The following is a combination of observations drawn from a wide range of musicians both amateur and professional. It touches on conduct, etiquette, how best to deal with bar management, set-up, tear down, post gig review and yes, even performance. You have already dedicated yourself to learning an instrument and forming a band, so take the extra step and review these steps.
Let’s assume you already formed/recruited members, hashed out a brand and formed an identity. You also have a pile of songs and have already booked some gigs. Most musicians get their start at local venues and events like parties, church functions, or small clubs or bars.
Like most everything involving bands, nothing is ever as simple as plug and play when performing for an audience or venue of paying patrons. There are venue politics, proper etiquette and thousands of other little nuances that can become second nature the more you and your band perform.
But who knew the care-free rebellious act of starting a band and performing was such hard work with so many rules? Much of this is plain ol’ common sense, and like most good advice, it never hurts to review once and while. There is a wide range ideas and practices that can assist you and your band in maximizing your enjoyment level and potential. Most everything revolves around putting your band in position to succeed, temporarily aligning your band’s interests with the venue’s interests.
Rule #1: The boss of the venue is always in charge. Therefore, diplomacy and tact should always be the rule. There are no exceptions.
Bands often make the common assumption and assume bar owners and management have similar interests to the band. Most bands want to enjoy and entertain a healthy crowd, expand their brand and ultimately get their music played to as many people possible. Oh, and make lots of money.
It is important however, to view your band as a product, and from the bar owner’s point of view. The club owner is in the business of moving booze, maybe food, and sometimes, door tickets. To the club owner, the band has three primary jobs:
- Attract customers, and make them want to spend money: Move booze, buy food.
- Retain existing customers: Move booze, buy food.
- Make them want to come back again.
If your band is assisting in the above efforts, you are on the right track. Much of the advice here is aimed at aligning the band’s interest to best interests of the venue ...at least for one night anyway. Notice I have mentioned very little about the actual talent of bands. While it is important to rehearse and polish the product you produce as a band, bar management does not hold that criteria in nearly as high regard. Venues certainly do not look to pay premiums for bands that play "good." They want to be secure that they have hired a solid sounding band that will retain existing customers, while pulling in new a fresh faces that will keep the cash registers ringing. Talent certainly helps, but it won’t move the booze itself.
If approached correctly, there are many subtle things bands can do to assist the venue and still keep that band’s interests at heart.
If an owner or management for example, approaches you during your first few songs to say you are too loud, well... turn down! Being a rock star, if only for a few hours at a corner bar feels great, but if the band is shaking the rafters and forcing regular folks to ask for their tab and head for the door, the band is not exactly helping the venue. The boss of the venue is always
in charge, so listen and do what they request.
Prior to Gig
The "Art" of Band Posters:
- Be sure to present the venue with artwork such as fliers and posters about a month prior to the gig. Make sure to introduce yourself to the bartender on hand and explain why you have posters.
- Always ask for permission before hanging posters. Some places are funny about driving staples or taping stuff to their walls. Some places prefer you to hang them, others prefer to do it themselves.
- Make sure your website and social sites have the correct information for the venue and show times.
You don’t have to have a degree in art or access to fancy art programs to create an effective poster. Most standard word processing programs will work just fine. If you are not a computer whiz, try leveraging a family member or friend for help out. Standard size for rock shows is usually 11x17, but I’ve seen all sorts of shapes and sizes.
Name of the band, date and time of first chord are most important but it’s also a good idea to determine where the posters will be hung. If you plan to only hang them inside the establishment, then adding the venue’s information can become redundant or unnecessary. If you plan to use them as handouts or market them elsewhere, adding the venue’s address, phone and website is critical.
Sometimes management will request that you to include their venue’s logo your flyer. You can always win confidence with bar management and ask them if there is anything in particular you can add to the poster on their behalf. If they have a food or drink special to promote, be happy to add it. If you are doing a poster over a month in advance, they may or may not have that information, but the small gesture on your part will re-enforce to management that you are committed to their core goals: filling the seats and moving product.
In the unlikely scenario that you have extra resources or time, you can also consider printing off black and white handouts for the show. These work well either to leave behind for the bar, or simply hand them out yourself.
