In the music industry, amateur bands and musicians are nothing new. And when I say amateur, I mean the mentality and the actions that usually go with it. We have all heard and seen the horror stories of inexperienced musicians at gigs: no-shows, musicians getting sloppy drunk and causing problems, unearned entitlement, inconveniencing the venue staff or other bands, the list goes on. There are many reasons to make and perform music but let’s face it, if you are performing live in a club or similar situation and you are getting paid, you are at work and you should act like it.
I know, I know. This is the point at which some people get defensive and counter with something like, “Hey man, I got into music so I could work on my own terms and not have to answer to a boss or brown-nose. I make my own rules.” Okay, that’s fine. I understand that some people don’t want to stifle their creative flow or process with a bunch of stiff expectations. But here’s the problem: if you want to advance your musical career, get paid, and create a strong network in your musical community, there are a few things that will eventually be expected of you and believe me when I say that you are much better off learning early.
It’s been my experience that most bands do not think of themselves as businesses. I have also noticed that most bands never make it past playing local bar gigs to half-empty rooms for a few bucks and a couple of cheap beers. Correlation? We’ll see. There are many things that go into making a band or business successful, many more than could fit into one article. But I think a problem exists when bands do not realize the situation they are in. Let’s break it down.
- You form a band by finding other people who add value to your own set of skills and strengths. You probably refer to these people as your bandmates or “drummer” and “guitarist.” But these people are your business partners. Stay with me.
- You then spend time writing songs and rehearsing them so they sound good and appeal to people. This is product development.
- Most musicians are aware of their local scene, what people want to hear, and what other bands are out there making waves. This is also known as analyzing your market and your peers or competitors.
- You then figure out how you want to get your music to the people who you think would want to hear it. Also known as researching distribution channels.
- You eventually book a few gigs to make some money and get your name out there. When a club books your band, they are hiring you to both entertain their clientele and bring in new customers. They pay you for a service that you provide: playing music that people will enjoy and in the process, increase ticket or food/drink sales.
- Somewhere down the road, you may manage to land and sign a record deal. At this point, you are essentially part of an acquisition. A larger company has paid for the rights to your products so they can use them to make money. There are many ways that this can happen, but at the end of the day, the only reason a label will sign a band is because they believe they can make money. End of story.
So, you are in a business, whether or not you choose to acknowledge or refer to it as such. With that comes certain expectations. Let’s look at a brief analogy. When you go to a restaurant, you expect the staff to be friendly, to be knowledgeable and able to answer your questions. When you spend your money on their food, you expect a certain level of quality and satisfaction. If you walk into a restaurant and no one is at the counter, the place is a total mess, the food is disgusting, it takes forever to get your order, and the staff is rude, it is very likely you will not return. Unfortunately, all too often bands engage in behavior analogous to the bad restaurant experience. But let’s look at a few ways you can avoid making yourself look bad, especially if you haven’t had much experience. By starting off on the right foot, you can create tremendous opportunities and a strong reputation that will only help you down the road.
Tip #1: Be Prepared
This one seems simple enough but it is one of the biggest problems for many musicians. Let’s start at the beginning. You should have your songs well-rehearsed and have a setlist prepared before the day of the gig. Know what you are going to play and have the material ready to perform with confidence. It might seem cool to just wing it and fly by the seat of your pants on stage but unless that is specifically part of your stage persona, it just looks bad. Why are major professional acts able to command such high prices for big shows? Because they spend so much time and money preparing for the show so when the audience is there, everything goes down without a hitch. Your fans don’t want to see you fumble your way through a song or spend an extra 2 minutes between songs deciding what to play next. Get on with it. Second, know what the arrangement is with the venue. How much money are you making, are they providing sound gear, do you get some sort of hospitality (food, hotel, drinks, etc.), how long of a set are you expected to play, do you need to sell tickets beforehand, who is handling promotion, what time are you supposed to show up for sound check, who should be in charge of collecting money at the end of the show, what space is available for your merch and do they charge a percentage of sales, do you have a guest list or extra crew; these are all questions that should be answered well before the day of the show. Don’t make assumptions and be clear when you communicate with the venue. Know who to contact and make sure they know how to get ahold of you. Miscommunications are a huge source of frustration for everyone.
Tip #2: Be Professional
This one is a bit vague but let’s break it down. Professionalism can take many forms but in this case, I am talking about your attitude and behavior. First things first: show up on time! Nothing makes a bad first impression like the venue staff waiting around for you to get there. No one cares about you making yourself pretty or stopping for burritos on paid time. If you are expected to be there at 5pm for load-in, be there at 4:55pm and make sure you know what’s going on and where you need to be. This next one is a big one. BE NICE TO THE STAFF. Sound crew, bartenders, servers, bookers; these people may see hundreds of bands per year and they are not impressed with your rockstar attitude. Just because you got a show booked does not make you special. Say hello, introduce yourself, be polite, ask permission if you are getting in their space or if they need to help you with something. I have seen so many bands treat the staff like crap and not surprisingly, I almost never hear of those bands again after that. The staff are at work and you need to be courteous and considerate of their reality. It’s okay to be excited, just don’t be a jerk. When it comes time for the show, know your limits and maintain a healthy state both mentally and physically. If you need a beer or a puff before you go on stage to get in the zone, then do your thing. No one is saying you have to be a square. But don’t start chugging booze backstage 5 minutes before the show if you can’t handle it. You might think it makes you look cool to be faded on stage, but let me straighten this out right now: it doesn’t. If you are a disaster, stumbling and swerving all over the stage and degrading your performance (especially if it is causing problems for the staff or audience), you are sabotaging the whole situation. Save the partying for after the set. Most people wouldn’t get drunk at their day job, so why do you think it’s okay to do when you are at work in a music club? Besides, you have more to do after the set is over like networking or selling merch (see Tip #4).
