Sixteen Cities is a Christian pop rock four-piece band from Portland, Oregon, consisting of Josiah Warneking, Josh Miller, Joel Warneking, and Chad McCutchen. The band started out as a public school worship and prayer ministry, led by front man Josiah Warneking and guitarist Josh Miller. In 2009, Sixteen Cities signed a record deal with Centricity Music and released their first nationally distributed self-titled album in early 2010. The album was well received, with their hit song "Sing Along" reaching the Top 25 in Christian radio all over the country. Their songs were featured on TV shows like One Tree Hill and have been played in the retail store Hollister. A busy tour schedule has taken Sixteen Cities all over the world, playing at festivals, conferences, churches, schools and camps with artists such as Casting Crowns, Kutless, Building 429 and Sanctus Real.
Although young – their ages ranging from 20 to 26 – Sixteen Cities are veterans to the life of music ministry, and are focused on bringing this generation into a passionate and authentic relationship with Jesus Christ, through both original music and their worship ministry. The band is currently recording their 2nd full-length album with Centricity Music, and expect to release their next single in early 2012. (Centricity Music)
Recently I had the opportunity to speak with Sixteen Cities’ front man Josiah Warneking about the process of booking shows as an independent artist. Huddled in a car, the band is on their way to speak at a high school in Oregon, part of their ongoing public outreach ministry. “We've definitely learned a lot about booking over the years,” Josiah comments. “To this day, even though we have a booking agency now, we still do a huge percentage of our booking. We definitely have plenty of things from over the years that we can share.” He and I discuss everything about being independent in the world of booking – where to start when you’re just beginning your career, how to make lasting connections with promoters and church personnel, and which venues you should consider. You’ll find that Josiah offers a lot of valuable advice, much of which you can apply to your own budding career.
CCM Indie: Where did Sixteen Cities start with the booking process when you were just starting out as a band?
Josiah Warneking: We were basically fresh out of high school, had no connections, knew nothing about the music industry and decided, “We're going to start a band, and we're going to start touring, traveling and sharing our message through our music wherever we can.” It's really funny – in the very beginning, we took it very seriously. Some of us wanted to be business majors in college, and so we thought, "Okay, let's treat this just like a business." So we set up an office and everything. We even went to Office Depot and bought all kinds of pens and folders. And then we said, "Okay, what do we do now?" (laughs). I remember sitting around a table saying, "Well, we should probably book some shows."
Some bands try to jump on tour with other artists, or they play the local concert venue where you pay to play. Instead of that model, we decided we wanted to have a relational ministry, where we talk to local pastors and churches and develop a relationship. I would call them out of the blue and say, "Hey we're a local band, we just started, we're a ministry, we lead worship, we also have original music – is there any way we can just come and serve your youth ministry, get to know you guys and start building a relationship with your church?" The cool thing is that churches responded. A lot of youth pastors said, "Wow, that's a different approach – a lot of bands call and just ask if they can come play a show, but you're asking to come serve us." We would have coffee with youth pastors on a regular basis, which is really important for bands starting out – develop relationships with key people in their area and their region. These days, inboxes are flooded with cold emails where bands are saying out of the blue, "I want to come play at your church, and you have to pay us to play." The reality is that youth pastors get enough of those emails. What they don't get enough of is people who are willing to meet with them, get to know them and start a relationship.
Call all the churches in your area and offer to go fill in for them on a youth night, or offer to go and just support what they're already doing. For us as a band, the most successful contacts we made were churches where we had coffee with the pastor, or we went and served on a youth night. Those churches then had invested interest in our band. They would end up inviting us to their bigger events and their camps where other churches were involved. Pretty soon, as an indie artist – without a label, without an album that people could buy in stores, without a radio single – we were playing over 200 shows a year in just Oregon and Washington. And that's kind of unheard of for indie bands, but the reality is, we just started developing so many relationships and made sure that we focused on networking and sharing our story with as many as people as possible. It really grew fast.
