Tuesday, May 11, 2010

How to Organize a Benefit Concert

When only a few people show up or the band sucks, a benefit concert can be demoralizing. But when done right it can accomplish a number of important goals. It can raise much-needed money for activist groups, energize and inspire your community, help your group do more outreach and networking with the broader community, and they can even help support artists! By my informal accounting, at least 90% of the progressive community could really get something useful out of this article. Please feel free to share it!

Fundraising 101: How to Organize a Benefit Concert

Everybody loves to practice many different forms of social networking, but when it comes to the kind of networking that might allow you or your organization to make money, many people are terrified. In much of the progressive community specifically, people are scared of money. This is a big problem, since we need money, too – whether you're trying to pay the rent on your infoshop, feed the homeless, buy a plane ticket so you can be a delegate to that conference or participate in the next caravan to Gaza, whatever it is, money is required. In some countries in Europe folks can get on welfare and be full-time activists while the state pays their rent, which is fantastic, but it doesn't work here in the USA.

I make a living traveling the world and playing concerts, almost all of which are organized by local progressive activists of one kind or another. There are lots of great organizers out there who are able to consistently put together events that allow me to make a living, raise money for their projects, and bring together the local progressive community and leave them feeling inspired – all at the same time! Sometimes, though, the efforts people make result in badly-attended events that leave people feeling discouraged or sometimes well-attended events that, despite good attendance, fail to raise money for the performers or for the cause.

Aside from blizzards, volcanic eruptions, police raids and other things that are pretty hard to control, there are three main reasons why a benefit gig fails to be a benefit gig: fear of money, lack of effort or lack of knowledge about how to do a good job of organizing one. Lack of effort usually is tied to a lack of understanding of what's required to make the thing work, so I won't say anything more on that one, but I'll just run you through what's involved with doing it right.

But first, a promise: you never again need to utter phrases such as “we don't know how many people might show up,” “we don't have any money,” “we tried to get the word out but we're not sure if it worked,” “there are a lot of other things happening in town tonight so we don't know what's going to happen,” “I'm so nervous because I don't know if we're going to get a crowd,” etc. Whether you live in a big city, a college town, or even an economically-depressed town of a few thousand people somewhere in Appalachia, a few people each putting in a few hours a week of their time for a month leading up to an event is enough to result in an event that will raise between one and three thousand dollars and be attended by fifty to two hundred local people – consistently.

Symbiotic Buzz and Enthusiasm

The steps I'm going to run through below mostly pertain to some aspect of publicity. There are two things underpinning these different forms of publicity. One is that it all must be done in order to work – these things work best in symbiosis. By themselves they won't do as much, and most crucially, they won't generate the ever-important buzz. You are trying to create a situation that sparks the powerful phenomenon known as word of mouth. You need this to go viral, and you can make it do that, every time. Along with not skipping anything, you need to do it all with enthusiasm. This is an exciting, community-building event you're organizing. The performer(s) are fantastic and come from far away. You will meet your next best friend as well as the love of your life at this gig, etc., it is undoubtedly the place to be this week.

Charging a Cover

By passing around a bucket and asking for donations, in most cases, you will raise a small fraction of what you could raise by charging a cover. If you let the bucket sit somewhere without passing it around you'll usually raise even less. You can have a sign saying “no one turned away for lack of funds,” and people with no money can still come. But, you worry, this may make people feel uncomfortable and it's less intrusive for those folks if there's a bucket which they can quietly ignore. And this is true! However, if you want to do it right you have to charge a cover. What this means, to be precise, is to sit in front of the entrance with a cash box, look everybody in the eye, and ask them for $10 (or whatever you're charging, but in most of the US $10 is a good minimum amount to charge for a benefit show).

Advance Tickets and Sponsors

One of the advantages to charging a set cover is that you can sell advance tickets. Advance ticket sales can be your biggest way to make money. The money is raised, and most of the networking happens, long before the actual show. It's a win-win situation. In terms of advance ticket sales to individuals, the individual gets to support the cause whether or not they show up to the gig. Most people who say “I'll definitely be there” mean “I'm not sure if I'll make it but I think it's really cool that you're doing this.” Let them show their support by buying a ticket – then they'll feel much better when they don't make it to the event.

