I was in the “indie” band “Saturday’s Child” for about ten years from 1997 to 2007. We recorded a couple of albums, got ourselves some excellent management, worked with some of the top people in the industry, toured regularly, and still ended up being a band that no one has heard of. When the band formed I was just 17 years old, literally right out of high school.
Over the course of the next decade, I had experiences that I wouldn’t give up for anything. The music industry was changing right underneath our feet, and while I think we were a great band that in another era would’ve been “discovered” and broken through, we were stuck between the old ways of promotion (fliers, stickers, canvasing the streets before a gig) and the new ways (social networking sites). You can actually find our catalog on iTunes to this day, but our inclusion on that service was at the tail-end of the band’s lifespan.
One thing we all learned was that playing shows at bars and clubs is a uniquely different experience for the band than it is for the bar owners and staff. We started calling ourselves “Booze Peddlers” because all we were meant to do was bring as many people as we could into the doors to buy as much alcohol as possible, and to keep those already in the bar there as long as possible, drinking their weight in beer and vodka. I also learned quite a few other things though, and I’d like to share the most important ten with everyone now.
10. The sound guy is never, ever right – Now, I know that this can’t be an absolute, but by and large the guy running the sound board for you is going to be dispassionate about your music at best, and combative and apathetic at worst. He’s not there to make sure your solo peaks out over the rest of the band, and he’s not there to ensure you can all hear yourselves right so you can harmonize effectively, so don’t expect him to give you sound advice when it comes to levels and amp settings.
He’s there, making probably a hundred dollars and getting free booze. If you can, find someone you trust in another band and have them run the sound for you, or run your own sound. If these things are not an option, buy the house sound guy or guys a beer. This will make them at least temporarily like you enough to where they’re not telling you turn down your bass amp so low that you can’t even hear it on stage, let alone in the house.
9. Make friends with other bands – This might seem obvious, but in ten years I did encounter more than a few bands that seemed so self-important they never even bothered to introduce themselves at shows where we shared the bill. On the flip-side, we met four or five other bands that remain close friends and true treasures to have in our lives. When you link up with other bands you expand your potential gig roster and even on occasion find bands to tour with. It can literally be like a band of brothers (or sisters if you have members of the fairer sex in your act).
Think of it this way, if you’re playing to an empty bar in Flagstaff on a warm summer night, wouldn’t like to have a few other friends with you along for the ride? As we networked with other bands the entire experience of playing live shows changed. Finding an ally in the bar or club can help keep you from feeling rejected and nervous. Basically if you don’t like talking with fellow musicians, I can’t understand why you’d want to be in a rock band.
8. Wait to Critique – This is one I’m not sure we ever learned. We always had a tendency to do a post mortem as soon as the last note stopped ringing and our amps were shut off. “We dropped a beat hear” or “You were flat on this part of that song” is valuable information to have when you practice your set the next time, but perhaps it’s not the most wise from an ego stand point to immediately critique every nuance of your performance that night.
For starters, you’re going to need some perspective. In the moment when adrenaline is pumping you may have less awareness or a hyper-awareness of what’s going right or wrong. Consult the tape in a few days so you can listen with a fresh set of ears. If you didn’t video tape that show, or get a recording off the board that night, it’s still best to wait a day or so. Even an unmitigated disaster needs a little time to recover from, so don’t rush to tell each other how poorly you all played.
7. Get Pictures and Video – When it’s all over and you’re either a big rich millionaire rock star in your mansion, or you’re someone with a spouse and kids and a day job you’ll want to look back at times you had in that band, playing those shows. Pictures are great ways to permanently record small moments of your sets. If you’re lucky enough to have someone who takes great pictures, they can even make your shows seem better years and years later if the shots they snap look good enough.
Video is great both as a way of reminiscence, but also as a practice tool. If you’re not sure how your set went, consult the tape. Of course, you’ll want to make sure whatever device you’re using to record the video either can accept outside audio sources (like a stereo mix from the sound board) or can handle high volume output, otherwise you want really hear much other than overblown bass and piercing high-end. If you can’t get a sound mix from the board, either turn down the input level on the audio settings of your device, or if you can’t do that, move the camera as far from the stage and house speakers as possible.
6. Bring a Spare – Things happen in live music, and not all of them good. Strings will break, straps will come loose and send your guitar tumbling to the ground and amps will blow up or fry. It doesn’t happen every show, but it certainly happens enough to where redundancy is highly recommended. Start with getting a backup set of strings and get good at re-stringing on the fly as quickly as possible.