CCM: How do you recommend staying on top of those church personnel and other people that you're meeting to make sure you maintain their attention? And how do you transcend that into relationships with promoters and other key people in the industry?
JW: In the Christian music industry, a lot of promoters work really closely with youth pastors, because youth groups are the place where you promote Christian concerts. After we developed these relationships with youth pastors, they would mention to the local promoters, "Hey there's this band that's been playing a lot at all the local churches – you should talk to them when you're booking your next show." That's how a lot of our initial relationships with promoters began. There's a lot of legwork that we did as far as learning who's booking the shows, contacting them, making press kits, sending emails with our latest songs. We did a lot of that work, which a lot of bands are familiar with. What a lot of bands forget is that there's a relational dynamic to all of that.
I used to keep a contact list in my phone of pastors, contacts or promoters, and I would call them every month without an agenda. I'd call them just to say hi, to share what we've been doing, to say what's going on, and ask how we can support what they were doing – whether that was promoting them via our Facebook and Twitter, or maybe just encouraging them and praying for them. A lot of bands send emails and think, "Okay, well that's it!" But the reality is, if you keep that relationship going with promoters and pastors, it really keeps you be on the forefront of their minds; so when they're thinking of their next event, you're the band that comes to mind. That's what we've tried to do over the years.
CCM: You mentioned you had a press kit put together when pursuing these relationships with promoters. Do you recommend having any other materials prepared when booking shows?
JW: Some of the best things you can have are recommendations from other key people in the area, whether that's radio station people, a promoter or a pastor. I also think it's important if there's any way you can have live footage of you performing or really good recordings of your music. Some bands don't even have that yet, and that makes it more difficult, but if you're able to sell who you are and what you do in a concert to the people you're meeting, that makes a big difference. If they're able to get a vision of what it would look like to have your band at their event, that really helps. There are many different approaches to it, but having an aggressive, driven personality to keep talking to these guys and keep pursuing it is really the key.
CCM: Do you have any tips on pursuing contacts and how to sell yourself without making it feel like a sales pitch?
JW: One of the important things to focus on when you're talking to somebody initially is that most of these guys are feeling the band out. They're trying to decide whether this band has the right heart, the right music, the right focus. The important thing is to focus more on your vision and your heart for ministry and less on signing a deal. A lot of times I'll leave a meeting with one of these guys not having contracted a show, not having figured out the details of an event – but I shared our vision for our ministry, and I shared our heart for young people and for our music, so they were able to leave that meeting understanding who we are. I think that's the most important thing, because then it feels like you're talking more about God, and ministry and music, and less about business.
When sending emails and things, it's important not to turn them off right away with your fees, all of your requirements and what you would need. Instead, it's always important to approach pastors and promoters from a servant mentality. How can I help you? How can I support what you're doing? That really changes the entire dynamic of the conversation.
We did a lot of research – we tried to find out more about the churches and the venues we were playing at. We also did a lot of research finding out what churches were booking other bands. That helped us go into the conversation with a little more knowledge about that promoter or that event. Bands need to realize there's a lot of competition out there. What is going to set you apart from all these other bands? What is going to make you more valuable to these promoters and youth pastors? There's a lot of learning that happens in just doing it, and learning by trial and error. That's a really hard thing, but it's definitely possible if bands have the right heart.
CCM: Which venues should you consider when you're just starting out?
JW: It depends a lot on the genre of music and the purpose of the band. If you're like us, we started as a band that led worship at churches a lot. And so for us, the best opportunities for exposure were churches – leading worship on Sunday mornings or at youth groups and camps, where you can spend some time with your audience and develop relationships.
If you're a band that's more focused on just the performance of your original songs, or maybe you're a genre that does not work at church, the best place to start playing are your local venues and club scenes where people are filling up to find out about new artists.
