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Darryl Hurs: What Every Artist/Band Needs to Know about Live Music

Over the past year, I had the privilege of meeting and working with Darryl Hurs, the President and Founder of Indie Week Canada and Europe. Having worked with thousands of bands and artists, Darryl has incredible insights into how bands/artists can grow, thrive and live their dreams.

Sam Arraj: Could you give us a background about yourself?

Darryl Hurs: Currently I'm booker of the Rivoli. We book seven nights a week, entertainment, year ‘round. I also run a festival called Indie Week, which is in its 13th year. The festival runs about 300 bands and 20 venues. And I also do graphic design for a company called Live Nation, and have probably been in the business, truthfully, I would say, 25 years.

Sam: We’ve had several discussions where you provided me with a formula for making a band successful with regards to live shows. Do you want to elaborate on that?

Darryl: Sure. I can kind of give it to you in a nutshell, because it’s a lot of info. But as a band is developing, I believe that they should actually play their own shows. A lot of times people say they should open for someone else and try to gain fans off of that. But I think the reality is, if you look at the percentages of amount of bands from another band possibly coming out to actually see you or hear you, and then actually liking you enough to buy something, or come back, is really small. And it’s a chance.

When I'm building a band, I don’t like taking chances. I’d rather know there’s going to be a specific amount of return or at least growth. So, I think if a band can play shows that they’re headlining, and have them sold out or at capacity every single time, that’s pretty much a guaranteed way to get to a larger crowd, larger audience, larger venues, at a faster rate – say in 12 months. And I think that by having your name on the marquee, then you’re taking all the credit, all the time. And that’s also how you create the buzz around your band.

Sam: What are your thoughts on bands/artists charging a cover charge, or charging something for entrance to their gigs?

Darryl: I think it’s fine. They should charge so that there is a value placed on them. Because otherwise, if they’re playing free shows, then people don’t ever feel like they should pay for the band. However, I think the way around it is to just figure out a place like, say if they’re playing to a room with a capacity of 30 people, they should put together a guest list of 60 people, and tell people we’re giving you a free ticket. Then, at least people will feel there’s value in coming.

Sam: I believe a lot of people think that live is where the money is at, so they try to go out there and play lots of live shows. In your opinion, what are the keys to success for a band to play live shows/gigs?

Darryl: Well, ultimately, I’d say live is where it’s at. That’s how they gain their lifer fans. We’re in a time where it’s almost like everybody’s going for the single. But I find that’s a dime a dozen, and here and there, and gone much more quickly. As opposed to people who really have passion about a band because they’ve seen them live, and thought that they saw them before someone else, and discovered them early, and have actually grown with the band while they’re developing.

So yeah, I think live is essential. And if you look at I’d say over the past 24 months, a band that typifies that is Imagine Dragons. Sure, they had a single, but they toured non-stop for about 18 months. And they, too, did the headlining, like they headlined every time I saw them come through town – just bigger venues each time.

Sam: So, why you do think Imagine Dragons are successful?

Darryl: They’ve got really good songs. Like, they’ve got hooks, and their sound was similar but also unique at the same time. So yeah, I think they were really onto something with that album.

Sam: Many industry professionals, including investors, say that the keys to success for any artist/band always goes back to the song and the music. Is that also the case with live shows, or do you think it’s also about the performance, promoting and selling?

Darryl: I think there’s different aspects. I think, truthfully, whatever aspect, you just have to be really good at what you’re doing. If it’s music, if it’s promoting, if it’s performing – you just have to be really good. But once you get to the live aspects, you can be a bad performer and you can have bad songs, but if you’re entertaining, you can actually get away with quite a bit.

A prime example, I guess, is the debate right now on Van Halen on their tour, where you know, David Lee Roth - some are saying he’s past his prime. And others are saying well, he was never a great singer. He was a great entertainer. That’s kind of what Van Halen’s known for. They’ve got great songs but live, you know, their singer couldn’t perform half of them sometimes, right? Which is why they switched singers in the first place. But he’s known as a great entertainer. And entertaining is the key when playing live. You have to make sure that the person who’s buying the ticket feels that they got their value’s worth and more, so that they’ll buy another ticket.

Sam: That’s a great insight you brought up. I see a lot of young bands and even established bands go out there, play their music, and then get off stage. They don’t really develop any connection with the audience. Personally I enjoy when a band/artist shares a story or engages the audience. Also, they are not branding themselves or setting themselves apart from anyone else if they don’t.

Darryl: Well actually, I’d like to make another point to it. If you think of people who are considered superstars, for example Michael Jackson, he wore a glove with sequins on it. If you think about Elvis, he wore a gold suit at times, and at other times he had a cape. Even big superstars have been like, wow! I wish I was that person too. I don’t know whether I have the guts to do what that person does or wears.