Gig Day: Be a True Professional
- Be dependable, show up on time. You’re in a band, and you cannot do it alone and you have others depending on you.
- If there is a band leader, respect or at least acknowledge the hierarchy of band management. If there is no band leader, have a mutual agreement on everything from dress code to conduct that is in line with the spirit of the group. This, of course can be forged over time.
- Money Talks. Since you are already serious enough to book gigs, you may have already come to terms on how money will be dispersed. Does one member get gas money because he drove or hauled the gear? Does the member who booked the gig get a little extra? It never hurts reiterate these terms on gig day.
- Always remember to HAVE FUN! If you are enjoying yourself, the audience will too.
Have a conversation on how the band dresses. Have a common understanding of what your band and the venue deems acceptable. This obviously is different in each band, situation, and style of music but a group poorly dressed musicians can be a mark of unprofessionalism. Many bands will deem simple jeans and a t-shirt to be the standard attire for rock and roll, but many artists put a great deal of thought into their look. I personally try to stay away from cargo shorts.
The band is on premise, on time, and ready to load in.
I’m not going to get into the moral/safety issue with drinking alcohol during a performance. This is a subject that is well discussed on other platforms. It is important however, to understand what exactly is offered to the band prior to ordering a bunch of drinks and food. If you do get concessions, be sure to tip your waitress on the full amount of the tab.
Harvest Individual Talents of Group Members
Sure, hauling gear is never fun and in the spirit of everyone pulling their own weight, it is very easy to simply say, "everyone helps with the set-up and tear down." While most of the time this is true, it may be a little short sighed. Don’t overlook "bigger picture" opportunities. I’ll happily lug gear up and down stairs, if I know my bass player is busy securing our next gig with the bar manager.
- Someone in the band have social butterfly tendencies or is a natural salesman? During set-up, make sure to have him out and about roaming the room to drum up interest for the band. If tables are only there for dinner, make a joke and try to get them to stick around for "one or two" tunes.
- Do you have a member who likes to endlessly tinker? Consider having that member oversee set-up and gear management.
- Got a Social Media Guru? If so, they are probably already running the band’s entire marketing efforts with Website, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and everything else under the sun. Make sure to unleash that band member with the purpose of getting some documentation of the show, and material you can post to various social outlets during and after the show.
Read more about Marketing Strategy for Gigging Bands Performing in Bars and Venues.
Load in can be one of the most stressful times for band members. Say you are supposed to start at 9:00 and it is already 8:00. There may be an endless checklist running through your head on what you need to do. Maybe there are some friends and family already at the bar and they want to greet you. Perhaps there is a busy dinner crowd and tables right where you are supposed to play. Maybe your drummer isn’t there yet to help load in, or you are simply irritated that all the "good" parking spots are taken and you are forced to haul all your gear from two blocks way. If it’s an unfamiliar venue, it adds to angst. Do you just start loading in? Do you talk to someone first?
It’s always a good idea to seek out management to let them know members of the band are present and are ready to load in. This is a good opportunity to introduce yourself and meet head bartenders and other key people. Take the opportunity to confirm band concessions, time allotted and other details.
Setup: Have a Plan B for Pretty Much Everything
- Make sure the "stage" area is clear before load-in. Don’t start loading in around dinner tables full of dinner crowd customers, you may alienate the very people you are being paid to entertain! Approach management asking what you should do. Perhaps they have a plan to politely offer the customers alternative seating, or maybe they want you to "sit tight" and wait for the tables to finish before you can begin to set up.
- Before plugging anything in, always make sure that the mains are earthed and safe! Use a mains tester. Faulty wiring can be a deadly hazard, so always exercise caution especially in unfamiliar venues.
- Everybody helps set up and tear down, unless you have communicated a different arrangement between members. Perhaps one member is getting the band payment, maybe another is busy with Public Relations, like socializing with the new fans you just made over the night’s show. Again, be cognizant of "bigger picture" roles of band members. Still, that pile of amplifiers won’t move themselves.
