The live show is the most important factor in an emcee’s income whether they are banging on buckets on the side of the street or headlining nationwide tours.  No matter how much technology and the internet grows there will always be a demand for actual human experience.

Mastering the art of the live show should be one of the top focuses for independent emcees.  Booking shows, negotiating price, promotion, making a killer performance, selling merchandise, and creating future business are all skills that anyone can get good at, and we will cover tips and topics to help create your own strategy.  If this clown below can make 35,000 per show then you should feel confident as well:

2013 MTV Music Awards held at the Barclays Center Featuring: Riff Raff Where: New York, NY, United States When: 25 Aug 2013 Credit: Andres Otero/

Booking shows – There is one very important concept to understand when it comes to booking shows.  The more people you can bring through the door the more venues and clubs you’ll be able to play at, and the easier it will be at the negotiation table.

It’s that simple.

Bring all the friends, family, and anyone who is willing.  Just get them through the door.

The amount of money you make from live performances (in the short run) doesn’t depend so much on the quality of your performance, or the amazing album cover design your cousin did for you, or anything else really.  Even if you give the performance of a lifetime it won’t make a difference in your pockets if no one came to see it (it’s the ‘if a tree fell in the woods and no one is there to hear, does it make a sound?’ kinda thing).  Doing multiple shows and winning at the negotiation table will.

Let’s start by actually finding places that attract our kind of crowd.  Research the internet for all the local (and even major) hip hop acts that will be performing in your area and check out the venues, especially if you haven’t been there.

Here are a couple links to sites that have lists of venues – $25 per region (ie. Southwest U.S.) – has a free trial


Go see other acts and pay attention.  It’s natural human instinct to immediately criticize what others are doing, especially if you aren’t a fan of their brand of music, but if they are being booked and bringing people to the shows then it is vital to take note on what is working for them.  The average homey will take a look at things on the surface, but a top performer will dig deeper to find out what’s really going on.

Meet managers and promoters face-to-face, preferably during the early evening when it’s not as busy.  There are plenty of benefits to going in person rather than email or phone calls.  If it is a place that consistently houses hip hop shows, then you’ll need to go there anyway to scout things out. Also, don’t be afraid to call venues that are too far to drive to.

Let them know that you’re looking to play at their spot and if it’s cool to send them some music.  More importantly let them know how many people you can bring through the door like I mentioned earlier.  It’s also best to have a card and place on the internet where they can go to check you out.  Ask them if it is ok to follow up with them in an email, and if they say yes then make sure to actually follow up.

If you’re still struggling to book shows then there are websites and groups out there that will help you book shows.  However, these usually cost money, so if you can book things on your own and bring people to the show then they are probably not worth your time.  I won’t go too deep into these since the goal is to make money, but here is a list of some sites that can help:


Negotiation – This phase of the process can be easily overlooked, but by far has the most influence on your income.


Do you think venues pay the same for each act that comes through?  Of course not.  They are trying to get the most out of their money, therefore you must play the same game.


If the venue makes an offer avoid accepting their initial bid, and make sure to counter with an offer that is higher than you are willing to play for.  Two reasons for this.  First they might accept your higher offer (which is awesome, but then might kick yourself because you didn’t ask for more, but hey take what you can get).  The second and more likely option is that they will then counter with something that is higher than their initial offer, landing somewhere closer to where you were initially hoping for.


If you’ve done a good job scouting out other acts that perform there, and you know you can bring more people through the door than others that have played then you should feel very confident at the negotiation table.


The more typical scenario will be that you are asked for your normal rate, so make sure to have one.  Again don’t be afraid to ask for more than you’re willing to play so you can give the owner or manager a chance to talk you down on the price which will make him or her feel all warm and fuzzy while you’re getting paid.


There are a couple of different ways to get paid for the show such as a guaranteed price, a percentage of the door, a mix of the two, and possibly a percentage of sales from drinks and food.


Newbies should lean toward guaranteed money unless you know the whole neighborhood is going to show out, which you would opt for a percentage of the door.  Emcees with major followings will often ask for 100% of the door because they know they will pack the house.  Some places might offer a 50/50 split, some might offer 70/30, some might ask to take some off the top to cover their expenses (remember the venue is going to make sure they cover their ass before anything else).