Take Elton John and all the lavish outfits he’s worn over the years. And he’s known for his crazy sunglasses, right? And if you think of it, during those periods of time, how much discussion was actually on their music, and how much was on what they were wearing or what they were doing?

Those artists lasted a long time and became superstars because ultimately, they were entertaining.

Sam: Great stuff. Why don’t we transition this to your festival? You run two successful festivals (Indie Week Canada and Indie Week Europe) that are very unique in the sense that they are run as a competition where the winner of the festival gets to travel to Europe or Canada for a performance opportunity, with all their travel and accommodation costs covered. You get plenty of applications, so how do you end up selecting the bands?

Darryl: Well first, it’s the music. We use a couple of online platforms to accept applications. And then, essentially, we listen to the music. And we can kind of tell, especially after listening to so many bands. I mean, the reality is that I listen to at least 1,000 bands a year, and you come to have a kind of ear for it. You know, after listening to 200 bands, you can kind of tell right away whether the band has it or not.

So, the first thing we do is listen to the music. Then, if there’s a spark of interest, we look a little bit more into it. While we’re listening though, we’re always looking at their social media stats, because the platforms deliver that to us. Then we’ll be able to look at their Facebook page and possibly Twitter page, and look to see if the band is active? For example, sometimes I’ll go to a Facebook page and it hasn’t been updated for nine months, and I’m like, well, what’s this band even doing? Are they even active? Are they still together?

Whereas, you see a band that looks like they just played last week, and 200 people were out. That looks exciting. So, we look for the complete package. They might have the sound, but they might still need to work on their image, but we understand that emerging artists always kind of have to work on their image and stuff. But yeah, we’re looking for the complete package.

So, ultimately, I’d say the things we look for include the music first. Then, are they active? Are they really working their promotions? Do they have a brand? And do they have fans?

Sam: What should a band be expecting to get out of participating in your festival? I know there’s a major opportunity for them to win your competition, to be able to go to Europe from Canada. And from Europe, they’re able to come to Canada for performances.

Darryl: Well, It’s almost a few different levels. We find, at least, that the feedback we get from them is that our festival is much more open to in a sense networking with other bands. They meet industry players as well. It’s a great place to gain a lot of fans too. And everybody feels like they actually meet a lot of other bands as opposed to other festivals, where bands come in and out and that’s it. So, it’s almost like a camaraderie that can be built with other bands at our festival.

And then, the other thing is because we have the judging, we have the industry in the room for sure, and there’s a chance for networking right off the bat by playing one show. The other thing that people can get out of it is, if they are a band that moves on - meaning they’re figured to be the best band of their night - then they’ll move onto play again. And then they get to move on again.

We find that bands actually get better because the stakes are higher each time, and with the sets, they actually get shorter each time they move on. So, they’re really deciding to play just their best music, and there’s less chat in between songs. I actually see bands improve by the end of the week, as they’re kind of forced into it.

Sam: You know, what I find interesting is that you mentioned that they get to network with other bands. One of the things most bands/artists don’t take into account is networking with other bands, because it could be key to their success. Not only are bands/artists music fans, but they have connections and resources that could open doors or provide for an opportunity down the road.

Darryl: Yeah, what I find crazy is that so many bands are so quick to put down other bands. And you know, the world is too small and life is too short. I'm like if anything, you should be supporting our industry, so that it’s actually thriving and successful as opposed to trying to take away from it.

Sam: Exactly. I remember earlier in the year, a band who played at your festival put together a show and invited another band who also played at your festival. The band that put on the show was promoting as best as they can, but the other band didn’t do anything to promote it. They didn’t get a great turnout. I talked to the other band. I'm like, so I saw you playing there, but it ddin’t look like there was a lot people out for that show. They were just like, yeah, there weren’t that many people there. I asked them why they didn’t get their people out. They responded by saying, “I don’t want to get my people out for the other band. It wasn’t my thing,” which is absurd.

Darryl: It boggles my mind too. And it kind of goes back to what I said earlier about building a band, you know, make it your show all the time. Be the headliner all the time because you cannot rely on these other bands - so many of them don’t deliver. Don’t take the chance. This is your career. Why are you taking the chance on this other band to help you out? Forget it.

Look in the mirror and say, it’s all up to us. And then sell out all the time. Take all the accolades. Get known as the band that sells out. Get better promoters right away. Get agents interested because of that, which leads to management, which leads to labels. It’s the fast track to doing it. It works every single time.

Sam: Those are great points. You also book the Rivoli, which is a very successful live music venue. First of all, how do artists get paid there?

Darryl: It’s always a door deal. It’s a percentage of whatever comes in through the door.