- Even if setup/tear down is not the primary role of a member, they should at least know how to set up everything. This will prove to be helpful in the event one member is running late and he is the only guy who knows how to work the DMX lighting thingamajigger or the sound board.
- If there are other bands performing on the same stage/area in the same evening, ask management how they prefer the bands to set up.
Some venues will have sound equipment and/or sound technician, make sure when booking to ask if the band is to provide sound. Be cautious of venues that claim to have sound, but no soundman. You’ll have no idea what kind of gear it is and what condition it is in. Professional musicians love to tell horror stories about the conditions of PA systems while on the road. Bring your PA gear regardless, it’s better to have it and not need it than to need it and not have it.
Much of the time, the size of the stage will determine what you can set up. If you are familiar with the venue, played there before or have seen other bands perform, it certainly helps. If you are not familiar, it would help to ask management before gig day if they can tell you how large the stage or area is. If you know the area is on the small side, your guitar player may not be able to keep his six backup guitars and large petal board on stage. Make sure to communicate that space may be tight and plan accordingly. Check out Related: Ten Pieces of Gear For Gigging Bands That Are Under $10
Prior to Showtime
- People will miss or forget 90% of your musical errors, but equipment problems are painfully obvious. Learn and know your gear.
- Try to have extras of everything: This includes amplifiers, guitars, mic’s, cables, xlr’s, stands, extension cords, batteries, picks, stings, straps, and snare drums.
- Have a plan B in case your main PA power fails. Have a plan B for pretty much everything.
- Be prepared by knowing how to fix problems in your gear and signal chain in as little time as possible and without making horrible noises. Have spares of everything and know how to replace them FAST.
- When trouble shooting, the cable is the place to start. Again, have extras of everything!
- Keep plenty of electrical and gaffers tape handy, stay away from duct tape if all possible, it leaves all sorts of residue to anything it touches.
- Have a small tool kit handy which includes a flashlight, pliers, screwdrivers and assorted wrenches, tie wraps and gaffers tape.
- Keep an eye on your gear. The world is filled with thieves.
- Print set list in LARGE TYPE, so you can easily read at a glance. Have enough copies for the band and soundman.
- Ask a friend or patron to mill around and give you a report on the sound and balance after the first tune and trust what he says. Encourage them to approach you early (within the first few tunes) if something needs tweaking. It does no good to tell a band AFTER the show they couldn't hear the guitar or the backup vocals where too thin.
- Bring a couple cheap white hand towels (Buy them in packs at the budget stores). They're great for wiping your hands off after setting up gear, and for wiping your face.
- Many bars/venues won’t have any special lighting for the band. If you’ve got lighting, use it! Gone are the bulky power sucking super-hot par cans. Today’s LED pars are light, low power, easy to use and ridiculously affordable.
- Keep the stage area as clean as possible! Try to stash guitar and drum cases under tables and out of sight. If space is tight, consider leaving bulky cases in your car.
- Consider gaff taping bunches of cables to the floor, especially if your rig is near high traffic areas.
- Don't point a microphone at any monitor, because feedback is painful.
- Try not to place the main speakers behind the microphones.
- Make sure you are aware of what is expected of your band in terms of time allotted. If you are the only band for the evening, set expectations with management regarding how long you plan to play. Two 1 ½ hour sets or three one hour sets is pretty standard for a single band performing at a bar. If there is more than one band, confirm with management and make sure everyone is aware of the game plan.
- Tune Up! Guitar and bass players use the same tuner, if possible. Not all tuners are created equally and unfortunately one tuner’s pitch may vary slightly.
- Have a "Sound Check" tune handy that uses most of everything, drums, bass, and backup vocals. Don’t be afraid to announce it as such. Take the time you need after the tune to adjust audio levels.
- Get names of: Soundman, bartenders, waitresses and management, write them down for later reference.
- Always ask the management during setup, "Is there anything special that you want us to do? Quiet first set? Promote upcoming events? Promote the food? Announce last call?" This will give you more exposure to management, and they will be flattered that you indeed are aware of their interests.
- If working with a sound man, he is the second most important person in the room after the bar management. Make sure you introduce yourself, know his name and have extra copies of the band’s Stage Plot. If you don’t have one, make sure to take time to write one out. You do not want him to simply guess his way through your stage setup.
