How Your Band Can Break Into the (Lucrative) College Market


School’s in session! I thought I would lend some insights into playing the college market as you begin the fall touring season. For some artists, the college market is a gold mine and for others it simply offers frustration. Many acts successfully use the colleges as a point from which to launch their careers while others have found it leading to a dead end. There are a number of drawbacks to playing this arena as well as benefits. As we explore both ends of the spectrum, keep an open mind about how this market might fit into your booking plans.

Colleges and Universities offer a variety of performing opportunities. Many campuses have multiple facilities available for use as performance spaces. Facilities may range from a performing arts center fully equipped soft seat theater with dressing rooms, curtains, proscenium stage, lighting and sound to a transformable gym, cafeteria or lounge.

The various facilities are often booked or programmed by different departments. A director who schedules theater productions, classical, jazz, dance and popular artists touring internationally usually books the performing arts center. The director of the center generally coordinates outside performances with classes and college productions making the facility rarely available to other college departments. The other major booking entity on a campus is the Student Activities Center. Supervised by a faculty or staff member, student committees do the majority of programming, depending on the individual college. There are a few colleges whose programming is completely scheduled by a faculty member. The most popular student committees are often the concert and coffeehouse committees. Here, students decide how they will spend the huge budgets available from student fees collected each year dedicated to campus activity planning. Programming may also be scheduled through other individual departments on campus that generally have very small budgets. Fraternities and Sororities offer further performing opportunities.

If you feel that your act belongs in the performing arts center environment, then begin your booking efforts by contacting the director of the facility. The other method of capturing the attention of many performing arts centers directors is to attend a booking conference. The Association of Performing Arts Presenters holds a major annual booking conference in New York City each January. During the fall, there are a series of smaller regional conferences that help an artist to concentrate their touring in a targeted area. These conferences are, The Performing Arts Exchange sponsored by the Southern Arts Federation.

Mid-America Arts Conference sponsored by Arts Midwest and the Mid-America Arts Alliance.

WAA sponsored by the Western Arts Alliance

Although attendees to these conferences also include performing arts center programmers not associated with a college campus, many college performing arts center programmers attend at least one of the regional conferences and often attend the national conference in New York as well. Your chances of gaining the attention of some of these programmers are increased should you decide to attend and possibly showcase. These are expensive conferences to attend and organizations to join, so please be certain that your act is appropriate for this type of college venue.

Similarly, those programming for the Student Activities Center have a number of conference opportunities from which their various committees may select acts. The oldest and largest organization is NACA, National Association for Campus Activities. NACA hosts a national conference in February each year along with eleven regional conferences. The other organization now running a booking conference for college activities is APCA, Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities. APCA, the much smaller of the two offers new acts an opportunity to break into the college market without the requirement of spending big bucks for the chance to do so. Although NACA is often in the forefront of showcasing new talent to colleges, it is more challenging for individual artists to break into the organization and reap the benefits in their first year after showcasing or exhibiting.

I mention these conferences and organizations simply because many college bookers rely on them for the bulk of their talent buying. It is not impossible to break into the college market on a campus by campus basis, but there is a greater chance for recognition if you use these conferences as your entrée.

Now the downside to playing the college market:

I think one of the most challenging issues that agents and self-booking artists must deal with when booking colleges is the student turnover rate. On those campuses where the student committees are in charge of booking the talent, an agent or artist often finds the task frustrating and sometimes totally disheartening to the point of giving up. You are dealing with rotating committee chairs, graduating students, students who join a committee for one or two semesters, students with varying office hours or no office hours forcing you to track them down in their dorm rooms. One attempt at a solution is always to get the name and number of the faculty or staff supervisor advising the student committee. They are usually the one with the authority to sign the contracts, and they usually have office hours. When you begin to run into trouble finalizing a date, contact the faculty supervisor and ask their help in facilitating the booking.

