Amber Rubarth is a 26-year-old singer/songwriter from Reno, who only started playing music five years ago, but is making a full-time living touring, including four tours of Europe, booking it all herself.
She’s also one of the happiest musicians I’ve met.
Most musicians I know feel it’s tough, but Amber seems to glide through it all effortlessly.
How does she do it? What can other musicians learn from her approach? I interviewed her to find out.
Highlights: (full interview below)
- building your network by helping others
- interning with a booking agent, to understand what’s needed
- prove to each venue that you’re going to promote
- let your email signature do the hype
FROM PICKING UP A GUITAR TO A PAYING GIG WITHIN A FEW WEEKS
There’s an interesting lesson in how you started. When you decided you wanted to play music, you immersed yourself into the local live scene and started performing publicly within a few weeks of picking up a guitar.
Yeah. I had literally picked up a guitar for the first time just three weeks before going to my first open mic. I had songs I wanted to play. I wanted to see and meet other musicians, and understand what the scene was like.
I was just excited about doing music and wanted to saturate myself, so naturally I thought, “Be around other musicians.” Get in there, see what other people are doing, share what I’m doing, and see what people think of it.
I was extremely shy. I remember the first open mic I did, people were looking at me on stage, and I thought, “Why is everyone looking at me?” And I had to remember, “Oh, right. I’m playing.”
If you immerse yourself anytime you’re getting into something, it’s like learning a language: if you’re surrounded by it, it’s a lot easier.
Especially with the music community because everybody is so nice because they’re doing what they love. You know? The sense of community and being able to talk to people and hear people and get response from people about what you’re doing. Everybody went to the same open mic every week and hung out - it was a nice little group.
Also I just didn’t know any better. I just thought, “Oh, you’re doing music? Me too! So I’ll go hang out with you.”
Then you got your first paying gig right away.
I had only done the open mic for about four weeks. I was still playing C, G, and sometimes F. I really wasn’t experienced at all.
But one day, a couple friends and I just walked into a coffee shop with our guitars and started singing, as a joke - because we were nerdy like that.
The manager of the coffee shop called me the next day and said, “Hey, what would we have to pay you to come back every Sunday?”
We said $20, thinking that was for all three of us to split, but when he gave us $20 each we thought, “Oh my gosh! We’re making money!”
Then you really turned this into a scene, bringing in other artists, right?
Yeah. We played that place for about a year, but we would invite other musicians to come play with us, and started creating a scene. Then people would ask us to do other shows.
I started bringing other artists that I liked into Reno. If somebody was playing in San Francisco or Sacramento I would contact them and say, “Hey, we have a growing music scene here in Reno, and if you want to play here I would be happy to book you.”
So I actually had a lot of people at one point contacting me to be booked, where I had nothing to do with the music part, I was just booking. I did it just to learn about it.
WORKING FOR A BOOKING AGENT
Then you interned for a booking agent, and learned a ton.
There’s a Hilton in Reno that’s a big music venue with national acts. I called the booking agent there and just asked if I could intern for her - basically just kind of follow her around for a day.
I told her I was a musician, just getting started, and wanted to learn about the booking from the booker’s end, because I didn’t know anything about it, and there weren’t many musicians in Reno who knew about booking things other than a coffee shop, you know, like booking real shows.
People like her probably don’t have a lot of people asking for their expertise in something. It’s a show of respect to the people who do know what they’re doing and letting them know that you want to learn - and that you’re willing to help in whatever ways that you can help. Even if it’s just grunt work, you know?
She was really nice and had me go in there every week to help her out with filing or whatever. She would show me press kits to show me what they did book and what they didn’t book. That was really helpful: rather than trying to learn everything from a musician’s point of view, branching out and asking, “What are these people receiving?”
What are the biggest lessons you learned from working with the agent?
As a musician, make sure you’re providing something - not just asking for something. Let the booker know whether you can bring people out, or whether you’re going to do all that you can to get the media involved. Let them know that you’re putting effort into it.
Tell them straightforward, that you’re reaching out to people on MySpace, that you’re going to write a press release up and ask them for a media list. They like that, even if it takes them an extra minute to send out their media list, they like knowing that you’re putting the effort in and that you really want to make it a good show. That you’re not just expecting to go there and have a built audience and have them do all the work. You know?
A booker receives tons of press kits. Certain ones are going to stand out and certain ones aren’t. So what is the difference? What does that?
Following-up. A lot of press kits sat there because nobody called and nobody asked about it.