Example of a Stage Plot
- The soundman is there to make you sound the best you can. When working with him, do what he asks during sound check. If it is not your turn for sound check, don’t play!
- Encourage friends/family to snap photos for use to populate your band website/social endeavors. Ask them to get right in front when snapping. Bunches of photos from comfortable, yet back-of-the-house seats make for terrible shots of the band.
- Many times at bars you will find yourself "competing" with popular sporting events: basketball, hockey, UFC or whatever. Much of the time, management doesn’t even realize the overlap of a sporting event and band performance, so make sure they are aware. Maybe they want you to "sit-tight" until that event ends. Don’t be afraid to jump on the bandwagon during the show and mention the event. "How ‘bout them Cowboy’s!" …or whatever. Certainly do not bad-mouth that sport/event publicly during that show because of your personal feelings or you are just not a "fan."
- Always take a "safety pee" before you go on. You really don't want to be dying to pee for half a set. Consider having a "singer/guitar player" tune handy so the rhythm section can take care of business. If you do an instrumental tune, that gives the singer an opportunity for a quick break. If you are the only guitar player in the band, you may be out of luck!
Similar to an athlete warming up for an event, many musicians treat their body in the same fashion. Guitar players and drummers have number of different exercises to loosen your hands fingers and and arms. Singers, there are a number of great techniques for warming up your vocal chords. Find a routine and stick with it. Your body will thank you.
The lights are on and the house music has been turned off. It’s showtime! You are pumped, nervous, and excited. If you are running behind schedule, you may even be irritated. As you launch into your first tune, you are finally free to let go. All eyes in the venue are on you and the band, exactly what every musician dreams of while practicing hours on end as a kid. Despite all the stress and hard work of booking, preparation and setup, there still may be some issues as you work through your first song. Despite having a sound check tune, the sound levels still may need tweaking. Sometimes the atmosphere in the venue changes in the time you sound checked and your opening song.
This is less of an issue when working with a soundman, he’ll probably get the band mixed right in the first minute or two.
If you have no sound man, it gets more complicated because band members are forced to perform and be aware of sound tweaking. Resist the urge to open with that new tune you have been rehearsing for weeks. Instead, consider opening with a selection that the entire band is very familiar with.
At this point, the fruits of your networking during set up will pay off. Keep an eye on your "guy" who is milling around and make sure to get a quick report on how the sound is. Make necessary adjustments after the first song. If you are unsure, don’t be afraid to ask the crowd how it sounds. They can be a great barometer.
Song Requests and Drink Offers
- Start as close to "start time" as possible. Some bands complain because "nobody's here" which of course is an insult to the paying customer/patron who IS there.
- Again, remember to have fun! If you are enjoying yourselves, the audence will too. It may sound corny, but smile and smile often.
- It is easy to fall into a trap of simply "staring down" at your instrument. Force yourself to look in an attempt to engage the crowd or your fellow band members. Like driving a car, keep your eyes moving and keep smiling!
- Keep all the gadgets you’ll need for the show at your fingertips. This includes slides, capos, towels, and portable tuners. Make a mental note of the items you might need as you look over the through the set. Being forced to rummage through a bag to grab a capo creates unnecessary dead air. If you’re lucky, your gadget bag is still on stage and not burried or packed away.
- Be on time for start and end of sets. Don’t go overboard on the length of breaks, you don’t want everyone clearing out because the band is on an hour smoke break.
- If management says turn down, well, then turn down. Nothing wrong with having the mains softer than the monitors.
- Don't worry about getting every song right. Most likely, no one will even realize you screwed up the arrangement or sing the wrong words. Play it your own way and make it YOUR own! The way you feel comes across more than you know.
- In the event of a total train wreck of a song, don’t ever "apologize" at the end of the tune. Just press on! Most patrons may not even realize the band screwed up, and mentioning it after the fact will draw unnecessary attention. If you must make a reference to a train wreck, poke fun at yourselves and make a joke.
- Try not to stop/start songs mid-tune. This is not rehearsal. If you must, find a natural point to stop.
