print media and online. Monthly publications require 3 months lead time, handbell guild Area publications often publish only once a month, and nearly all newspapers require the information at least 2 weeks in advance. If the concert is at a church, there’s additional publicity needed for the Sunday bulletins of that church and neighboring churches. I also ask the venue to put my public concert on their online calendar and website. Otherwise, someone hearing about the concert may go to the venue website, not find it listed, and assume they got the information wrong, or think the concert is cancelled. You wouldn’t think you’d have to ask the venue to do this, but churches, in particular, seldom do it without prompting.

I try to get an idea of how many people they expect to attend. If it’s more than 250, it may be hard to hear the bells without amplification, which I’ll discuss another time. If it’s fewer than 25-30, I suggest they send a bus to one of my public concerts instead, or I offer my handbell lecture. A performance is an all-day commitment for me, and I can do only a limited number of concerts each year. It’s just not worthwhile to end up with more bells on the table than people in the audience. Two exceptions: a prestigious venue I want on my resume, or an opportunity to preview a program at an ideal point in the preparation cycle.

Payment – I’ll talk about the finances of a handbell soloist another time. You’ll want to discuss up front what the venue is willing to pay for the performance. Sometimes they tell you what they can offer, other times they ask you what you charge. Retirement homes usually have a set amount budgeted per musician, with a limit of paying two musicians per concert. Paid performance slots are surprisingly competitive at retirement homes, and it can be hard to get into some of them without a resident asking that they schedule you, or offering to play for free. I tell them that I’m willing to work within their budget, but that I try to get $X for a performance. I keep track of what they paid in the past, and I might say something like, “We so enjoyed performing for you in {month and year}, and were paid an honorarium of $X. Does that still work for your budget?”

You can get more at a secular venue, and also at Christmas, when anyone engaging musicians tends to have more budget, and you have more opportunities to choose from. For a church concert, you may either be paid from the concert series budget (if there is one), or they may take donations and give you all or part of the proceeds. Depending on whether the church has an established series with a reliable audience base, and how much publicity work others are willing to do, you may be better off negotiating to pay the church a flat fee for the venue and staff support, instead of sharing a percentage of the proceeds. Conversely, you can agree to accept a certain portion of the receipts, but ask for a guaranteed minimum.

Venues often require a W-9 form (confirmation of Social Security number) before making payment, even when the amount falls below what they have to report to the IRS. That’s because it’s easier for an accounting department to ask for the information up front, before they pay you, than to track you down if it must be reported later. The venue may send you a blank form, but I have it set up on my computer already filled in (after downloading it from the IRS website). I confirm the venue mailing address and name of the recipient, have my accompanist sign the W-9 next time I see her, and mail it to the venue. I attach a note that it’s for the “solo handbell performance on {date}.” If both you and your accompanist are being paid, the venue needs a W-9 for each of you.

Sometimes a venue requires an invoice. If you’ve never created an invoice for professional services, Google it and pick a format you like. You can type it on your computer in Word with today’s date, the name and address you want on the check, the name of the person who engaged you, the date of the performance, and the amount. Create an invoice number from the date, because some accounting systems require a unique invoice number for every document. Include a phone number in case the person processing it has questions. Find out if you can send the invoice in advance, even if they don’t pay until after the performance. I once sent an invoice ahead of time, expecting Accounting to hold it until after the performance (which is common practice), but it was rejected because it was dated before the performance, and I had to send another one. Send an original print-out, because they may not accept a photocopy. Sometimes you can email a PDF to your contact, who will take care of it.

It’s very common to be paid at time of performance, and you should request that if you have the option. (I word it on the invoice or confirmation email as “payment at the time of performance is appreciated.”) You don’t want to have to hound someone for a check afterwards, and your contact will probably want to check it off her own list. I’ve found that the best way to get paid promptly is to ask about a week before the performance, “Does Accounting need anything from me to prepare a check for [accompanist’s name]’s honorarium?” If they’ve already requested the check, they’ll tell you, and you can thank them profusely. If they haven’t, now they’ve been reminded.

If you have a recording like a CD or DVD, you would want to ask whether you can sell it, and whether the venue expects a share of the proceeds.

