How to Book College Gigs – Case Study from Indie Musician Mike Sullivan
Musician Mike Sullivan makes his living touring the college circuit. The Los Angeles-based independent singer-songwriter knows exactly how to book college gigs, playing more than 250 over the past 10 years.
As a college music artist, some of the schools he has played include Hawaii Pacific University, Odessa College, Indiana University, Purdue University, Green Mountain College, Shenandoah University, Embry-Riddle University, Lipscomb University, Spokane Falls Community College and many more.
Mike Sullivan started doing college shows after a record deal fell through. He had never played a college before and didn’t know how to book college shows. “I was so naive. I didn’t even know that colleges paid bands,” he says, adding a Chicago Tribune newspaper article opened his eyes to the college market for music. “When I was in school I went to lots of great concerts and figured that the bands made their money off merch.”
Contrary to what many musicians think, college shows aren’t any less “cool” than traditional gigs. Not only are they a good source of revenue from the booking fee and merch sales, they’re also yet another way to get yourself out of the crowded and competitive gigging market while still getting in front of a very large and potentially relevant audience. Plus, huge artists like John Mayer, Dave Matthews, Sting and Prince all got their start traveling the college circuit.
How to Book College Gigs Step-by-Step
So now the big question: How to book college gigs? Let’s go through a few steps to get you on the road.
1. Use the NACA, APCA, and SGA
There are a few organizations that specifically deal with getting acts booked in schools. There’s not really a “college music booking directory” that you can crack open, send off some emails, and book some gigs. Most colleges prefer to go through trusted agencies – just for ease of use and protection of their students. You’ll have a much easier time getting started if you use these showcases, resources, and connections.
When Mike was first getting started, he got in touch with the National Association for Campus Activities (NACA) and the Association for Promotion of Campus Activities (APCA), two agencies that hold “showcases” around the country where college activities directors and students check out talent to book at their schools. To participate in the NACA showcase, you’ll need to be a NACA member, which costs a few hundred dollars per year. But on the plus side, that is a small fee compared to the income potential of college gigs and once you have the connections you need you can ditch the membership.
There are college booking agents that specialize in booking college gigs, and if you work with one they will more often than not cover your NACA fees and showcasing fees. Keep in mind though, you’ll have to give them a cut of every gig they book for you, so it ends up evening out in the end.
It may also be worth looking at is the Student Government Association. While the agencies showcase many different kinds of acts in addition to musicians, it’s still a good place to start to get the connections you need for schools across the country, not just your local area.
As with anything in music, if you want to get a showcase spot and book gigs, you need to have a professional EPK, active social accounts, and a professional look. After submitting a demo, Mike earned a 15 minute set at a national APCA showcase. He nailed that first appearance and got another 25 gigs right away.
2. Your Connections Are Everything
Just like in the gigging world, it’s possible to get college gigs on your own if you have the direct connections. So once you get some gigs from your NACA showcase and the APCA showcase, it’s really all about maintaining those connections.
You also want to keep in mind that students are usually in charge of booking music gigs for their college, so that means you need to make new connections every few years as they graduate. It will be a constant effort of managing your contacts.
At first, Mike Sullivan looked for a good agent to help him get more college gigs. “One college booking agent told me she had 30 or 40 colleges interested and would set up a tour but didn’t follow up,” he said. “Fortunately, schools started calling me directly and I booked the gigs myself. It was a huge lesson.”
Because most colleges seek out the act, if you take the initiative to make the first contact it can make a big impression. “I was fearless and would pick up the phone,” Mike says. “It opened a lot of doors that would have otherwise have remained closed. But today people think that they don’t need to talk with email and social media.”
3. Book Gigs in a Row
When an artist works with NACA or APCA, they can take advantage of their “block booking” system when booking or “routing” their college tours. This system allows individual schools to work together and get a discount when they book an artist around the same time — and it gives artists the chance to make good money.
“The more gigs you put together in a row, the less you charge and the more school saves. Everybody wins,” Mike says. “When it works it’s awesome. Getting three or five gigs in a row is when you can really make a fantastic profit.”
4. Don’t Just Focus on the Big Schools
Just like with traditional gigs, it’s easy to fall into the mindset of “bigger is better.” But, especially with colleges, that’s not always the case.
“You can make a great living playing colleges. You know every year my price has gone up,” Mike says. When he started out in 2005, he charged $1300 for a gig. Today, he gets $2500. But one of his biggest tips is to avoid overlooking the smaller schools, which is a little counter-intuitive to how we think about traditional gigs.
“Smaller schools sometimes pay more than big ones because it is harder for them to attract acts. A lot of community colleges feel neglected and they have budgets to spend,” Mike says.
5. Be Flexible
Flexibility is key when it comes to getting asked back to play at schools. “Colleges have good and bad budget years just like any other organization, so be open to being the act the school needs. If you usually bring a band but money is tight, offer to do a solo or duo performance instead. You’ll keep your connection to the school alive and generate lots of goodwill.”
Beyond just the price, the settings of college gigs can vary dramatically. Mike books 20 to 35 college gigs a year for audiences of 50 to 200 people. His sets run from one to two hours. He’s played intimate coffee house settings, in theaters and even in a hallway. “It can be all over the place — a regular concert or a huge party. One time there was a clown blowing up balloons right beside me while I played.” It’s all about being flexible.
6. Book Traditional Gigs Around College Gigs
College gigs aren’t something you need to dedicate 100% of your gigging efforts to. In fact, you can make even more of a profit if you book traditional gigs en-route to college gigs.
If you take advantage of the block booking method, you’ll have a mini tour route setup in a certain region. Instead of spending your off days just sitting around, get proactive and contact local clubs and venues to book a few gigs. After playing a few college gigs in the area you’ll have a local audience to draw on when you come through. If you don’t quite have the following to book a headliner show, try getting in touch with local bands and getting an opening slot.
Hopefully now you have a better idea of how to book college gigs as an indie musician. Whether you want to spend all your time gigging the college circuit or you just want to squeeze in a few college show in your tours as little revenue boosters, college gigs can be a big income driver.
Of course, the key to any successful strategy is PLANNING. Click here to download a free career planning guide so you can get more done faster. You can use this guide to plan our any aspect of your music career from gigging to recording and releasing original music. Use this guide as a workbook to organize yourself.
For more information on Mike Sullivan visit his website at mikesullivanmusic.com
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