There’s definitely a point where people can follow-up too much, but I think that if you’re just consistent and looking for an answer, whether it’s a yes or no, and understanding that these people have a lot on their plates and they’re shuffling through everything. Remind them that you really want to play there or that you really think that it would be a good fit.
There were all of these factors that I had never considered yet - and then I kind of got a little taste of that.
Then this agent started helping you, more than you expected.
She started booking me as an opening act for some of their bigger shows. That wasn’t what I went there for. I didn’t even really think that that would happen. I didn’t think that I was ready to play there. I really didn’t expect her to book me.
But when you put yourself out and you’re trying to learn something, and you’re trying to help somebody along the way, I think people want to help. Especially when you’re eager to learn, you know?
People do really want to help. It brings you more of the community feeling - that sense of family - to what you’re doing.
It’s easy to think that the business people are on the other side, but when you actually start meeting them and working with them you understand that everybody is on the same side - getting into music because they love something about it.
ADVICE ON BOOKING TOURS
Booking your first gig outside of Reno - in San Francisco - how were you able to do that?
I just Googled “music in San Francisco”, which is what I do any time I’m going to a new place really. Also finding out who does a similar thing to me, and where they were playing.
I put a press kit together, and sent it to the venue. I had built a website that was simple but had everything, and showed that I was playing a lot of shows in Reno. I just told them, “I haven’t played outside of Reno, but I would really like to play in San Francisco and I’ve heard about your place.” I’d seen a couple other people who’d played there, and they had really liked them.
I was just enthusiastic in wanting to do it and being willing to put the effort into bringing people out. Enthusiasm does a lot. It doesn’t have to be hyper crazy enthusiasm, but I think it’s just good to be really into it, and letting them know that you’re putting your best effort into it. People enjoy seeing that.
Then let’s pretend you you wanted to play somewhere you’ve never played - like Atlanta. How would you approach it?
Maybe we should pick a different city, because when I was at the Folk Alliance conference, I met Eddie from Eddie’s Attic, a top venue in Atlanta. He told me, “Come play Eddie’s Attic any time you’d like. Just come in.” So I would just do that.
Interesting! Good answer. So just by being out and about at Folk Alliance, you meet people that would book you in Atlanta. Let’s pick somewhere else. How about Billings, Montana?
Yeah. Let’s do Billings, Montana. I would start online, searching “Billings Montana concerts” or “music”. It will come up with venues, newspapers, or people’s MySpace pages with listings.
I’d find a venue that’s a good fit and that makes sense first. Then I’d first contact the venue by email, so that I can write a better introduction.
Then it’s important to ask for a specific date! I learned this when I was booking gigs in Reno for others. A lot of people would write and say, “Oh I’d love to play in Reno. When would be good?” But you can’t do that. Instead just pick a day, like, “April 27th or April 28th I’m available.” Because then people can look at their calendar and say, “Oh yeah. I do have that day.” or, “I don’t have that day - but the 29th would work.” That’s a huge thing. You don’t want to leave it open. You want to tell them specifically what day you want to be there.
So a booker says, “OK. I can fit you in on Tuesday March 15th.” Would you take it if they gave you a Tuesday night or would you say, “Hell no, I want Friday!”
It all depends. If you deserve a Friday then you should ask for a Friday and if you deserve a Tuesday then you should take the Tuesday. You know?
Ideally, yeah, everybody wants to play on Thursday through Saturday nights. Especially if you’re new to an area, you shouldn’t be too picky, but you shouldn’t be a pushover either. But if you can do a Tuesday and you think it’ll work then do a Tuesday.
Then how do you bring people to the show?
Usually venues will have a media list that you can use. Especially for a town like Billings, Montana. They probably will respond to a touring artist. More so than New York City, for example, because there’s just so many musicians.
I’ll write up a press release, then email it to the radio stations and the print people. You can write one press release for a whole tour, just changing the little bit of it that has the specific contact information.
Getting some excitement, putting posters out, contacting people, doing media and stuff like that. Let them know that you’re doing a show and then practice for the show to make sure that you’re going to give them something that’s really good that’s worth the excitement that you’re stirring up.
You’ve always found a great advantage in smaller towns, whether Reno or Europe.
Doing smaller towns is really good, especially when you’re starting. I do the same thing in Europe where I’ll go to, say, Eastern France and it’s the best show. It’s even better than doing London or Paris because it’s places like this where people are really responding. The newspapers are really excited about having somebody out there. It’s great to get into the small places. Don’t just do the obvious cities.
