X Things Every Band Should Know
First things first, I have been guilty of almost everything listed below. The quicker you can get a handle on these tips, the swifter you will move forward. Conversely, if you continue to do these faux pas, you will never make any progress in your scene. All of these suggestions are coming from a place of kindness and altruistically wanting my fellow musicians to succeed. I am not trying to pick and nag at any specific bands. These are just a mixture of my biggest pet peeves and the things I wish I would have known when I was first coming out of the gate. May it help you grow and succeed in your pursuit of playing live music!
It Doesn’t Matter What Slot You Play
Let’s be real, you’re playing a bar or an old theater or a coffeehouse, and probably to a crowd consisting of the bands you’re sharing the bill with and maybe a handful of others in attendance; "Headlining" means nothing in this context. Personally, I’ve typically seen a bigger crowd for the opening act in recent years, and it wanes through the evening until often no one is left for the last band, so the tables have somewhat turned. I believe it’s a combination of people’s attention spans getting shorter, and simply just not wanting to be out late. Overall, it’s a fairly level playing field, so don’t let something so simple cause duress between fellow local bands.
Discuss Band Order Before the Show
In a similar vein to the paragraph above, the order of the show (or lack thereof) can cause a lot of frustration and friction between bands. Typically the band that is putting the show together gets dibs on what slot they want to play. All the same, be flexible. If it’s a special event like an ‘album release show’ or the like, if said band wants to headline, it should be a given. In all other cases, though, don’t wait until the day of the show to figure out the order of the bands. Take some initiative weeks beforehand and ask the other bands. Otherwise, don’t bitch when you have to open or close a show when you waited to ask until you arrived at the gig.
Playing With Out-of-Town Acts
If you ever want to play a show out of your city or state, it takes building relationships with bands not in your scene. (Thanks, Capt. Obvious!) When you get the chance to host and share the stage with a band from out of town, just be kind and courteous. Buy them a beer. Sit down and get to know them; don’t pass up the opportunity to build a relationship. And try to put them in the middle of the bill. I’ve heard it from countless accounts that playing first or last in a new place with little-to-no draw is one of the biggest nightmares for a band. Watch their set in its entirety. And when it comes to the end of the night, if there’s any money involved, I suggest giving a bigger cut of the door to the band that drove hours to be there. They’ll probably return the favor when you’re playing down their way on down the road.
Be On Time
Punctuality is one of my biggest pet peeves. Time is of the essence, and when you get a late start, it creates unnecessary pressure and time constraints for the rest of the show. Flat tires happen, cars break down, and those are unavoidable. All the same, if load-in is at X time, be there at X time. Help other bands unload. Be courteous. If you’re running late, let someone know. Often times you’re coming straight over after getting off work, you hit traffic, something holds you up, and that’s okay; just communicate. Granted, in a bar setting, the sound guy is often the one running late, taking forever to set the stage up, smoking between every mic being placed, pushing off start time for an hour, but his punctuality is on him. There’s no need to add to the chaos by showing up at your start time with your 20-piece drum set still needing to be unloaded and set up.
Respect Your Sound Guy
I have had some really good sound engineers as I’ve played out through the years, and just as many terrible ones. All the same, respect your sound engineer. They’re often jaded and have no interest in your band, but they’re doing their job. You throwing a bitch fit is not going to resolve anything about the situation if you’re having a poor experience. And half the time, the band on stage not paying attention or being cooperative is what sets the sound guy off in the first place, so the blame often rests on you.
Wait Your Turn to Soundcheck
When I have ran sound in the past, nothing is more obnoxious than trying to get proper levels, only to have everyone in the band is noodling around. I understand knobs get jostled about on your rig when you lug it to shows, but you’ll most likely have a chance to get your amp how you want it to sound if you just wait a moment. I know every room you play sounds different, and you’ll typically have to adjust accordingly, just don’t do it when the sound guy is trying to get the drums up and going. Honestly, drummers are the absolute worst. I often want to go up and just take all of their sticks away until it’s their turn to sound check, but they’d still have a kick and hi-hat they’d naturally start dicking around on, so it’s a lose-lose situation. But if you want to sound good in the front of house, get a proper monitor mix and sound as best as you can for the show, wait your damn turn to get levels, and don’t dick off!
This applies on many levels. If you are up next to play and the band says “Hey guys, this is our last song!” take that time, if you must, to go have your smoke or grab a drink or whatever tickles your fancy. Don’t wait until they are getting their gear off stage, as at that point you’re just holding up the show. If your drums aren’t already assembled and your guitar pedals aren’t out of their gig bag, just go home. You’re putting the band after you even further behind schedule, and you’re just being inconsiderate.