- Tempo! Tempo Tempo! Many bands have a tendency to unknowingly speed songs up. Many times it is the singer to turn around with a WTF look on his face because he is laboring through lyrics faster than a seasoned rap artist. Be aware that this is a possibility and over communicate this at the start of the first set or every tune if necessary.
- Don’t be afraid to over communicate while playing a newer or unfamiliar tune. Have the drummer practice subtle que’s and don’t be afraid to shout out a chord change if needed.
- Keep dead air to a minimum. Grab a quick gulp of beverage and press on! Even 30 seconds is an eternity and often times has your singer pressed to entertain the crowd.
- Dead air and equipment issues will happen. Have a plan B for entertaining the crowd while other band members attend to the problem at hand. Have your singer/front man prepare for such events.
- Be sure to mention a couple of the bartenders/waitresses during the performance. "Be good to Candy (or whoever), it's her birthday and she's gotta work." It was never her birthday, but her tips may increase. Guess who begged the manager for a return booking?
- Be mindful of minors during your performance, and it may not be the appropriate time to play certain tunes in your set. With smoking bans and bars emphasizing more food sales, young children are often present later in evenings. Most states allow minors in the dining area of bars until about a ½ hour after food sales end. Consider playing that "F-bomb" tune when you are sure there are no kids around.
- Don't noodle after sound check, between songs, or play along with the jukebox, etc. I’m always a bit surprised on how many guitar and bass players are blissfully unaware when they noodle. All members should be focused on what to perform next. Noodling is unprofessional, inhibits communication, and takes away the impact of your next song.
- Never mention a band name or song you don’t know. It’s a rookie mistake, but it’s easy to do.
- Never publicly promote another bar at the current bar. This includes announcing your next gig or handing out fliers. One way to upset management is to plug a show at a competitor’s bar down the street. One-on-one conversation at a table away from management or owner should be acceptable, but always remember diplomacy and tact for the current venue.
- Be cordial in your requests to the sound man over the mic during the gig. You only THINK you're in control. Those guys can make or break you.
- If you're opening, promote the headliner to the crowd. Otherwise, thank the opening act publicly.
- Encourage audience participation, but make a decision on inviting other musicians on stage with you. Is this "right" gig to bring up a friend/waitress to sing/play a song? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. We encourage participation by having a couple of extra tambourines on hand.
- Have a pre-arranged tune for special occasions, especially birthdays.
- Avoid setting drinks anyplace that can cause real danger if spilled. This counts pretty much anyplace on stage, especially on amps ad near cables and power sources.
- Learn, memorize and pronounce each band member’s name. Have the front man or singer introduce the band using their full or stage name. If one band member has a large number of friends and family present, be sure to mention that band member last to create the biggest cheer.
- Often times it is friends/family that assist in load-in or administrative things like logo/poster design and website management. Be sure to publicity recognize these individuals for their contributions if they are on hand for the show.
Patrons will often approach you and the band with a "cocktail" napkin request, and perhaps an offer to buy the band a round or give a tip.
- Be polite, but mindful of possible "dead air" that this conversation is creating.
- Whether you perform the song or not, be sure to reconnect with the requester during the next break to thank them.
- Don’t ever perform the same song twice. I get requests all the time to perform "such and such" again. It’s a pain in the butt request, but it’s also flattering because someone in the crowd clearly is enjoying your music so much they want to hear something a second time. Resist succumbing to the requestor. Doing so would please the them, but for everyone else? Not so much. Be polite to the person and offer up a compromise to perform a similar tune or perhaps a different tune from the same artist.
- Many seasoned bands that don’t drink or that have concessions for free drinks often pre-arrange with the bartenders and venue a little plan for such instances. Instead of simply turning down an offer of a free drink, the band will request a code like "Rum and Cola for the band." The band is served regular cola, but the patron is charged for the rum, and the cash goes into the waitress/Bartender’s pocket. The band wins because they don’t have an awkward moment of embarrassing a fan by turning down a drink. The bartender/Waitress wins because they get a couple of extra bucks, and the patron wins because they bought the band a round. Is this over complicated and borderline unethical? Sure. Can it blow up in your face? Sure. This little "white-lie" only works in certain circumstances and everyone from the bartenders, waitresses and band have to be in on it. God forbid you actually get rum in your coke.
