What Miami's Music Bookers Look for in a Live Band

You step into a bar in Miami and a live band is playing. How did they get there? They didn't just magically appear. And they didn't just walk into the room carrying instruments and commandeer the stage like a troupe of funky pirates.

As you peruse through the back of your weekly copy of New Times, each band or DJ you see in the concert listings was selected to perform by a living, breathing human being. These music bookers (also called talent buyers) put a lot of time and thought into discovering, pursuing, and promoting acts that they think will bring an audience out of the house and into the doors of their venue. 

"I sift through a ton of e-mails," says Adam Gersten, owner of Gramps, one of the best venues for live music in Wynwood. "Some of the acts that pitch themselves, I don't get back to because I can tell they've never been here. Most of our crowd has a college/indie/alternative spirit. If I hear from a flamenco jazz band or a punk act from Akron, Ohio, I can make the assessment it's not going to fit," he admits. "A prerequisite is usually the band has to know Gramps or be referred by someone who does."

Ian Michael — who handles the bookings at the 37-year-old Churchill's Pub, the undisputed champ of Miami live music — likes to check a band out in-person before he books them. "It's easier if I can catch the band live first," he says. "Which is why it’s so important to have your shit together." Cohesive shit, according to Michael, includes a working and user-friendly website, clear audio samples, and a video is a huge plus. "If you are a new band with no name, no website, no videos, and no shows under your belt — that will stop me right there," he says. "We might, however, direct you towards one of our many open mic nights."
Both Gersten and Michael got their start learning from Churchill's original owner, Dave Daniels. "I used to hang out with Dave a lot when Churchill's wasn't doing awesome," Gersten remembers. "He'd tell me if you want to bring bands in, you can keep what comes in the door, [the cover charge], and I'll keep the money from the bar." Gersten has tried to follow that same distribution method now that he has his own place.

Other talent buyers working on a national level have different hurdles to overcome. For Sharisse Pessar, Live Nation's senior VP of talent for Florida and talent booker for the Fillmore Miami Beach, geography is one of the hardest parts of the job. "It is a long way to come down here for artists," Pessar says. When the Fillmore first took over the Jackie Gleason Theater in 2007, the most difficult part of her job was convincing bands to drive past Broward. 

Michael, who also brings in a healthy dose of out-of-towners, agrees. "With touring acts, it's availability and routing. We’re so far south here that it’s tough to get touring acts to come down. Fly-ins are expensive, so you have to wait until the artist is touring close enough to make it worth it. Frequently, they can only make one date and you might not have it open."

But Gersten thinks, while it's far from a walk in the park, it has gotten easier over the years to persuade musicians to go out of their way to play Miami. "We work on ways of making it appealing," he says. For example, there are certain loopholes to be utilized. "Like, there's a band we're trying to book — they're a festival/indie band we probably couldn't afford. But if we can get them to come during Art Basel, they're willing to take less money. If we didn't have them during Basel, we would lose money on it because we'd have to pay them more to reroute their tour."
Money matters, of course. Even though music is the reason bookers get into the industry, most quickly turn into amateur accountants, silently calculating the cost of a hundred little necessities every time they book a band. "Shit costs money," Gersten says. "For the bigger shows, you have to pay extra security guys. Bands need hotel rooms. I can always do well with a $5 cover, but when you get bigger acts and you have to charge $10 to $15, it gets to this weird middle ground. When Grand Central was around, though, it showed there was an audience in Miami willing to pay more to see indie acts."

Yet, as exciting as it is to book out-of-town acts, it is the local scene that keeps both Gramps and Churchill's going strong. Both venues' bookers have similar advice on how to get yourself gigs, and the key message is familiarity.

"Support the venues that do live music. Support the bands that play there," Michael says. "If you only take from the scene and never give anything back, how do you expect it to survive? Come early, stay late, watch all the bands, talk to them. Reach out and get to know other bands. We build this scene together."

Gersten wholeheartedly agrees. "My favorite promoters to deal with are the ones who play in the band they're promoting. Those promoters are also contributing. They hang out in the bar and I love dealing with them." 

Even Pessar, who deals mostly with the larger acts of the Fillmore, urges local bands looking for gigs to be persistent and keep playing. She also has some good advice for the rare acts that make a name for themselves: your reputation will precede you.

"If I hear there were problems at other venues, I won't book you. Bringing a crew of 50 to hang out backstage ain't cool."