Sam: You guys have some amazing talent coming through that door and it’s hard to get booked at that venue, correct?

Darryl: That’s right. We’re very picky. To be honest, for the most part, we work with promoters that put on the shows. That way, we feel confident that somebody is working on getting people out. After that, we work with agents, managers and labels. And then it’s like basically, if we have a night that’s still available after all of those, I’ll work at booking a lineup with bands.

Sam: What advice do you have for an emerging band/artist that wants to get booked at the Rivoli or bigger venues?

Darryl: Start by playing shows that you can sell out, even if it’s 30 people capacity. Wherever you play, make sure it’s full. That’s it. Word will get out, and it gets to the point where promoters hear about you and start wanting you to be on their shows. You just have to show that there’s value in your band.

It’s all about value. To quote Tim Berners-Lee, who’s the guy that’s known for inventing the web, is “People add value.”

It’s actually fairly simple if you figure out that people add value. People are always complaining about not getting paid or asking how they can make money. Have a lot people interested in your band, buying tickets, buying merch, and always showing up to your gigs.

Sam: What advice would you have for artists who are coming into your festival this year? What should they do in order to be successful, in order to make the finals, and potentially win the competition at your festival?

Darryl: First off, concentrate on their songs. Make sure that their set is tight and professional. That’s one thing that the judges are always looking for, is this a band that will act professionally if you put them in a situation? You know, if we’re taking a band over to Europe, are they going to act professionally, play a professional set, and impress? Right? So, that’s sort of the first thing.

The second thing is, I find it odd that bands wait to get to the festival to actually promote. Bands will travel a long way to a festival, bring some flyers, and then go around that week with flyers. I'm like, why not go on Facebook and look at the venues you’re playing, or the venues participating in the festival, and start talking to the people that attend them? Just say, hey, we’re a band that’s coming. We’ll be there in a month, and here’s our songs. Check them out. Hopefully, we’ll see you there.

Sam: I always say that bands and artists are in the business of building fans, period. Once they have built a large audience, then they can monetize it through the sale of their music, merch, live shows and much more.

Darryl: Right. There’s a video I posted on my Facebook not too long ago from of Black Eyed Peas, and he nailed it. You said that it’s never been about the music. Now, artists hate hearing that. Bands hate hearing that. I get it. But it’s interesting what he said. He said, you know, if you think about it, for instance right now, Dre’s the first rap billionaire, but why? It’s because he sold headphones. And ultimately, artists are paid to sell plastic. And that plastic was valuable because it sold stereo systems.

So, if you wonder why Sony owns a stereo equipment company and a record label, it’s so that they could beat one into another and be very profitable. So really, the artist is actually selling other things. And if they can figure that magic out, whatever the formula is, they can actually be very successful and very profitable. And at a bar level, it’s actually about selling beer. So, if you’re the band that sells the most beer, you’re probably one of those first bands to get a guarantee at that bar.

Sam: You have a lot of relationships with a lot of venues, and they keep asking you back for a reason - because you’re able to help them become profitable.

Darryl: Exactly. It is a hard business. So, venues are even more finicky on what they put in there. At the venue level, they don’t care if you’re good or bad. They just care about how much beer you’re selling. So, if a band’s going in thinking it’s about the music, at a venue level, then they’re wrong because the venue cares about bar sales. Bands can complain about that and they can fight it, but that’s the reality. And that’s never going to go away.

The sooner a band understands that, the better. The thinking should be, let’s go and play our great music, but we’ve got to find a way to sell a lot of beer too. Then everybody’s happy and we get to keep doing what we want to do.

Sam: That’s great insight. You’ve got to go out there, work hard, knock on doors, and try to get people out to your shows, so that they can buy beer, and you can get paid and continue to do what you love for a living.

Darryl: Right. That’s at the venue level. And it’s a weird transition for bands when all of a sudden, if they’re picked up, they’re going up that ladder, then they’re playing a different venue where it’s not necessarily about beer, it’s about ticket sales. So, there’s a transition where you’ve always got to be evolving. As you grow, you’ve got to say, what are we really selling now?

Sam: I guess they’ve always got to ask, what are we doing now? What are we selling today?

Darryl: Right. To be ready for that next level, you’ve got to understand that there are different goals, and there are different objectives, and you just have to constantly play that game.

Sam: Absolutely. If you really think about it, at the venue level you’ve got the beer. And as they grow, they’ve probably got ticket sales. And as they continue to grow, they’ve probably got endorsement deals and sponsorships. And obviously, as they start to get on the radio, and get mass exposure, that’s when the music sales start to pick up.

Darryl: Everything relates to each other. You just have to sort of understand where you’re at and what you have to do to get to the next level, all the time.

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