Another advantage is it can be a great networking opportunity and can be an important factor in the word on the street going viral. Here's one way to do it: go talk to people who work for a nonprofit, who run a small business, or who are involved with an activist group, a church, a union, or any other such grouping of people. Ask them if they want to cosponsor your event by buying 5 advance tickets for $50, and if they'd like to have their name on publicity materials as cosponsors. They can re-sell their tickets, use them themselves, give them away to their members or volunteers, etc. Talk to 30 people involved with different groups and you've raised over $1,000 -- weeks before the show happens!

Venues, Artists and Conventional Publicity

Three very common mistakes people make when they're organizing shows are: relying on venues, relying on the performer(s), and relying on the local newspaper to do much publicity – it's almost a certain way to make sure the gig's a flop if you focus too much on these traditional methods of publicizing events. Having said that, they are all still important potential ways to get more folks to come to your event.

In terms of the venue, aside from looking for a nice place that's free or cheap to use and will let us charge a cover, it can help a lot if the place is well-known and easy to get to for local people. Good music venues, whether it's a club that focuses on live music, a cafe that sometimes has performers, or a church coffeehouse series, will have an email list and contacts with local press.

While the venue may get your gig listed in the paper they will be unlikely to get you a cover story in the Arts section, which is the only print publicity that will really make much difference in terms of attendance. The possibility that the paper will run a story is of course completely uncertain, but the chances can be helped immensely if you send in a pre-written article about the artist coming to your town and other information about the event so they can run the story without having to pay a reporter to write it. They do this all the time – for better or for worse it is the norm at this point. The main problem with any publicity the venue or the local paper does is that it is not targeted to your organization's constituents nor to the artists fans, the two groups of people most likely to attend the event. It's great to get publicity out to a broad audience, but only a tiny minority of the general public who hear about an event will go to it.

In terms of the performer(s) and the publicity they might be able to do, there are several factors to bear in mind. If the musician is a local they probably perform locally too often to be able to help a whole lot with publicity. If the performer(s) are from far away, even if they have a big following, make a living as touring performers, and have many thousands of people on their email list altogether, they probably don't have more than a few dozen contacts on their list in any given city, and even if they only perform in your area once a year or less, probably not more than 10% of the people on their local list are going to come to a given show.

Social Networking, Facebook and Community Media

Effective social networking is very important and it mainly happens off-line. It seems terribly old-fashioned these days and it may not seem very attractive because it involves a serious time commitment. I'm talking about talking to your actual, real-life friends, acquaintances, neighbors and coworkers, giving them info about the show, encouraging them to come and encouraging them to help get the word out, sell advance tickets, etc. Use the phone, talk to people in person, and send emails to individual people.

Online social networking is also of great potential importance if you do it right. These days, doing it right means one thing in particular: having a Facebook account and knowing how to use it. One important way to use it is to create an Event page for the show and Tag everybody you can think of in your area, or people who know lots of folks in your area, including the performers! Share that on your Profile page regularly, keep putting it on the top and weekly reminding other people to do the same.

In terms of community media, on the one hand I'm talking about email lists and websites related to local groups with constituencies that are relevant to your event, one way or another. Bear in mind that even with a popular email list less than 10% of recipients will even open a given email, let alone read it. So as with most other forms of publicity, don't rely much on this avenue, but use it as much as possible and make sure any lists that are remotely relevant to your event are covered, hopefully on multiple occasions in the weeks leading up to the event.

On the other hand I'm talking about your local Pacifica affiliate or other community or college radio station. Get the show listed in the community calendar and try to line up phone or live interviews with hosts of relevant local programs. Don't expect much from this, but it's good to hook up the performers with the radio hosts in order to try to facilitate what you really want to line up, which is for someone at the station to create a PSA (Public Service Announcement, or cart) to plug the event, which, if all goes well, they will run during the breaks in the most popular program on the station (probably Democracy Now!) daily for a couple weeks leading up to the event. If they do this, this will bear fruit, far beyond anything else a community radio station might do for you. If there's any chance of getting them to do this it will only work if the show is a benefit (preferably a benefit for the station itself).