When the sound guy says “KICK!”, you give him the damn kick. If you didn’t hear the sound guy say “KICK” due to your guitar player trying to get his perfect tone, refer back to the “Wait Your Turn” paragraph. If the sound guy has to say “KICK!” three times before you hear it, you’re starting your whole set off on a bad foot.
Lastly, when the sound guy puts up fingers for “TWO MORE!”, you play two more. If he signals “LAST SONG!”, you play your last song. And if he motions he’s going to slit your throat, you stop playing, or he will slit your throat. Be looking for these hand signals. Don’t make him yell through the monitors, or cut the power completely. Once again, you’re being inconsiderate. One thing I’ve learned (the hard way) is people’s attention spans typically last 5, maybe 6 songs. After that, you’ll usually lose the crowd, so appropriate you set accordingly. In the same vein, if your songs are 10+ minutes long, you’re three songs in and the sound guy is cutting you off, it is time to get off stage.
Support Your Friends
The one thing that should go without saying is one of the biggest problems in the local scene today. Why the hell would someone come out to your show if you haven’t ever gone out to see theirs? SUPPORT YOUR FELLOW BANDS. This does not imply going to every show ever in your area (although I wouldn’t hate that), but simply make an effort to go to shows that you’re not playing. It should be obvious. I have been compiling a list of all the bands in the state of West Virginia, and there are four hundred bands on it so far, and it is constantly growing. I understand we all have lives and jobs and families, but if one person from each band in your respective area regularly came out to show, you would have a fantastic crowd all the time, let alone the non-musicians that are already in attendance. So even if it’s just once a month, go out to a show and show your support.
Don’t Ask to Borrow Gear After You Arrive at a Gig
It is one thing to coordinate before a show if you will be sharing a drum kit or a bass rig, and that is all well and good. It saves on teardown time between acts and helps simplify things. It is also a different situation when you are on stage and your amp decides to give out and another band, out of the kindness of their heart, lets you use theirs for the remainder of the set. All the same, don’t ever expect to be able to borrow someone’s gear. Some people are very protective over their $5,000 rig they have invested much and time and energy and money into, and I would be just as leery letting someone use expensive gear of my own. But if you arrive to a show without any cymbals, need to borrow a bass amp AND a bass, and your guitar amp poops out in the middle of your set, you should not be gigging out whatsoever. Take the time to save up and have reliable gear, and then get back into the game. Surprisingly, I have seen this denizens of times, and it is pure bullshit. I am a nice guy and I have let my gear get borrowed in these situations, only to have two guitar amps, a bass amp and bass all having to be fixed, and no one to reimburse me. So if you are playing a gig, make sure your gear is reliable.
Another topic that should be common sense, if you are going to be playing out, your set should, at the bare minimum, be coherent. No one starts out perfect by any means, but if you can’t get through one song without a big muff up, it is time to up your practice times from once a week to 2 or 3 times and get your 4-6 songs down. Then, have a friend you trust come watch your practice, and be open to some constructive criticism. It isn’t easy to be vulnerable, but if you want people (who are usually paying good money) to be receptive to your art, then you are going to have to be open to tweaking your material. I will give some leeway to bands that may not be the best musicians, but can still engage the crowd with their banter and create a memorable set. But if your songs aren’t good and you can’t engage a crowd/don’t talk, people are going to write you off immediately, and bands will probably never invite you back onto share a bill with them. There are a handful of bands that I have seen perform for literal years on end, and they never seem to improve, yet I don’t have the heart to tell them, “You know, maybe it’s time to give up, yeah?” Essentially, if multiple accounts tell you that you need to work on your songs, you need to get to work on those songs. Don’t be afraid to scrap a whole set and start anew; you might be surprised as to what might come out of it.
Tune, Tune, Tune!
Absolutely NO ONE wants to hear an out of tune instrument. It’d be nice if we all had perfect pitch, but we don’t. That being the case, go out and buy some form of a tuner and check your tuning between EVERY SONG. For newer bands, you will often have cheaper instruments starting out, and they are prone to go out of tune far quicker than a higher-end instrument, so it is vital that you tune often. Tuners do vary, though, if ever so slightly, so I recommend that you all share the same brand of tuner, to ensure that everyone is on the same frequency. I have seen far too many fantastic bands reduce the quality of their music by being out of tune. It is one of the easiest problems to fix, and the most avoidable, so stop letting it bite you in the ass…please!
