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Making the Switch from Open Mics to Booking Venues in Colorado

Making the Switch from Open Mics to Booking Venues in Colorado


It takes courage to put yourself on a stage in front of a bunch of strangers and play music. Music and identity often intertwine, meaning failures and criticisms shoot straight to the heart. But the passion and drive that motivate artists to persist are the same qualities that support growth. One significant part of the artist’s growth process is making the transition from open mic nights or public events to booking small venues for shows. Colorado offers a mixed bag of venues for small-to-medium-sized artists, and some of them can be tough to navigate from a financial perspective. We sat down with a number of artists in the community as well as a venue to get the scoop on booking your next private gig.

Navigating small venues as a local artist

Dalton LaFever, a Woodland Park-based musician, began playing open mics many years ago but eventually decided it was time to book his own shows. He explained that in Woodland Park and Denver alike, the process can be challenging. “A little bit, but it’s about finding the right venues that will pay the artist and work with them to profit both the venue and the artist. A venue that will help promote is huge,” LaFever told Yellow Scene Magazine.

While it is easy to find a music venue in Metro Denver with a for-profit-based model, this type is often artists’ least favorite option since it puts the financial stress entirely on the artist. “I’ve run into venues like that, and honestly I shy away from those venues that require a certain amount of draw of people. It’s hard enough booking shows let alone have a requirement of people. One can only do so much with advertisement,” said LaFever.

Chris “Wiskey” Churchill , a Denver-based musician, met three of his bandmates at open mics across the region. After the group began to establish itself as “The Electric Whiskey Experiment,” they started booking small shows. Wiskey noted, “We won’t do ticketed events. There are a few venues that operate that way. We simply just don’t play at those. We have a rule that we don’t play unless the venue guarantees us $300 for a three-hour show. I’m sure there are times we could have made more from ticket sales, but — I’m not a promoter.” Wiskey and his group are encountering a reality that many small-to-medium-sized bands are uncomfortable with: the idea of taking on the financial burden of the venue cost by themselves.

Open Mic Host Steve-Koppe at Roots Music Project

Instead, artists like LaFever look for venues with a non-profit model like Swallow Hill Music and Roots Music Project. Anecdotally, some record stores have been known to host shows for which the proceeds are returned to the artist while the record shows profits from in-store sales. However, venues like Roots Music Project take this whole strategy a little bit further by creating a rental space with multiple booking options as well as a number of programs that cater to artist development.

While the market is saturated with for-profit venues, there are other venues that are supportive of the growing music scene. According to Wiskey, “Some are really great and want to have us play often. Unfortunately, they are usually the venues that don’t have a large budget. The venues that pay better are a little difficult to get callbacks on. There are a ton of talented competitors out there. I have found that some venues prefer to book bands they know and have worked with before. Denver is definitely a tough market.” Despite the challenges, Wiskey’s band plays about once a week. The payment varies, but the band has gained traction.

LaFever has also had success with booking the right gigs. When preparing to book a venue, he finds the best strategy is to talk directly with the venue before booking anything. “I always find the best method of communication with the venues whether that be a phone call, Facebook Messenger, email, or setting up a meeting. Based on what the venue might have for capacity or size, I can decide whether to book a band or solo. I will send videos, EPK to the venue, and name a fair price which I believe is the right number for a group or duo solo shows. Hopefully, I get a response back.”

Finding the right venues to book has been a lengthy process for LaFever, but his efforts have contributed to a steady income. “What I started years ago as a solo artist, I [charged] $100 for three hours of music. I’m now up to $200 for a solo artist. When I started with a band, my price range was $300. Now, minimum, I’ll start at $400 for a band, but it’s difficult depending on the venues. Some can only pay so much, and I see it’s better to sometimes make less money to be able to perform.”

Some of his favorite venues to book include 110 Reserve, Crystola Roadhouse, Salad or Bust, Motel SOCO, The Well Hotel & Taproom, and Deuces Wild.

Supporting artists as a non-profit venue

Roots Music Project was established in Boulder to “empower the live music scene in Boulder and beyond. We do that because we believe that live music is a positive force for the community and the world,” said Dave Kennedy, founder and executive director of the organization.

Today, the non-profit owns a 2,700-square-foot warehouse that holds 250 standing guests and 150 seated guests. The venue’s work doesn’t end after providing a creative space for musicians. According to Kennedy, “We have two pillars that we base our mission on. One is the belief that performance opportunities — that gigs are the way to promote the music scene. And secondly, artist development is our other focus. In the artist development world, it’s not about a single artist being a genius. It’s about the scene supporting the artist. If we can support the scene, the artists will arrive.”

One of the big challenges artists in Boulder continually face is affordability. The cost of living paired with the high cost of real estate makes it extremely difficult to retain disposable income to book for-profit venues, let alone find venues that help to promote shows to ensure the bands turn a profit. However, the affordability factor impacts venues too. “It is difficult on the Front Range for artists to find paying gigs. I also have empathy as a venue operator. It’s difficult to turn a profit on a show,” said Kennedy.

As a result, Roots Music Project offers a variety of gig types from open mics to artist features. Kennedy said the key to entering the right gig is to understand your market and determine how many fans might show up to a gig.

Ian Steele, Roots Music Project’s production manager, said the organization is different from others in one key way: “We’re all in the same shoes as the artists that are trying to play. We’re all artists who are trying to book their own gigs. So, we understand both sides of the equation.” The operators of Roots Music Project are not only business people but also musicians.

In addition to offering open mics and small- to medium-sized gigs, Roots Music Project also offers programs to support artist development, potentially leading to artist showcases that feature talented community members for 20 minutes.

When it comes to booking a gig at Roots Music, Kennedy said there are a few ways to go about it. There’s a formal booking application on the website. “The other avenue is to come to an open mic, and Ian sees you. And the bartenders see you, and word starts to spread.” He added, ”Another avenue is to volunteer.”

Steele noted the music market is present and pushing to grow. “It’s the economics that make it so difficult to do something like we’re doing. We’re very fortunate to be able to help so many musicians to go from open mics to small gigs or putting out an album. The opportunities are starting to grow now.”

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