There also will be opportunities where you can get a guarantee and percentage of the door, which is preferred by many traveling acts since they won’t be able to do much of their own promotion. Even if it’s an empty house they get something.


When places that don’t typically hold shows want to book you then they might not have the money upfront to give you nor do they often charge a cover to get in, so asking for a percentage of the food and drink sales might be worth it.


It will take time on your part to figure out the best strategy, considering things like where you are in your career, the type of following you have, and doing a little math (which I know is painful for many).  However, it’s probably more beneficial to your bank account to use your energy negotiating and researching rather than agonizing over small details like what color your shoelaces will be for the show.


Another side note for negotiating is to under promise and over deliver.  A simplified example might be if the owner or manager thinks that 50 people will show up because of you, and there are 100 the night of the show, then not only did you guarantee yourself future business but an opportunity to negotiate a higher price down the road.  Being a likeable is good for networking, actually bringing value and results creates good relationships.  Sometimes these concepts are used interchangeably, but there is definitely a difference.


Promotion – You are solely responsible for bringing people to the show.  The venue won’t because they expect you to.  Your name won’t bring people no matter how big of an act you are.  Even major headliners of arenas still pay heavily for marketing, so you should expect to be promoting as well.


So what do you do?


Make posters, flyers, and other visual pieces of material that will stand out.  You have a member in the crew that specializes in this? Great.!  If not you can find something inexpensive then check out places like or some of the other outsourcing and freelancing sites listed above.  College art students are also an inexpensive option for design purposes.  Many students are willing to take on projects that have to do with the real world because it give them quality experience and they can still submit it for a grade.


Did you scout out other acts?  What does there promotional material look like? Does it work for them? Then incorporate it into your stuff.


Facebook? Twitter? Google +?  Yeah of course.


Should you get people’s emails to give them updates and remind them about the show?  Definitely.


What about promo videos on YouTube that you can send to people?  Fo sho.


Update your website with dates that you will be playing.  People will check you out online.


Find people who follow the venue or spots that you’ll be playing at and befriend them.  The easiest way to get someone to follow you on twitter is to follow them.


Talk to local radio stations, hip hop writers, college media, and anyone else who has a voice to the public and see what you can work out.


Most importantly go out in public and hand out flyers and recruit people to come. Many businesses welcome people to post flyers for just about anything.


The important concept to walk away with here is that for the independent emcee there may not be any one way to get hundreds to watch you perform, but there are hundreds of ways to get one person to the show.


Another perspective to look at is the reason why people go to shows.  The large portion of the crowd didn’t show up because they are diehard fans, but rather wanted to support a friend in the group, got dragged to the show by another friend, or it was just the place to be for the night.  Have I attended and paid for shows that I had no interest in because some hot girl invited me?  Please believe it.  No specific strategy or tip here, just another concept to explore.


The Performance – Ironically enough the performance itself might have the smallest impact on the money you make, at least in the short run.  Of course being good will carry more weight through your career.


I’ve seen many mediocre and even god-awful acts that have a major following, for instance this Insane Clown Posse wannanbe half hip-hop half heavy-metal group that had their faces painted.  I thought they sounded terrible, nothing was catchy about, and even if they had good rhymes I couldn’t understand them.  After I got past my initial instinct to criticize I couldn’t help but notice the flood of people that also had their face painted for this no-name group.  Their fans loved them.  Blew my mind.


This leads me to my key concept here which is to get the crowd involved.  Whether it’s dressing up and painting faces, getting people to dance or rap along , printing out lyric sheets, throwing out booty shorts for girls with your name on their cheeks, or whatever it takes to separate the show from just a listening session to an entertaining experience.  Each emcee has their own style and brand, so this is completely up to you on how make a memorable experience, but be memorable by getting people involved.


Hip hop is so much more than just music, so to make a great hip hop show is to overcome the fear of doing more than just reciting some rhymes.


Big Pun was known for occasionally sitting down and just rapping at his shows.  He did this mostly because he was extremely out of shape, but he also read the dictionary from front to back and was one of the greatest of all time.  So I suggest doing more than that.