Frequent Venues Before You Ask to Play Them
This applies on a strictly local level (although I wouldn’t discourage driving 1-3 hours to check out other local scenes and getting to know people in them, see how they operate), but before you try and get a show at local bar or coffeehouse, check out the place beforehand. Buy a beer or a coffee and get to know the staff. Make the effort to get to know musicians that play there, seek out and meet who does the booking, and start cultivating relationships. Open mics are often a good foot in the door to meeting your local music scene and getting the ball rolling. But from a firsthand experience, when I have put on shows, if you ask to have me host your band and I haven’t seen you or any of your band members at any of my previous shows, I am not going to be very inclined to host you. But if you have made yourself known to me, or possibly befriended me (NOT on social media, but in person), having that relationship will help move things forward for you immensely.
Stay For the Whole Show
Another enormous pet peeve of mine that I CANNOT emphasize enough are when bands play and dip. I understand many of you have families to get back to and other things to do, or that you don’t enjoy the music from the other acts performing, but overall it is unconscionably rude to show up, perform, and leave. This will lead to developing ZERO relationships in your scene, and will often adversely affect your getting on to any future shows. Similar to what I stated earlier, what the hell would make me want to watch your set if you didn’t take the time to watch mine? It might come across as whiny and insecure, but as a musician, I can almost guarantee this is the sentiment across the board. The biggest reason I have seen bands dip out is to go and grab a bite to eat. I don’t typically like to eat a heavy meal before a set, and that often means I am quite hungry come the end of the show. BUT supporting my fellow musicians means far more to me than a slight hunger pang for a few moments. If it is really that big of a deal, bring a damn snack or something to munch on, for fuck’s sake. If you are not going to support the other bands in the scene, why should they support you? And why should anyone else?
Ask For Monitors
I have heard some phenomenal bands have some really shit sets and, more often than not, it boils down to monitors. If you are playing some DIY show in a basement of a house, you will often know what you are getting yourself into. But if you are performing through a decent PA with a monitor mix set up for your personal disposal, why not utilize it? The sound guy (if he’s not out smoking) is there to cater to you to an extent. He wants you to sound good, not to fail and flounder on stage. Often times, you won’t get a good sound check in, and you’ll be playing on the fly. After the first song, if you need something, DO NOT be afraid to speak up! If the sound guy is worth a shit, he will oblige you, and ultimately the crowd will be grateful that you made this decision, and your playing will improve. Also, it’s okay to ask for more monitors after the first song. Hell, you could ask halfway through your set! The sound guy (unless you’ve really done a number on him) is not behind the board trying to sabotage you, so it’s never too late to simply just ask.
As a band, you typically can’t set up your gear in practice like you would in a venue. You are often in a circle around the drums, with a PA (if you’re lucky) that often times will barely make your voice cut through the mix. The problem starts here. Dynamics are what take a band from good to great. If you can learn to play as quiet as possible [emphasis on the drums] yet still have that “umph” to your sound, this will take you very far. So when you are actually on a stage, if anything, the sound guy should be asking you to turn up, not turn down. It’s why we have monitors; so you can hear yourself on stage, and not overpower the front of house – not for monitors to add to your already-overpowering stage volume. This might sound quite basic, but truly, monitors are you friend. Keep your stage volume low.
Promote Your Shows
I will keep this one short and sweet. Facebook has simplified ways to spread the word about your shows, and all the same oversaturated it to a point where very few pay attention anymore. So I encourage you to get up and get out there. Hang those posters. Hand out those fliers. Get your shows in the public eye. You will be surprised the difference it will make.
Adapters, Cables, DI’s
If your performance depends on that one soundbite to commence the show, or if you play to backing tracks, or you use a wireless mic, whatever it may be, bring ANY cable, adapter or DI box that you might need. These items are small and often get lost or lifted (intentionally and accidentally) so venues will not always have them readily available. If you cannot be prepared in such a way, then you might need to rethink playing with backing tracks or wireless gear altogether.
Don’t Ever Ask to Be On a Show Bill
Holy shit. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No.
No. Absolutely never.
If you want to play out, I have already touched on many ways to do so. NEVER go on to an event page of an existing show and ask to play it. The event might even say “MORE BANDS TBA!”, but that is often when bands have already been asked to fill the slot, and whoever is putting the show together is waiting to confirm them 100%. Go to shows. Build relationships. You will get on a show if you put in the effort.
