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The EvO:R-Pedia Musicians Tips Section
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reference library for Indie musicians...Just about every tip has been used so you won't find false
promises and a series of books to buy after reading each tip. This section was put here by musicians
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How to get into the college market in 4 easy steps
By Derek Sivers
A Musician's Advice About the College Market
From 1995-1998 I made my full-time living playing at colleges. Got hired by over 350
schools for about $300,000 (gross, not net) on the East coast
(from Florida to Maine, as far west as Arkansas.)
I'll try to put into one article, here, every bit of advice or wisdom I could share with my fellow musicians,
from my experience. (Disclaimer: These are my opinions and observations from my unique experience only!
Others may disagree.)
WHO DOES THE HIRING AT COLLEGES:
One thing to get straight: don't confuse college radio with college gigs. The kids that run college radio
are the real music fans. The ones deeply into music for music's sake. But the ones with the big budgets
for entertainment and activities are called the "Student Activities Office".
These are usually made up of the girls in pink sweaters who won the election for Class Treasurer
in high school. (Think Reese Witherspoon in the movie "Election".) It's a very play-it-safe environment
because they want everyone (yes every last person) to be happy, so they can get re-elected.
This means that the Student Activities Office wants to hire the most fun, safe, lively, crowd-pleasing
entertainment possible. Whether it's a hypnotist, comedian, rubber sumo-wrestling suits, the guy that
brings the exotic lizards, a famous talk-show host, hot-wax hands, a magician, or musician - they just
When approaching them, you need to emphasize what a safe bet you are. Your marketing should be
filled with testimonial quotes like:
"One of the finest performances we've had here all year!" - the College of St.Angus.
"...the crowd couldn't stop laughing at his lyrics!" - the Thirsty Whale.
"A real joy to work with - we can't wait to have her back!" - Siberian Sunbathers' Convention.
Your bio should mention all the awards you've won, and what big-mainstream-media sources have also
recognized your talent.
IT'S NOT GLAMOROUS:
Ask anyone who's done over a dozen college gigs without a big track record. You often play at
lunchtime for a depressing cafeteria of stressed-out students who are trying to study, and scowl
at you for disturbing them. But at least you get paid afterwards. Some actual situations I've had:
* Their contract said they had an adequate P.A. system but it turned out to be a tiny microphone that plugs
into the wall for the principal to address all classrooms. (I did the gig anyway, and sang into it.)
* We drove 22 hours for a $4500 gig in Arkansas, but they forgot we were coming, so we played to 8 people
in a backyard in 40-degree weather. (Fingers numb.)
* In a big echoey gymnasium, having to set up next to the noisy cotton-candy machine, because that's the
only power outlet in the room.
IT'S NOT A PERFECTLY-SCHEDULED TOUR:
The idea of a real "tour", where you cross the country in a perfect line, rarely happens.
The way I was able to make a full-time living out of it was by saying yes to everything.
Ohio on April 8. Connecticut on April 9th. Michigan on April 10th. Maine on April 11th. No problem!
Play for 2 hours. Drive for 14. Play for 2. Drive for 16. Repeat and fade....
Another scenario: You live in New York. You mail your flyer to colleges from Florida to Maine, imagining
a nice long tour. Instead you only book two gigs: one from South Carolina, one from New Hampshire.
Because of this, doing the college circuit on the East Coast is a lot easier than doing the West Coast.
There are 500 colleges within an 8-hour drive of New York City.
BUT YOU'RE A ROAD-DOG, RIGHT?
You can perform in any situation, right?
Your guitarist quits the night before a gig, and you've got another guitarist to take her place, right?
You've got enough money to pay for your own transportation and hotel both ways, in case something goes wrong, right?
After driving 14 hours, you're clean, lively, and friendly, right?
When they change their mind at the last minute, and want you to perform at 11am instead of 11pm, you roll with it, right?
When the drunk frat boys heckle you, and run their "play some Skynrd!" joke into the ground, you keep your cool and do your best show possible anyway, right?
You know plenty of crowd-pleasing cover songs for emergencies, right?
You've played in the cold with numb fingers, sang full-voice at 9am, and can do three 2-hour shows
with no break in one day, right?