Costs – When you discuss payment, negotiate which costs each party will cover. Depending on the venue, I might ask that they provide free (and sometimes reserved) parking for me and my accompanist, cover ASCAP royalties, print the programs, print posters, and provide refreshments, or they might offer one or more of these things. At a church or retirement home, they typically don’t cover the royalties, and it’s a very small expense for me to do it under my own license. A performance hall, museum, library, or city hall probably has a blanket license, and it doesn’t cost them anything to cover my concert. A tricky situation is a church concert where I’m one of many performers, possibly performing at a benefit. The church usually won’t pay the royalties, and I don’t want to be responsible for all the other performers’ material (which may or may not be legally arranged and performed) and pay a percent of the entire proceeds. The best way around that is not to use copyrighted material belonging to others, but to choose material my accompanist and I have arranged. Sometimes the performance venue will provide a meal for performers, which I always appreciate, even if I don’t have time to take advantage of it.

Retirement homes will generally photocopy the programs in-house, and appreciate having them limited to a single sheet, two-sided, with a reasonably large font for the benefit of older eyes. (For other concerts, who prints the programs, who pays for it, and how long it can be, are all negotiable.) I send the program as a PDF a couple of days before the concert and bring the master with me, in case it wasn’t received. My contacts appreciate not having to make copies at the last minute, but there’s time to do so, if necessary, while I set up. The PDF retains the document format, avoiding problems of software compatibility.

Posters are expensive, and in my experience, not as cost-effective as other methods of advertising. Someone has to design them, print them, and go around posting them. I generally avoid posters unless the venue is paying for them and distributing them. For a retirement home, I design a poster and email it as a PDF, so they can print and post as many as they want. It’s worth asking if they prefer 8 1/2” by 11” or half size, and confirming that color printing is OK.

Refreshments or a meal are a great incentive to come to your concert. Retirement homes have their own plan for this, and I just leave it up to them. A church will often consider your concert a festive occasion, and want to provide food. For an established concert series, they’ll have a routine, and you can just let them follow it. If they don’t offer, you can gently suggest it as a way of making it more special for the congregation. I suppose the performers could provide refreshments, but I’ve never done that. I have enough to transport without providing food, beverages, cups, and napkins, and figuring out how to chill the beverages and how to serve the food while putting away my bells and talking to the audience.

Contracts – I mostly work on a handshake and email agreements, and I’ve had to sign venue contracts only twice. If you find yourself doing it a lot, it might be better to draft your own contract and ask to use your version, instead of theirs. You can find sample contracts on legal websites and in books. You can go to other musicians’ websites and look at their contracts for ideas, or contact them and ask if they mind sharing a copy with you. Ask permission before using another musician’s contract in its entirety. In addition to some of the issues I’m raising in this article, you may want to discuss liability insurance in your contract, or the venue contract may require you to show proof of insurance.

If there’s no contract, it’s a good idea to follow up with an email summarizing the agreement. The venue may do this routinely, or you could offer.

Technical support, recording, and photography – Most venues have some kind of sound system. You may want the bells amplified by microphones on floor stands, overhead, or with a lavaliere microphone. The initial phone call (or a site visit) is a good time to talk about their expectation and your needs. If they haven’t heard me before, I explain I have many of the same issues as a harpist: a large quiet instrument that benefits from an intimate setting where the audience can see and hear me. If you’re bringing your own microphone system, check that it will work with the venue’s sound system. Generally, I don’t have the bells amplified, but I ask for a microphone on a floor stand to make announcements. Audiences, especially older people with hearing loss, appreciate this. I’m more willing to use microphones on the bells if there’s a staff person trained to run the sound system, not a casual volunteer.

Ask whether your music will be recorded, how the recording will be used, and whether you can have a copy. It’s very common for churches to audio-record (and sometimes videotape) their worship services. If you don’t have your own recording equipment, these recordings are a valuable source of feedback, and the venue will often offer you one free copy. If you do plan to bring your own recording equipment, ask for permission to use it, and about any restrictions. Also talk about still photography. I always ask that there be no photography without my permission. My main concern is that no one use flash until the concert is over, because it temporarily blinds me so I can’t read the bell handles. At one concert, my accompanist announced this as audience members clicked and flashed away as I stood at the bell table. I couldn’t look up to give them the picture they wanted, because I was trying to preserve my vision for the first piece.

I try not to have anyone besides the venue or my husband record me. Too many unauthorized videos show up on YouTube, and many of them are inconsistent with the image I want to convey. I’ve seen video online of another (well-known) soloist who clearly didn’t authorize it, because whoever posted it called her “this lady who rings all these bells.” The only way to prevent this is not to allow recording in the first place. This is admittedly hard to do at handbell events, where unauthorized recording is rampant. However, I always ask to have my request noted in the program, and/or announced.

