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Hickey works with Badlander co-owner Chris Henry to determine how to fill each night at the Badlander and the Palace. They have a list of tips for catching their attention. At the top is promising to fill the bar, and promote your show. That means making posters to hang around town and distributing handbills; in the age of hollow Facebook invites and tweets, the old-school approach is all the more important, they think.
"People try to make Facebook and social media this proxy," Henry says. "But it's really ephemeral, it's very superficial. That simple act of having that flyer and being like, 'Hey, will you come to my show tonight?' means so much more than some random fucking Facebook invite."
Josh Vanek, the founder of Wantage Records and TotalFest, says that from the booking angle, Facebook is just a new tool, not the be-all, end-all of publicity. "Why do people do things? Because they get asked. Facebook isn't really asking."
Flexibility is a huge advantage, too. Greta Garr, a co-owner and booking agent for the Top Hat, says the odds of an up-and-coming band landing a bustling weekend gig are slim. The bar tries its best to showcase local talent, she says, and acts such as The Dodgy Mountain Men and Reverend Slanky have built solid followings among the Top Hat's patrons. Taking an 8 p.m. spot ahead of several other bands might not sound like the limelight, but Garr says the willingness to start small leaves a good impression on the bar and opens the door for networking in the music scene.
"You just have to put yourself out there," Garr says. "Play the opening set, try to shake people's hands, saying, 'Hey, I'm a new musician' or 'We're in a new band and we'd love to play with you guys some time.'"
"Huge senses of entitlement" are a major turnoff for venues, Garr continues. The Top Hat works out its deals with each band differently. "If a band thinks they're worth a lot more than they bring in to the bar, we probably won't do that again."
More than anything, though, accepting rejection and understanding the bottom line are biggies when playing the bars, according to the Badlander's Hickey and Henry.
They field a lot of requests from bands and musicians that are trying to get their feet in the door downtown. Hickey says he's famous for writing short emails like "Sorry, no." Aspiring bands should keep in mind that bookings "revolve around drink sales," he says.
"You can be the best band in the world, but we're not running a nonprofit. We'll spend a ton of time trying to cultivate you, but if nobody cares, what can we do?...No one likes your band, we can't book you.
"It's not like we're assholes. There's bills to pay. If no one shows up and we lose money, there's not going to be a bar at some point."
Catmull reconciled himself to that bottom line years ago. That's why the incessant chatter at the Red Bird during his set doesn't seem to faze him. He keeps playing whether or not the room is attentive.
"Tyler Roady from Cash for Junkers and I have this joke that we represent beer, cold beer," he says. "We are beer salesman."
Please, no ganja
Back at Sean Kelly's, a young guy named Will is shredding on a vibrantly painted acoustic guitar. Mike Avery is grinning, playing with dials and strolling to the back of the room to check the sound. Will is one of the regulars here these days, and Avery totally digs his style, a mash-up of reggae and rock. Avery says Will's playing the open mic at the University of Montana, too, an event Avery threw together a few years back.
Avery's been pushing for a bigger stage here for years. If Sean Kelly's had one, the bar might be known for more than its open mic and the odd folk band. They might be a venue for open mic performers to play on weekends. In fact, he's talking to Will about putting together just such a show.
"It's important to advertise," Avery says, thinking back on what he's told aspiring musicians in the past. "It's important for them to get on Facebook or whatever, hit up their friends that they're playing someplace. Go to the U and hang up posters. Hit KBGA and the Trail, they're good at advertising stuff. Get the word out. The more people hear your name, the more it generates curiosity."
Avery didn't have an open slot tonight when I showed up, but somebody canceled, so he squeezes me into the lineup for a quick three-song set. I play a couple of originals and an Old Crow Medicine Show cover. The crowd cheers a few times. I'm no David Grisman, I know; but it's still nice to have written something that people appreciate.
"It's always good to put your art out there for other people," Josh Vanek says. "But don't worry about doing it on somebody else's terms or having it validated by whatever bar has a lot of people on a Friday."
Playing for yourself, passing out handbills, starting small and paying your dues—that all sounds like great advice. But the question of how to get a gig is met all over town with a caveat: It's rough. There are no promises.
Booking gigs is "a real balance, a real politics game, because sometimes you don't know who you're dealing with," says Catmull. "You don't know whether they're just not calling you back because they're somebody who does a lot of mushrooms in the afternoon or if they're somebody who's like, 'I'm not going to call this guy back because I'm not that into him.'"
Catmull again emphasizes that getting the gig is half the battle and that retaining it is just as important—which raises another important consideration: What would it take to get booted?
Greta Garr recalls a Sublime cover band the Top Hat hosted once. The band had large bongs on stage. They were smoking weed and trash-talking the establishment. After a while, the bar had had enough.
"We don't ask for much," Garr says. "But blatant disrespect? That's not what we need our patrons to be hearing and seeing. It's a representation of the place as a whole.
"We don't want people smoking ganja on stage."
The good old days
"It's not like it was at Jay's, man."
John Fleming sorts through a stack of LPs at the front counter of his Higgins Avenue record shop, Ear Candy. Fleming's been in "about eight" local bands over the years, he explains. For a vet such as him, no discussion about the local music scene is complete without a nod to Jay's Upstairs, formerly of West Front Street—especially when it comes to the subject of getting a gig.