Since these committees are part of the student’s education, you are often required to play the role of teacher and walk them through the booking process, one painstaking step at a time. This holds true for each step after a contract is signed. If you want your date promoted on campus, make sure you follow up with every aspect right up until the gear is packed and loaded in the vehicle after you’ve played the date.

Most campus activity gigs are paid for with the collected funds from student fees. There are a few facilities that are run like a professional club—THEY NEED TO MAKE MONEY IN ORDER TO CONTINUE. However, most campus activities DO NOT NEED TO MAKE MONEY. The committees are allocated a budget, and if they want to get the same amount or more money the next year, they must spend the money allocated in the current year. This leaves the committees in the enviable position of spending great gobs of money without having to be fiscally responsible. They are not always concerned whether the money was well spent or whether any of the students whose money is funding the event ever show up and take advantage of these activities. This, of course, impacts you, the act being booked. I have heard from so many acts playing the college circuit that the money is great, but the audiences are small and often non-existent. As a professional performer, you are attempting to treat your career professionally. Playing the college market may stress you in that department since those with whom you are dealing are not professionals. To be fair, though, every once in a while you will happily find a student who takes his/her committee—work very seriously.

6 Hot Tips for Playing the College Market:

  1. Use A College Date as an Anchor Date for a Tour
    Yes, there are some benefits to playing this market. The money is just one of those benefits. I’ve known artists who played the college circuit for years and made very good money. They were often getting three or four times better fees than artists working the club circuit. Use these dates as anchor dates and surround them with a tour of other lesser paying more prestigious club gigs. Often college dates may be booked during weekday nights and sometimes even during the daytime. This leaves the weekends for the clubs. A good paying college gig can often help fund other portions of a tour.

  2. Enhance a College Booking with Other On-Campus Appearances.
    Get contacts for some of the specialty departments such as the English, music, theater departments and offer to do master classes prior to the actual gig. Not only might this add money to your pocket, it may help increase your audience for the actual gig.

  3. Do Your Own Promotion
    When planning a college date, it is necessary to do your own promotion along with any done by the college. Get in touch with college radio and newspapers. Send notice to anyone on your mailing list in that area. Contact local media sources. Use the College PR person (if any) to coordinate your media surrounding the gig.

  4. Use College Radio
    Unless the campus station is a commercial station, (and there are only a few campuses that have commercial stations), it is very likely that you can get airplay and a live interview on one of their shows. There are some incredibly, influential college stations around, so don’t miss your opportunity to tap into the benefits they may provide. If you are going to tour colleges, you might consider subscribing to CMJ, the College Music Journal to keep abreast of what’s current on the college stations.

  5. Contact Media in the College Town
    While promoting your date on campus, don’t forget about the in-town media. Another benefit of playing college gigs is that most of them are open to the public. If you do some in-town promotions and get some non-college audience, that’s great for future gigs in the area.

  6. Make Sure Your Dates are Reported
    Playing the college circuit gains you a reputation within the college circuit. There are reporting mechanisms from NACA that help campus programmers review artist’s previous tours. So, if one campus reports that you did a great gig, it is likely that other campuses will be influenced by the report and also book you.

There have been many major recording artists who began building their careers in the college market. I can recall seeing a brand new act, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, at one college concert on my campus. The programming committee took a chance on booking him and as I recall it was a great show with a really large crowd for the small student union all-purpose room. Gee, I wonder whatever happened to that act?

Good luck!

And, I invite you to learn more about this and other topics important to your career development and to sign up for free weekly audio Biz Booster Hot Tip! Every Monday you’ll get another valuable strategy and technique that you can put to use immediately. You’ll find helpful books, career development seminars, Booking & Touring Success Strategies & Secrets online course and information on booking tours, the music business and performing arts. It’s all waiting for you at Jeri Goldstein is the author of, How To Be Your Own Booking Agent The Musician’s & Performing Artist’s Guide To Successful Touring, 3rd Edition.

* If you would like to reprint any of these articles, please contact Jeri Goldstein for permission.

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