Playing State and County Fairs

weeeeee© 2015 Vinny Ribas

 The fair circuit can be quite exhilarating because you’re almost always outdoors, you have mostly good weather, everyone around you is having a blast and you’re surrounded by clowns, magicians and every other kind of fun entertainment.

The most important thing to remember about performing at fairs is that you musthave a family-friendly act! Cursing, making racial slurs, putting people down (especially the fair or the other acts) are definite ways to get fired fast! The more you appeal to all ages, including kids, the better your chances of being hired.

Fairs use all kinds of entertainment, but most often country, folk and rock. They have what is known as ‘stage entertainers’ who may be performing on a large portable stage, on a flat bed trailer, in a tent , on a bandstand, on pallets, on the ground with a rug under them, or in an indoor facility with the livestock!. Then there is ‘grounds entertainment’, which means that you are strolling the grounds as you play. Examples of this would be a solo acoustic guitar player, a mariachi band or a Dixieland jazz band – anyone who doesn’t need electricity!  Double up if you can, strolling during the day and playing on stage in the evening (or vice versa). You’ll get paid for both!

Fairs also frequently have name entertainment, at least on the weekends, and it’s often possible to get booked as the opening act.

  • You can contact the Entertainment Director at the fairs directly. Often times, in smaller fairs, the Executive Director of the fair doubles as the entertainment buyer.
  • For some fairs, booking great entertainment is a priority. For those without a separate entertainment director, it can be more of a nuisance. The easier you make it for the fair to hire you, the better your chances of getting the gig.
  • Some fairs use booking agents. Each fair office can tell you whom you should talk to.
  • Fairs book far in advance. A fair that happens in August will most likely fill their calendar by February or March, if not earlier. Many acts are booked for the following year while they are still performing this year! However, they often look for last-minute fill-in entertainers. Don’t be afraid to call to check if a fair has had a cancellation or has added a spot.
  • Always ask permission to send your promo materials first, and ask what format they would prefer to receive it in. Ask if you should put some kind of a code on it so that they know it was solicited. As the Entertainment Director of the Nevada State Fair, which is a small fair, I literally received thousands of manila envelopes with promo materials every year from all over the country!
  • Many fairs use a lot of volunteer entertainment – people who just want the exposure. If you’re playing in a town while the fair is going on, volunteer to perform for free to draw people to your evening gig! It may result in getting booked at the fair next year.
  • Fairs love gimmicks, costumes, themes, giveaways, unique acts etc. Set yourself apart in an entertaining way and you’ll have no trouble getting in!  For example, there was a singer who brought along his own mini-stage coach. His amplifier was built right into it. He sat on the front with his acoustic guitar and sang country and western songs. So not only did he present something unique, he also eliminated the need for the fair to give him a stage. He wasn’t an amazing singer or guitar player, but he was a hired everywhere!
  • Some gigs provide hotel accommodations. Be sure to clarify this before you agree on a price.
  • You may want to travel with another complimentary act and present yourself as a package.
  • Fairs love it if you can be flexible and fill in gaps when they have them. For example, you may be asked (or better yet, volunteer) to perform a morning set for their ‘Senior Day’, or an afternoon set for an after-school event, the national anthem before a sporting event etc. Become part of the team.
  • Some fairs last for 2-3 days, while others go on for up to 2 weeks!
  • Fair Directors talk to each other! Once you do well at one, it’s much easier to get into others. Be sure to ask for a reference from the Fair Director or Entertainment Director when you finish a gig. Put it in your promo package when you approach the next fair!
  • You can create your own ‘circuit’ that you play year after year. Check the schedules of when fairs occur, and you can map out 6-8 months of fairs that are not too far from each other. For example, the week-long Las Vegas Fair was the week before the 5-day NV State Fair in Reno (8 hr. drive.), which in turn was the week before the 2-week long California State Fair in Sacramento (2 hrs drive).
  • Many fairs pay well for established artists. That doesn’t mean that you have to be famous. It just means that they fell they won’t need to worry about your act or your conduct.
  • Always check to see if the fair will be providing sound. Most will, but there are numerous exceptions. You can also get a better wage if you bring your own PA and offer to run it for other acts on the same stage. Renting PA systems are expensive!
  • Fair offices are usually open year round. If you’re in a town where they have a fair that you’d like to perform at, make an appointment to stop in and meet the Fair Director and/or Entertainment Director. Build a personal relationship. It will go a very long way!
  • There are dozens, if not hundreds of state, regional and national fair associations. By attending their conventions you can meet leaders from many fairs at once. If possible, showcase at the conventions. You can get hired for multiple gigs, which will more than pay for the cost of the showcase! Here are a few:
About The Author

Vinny Ribas

Vinny Ribas is the founder and CEO of Indie Connect, an artist management, consulting and training company. The company also hosts networking and educational events and has published an app that connects people to the Nashville Music Industry. During his 40+ year career, Vinny has been a full time musician, artist manager, booking agent, songwriter, studio owner, producer and the Entertainment Director for the NV State Fair. He has also coached over 1000 artists and songwriters. He is a sought after speaker and has authored over 400 music industry articles. Vinny is also the CEO of Top 4M Entertainment, an independent film and television production company.