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: this advice is 20 years old, so I’d love it if you could leave a comment here, saying how things have changed.)
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 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 want entertainment.
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 trooper, 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. (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 naca.org.
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.
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.
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.