Your breaks are not time to sit down and talk to each other or to simply b-line to the bathroom or table of significant others. Breaks are just as important as your stage time if not more!
- During your performance, make mental notes of folks dancing and/or enjoying themselves. Make sure to approach them during a break and introduce yourself. Have business cards close by, but don’t lead the conversation with them. Only bring it up if the new friend/fan asks when you are returning. This is a great way to expand your brand and gain a few new fans.
- People still love to brag, "I'm good friends with the band!" Give them that opportunity and let them tell their friends all about this cool band they know! Be sure to at least shake their hand or give them a hug during your breaks. Ego strokes are profitable.
- Get the names and emails of your fans and let them know where you're going to be. Keep a clipboard for a mailing list handy. If folks are hesitant to give email addresses, make sure to have social outlets and website information handy for fans to research you on their own terms.
You are nearing the end of your final set and your band is nailing it! Don’t be afraid to “break it down” to just bass and drums during a groovy section of a tune. Take the time to introduce the band and thank the venue for the opportunity. It’s also a good idea to convey any messages from management like last call.
If you are not the only band to perform, be sure to mention earlier bands or promote bands that will follow you. Try to mention these bands by name. Other bands will be flattered that you took the time to recognize their band when you didn’t necessarily have too. This can help with networking with other musicians… more on that later.
- Always remember to remind paying customers to "tip their waitresses and bartenders" towards the end of the evening.
- In the event of an encore request, only do so if management/sound man are in approval. If you are the opening act or it’s close to bar close, you may not have the time. Find out in advance for such information. Keep an encore tune at the ready.
While the band is breaking down for the evening, seek out management for payment. If it is a cash payment, make sure you count it right in front of the manager.
A band member one time handed me a wade of cash that was supposedly given to him from the head bartender just a few moments earlier. When I counted it, it was short $100. No way could I go back to the bartender to complain because the cash disappeared from her sight. Maybe the bartender purposely or accidentally shorted us or perhaps my band member skimmed, but there was no way to be sure.
The deal is not done until the cash is counted and both parties are in agreement that that all terms have been met.
If it was a good night and management is pleased with you and your band, strike while the iron is hot! Don’t be afraid to start talking about a future booking. On a good night, management often is more than willing to give you that opportunity, and they may even have their date book handy. This can save you all sorts of communication time!
Get contact information and tell them to expect a follow up call/email. ...and gosh darn it! Follow up!
- Tip the server that took care of the band. They will usually help you get another gig.
- Same goes to the soundman. He often works other venues and can help you get gigs.
- Wipe down cables after gig or before next use.
- Try to be paid at the conclusion of the performance and pay out band members as quick as possible. Musicians are relying upon that money for groceries, rent, etc. It is amateurish to tell them that you will pay them a week or two later when you get the check.
- If possible, pay the person booking the gig a little extra. There are phone calls and personal visits to be made in getting each gig. It isn't fair to the guy/gal getting the gig to not be paid for that valuable time and everyone else gets the benefit.
- Your reputation is always on the line with band members, friends, family, patrons, and bar management. Be as honest as you can because dishonesty can be common place in the band/bar industry.
Challenges of a Gigging Band
If the Evening is Not Going As Planned
- Keep your website events up to date. It’s amateurish to force users to scroll down past months of outdated gigs to find where you are performing next.
- Make sure you leverage all the photos, videos and other materials from the show. Post them to websites, and various social media outlets.
- Simiar to writing a thank you letter after an interview, remember to send a quick email to the venue you just performed thanking them for the opportunity. Bar industry can have short memorys so any way to you can diferentate yourself from other bands will help you. A courtious note could keep you top of mind, and help land a return booking.
- Make sure you send a little time reviewing the last gig at your next band practice. Encourage a discussion on what worked and what didn’t. It’s also a good opportunity to discuss things like band gear, revised plan B on whatever, and set list strategy for the next show.