LET YOUR EMAIL SIGNATURE DO THE TALKING
Your email signature has been really successful for you. (Example printed below.) Can you tell us more about it?
--- thank you for listening, i like you a lot. http://myspace.com/ambeRrubarth NEWS FLASH: Featured Artist on NPR’s “All Songs Considered” - Request her at www.NPR.org “Washing Day” (co-written w/ Adam Levy) chosen as 1st Place Winner (Lyrics) in International Songwriting Competition! TOURING NOW All Over the Place to Find You (and sleep on your couch!) 10.21 (BRUSSELS, BELGIUM) Sounds Jazz Club 10.26 (YORK, UK) House Concert 10.29 (LONDON, UK) House Concert 10.30 (LONDON, UK) Monkey Chews 10.31 (BO, NORWAY) The Bull Inn 11.1 (ARHUS, DENMARK) Cafe Lobby 11.2 (COPENHAGEN, DENMARK) Drop Inn 11.6 (SOMERVILLE, MA) Somerville Theatre 11.14 (SAN DIEGO, CA) Y1 Studios 11.16 (SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO, CA) The Coachhouse 11.17 (LOS ANGELES, CA) Room 5 11.21 (NEW YORK, NY) The Bowery Ballroom *The Paper Raincoat* 12.6 (LONDONDERRY, NH) Tupelo o/f LOUDON WAINWRIGHT! 12.11 (LOS ANGELES, CA) Hotel Cafe *The Paper Raincoat* 12.13 (SAN FRANCISCO, CA) Palace of Fine Arts *The Paper Raincoat* Listen, Stalk & More from the comfort of your home. http://myspace.com/ambeRrubarth Now on Facebook too, oh boy! ---
When you write an email, you don’t want to brag, at all. It comes off bad. But you do want to show them that you’re putting a lot of effort into it, and want them to know a little clue of what you’ve done.
So having it in your email signature is a really good way of doing it. That way, you don’t have to say, “Oh and by the way I won this contest and I just opened for this person.” You don’t want to have to say it, but you want them see it. So the email signature is a great tool for that.
My email signature has all my upcoming shows, contact information, and a couple quotes. Right now I have a quote from NPR and an international songwriting contest.
I’ve had bookers contact me back and say, “Oh wow - I see that you’re opening for Loudon Wainwright,” or “I see that you just got played on NPR,” or “I see you’ll be at South by Southwest.”
I’ve had bookers say that that was the reason that they wrote back, was because they saw that. They’re getting tons of emails and need to just be able to quickly see if they’re interested in checking it out.
TAKING IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL
Now that you’ve done over a thousand shows, is there any difference now between that initial apprach you took, and what you’re doing now? Or is it just lots and lots of that?
That’s a good question. It is just continuing doing that. But bookers can can see my history and that I’ve done it for five years. That isn’t really that long, but when people are consistently moving toward something for an extended period of time, it moves more from just excitement for something new, to something where people know that they’re doing it for real.
It’s become more of an identity. I’m not new, I don’t feel new at this anymore. I’ve played at least a thousand shows.
Because I return to many of the same venues I’ve played at before, I don’t need to put a lot of effort or time into booking anymore. New places also contact me to play. If I’m doing opening shows for people, they’ll be asking me or I’ll ask them. It feels more grounded now - more established - like there’s a foundation to it. So it doesn’t take as much effort.
How are you able to make a living doing this? How much do you make for an average gig?
I usually get about $250 to $300 for a smaller solo show where I can bring some people out. Not a particularly crazy night. If I do house concerts or something private, I’ll get between $600 and $1200.
If I’m overseas it’s different because of the exchange rate. I make a little bit more there because the dollar is worth less.
I’ll take $0 if I’m doing an opening spot for somebody I really want to open for. Usually they’ll pay at least $50 to $250. But if there’s something where I’ll be getting great promotion or the opportunity to open for my hero, I would probably pay to do it!
But really, most of the money comes from CD sales. The only way that I’m able to tour is because of CD sales.
How do you turn this from a few gigs into being a full-time touring musician?
If you put enough effort out - and you’re contacting enough people about it - and people like your music - then they’re going to respond. You’ll have some response and it’ll build. If you’re constantly building on what you’ve previously done, it’s going to work.
It’s important to not have a backup plan. If you want to be touring, you should not have a job. Make it work. Any time you have a backup plan, you can always fall back on it.
If you really decide you want to do something, you should do it. People surprise themselves when they have to make something work. Being fearless and creative with how everything’s being done.
At least if you just want to be touring and supporting yourself with it I think you can, I think anybody can do it, really.