I will say, based on my experience, bands that do not have the ability to lead worship or serve the church in that way have a much more difficult time booking shows in the Christian music world. There aren't as many venues for Christian bands that want to just perform shows in town. Even in our hometown of Portland, I don't know a lot of venues for Christian artists apart from churches. It is more difficult. My encouragement is if you're a Christian band – regardless of your genre – learn to lead some worship songs and that will be an incredible asset to your band in the Christian world.
CCM: As an independent band, how do you make sure key people show up? Did you ever try to capture media attention or record label attention, etc?
JW: It happened more naturally than you would think. A lot of bands are so focused on getting the record label guy to come to a show that they end up focusing on that more than anything else. I'm of the belief that you aren't ready for a record label until you're done looking for one. As soon as you're past the point of needing one, that's probably when you're finally ready for a record label. Record labels are looking for an investment that's proven already. They want to see that you're going to have success ahead of time. Rarely do they take chance on a band when they have no idea of their potential.
As a band we decided to just continue to network, continue to share our story and our music, and eventually it just turned into labels that had interest in us, because they saw how we were having success as a band and as a ministry.
As far as promoting shows, it's important to recognize who's influential in the market. If you're playing a concert in a town where there's a great local radio station, talk to them ahead of time and see if there's any chance that they could partner. One key thing is partnerships. Remember that term if you're a band. It's important to figure out who you can link arms with, who you can partner with that will be influential on your future. We had some relationships with local Christian bookstores or local radio stations that really had a major impact on a lot of relationships down the road. It's important to recognize who's going to be a key player and how to develop a relationship with them.
CCM: Can you explain the difference between booking directly with the venue or working with a booking agent and/or using a promoter? Have you done one or the other, or both? Any methods you prefer?
JW: It's always better if there's somebody that has invested interest in promoting your show. If you just book a venue or a timed slot at the local venue in a town, there's not really anyone who's invested in the show. There's nobody who has a reason to promote it. However, if you have a promoter or someone who is basically putting themselves on the line for your concert, they're going to work a lot harder to promote the show. Especially if they are offering to pay you something, then they know they need to work really hard to make money on the concert to make up for the amount that they're paying. I think it's always better to find somebody who's got some reason to promote the show, and a lot of times that's working through a promoter.
We have been working with a booking agent for the last three years. That's been a really great thing for us because as you get busier as a band, you lose the amount of time you need to call people. It's pretty much standard that you'll only get response from one out of twenty phone calls. Because of that, if you don't have the time to make enough phone calls, you're not going to have a full schedule. Just like a record label, when you reach that point where you don't need a booking agent anymore because you have enough shows going, that's about the time you need to hire one. You won't have time to book shows anymore. We found ourselves needing some other people to make contacts for us and to help us fill our schedule – that's why we signed with a booking agency. But for young artists, I would warn – the booking agent still is going to need some kind of reason that people are going to want to book you. If you don't have a fan base, if you don't have notoriety or a song on the radio, a booking agency is going to have just as much difficulty booking you as yourself.
CCM: So when you’re just starting out as a band and have limited access to promoters, what are some of the best ways to go about promoting your shows and making sure seats fill up?
JW: It kind of depends on the type of show. Every once in a while we would book a show where we were the promoters, and we would just book a venue. What we'd have to do is not only promote it over social media, but also flyers, and phone calls and word of mouth. We'd actually call people and invite them. We'd call churches and invite their youth groups. That's a lot of work though, and if you're doing a tour of twenty or thirty shows in a row, it's going to be very difficult for a band to cover all of that. Early on in the day we used to think, "Okay, if we just print a lot of flyers and posters and send them out, people will come." And the reality is, there's such a small return. You can send ten thousand posters and still only have fifty to a hundred people show up. Realize there's so many bands performing. The way to get people to come to concerts is word of mouth and getting some of those fans of your music to spread the word.
