So You Want to Throw a Benefit Show
From picking a cause to dealing with puke, here's our how-to guide to putting on a sweet show and raising money for a good-ass cause
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Our country is in crisis. Civil liberties, basic human rights, and people's fucking lives are now in more danger than they have been for a very long time, and if you're not doing something to help, there's never been a better time to start. I outlined a number of ways for people in the music community to get involved in the resistance—from donating to the ACLU to raising legal funds for protesters to joining your local anti-fascist organization—in this piece right after the election from hell, and today have come to you bearing even more advice. I'm of the humble-ish opinion that every show should be a benefit show now, and since that's not always financially or logistically possible, we'd better make sure that every one we can put together counts.
With that in mind, I've put together a quick'n'dirty how-to guide to throwing your very own benefit show, drawing on my own experiences booking shows in NYC and Philadelphia for the past decade, as well as compiling sage advice from a small sampling of the promoters, organizers, and musicians I'm lucky to call friends. One caveat: I'm writing this from the perspective of someone who's spent a long time booking metal and punk bands in the Northeast United States, so there will obviously be some different factors to consider when working with other kinds of artists in different areas, but the majority of the core tenets remain the same.
Above all, be transparent, be polite, and be organized! Always remember: this is bigger than you.
This is the easiest part of throwing a benefit show, so get it out of the way before you even think about picking up the phone to call a venue or a band. What causes do you care passionately about? What groups do you want to support? What changes do you want to see in the world? It's kind of a no-brainer that organizations that work to protect and fight for civil rights, indigenous rights, immigrants' rights, disability rights, women's and LGBTQ rights (especially reproductive health) and the environment could really use a few extra bucks right now, given the orange fascist and the coterie of soulless monsters who are about to improbably assume a staggering amount of power over our everyday lives.
Jezebel has a great list of worthwhile organizations to get you started, and be sure you're being specific. Donating to Planned Parenthood is extremely helpful and needed, but also consider donating to your local women's shelter instead, or to a timely cause like Standing Rock's legal defense fund. There are tons of options and opportunities to do good, and Chicago's Jes Skolnik also suggests thinking about keeping things local: "Try to raise money for the organizations making things better in your community right now instead of big national orgs. And make sure that local orgs also are tabling and have a presence there. You can do creative things to get people involved!"
In terms of booking a benefit show that's not just a benefit show, London's Jill Mikkelson echoed Skolnik's sentiment—"Include raffles, bake sales, zines, etc to maximize donation dollars! I was pretty surprised at how much extra these raised. Loads of people were willing to donate stuff/time!"
Raleigh's Grayson Haver Currin suggests using benefit gigs as a way to build lasting solidarity, and to start making inroads in your local community. As he told me, "One thing I've found that sometimes flies under the radar: Don't think about it just as a show. What other things can you do to generate funds for and awareness for the cause(s) during that night. This includes speeches and tables and merch and silent auctions and such. You have a captive audience, so share clear messaging with them. And see if they want to contribute in other ways. I think this logic applies to all benefits, whether that's for health reasons or politics or some community building effort. Don't just collect money at the door and pass it along."
Book some sweet bands who are supportive of the cause, who are willing (and totally cool with) donating their time to said cause, and who will, ideally, draw a solid crowd. The best bet is to put together a lineup that would perform well on its own, and then tweak it so that everyone's happy, on the same page, and fired up about raising money for the cause you've picked. Make sure everyone involved knows the plan, too—put everything in writing, and take the time to ensure that there are no loose ends or confusion around payment (or load-in times!).
There's something of a debate around whether "benefit show" means "bands play for free" or whether there's a gray area around travel costs. Raleigh's Hank Williams raises an important point in regards to bands who are touring or traveling a long distance to play said benefit show—"If you have some acts coming from out of town, go ahead and set up a fair rate that won't hurt the door money or leave any of the acts paying for travel out of pocket"—while Tucson's David Rodgers emphasizes, "If you're not willing to donate your time for the cause, don't ask to play. Too many bands see benefit shows as paid gigs."
Regardless of how you decide to tackle that particular issue, Philadelphia's Shannon Void sums it up: "I'd say that the most important thing I have learned lessons from is always making sure there is a clear understanding of how performers are being compensated, if at all. Can be a sticky situation when all parties assume payment/no payment. Another thing is remembering to be thankful for the support you are getting from people. Volunteering can sometimes turn into a full-time gig when an event is large and involved. Keep spirits way up and always have backup folks to give people breaks and/or the chance to participate in the event."