If not, prima donna, this is not for you.
THEY USUALLY BOOK LONG IN ADVANCE:
Rule of thumb: they book the Spring semester in the Fall, and the Fall semester in the Spring.
Exceptions: I always booked a lot of April shows in February, and December shows in October.
But these are usually the smaller "last-minute" shows.
Secret: June is a great month to contact the colleges. The staff-employee, the Director of Student
Activities, is there working for the summer when things are quiet. This is a good time for her to book
some "Welcome Week" entertainment for the end of August and beginning of September.
CONSIDER BEING FLEXIBLE IN YOUR SIZE:
I mainly got into the college market to promote my 5-piece funk band (Hit Me). But I figured since
I was going to spend all that money on membership fees and marketing, I might as well make some other
ways to book me, too. So I made:
* for $1000, the 5-piece funk band
* for $600, the acoustic two-person version (me & one other band member)
* for $450, me alone
* and as an afterthought, I made the Professional Pests, where I would run around campus in
a black fabric bag, bothering people. Price? $1500. See it here: http://www.agentbaby.com/artist/pests
(Of course the Professional Pests got as many bookings as my musical acts.)
Point being, I was able to work with any budget they had. Of course I wish they could always book my
$1000 full band. But if not, I could always sell them on the scaled-down version.
ABOUT NACA AND THEIR CONFERENCES:
There's an organization called the National Association of Campus Activities (NACA) that puts on conferences
where all the Student Activities buyers can get together to check out showcasing talent. Their website is
It's VERY hard to get a showcase spot there. You're up against the best-of-the-best that are spending
thousands on making a super-professional video submission. Artists on the Billboard charts, performers
with 20 years of college experience, comedians from Saturday Night Live, etc. Everyone puts together
a great 3-5 minute video of their live performance sampler. Quality matters. Edits matter. That's a whole
'nother subject, though. In short: your video needs to be amazing. Once a year (summer) you can submit
it for showcase consideration. Out of ~250 submissions, they pick ~20.
And it's expensive to get involved!! First you have to be a NACA member (~$300) then buy a booth
(~$200) then a registration (~$125) then a submission fee (~$50) and after all that the odds are
19 out of 20 that you'll be rejected. But if you get accepted, a showcase-acceptance fee (~$150),
then the cost of going and playing (~$500). Now I'm not complaining. I don't think NACA is getting
rich. This is just what it costs to do everything they do.
For my band, I submitted for three years, (and spent $20,000 doing it!) until I finally got a showcase
spot. But once my band played on that mainstage showcase on the opening night, we booked 30 gigs at
about $1000 each, right there on the spot. (Another 100 or so over the next year.) So it CAN all be
worth it if you're really going to commit to this and really think it's your thing.
On the other hand, some people spend years trying to get a showcase, finally get one, and don't
get any gigs from it. My band was a VERY fun-party-crowd-pleasing band. I think that's why we did so well.
NACA OR NO-NACA?
Every month, I would send out flyers to the Student Activities buyer at every college in my area.
My advice on making a good college flyer is here: http://cdbaby.org/collegeflyer
Out of the 350 schools that hired me, I think over 200 of them came because of my flyers. Which
made me think if I had to do it all over again, I might just skip the NACA conference completely,
and save the money to spend on marketing methods that go directly to the college buyer.
You can see that in my older article, here: http://cdbaby.net/derek/college.htm
My advice: If you are considering doing the college scene, start with the mailing list and
sending flyers. Get a few shows that way, and see what you think. If you love it, and want
to commit years to doing it, no matter what the startup expense, then either join NACA or
get a NACA-friendly booking agent.
TO GET THE MOST UPDATED DATABASE OF COLLEGES:
I still constanly maintain an updated database of 2880 colleges around the USA and the full
contact info for the exact person at each school that is doing the hiring of entertainment.
I sell it for $75, which includes free updates for as long as I have them.
Buy it here: https://www.cdbaby.com/artists/
TO GET A BOOKING AGENT, IF YOU DON'T WANT TO DO IT YOURSELF:
The booking agents that work with the NACA scene are all listed right here:
Derek Sivers, CD Baby