We focused on events that had a built-in audience. If you play in a youth group, a church, a camp or a conference, or something where people are already going to be there regardless of the band, that's a really great way to build up a fan base in an area. In a town like Spokane, Washington, for example, we would play the local summer camp a few years in a row and as a result, would build up a big enough following that we could book a show in the area and have hundreds of people come and pay a ticket – because they were fans of our music and because of the camp. Bands that are starting out should look for opportunities where there's a built-in audience. For some bands, that's going to be churches and that kind of thing, and for some bands it's going to be local festivals or local events where there's people around who can start to spread the word about your music.
CCM: Would you recommend ever playing shows for free? If you do request pay from a venue, how do you suggest gauging that price?
JW: Yeah, making money and music don't normally go together (laughs). I do think a band that's starting out needs to play a lot of free shows. Free shows build a fan base. We played free concerts for years and years, and even to this day, we do free events every once in a while. The important thing to remember is – Why are you valuable? They [bands] need to ask themselves that question because a lot of bands think they're entitled and say, "Well we should get paid." And I always ask the question, "Well WHY?" Can you put people in the seats that are paying tickets? And if you can't do that, then you have to have some kind of ability. The way that we started getting paid was we became known as a good worship band. We'd worship and people responded well to it. Places would pay us because we could perform that service really well.
We meet a lot of promoters, and we've talked with so many over the years. Bands who come in thinking they're more important than they are, thinking they're entitled – it really burns bridges. One thing that's been good for our band is we focus on serving the venue or the promoter or the church we're at, to make sure we always get invited back. A lot of young artists think they are entitled and therefore do burn bridges – that closes a door for a band. If you're able to keep those relationships with promoters and churches strong, it'll create a longer lasting career for your band.
CCM: How do you suggest artists to stay motivated amidst the emotional roller coaster of rejection?
JW: The most common form of rejection in the music industry is just "no reply", or even the email [that says], "Yeah we'll be thinking about it, you'll hear back from us in the future" and you never do. That's always hard. Even harder is when you're close to getting a really awesome deal, a big festival or a big concert, and last minute – it falls through. I think you just have to roll with the punches as a band, because the reality is, there's going to be a lot of those. Even if you have a song on the radio and you are a recognized, established band, you're still going to have big letdowns and disappointments. The important thing is to remember why you're doing what you're doing – because you love music, you love God, and you're out there to do ministry. If you keep that heart, you're going to get recognized. Even the small shows, even the things that seem less significant – they matter. With our band, we always treat everybody – whether it's a fan or someone we meet, even if they aren't "important" in the industry – as if they're very important. You never know who has connections and who is going to be important in your career. Treat everybody as if they're somebody.
CCM: Finally, do you have any kind of follow up process you do after playing shows? How do you try to really capture listeners? Do you go through any extra efforts like selling merchandise at your shows or offering additional giveaways?
JW: I've stated it a bunch of times, but everything is about relationships, and that even applies to after the show. We've done all kinds of things. We have merchandise, and we make a point as a band to connect with our fans after shows. A lot of bands don't like to do that – they like their own personal time, or maybe they're more introverted and they don't want to spend time in front of people. But the reality is, the more time you can spend with your fans after a concert, the more connections you're going to make. We've made business cards or little postcards that people can take with them that remind them of our Facebook and our website and all of that. In regards to maintaining relationships with promoters, after concerts we'll often send them a thank you card with our gratitude for booking the show and saying, "We'd love to support you in the future, let us know if you have any upcoming events and we'd love to support what you're doing".
The biggest thing is just to be intentional about maintaining relationships. That often means working hard, and it often means doing things that aren't always fun. Talking to fans for hours after a concert is not always easy when you're tired or ready for bed, but it really makes a difference in the impact your band will have and the kind of legacy that you'll leave. People will want to come see you again. People will want to book you again if you're that kind of band.
Follow up and stay in touch with Sixteen Cities at www.sixteencities.com!