Tip #3: Be Cool to the Other Musicians
How you treat your bandmates (business partners) is up to you, though I highly recommend being respectful and kind. However, you don’t get an option when it comes to other musicians. Whether these people are in other bands on the bill or simply in the audience, you do NOT want to talk down to them, snub them, or be pretentious. I have played so many shows with small-time bands who feel entitled because they finally got a show at a decent venue. They fancy themselves rockstars and think everyone should be taking pictures and asking for autographs. Reality check: this attitude will get you nowhere. Not only do other musicians not care about how awesome and accomplished you think you are, you are likely shooting yourself in the foot by ruining your reputation with them. These people are your peers and your network. You need to know their names, shake their hands, take at least a minor interest in what they are doing. Someday, you may need a favor and if you have treated them like dirt, you are going to be screwed later on. So how can you put this tip into action? Understand that, if you have other bands on your bill, they have just as much of a right to be there as you. They are also at work and deserve the opportunity to conduct their business. I feel like this shouldn’t even need to be said, but don’t be rude to them. I’ve had other musicians literally try and start fights just because they wanted to look cool or tough. This high-school bully nonsense is career suicide. Don’t engage in it. Be friendly, make sure you communicate any changes or expectations regarding the show. Exchange contact information. Stay out of their way when they are working or setting up. Don’t overplay your set time. This one is a big one. If you planned on playing 10 songs but you ran out of time after 9, you are done playing. Don’t screw the other band who goes on after you. Finish the 9th song and get off stage. Get off quickly. When you are done playing and another band is waiting to go on, especially if they need to set up gear, hurry up and get out of the way! Don’t go chat with your buddies or get a beer, move your crap and make sure the next band can do their thing without interference. There are few quicker ways to piss off the next band than by being in their way.
Tip #4: Have a Quality Product
This probably should have led the list but it is such a complex topic that I didn’t want to overwhelm anyone too early. This one goes deep and will be discussed in a later post, but when it comes to a show, make sure your songs are enjoyable. This is of course a relative metric. However, you should know your audience and understand what they want. Also, know the venue and the people that will be there. If you get hired to play a dinner gig, don’t go in their full volume and disrupt everyone by cranking your amps up unnecessarily loud and jumping around making a mess. Try that nonsense once and I can almost guarantee you will never be hired at that venue again. Beyond just quality music, have merch or an online presence. If people enjoy your music, have somewhere they can go to find more information. Use a mailing list, social media, or a website and encourage people to visit online (see an example of a merch store). Have something to sell (assuming money and growth are your goals) that is of quality. By that, I mean don’t offer home-burned CDs that have your band name written in crayon (unless of course this is what your audience demands). Don’t sharpie a few t-shirts and call it good (again, unless it’s demanded). I recommend spending a little bit of money and getting some quality products. Not only will people be more likely to buy them, you will be protecting your reputation. Remember the bad restaurant scenario? If people are spending their hard-earned money on your merchandise, they are going to be upset if your CD doesn’t play correctly, if their shirt is poor quality, or if you overcharge for a product that you can’t be proud of or doesn’t provide the customer value. It’s sometimes better to have no merch than to have garbage merch. If that is the case, at least have some way for people to find you online. Their attention spans can be short and even if they loved your set, after they leave, you may have lost the opportunity to make a fan. When you are done playing, don’t get straight to partying or head home right away, take some time and engage your audience. These people are you clients, give them some attention.
Tip #5: Do Your Homework
Uh oh, I lost some people again on this one. Listen, the music business is incredibly complex. Starting any business can be incredibly difficult. The process and tasks associated with launching a successful band can be daunting and at times, you will feel overwhelmed. It’s okay! Take it step by step and most importantly, start learning how to accomplish your goals. There is an infinite amount of information online about how to start a business, accounting principles, merchandise tips, music lessons, marketing; the list goes on and on. One of the best decisions I made was to start reading books related to business and musicians. Once you start down that rabbit-hole, you will find that not only are their thousands of resources out there, you will realize just how much you don’t know. And that is a good thing! One book led me to another and another and another. Soon, I had a reading list of hundreds of books, magazines, blogs, professional associations, and articles that I couldn’t wait to get through. Again, take it step by step but never stop learning. Even if you feel you have arrived as a musician, there is always more to know so be hungry for knowledge. Also, go to other bands’ shows. Meet other musicians. Listen to as much music as you can in all genres. Experiment with your instrument, take lessons, pick up a different instrument and gain a new perspective. It doesn’t matter so much what you are trying to learn as long as you are learning. So, get out there, be cool, be prepared, be professional, and most of all, make sure to remember why you started playing music in the first place. I hope that reason is because it brings you joy, but regardless, remember to love what you do.