Outside of the US, including in most of Europe, there's not much in the way of community radio but there are mainstream local stations and even national programs you have a good chance of getting on to promote your event if you make an effort.

Posters and Handbills

Unless the performers at the event are very, very famous, posters are the least likely way to get an audience because it's not a targeted form of publicity, unless you put them up on popular bulletin boards in places where people look for info on events like yours, in which case the poster will get covered up within a few hours, so you have to return to the coop every day in many cases for this really to help. All forms of publicity are good, especially because each one reinforces the other and helps a little in getting that all-important viral effect happening, so do put up posters, but bear in mind that by themselves they're unlikely to have much impact.

The idea with handbills, on the other hand, is to use them in a more targeted way, and this can be very effective (but, as usual with effective things, more time-consuming for you). What this means is going to events that are likely to attract supporters of your organization or fans of the artist(s) and handing out small fliers about the event. Putting one on everybody's chair before the event begins and handing them out as people are leaving the event is the idea.

Artist Compensation

How you and your artist(s) deal with this question is up to you, but I encourage you to consider that if you're working with professional performers, even relatively well-known ones, they are probably quite low-income and may very well be wondering how they're going to pay next month's rent. Whether or not you make a guarantee of a certain payment with them, consider paying the musicians as part of your overhead along with other expenses involved with putting on the event. Bear in mind that hopefully your goal in putting on this event is to network and build your organization, raise money for it, as well as to foster a sense of community. Artists are integral to this process and need to be paid if they are to continue to share their talents with the public.

Other Odds and Ends

The causes that people will most readily get enthusiastic about are generally situations where there is a tangible, immediate project at hand that you're trying to raise money for, whatever it may be – raising money to send people to a conference or protest that's happening in two months, raising money to buy a new computer for your local pirate radio station, or to pay the rent for your local community theater, etc.

In your publicity materials don't say what time the event ends – just say what time it begins. Just trust me on that one.

Hopefully your event is going to be big enough that you'll need to have a sound system. Don't assume that the venue has one or that the artist is traveling with one – just ask them. If you need to rent one you can usually do this cheaply at a local music store – or see if they'll cosponsor the event by loaning you a sound system for free (and getting 5 advance tickets in exchange). A local musician may have a sound system you can borrow as well, whereas a traveling musician may have left theirs at home (if they have one).

Along with good sound, lighting can make a huge difference in terms of how the event feels. Even if you're having an event in a sterile lecture hall with fluorescent lights you can turn off those lights and bring in a couple of tall lamps to light the stage area instead. If there are no real stage lights in the venue you're using be creative and figure out how to light the event in a cozy way, without fluorescents or bright lights everywhere.

Keep your event short – not too short, but leave people wanting more. Don't schedule so many performers so that you risk people leaving mid-way through the night. A little over two hours is a good maximum length. Have breaks in between acts where people can freely mingle. Make sure the main performers on the bill are really good, and preferably have a significant following. If they're not good performers, then your publicity efforts are less likely to go viral and people are much less likely to come to future events you organize, or to feel particularly inspired the end of it.

Having a raffle at the event -- after attempting to sell raffle tickets to everybody who walks in the door, raffle prizes somewhere nearby and visible – is a great way to raise still more money at your event, sometimes a lot more. A lot of people will gladly buy multiple raffle tickets if you're doing a raffle, regardless of the prizes, but most people will be encouraged by knowing what the prizes are. They don't need to be terribly impressive though – a bottle of wine, a bottle of Palestinian olive oil, relatively little things like that will do the trick.


Doing a good job of organizing and publicizing a fundraiser is a lot like doing social change generally – there's no one way to do it, but by using lots of different avenues people get the sense that something is happening that they want to be a part of. People need to hear about your event in at least three different ways that seem to be independent of each other. Then they'll get excited about it and start telling their friends to meet them at the show.

A different version of this essay, more oriented to organizing shows specifically for me, can be found if you go to http://www.davidrovics.com and click on "How to Organize a Show."