This day and age, recording has never been more accessible and easy to do. I don’t care if it’s something free like GarageBand or Audacity, if you have an instrument and a computer, you can record it. Granted, you goal is to have something of decent quality to share with the populous, but at the very least get some demos out there. Ask a band you know who recorded them, shop around, and find someone to record ONE high quality song for you, if that is all you can afford at the time. EP’s have become quite popular, as they are a lot less expensive than a full length, and today’s generation typically cannot pay attention after 5-6 songs, so an EP is perfect. Regardless, record SOMETHING!
Don’t Leave Holes on Your Social Media
Within seconds, you can have accounts on all formats of social media. In doing so, please supply all information that you have. Booking email, links to music, etc. etc. etc. There are local bands with a lot of followers that if I try and go find their music, it takes me forever just to summon a link to their tunes, and by then I am so frustrated that I don’t even want to give them a listen anymore. Make everything easily accessible and hard to miss…please!
Don’t Go Into a Show Not Knowing How You’re Going to Get Paid
Starting out, you honestly will probably not get paid at all, whatsoever. But when you do start to play out more frequently and begin to cultivate a following, there will be some money to be generated. Similar to asking about who is playing what slot, sharing gear, etc., long before the day of the show, discuss with the other bands how money is going to pan out. Are you playing with a band with a guarantee? Are they paying per band, or per member of the bands? Is it an even door split? Does the venue match it? Or does the venue take it all? Get it all ironed out long beforehand. And when there is money involved, stick around to the end if you want to get paid. BUT…if a band does decide to fuck you over, don’t make a big scene at the venue and on social media. Keep your cool, let the promoter and the venue know, and purposefully do not work with said band again. This is going to happen at some point, so just be prepared to deal with it. The bad seeds weed themselves out eventually, and often times there will be warning signs before the day of the show, so just be aware of the situation.
Don’t Book a Show Without Knowing the PA Situation
Your first show 3 hours away in a new city with bands you’ve never played with before…hooray! You show up only to find two of the bands dropped, there is no sound engineer, no microphones and you have one tiny PA speaker to work with. This can all be avoided just as long as you communicate with who is putting the show together. There are plenty of rooms for music that require you to bring a PA, but will have a built-in crowd, so it’s worthy of the extra effort. Most other occasions, though, won’t be worth your time and energy and money to make the show happen, so just be aware of what you are getting yourself into. (For your health!)
A lot of bands I have seen in the area are introverts, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it makes it hard to say things in between songs. If that is the case, no banter is way better than bad banter. For me, personally, I like to know the stories behind the songs and what they mean to their creators. I have never been big on jokes in between songs, unless they are done craftily and proficiently. If you are a band that is good with crowds, utilize that gift, but don’t overstep it. And if you are a band full of introverts, have music or samples or loops to fill the dead air in between songs when you tune.
(Sidenote: Don’t be that guy who’s all, “How’s it going?” and when the crowd doesn’t respond, continues to ask, “I SAID, HOW’S IT GOING?!” You are a turd, sir. If the crowd is into it, they will naturally respond. Don’t add insult to injury. )
Respect the Microphone & Sound System
Most smaller venues won’t have fancy compressors and limiters to bring your vocals up if you sing quiet and lower the volume when you scream. If you sing in a lower register, eat the microphone. If you are screaming your guts out, keep the mic several inches from your mouth. NEVER YELL DIRECTLY INTO THE MIC. Your monitor mix alone should tell you that you are far too close to the microphone. And NEVER CUP THE MIC. All this does is make you sound extra shitty, creates senseless feedback and unnecessarily taxes the sound system. In a similar vein, if you are plugged directly into the sound system via your acoustic guitar/instrument of choice, PLEASE MAKE SURE THAT YOUR CHANNEL IS MUTED BEFORE UNPLUGGING. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.
Minimize Your Covers
This last one is merely personal preference, but I get absolutely nothing from cover bands. Sure, you can nail that solo note-for-note, but where is the challenge of creating a song on your own volition, out of the ether, that no one else has done? When you write a song, it is YOURS. That is something to be proud of. But when your whole musical identity is borrowing tunes from other bands who took the time to create something, it’s the cheapest and most belittling form of “flattery”. The occasional cover or two can be fun, but more often than not, the crowd has come to see you play your music…not someone else’s. So unless the occasion specifically and purposefully calls for covers (such as an ‘Off the Record’ night when bands have learned another bands album from start to finish…now that impresses me), keep your covers at a bare minimum, or at the very least, put your own spin on them.