If you do allow photos and/or recording, take the trouble to track down a copy. It’s a good way to get publicity photos and video of you in action at multiple venues, much more interesting than using only posed shots. Send an email thanking the person who gave it to you, and ask if you can use it on your website and for general publicity. When they respond (they’re usually flattered), you’ll have a written record of their permission. Even if you don’t have a website yet, start gathering this material, because you’ll need it eventually.

I’ve worked with a lighting technician only once. I plan to write an article about that, because a handbell soloist with technical qualifications gave me excellent advice, and I hope to share it, with her permission. If you do work with a lighting technician, know that the lighting tech needs you to figure out and document in writing what you want, and send it in advance. The sound tech can mostly respond to your requests on the day itself, if you’ve requested the microphones ahead of time.

Equipment I’d like to borrow – If visiting a church with a resident bell choir, I may ask to use their adjustable height tables, if they own them. Whenever using someone else’s tables, ask that they check the dimensions with a measuring tape. Often people will guess that their 4 foot tables are 6 feet long, or that they have a certain number available in the building, or that they’re wide enough, or all the same height. If you’re using the venue’s tables, specify rectangular. There’s a story floating around about the soloist who arrived to find the 8 foot banquet table she requested, except it was a round 8 foot banquet table. Check that your table covers will fit whatever tables and foam you’re borrowing.

If you plan to use the venue’s foam, specify “handbell” foam, and again ask them to measure it. I’ve heard of a church providing a pew cushion, complete with buttons, as foam for a handbell soloist. Even handbell people don’t always realize that the width and height of the foam matters. If you plan to play a bell tree piece, you may ask to borrow a set of bells and/or a bell tree stand. You need the same brand of bells you practice on, so the spacing will be identical and your clips will fit. Even when using the same brand, the handle stiffness varies with the age of the set, so you may need to take extra steps to prevent the trees from swinging. If you need larger bells than you own or can carry, you may want to borrow those as well. Some bell groups are extremely generous about lending equipment, others not so much. Some groups might gladly lend something (such as for a bell event), but they need it themselves. Don’t assume anything – ask.

Accompaniment – I’m lucky to have a regular accompanist. (I‘ll write another time about this gem, how I found her, and how we work together.) If she’s going to accompany me, all I have to do is clear the date with her, plan the program, and work the preparation into our regular rehearsals. I wrote about this in Concert prep cycle – music. Toward the end of our preparation, she’ll put the music in her binder in concert order, and I’ll provide written notes about the call time and location, sometimes with a map or directions. This is especially important when we have multiple concerts in a month; it would be easy to mix up the Christmas concerts. Sometimes I get invited to perform with another accompanist. In that case, I’ll ask about her availability to rehearse, and arrange to get the sheet music to her in plenty of time. Usually it’s the accompanist on staff at a church, so the venue will pay her directly. I do need to check how much rehearsal time is expected, as well as her skill level, and plan music we can prepare together in one or two rehearsals. (I‘ll have already learned and performed the music with my own accompanist.)

If rehearsing at the venue ahead of time, I like to arrange to leave my tables there (set up if they won’t interfere with another activity) between the rehearsal and the performance. It’s that much less work to do on the day of the performance, and I have other tables, foam, and covers at home. This is worth thinking about when setting a date. For example, when offering music in worship at a church, I try to schedule on a weekend without a wedding (or concert, for that matter). I’ll come on a Friday or Saturday to rehearse, then leave my tables set up and dressed, if I have permission. If there’s a secure place to lock up my bells in their cases, sometimes I’ll even leave them there, on the cart. If I need to practice again at home, I can take apart my bell trees and use those bells.

You may have noticed I didn’t talk much about the secular venues like museums and libraries where I perform. I do that mostly under the auspices of a performing group I belong to, which has established procedures for requesting performance dates and handling publicity and programs.

To summarize my checklist for the initial booking:

• Date and time of performance
• Load-in and set-up space and time requirements, plus the instruments needed
• Program length and restrictions on music
• Publicity arrangements
• Payment (including W-9, if required)
• Costs (parking, ASCAP royalties, programs, posters, refreshments)
• Contract
• Technical support, recording, and photography
• Equipment I’d like to borrow
• Accompaniment

Copyright © 2012 Nancy Kirkner,