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The zone system dramatically increases the number of successful shows you play each month (increasing your audience and your pay).
The zone system is based on two important factors:
(1) People rarely see the same band more than once a month (yes, there are hard core fans, but you need the casual fans and general public).
(2) People dont like traveling more than 20 minutes for their entertainment.
Get a map of your local area. Mark it into zones that are about 20 minutes travel time across. How big these markings are depend on the traffic conditions in your local area.
Most urban areas in the U.S. should give you plenty of zones.
Now, do some research and find an appropriate venue in each zone. If you are starting out, consider coffee houses and pizza parlors, which often let you play in trade for free coffee or pizza. If you are established, look for clubs and other venues that match your current draw. Go ahead and plan for the future by finding venues that would represent the next step in your development as an artist.
Call each venue and ask for the booking manager. A venue is any place where you can perform: an arena, a concert hall, a nightclub, a YMCA, a high school, a pizza parlor...
Try to schedule your shows so that there is at least two weeks between shows in adjacent zones, because a close by zone might suck audience out of the adjacent zone.
You will not always be able to schedule shows exactly the way you prefer. Start with the most desirable venues so that you can adjust the scheduling of less desirable venues or even find alternatives in the same zone.
If there are two appropriate venues in the same zone, you need to alternate the months that you play at each. Do not overbook any zone.
By spreading your shows out in the zones, once you have a draw of between 100 and 300 (depending on how heavily your audience drinks) you should be able to make a full time living as a professional musician. Not fantastic pay, but enough to pay the rent and keep your career moving forward.
Note that this applies for any genre of music. In general there is room for two successful artists in any niche genre. You just need to be good enough to be one of the two for your area. You could play polka and still make a living. If you play a popular genre (hip hop, EDM, rock, country, rap, R&B, etc.) then there is room for more successful acts.
Be observant and adjust your zones to reality. If you see that two zones are drawing on the same audience, combine them into a single zone. If you see that a zone is too big, split it into two or more zones. Keep making changes to build up your audience.
Also, keep gathering information on venues. There will be new venues opening. You will be growing in draw and eligible for bigger venues.
In another blog I discuss how to grow out into other cities and become a regional act.