Also, NO GUEST LIST AT BENEFIT SHOWS. This shouldn't even be negotiable. If your drummer's girlfriend's mom can't bring herself to donate ten bucks to a worthy cause to come see Chad play, that's on her, not the promoter.
Choose your venue wisely. In my experience, most venues on the club, DIY, or DIY-adjacent level are happy to host benefit shows, and will often either offer a discounted rate to book the space, or waive it entirely aside from operating costs like staffing. (This is obviously the ideal scenario, but if you choose a venue with a higher booking rate, make sure to keep those costs in mind when calculating your expenses for this shindig.) Be sure to make it clear that you're specifically looking to book a benefit show when you make initial contact, and give them details about the organization you're supporting, the bands playing, and your own booking history (if you're a first-timer, let them know that, too, so that they can gauge how to help best).
If possible, choose a venue that's excited about or sympathetic to your cause—the more into it they are, the more likely they'll help promote the event, and the more promotion, the better!
Speaking of promotion...
I cannot emphasize how incredibly crucial promotion is to the success of an event, and especially to a benefit show. Making an event on Facebook Is NOT ENOUGH. No, not if you pay for a sponsored post; no, not even if you invite all 567 of the people you "know" in Brooklyn. Social media is an excellent tool for spreading the word about an event and you should certainly use every platform you have here, but you also need to put some skin in the game. Pay an artist to make a dope flyer (or if you have a friend who's happy to do it pro bono, make sure to ask them very nicely, and offer to buy them dinner or something). Print up copies of said dope flyer at Kinko's, CVS, your office printer, what have you, and hit the road. Hand off a stack to the venue to put up and set out; ask permission to do so, and then leave stacks in local record stores, tattoo shops, other venues, nearby bars, your local community space, your local clinic, your workplace, or anywhere you think people who care about either the bands playing or the cause they're playing to support (or, ideally, both!).
Go to other shows and hand out flyers to people as they come or go. Ask the media arm of the cause you're supporting to spread the word through all of their available channels. Contact local media—music blogs, local newspapers, or, if you're here in NYC, a few of our approximately 17 billion music/entertainment websites—to ask them to list your event on their calendar, and to see if they're interested in writing a news post or coming out to cover the show. As radio promoter Andrea Guttadauro Angioletti suggests, "Call your local radio station for help with some PSAs, and a listing on their community events page—and follow up to be sure it gets done!"
These are just a few suggestions; there's a wealth of promotional options for the dedicated promoter, and no excuse for slacking.
So now that people have heard about your fantastic, wonderful, gonna-be-a-smash-hit benefit show, they're going to need to buy tickets. How do you intend to allow them to do this? The easiest method is to just sell tickets or take donations at the door; you end up with cash in hand at the end of the night, which is nice, but you also have very little idea of how many people to expect. Online ticketing services like Eventbrite or Brownpapertickets are easy to use and are quite handy for organizational purposes; the only downsides there are that they do take a small fee (taken out of your gross profits from ticket sales) and it takes a few days for the money accrued to land in the bank account you've designated for this purpose. If that doesn't bother you or the organization you're working with, I'd recommend taking that route—it's always better to have a decent idea of how many bodies (and therefore how many funds) to expect to end up with by the end of the night.
Richmond, VA promoter Emily Robinson had some advice in terms of goal-setting. She recommends "communicating with the org that the benefit is benefiting before starting to plan—finding out what they actually need. Also, setting a measurable money and/or resource goal from the jump and making it known before and throughout the event—it encourages folks to dig deep/give extra. Directly asking folks to give more than the stated door price if they can."
If you've never booked a show before, I highly, highly recommend partnering with someone who has, because—while it's certainly not rocket surgery—things can get hairy if you're not staying on top of shit. Barring that, try to be sure you're throwing your benefit show at a venue or space with an experienced, knowledgeable staff—they know what they're doing, you just need to be sure you're available to answer questions, solve problems, hunt down errant band members, and resolve disputes.
If you're flying solo, just remember to stay calm, stay focused, keep your eyes and ears open, and BE NICE. Don't be afraid to ask for help, and don't hesitate to lend a hand with whatever needs doing, whether it's moving gear or handing out water or checking in with the sound person to be sure everything's running smoothly.