- Because you socialized so well during your breaks and you handed out plenty of business cards, you might see some activity in the band’s inbox/social media from new fans dropping you a note. Be sure to have someone in the band respond and thank them. Be sure to tell them where you are performing next in that area and add them to your email blast.
Perhaps the weather kept folks at home, or you are having gear/sound issues, management is not happy about something or simply everything that can go wrong has gone wrong. Every band experiences these kinds of issues.
Time Management and Communication
- Remember not to throw your reputation out the window because you are in a bad mood or things are not breaking your way.
- You may not realize it at that moment, but "train-wreck" nights can often pull band members closer together and make for great stories down the line.
- Remember to remain professional and courteous. Even if this night is not going well, you still represent yourself and your fellow band members.
- If a crowd is unhappy it is usually because the band is too loud. Rarely do patrons actually "boo" and it is more likely they will simply leave or become indifferent to the band.
There is no harm in "turning down!"
- If you find yourselves performing to an empty house, you are still doing what you love! Use it as an opportunity to throw in a few tunes that maybe are not quite "show" ready. A "live rehearsal" is always welcome practice.
- Don’t start bad-mouthing the head bartender to the fella’s outside when having a smoke because you never know who knows who, especially in unfamiliar bars. At worst, you might get you’re a** kicked! At best, maybe the waitress in the back works a shift at another bar and can see potential in approaching you about another opportunity?
Most of us have already gone through the pains of forming and band, creating an identity and taking that step from basement to a stage. The moment you agree to book a gig with a local bar, you and your band have a business agreement, and must treat it as so. But everyday things like significant others, children, day jobs or school will often take priority over band projects. If there are issues with your availability, communicate with your band mates and keep them in the loop. Nothing can derail all the hard work of forming a band like poor or little communication.
It is often a good idea to discuss the "current state" of the band from time to time and welcome any insight from band members. Discussing future gigs, vacations or other things pertinent to band are important, but it is shockingly easy not to do so.
Pains of Building a Fan Base
A big argument for gigging is it builds a fan base. But does it really? Most bands tap friends and families, and that can be very successful …for the first couple of shows. One of the disadvantages of gigging regularly is your fan base has multiple options to see you, thus diminishing the “specialness” of any one particular event. Even your hardcore fans, mostly family/wives/girlfriends can only be counted on for so many shows. Even if they do turn up to multiple shows, they are not the kind of high volume customer that is going to consume a bunch of alcohol. This will put a butt in a bar stool, but bar management won’t be thrilled with bar ring.
Now you’ve tapped out your friends and family, there is always the “built-in” audience at bars. That is certainly a can’t miss opportunity to build a following right? The popular theory of “gigging to build a fan base” is when a person or group shows up to a local bar, hears you play and is instantly converted into a follower. They would then attend future performances, friend your Facebook band page, telling all their friends about you. Those friends tell their friends and pretty soon you’re grass roots campaign has hundreds of fans flocking to your shows.
The truth is the majority of these audiences last only until your performance ends. Just because you have a successful show at a particular venue one time is no barometer for a future performance. Remember the last time you played "venue X" when that group of crazy college kids slamming shots in the back, and the girls were dancing up a storm and treating your band like rock gods? Well, they are back in school by the time you get rebooked. Your audience is most likely an ever changing group, and if you are truly lucky you’ll get some repeats.
The market for live music is shrinking, and all of the most successful bands experience less than stellar gigs. Like any other business, there are highs and lows. Be prepared for some nights of playing in empty halls.
Networking with Other Musicians
Whether it is open jams, multiple bands on the same bill or even the dude you met at the local guitar shop, your exposure to other musicians is ever present. Networking with others that "do what you do" has multiple benefits. If you are at a gig that features more than just your band, networking can be key. You never know, a member of that band may end up joining your band someday. …or you may wind up playing for them down the line. The other band might have a contact at the bar down the street that you have been trying to get in touch with for ages. Simply talking gear with another band can be enjoyable.
I recently had an experience co-headlining a bar that was out of our core area and we have trouble pulling fans to that particular venue. We quickly realized that the band that was performing before us had a large crowd, and would most likely leave after “their” band finished. This would leave us with a half empty bar we were not familiar with. Not exactly the best scenario.