It’s also in your best interest to only do portions of songs rather than the whole thing.  Why did TRL keep playing less and less of videos back in its hey-day on MTV?  Why do you have that one friend who will hear a song, scream “This is my SHIT!!!” then changes it in 30 seconds?  Why do many top performers only do portions of songs during headlining event?  Because it works of course.  The excitement level drops immediately after you start the song for most people, just like the price of a car drops as soon as it’s off the lot.  You’re true fans are going to put your music on repeat when they are by themselves.  There is also the possibility that one of your songs might not be vibing well with the crowd.  Don’t drag it out longer than it needs to be.


Make your music sound good live.  Hip hop performers are known for sounding like garbage live, even big names.  A lot of times they are screaming their lyrics rather than rapping.  Don’t forget you have a microphone in your hand, we can hear you.  A bummy sound system might make things difficult, but there is a difference between having a powerful voice and just being loud.


One thing that most emcees will refuse to do is cover popular songs.  There is a group called Lieutenant Dan’s New Legs that has a full band and covers a bunch of dope old school songs  (they do new songs too, but I like the old stuff better).  They have choreographed dance moves and the whole 9.  People who aren’t even regular rap fans come out to see these guys because of their performance.  They still make their own original music, and they definitely get paid.  Food for thought.  Check em’ out:


Selling Merchandise – One of the most effective ways to make more money at shows is by setting up shop.


What should I sell?


Start by offering more of your music.  After you kill your set allow people to hear more.  Even if you allow people to get your music for free online somewhere many fans would still rather pay for the convenience of being able to pop in a CD on the way to the next party, or at the least support an upcoming artist that they like.


T-shirts and other clothing is also very common.  (Seriously though, booty shorts with your logo on it.)


Beyond more music and standard clothing items you need to get creative.  I’ve composed a list of random things that have been successfully sold at shows.  By no means would I recommend trying all these, nor should you even try most of them.  The purpose of the list to show how thinking way outside the norm can be profitable:




Shot Glasses


Dog Tags

Water Bottle



Patches and pins


Cell phone cases

Coffee Mugs (the album was called Mug Museum)

Key chains


Pillow cases (by a band called sleep)

Teddy bears


Here is a link to a company that specializes in slapping your name on merchandise


How do I sell?


It’s best to ask permission first so that you’re not in the way of anything, but there shouldn’t really be any issues.  Set up a table and have a member of the crew hustle there the whole night (ideally the most attractive female in the crew for obvious reasons).  Make sure to mention your table while you’re on stage as people may not notice it while they’re drinking and gettin’ down, and tell people that you’ll be hanging out there after your set.


Start with quality over quantity.  Common knowledge believes that the more options there are for the customer the more you will profit.


Nope.  Actually it works the opposite.


Ever heard of Raising Canes or Five Guys?  Very simple menu with limited options, and very high profit margins.  Whenever major companies such as McDonalds start to extend their menu too far their sales actually decrease.


Just find one thing and make it top notch.  This will increase profits and allow you to focus more time and energy on other important things (like the music and being good and stuff).


Make your table look clean as well.  Try putting one of each item and display while having the rest hidden under the table or out of view.


Many people don’t have cash on them anymore.  Try using companies like to process credit card orders.


Also ask for their email address and ask permission to send them updates.  How much easier will it be to promote the next show when you are already contacting people that like you?  This leads to the final section of making more bank at shows…..


Setting Up Future Business – Did hella people show up? Nice. Did it you kill it? Nice.  Did people buy some cd’s and t-shirts? Nice.  You got some honey drooling over you ready to take you some after party? Ok playa.  Before you go chasing groupies let’s make sure you set yourself up for success again.  It’s easy to let the adrenaline give your ego a boner, but the key concept here is to humble yourself.


Go thank anyone at the venue that was involved for the night.  Make sure to grip it up with all the bartenders (and tell people in the crowd to tip them while you’re on stage as well).  Thank the sound guy, thank any hosts involved, thank the person who booked you, thank other acts that performed.


Personally go thank individual fans (at least the ones that seem to be having a good time).


Make sure to get on the social networks and thank everyone that showed up.


Avoid telling people that they “missed out” if they didn’t show up.  Let the comments and buzz speak for itself instead of causing resentment towards future potential fans.


Rinse and repeat.