TRANSPARENCY / MONEY STUFF
Now that the dust has cleared, the bands have headed home, the puke has dried, and the hangovers have abated, there's still more work to do. It's time to make sure the funds you've raised get to their final destination with minimal fuss, and to get things rolling as soon as the lights come back on. This part depends on your method of ticket collection; if you've been passing the hat or took in cash donations, then you've (hopefully) got a nice wad of cash you can then take down to the bank, deposit into your account, then send to your chosen beneficiary via check, wire transfer, direct deposit, Venmo, or (if you're not boycotting them) Paypal. To make it even easier, if representatives of the organization are there at the show, you can hand off the cash directly.
As we went over earlier, if you've collected funds using Eventbrite, Brownpapertickets, or via some other online ticketing system, you'll need to wait a couple days for the funds to land in your account (and be mindful of the fact that services like these take a small but very real cut). After that, do what you need to do to get those funds over to your beneficiary, and— this is important—be sure to document the process. Save receipts, take photos of deposit slips, and screenshot anything relevant so that you have a paper trail, and can easily provide transparency and proof about where the funds have gone in case anyone feels the need to question it. Head that whole situation off at the pass by blurring any personal information and then posting said receipts publicly (the Facebook event page you made is a good place to do that). As Richmond, VA promoter Jonah Laze notes, "People tend to get weird when large amounts of money are collected. Make sure everyone knows where the money is going and when it gets there."
Raleigh promoter Hank Williams adds, "If the club or space collecting money doesn't give you a breakdown of how all the money was used at the end, write one down [so] everyone involved understands where everything went."
Holding onto that documentation for your own records is important, too, especially if benefit money is resting in your personal bank account for any length of time. Do not forget to do this!
MORE HONEST ADVICE
Now that you've got the basics down, we've got a few extra kernels of wisdom to toss your way, just to be sure your benefit show goes off without a hitch.
Josh Cohen, Philadelphia: "Cover your expenses beforehand so it's an actual benefit with a fundraiser or something of the like. I see too many 'benefit' shows that pay out the bands, venue, etc from the 'benefit' ticket sales. That's not a benefit. I've done a few annual benefits for Philly PAWS. We always do a fundraiser prior to cover all expenses so 100 percent of the ticket money goes right the the organization."
Louise Brown, London: "People will be willing to give their time as well as their door fee, so why not ask friends to join a collective upfront of the show to help you with promotion, backline and catering for the bands. It creates a circle of support and takes the financial pressure off the promoter—and people are often willing to offer essential services like bringing a potluck dish or bake a cake for the bands and crew."
Dan Bogosian, Brooklyn: "If you plan on getting larger bands, management may be better than booking agents. Booking agents are dollar driven, and typically don't wiggle much in negotiation "for a cause." This is literally the only time I recommend going around agents with regards to booking. If possible, you want to do extremely limited run merch at a marginal gain knowing it'll sell out, i.e don't make 250 shirts for a 1,000 cap gig, make 50 shirts. To me, the key to good promotion is extremely key with benefits: you want to keep expenses and overhead low. You don't want to spend too much on advertising just to advertise. You want to put in the cheap advertising and hard labor (in person flyers!!! this works so much better than other things and at a much lower cost!!!) but it's the type of thing a loooot of promoters skip."
Dan Emery, Nashville: "Run the strictest timeline you can humanly run, especially for fest style benefits. We used to run two stages on either side of the room. One band played while the next set up. I remember running a seven-band show on a Tuesday night that was over by 11."
Yoni Kroll, Philadelphia: "If you want people to show up, you need to book drawing bands. For the most part, especially at DIY spaces, folks aren't going to come just to support the cause. That said, if you can't get a bigger band on the bill, try and make it a lot more about the cause so you can draw people who might not normally go to shows but care enough about the organization to show up."
Jairus Khan, Toronto: "Don't book anyone who thinks they're the most important part of the night."
John Doe, NYC: "Get your shit together... before the event. Have your door people, set and trained, small bills for the cash box, any flyers/merch/materials, your "hat"/jar for random donations, etc preset before people walk in the room. People unsure of where to donate are less likely to donate.Also—have some fucking fun, and don't preach too hard! I love Dropdead as much as the next guy, but any event that turns into more preaching than partying is generally a bummer."
Got it? Good. Let's get to work.
Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey and is working on a benefit show as we speak; she's on Twitter.