After their set, I targeted the guitar player who happend to be the leader of their band as they torn down to make way for us. I introduced myself and handed him our set list of cover tunes and asked him if he would be interested in jamming with us on a tune or two. He was flattered, and agreed to the invitation. We asked him to simply leave his rig in the corner on stage. We started our normal set and played for about a ½ hour all the while teasing the crowd that we would have a special guest from the earlier band. He joined us on stage, jammed with us for a couple of tunes and we all enjoyed ourselves. In this gesture, we were able to successfully network with another musician and ensure he and his influence of friends and family stuck around for a large portion of our set.
Devious in a very light heared manner.
While you are busy networking with other bands, be sure to support them at their gigs if you can. Take mental notes: What can you learn from them? What do they do well? How they handle themselves on stage?
Take Networking To The Next Level
If your band befriends another band, you can take it a step further enter a joint venture. Have them "open" for you at one of your bars and in turn you open for them at one of their bars. Combined with joint marketing and social media, the two bands can create an added buzz. The money may not be great, but the opportunity to perform in a new bars can help open doors for future gigs for both bands.
Fill Up Soft Spots on Your Schedule: Get light, Go Acoustic!
Providing an acoustic version of your band can open new opportunities that are unavailable to full rock bands. If you are touring or simply looking for ways to fill up soft spots on your calendar, acoustic gigs offer numerous benefits. They can be scheduled around your main shows, you don’t have as much gear to lug around and you may not even need all the members of your group to be present. Local bars, coffee shops, heck even the occasional living room are options for live music that won’t blow the doors off the place.
Being flexible also can save you in a pinch if, say your drummer or bass player calls sick last minute and you have no replacement. Instead of being forced to cancel, you have the option to slim down to acoustic set. Creatively, acoustic versions also provide you the opportunity to give a slightly different spin on your otherwise standard material.
Identify Potential Allies and Partners and be Identified as a Potential Ally and Partner
As mentioned above, you are aligning your interests with a venue to assist in retaining and drawing in paying customers. By viewing management as potential allies and partners, always treat them with courtesy and respect. The good and not-so-good are eventually easy to identify. This also works on the flipside; bar management can identify solid, well managed bands that put forth a solid and consistent product.
Even less than ideal experiences can turn into potential opportunities providing that you and your band remain consistent. Do not be afraid to walk away from an arrangement if you feel you are not getting a fair deal, but be prepared to state your argument and stay composed. If you choose not to conduct future business with a particular venue or individual, you can do so without burning a bridge entirely.
What have I missed? I’m all ears! Please do not hesitateshoot me an email at email@example.com
. I want to hear about your successes, horror "train-wreck" stories and of course, anything I may have omitted.
The information here may seem daunting, but please remember: this is the accumulation of a great number musicians and years of gigging.
If you pick up a tip here and there and steadily improve the product you put forth, bar owners and management will be grateful for how you represent yourself and the band. They more often than not will reward your efforts with future opportunities.
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Neal Rudnik is an entertainer and performer with nearly twenty five years of rock band, acoustic and open mic gigging experience. He is also a founding member and guitar player for Urban Sprawl and CK & The Gray, both local Chicagoland cover bands. In 2002, Neal completed his under graduate studies by spending a year researching the current state of the Chicago Blues music scene. First person interviews with club owners, musicians, promoters, journalists, record label executives and blues enthusiasts, Neal was able to gain a unique insight to the business and tradition of Chicago Blues music. Neal completed his Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Updated in February, 2017
Neal is grateful to the following people and groups for their contributions: Carter Szok, Steve Ehlers, Ken Vercellotti, and Brian Hogan. Neal is also grateful to Baxter and members of gretschpages.com for their insight and advice including: Steve Bistrow, Troy Dering, Mark Gilliam, Norm Van Maastricht, Jim Krause, Robert Bihlmayer, Kevin Frye, Richard Brown, Rob Williams, Bern Finch, Steve Bistrow, Greg Zigmont, Steve DeBoard, and Jack Stacey..