A better solution though is to have a backup instrument. I’m not suggesting you need to have to super high quality guitars on stage with you at every gig. If you can afford it, by all means do it. However, do yourself a favor and save some money for an affordable approximation of your main instrument. I know this not really possible for drummers, but guess what you can have spares of? Drum heads. At least carry a spare snare and kick drum head. I’ve had sets cut short three songs in because our drummer broke a snare head and didn’t have a spare.
5. Practice Isn’t Just a Cliche – My band’s manager used to have one big criticism of new bands she went and saw as potential new clients. “They need more practice.” This one line became a sort of mantra within the band, when seeing new bands, and we started getting good at spotting the bands that did indeed need more practice. It could sound like harsh criticism, but when you spend as many hours in dark, smelly bars as we did, you develop an eye and ear for this sort of thing.
Practice isn’t just about running through your set many, many times. Though this is really important. You should know those songs backwards and forwards. When in doubt: cut it out. Don’t play a song your band hasn’t managed to get through many, many times without making mistakes. When you start playing live, there will be some nerves-induced mistakes anyway, so don’t compound them by playing a less than ready set. Practice also means being on stage in front of a crowd, and making them feel engaged and entertained. It means knowing when to not introduce a song, and just play. It means knowing how to craft a set list that moves and breathes like any other performance.
4. You Will Play To An Empty Bar…A Lot – Only the most debauched of of alcoholics willingly go to bars at ten o’clock. Your friends will eventually stop going to every show no matter great your band is, unless you play one show every two months or so. Even then, don’t count on them coming all the time. So this means as your walk the road towards fame and fortune, more often than not you’ll be playing for the six regulars, the sound guy and the bartender.
You cannot let this discourage you or alter your set or performance. Maybe you can sneak in a song or two that you just love to play that maybe you’d not play in front of a larger crowd, but part of that practice thing is getting to where every show is at a consistently high level. Making excuses for playing a less than great show is a bad precedent to set.
3. Spend Your Money on Fewer Recordings and More Tours – Recording an album is expensive. We were fortunate to be able to get a deal for one of our albums that made our studio time free, but we recorded at odd hours whenever we could get time. If you can swing that, make it happen, you won’t regret it. However, if you can’t make that happen, maybe it’s best to track two or three of your best tunes, pay to have them professionally mastered and then make your own copies. It virtually pointless to have professionally made CDs these days when there are so many digital avenues to get your music out there.
Touring is even more expensive in the long run, but it gets you the most benefit. So with your home-made duplicated copies of your EP in hand, save that extra capital, rent or buy a van and hit the road. You will gain way more important exposure and experience taking us much of your bands’ funds as possible on the road than you would with a slickly polished and packaged full length album. Let the label you’re trying to get to sign you pay for tracking the entire epic concept album you have in mind, and you just focus on getting as many people to hear your best stuff as possible.
2. Your Music Should Be Available and Free – We all want to get paid for what we love. I completely sympathize with that statement. However, music is one commodity that thanks to the Internet is really quite devalued unless you have super-dedicated fans buying your material. That being said, it doesn’t mean you can’t eventually get paid when people download your stuff from iTunes or any other digital music service. However, when you’re starting out, and until you have that opportunity, make your music as widely available and as free of charge as possible. You have to look at this concept from the standpoint of investing in your future. The more ears that hear your stuff the better. The best way to encourage as many people to hear your stuff as possible is to make it free.
The economy is in the tank right now. People are probably not going to be as likely to spend their hard earned cash on music from a band they may not even recognize. I’m not saying that if someone offers you five bucks for your EP you shouldn’t gladly relieve of them their sawbuck. What I am saying is that your first concern when you’re starting out shouldn’t be buying that mansion in the hills. You have to build up an interest in what you have to offer before you can plan to make more than a few dollars here or there.
1. Get The Hell Out of Dodge! – The most important piece of advice I could give any band that’s starting out is to get out of their city. In fact, it was my experience that the further we got from large metropolitan areas the better. Some of our best shows were played in front of small towns in Northern California, Southern Oregon, Washington and Arizona. With the exception of Austin, Texas no major metro city really had the kind of crowds that the smaller towns did.
The crowds were more receptive to new live music because they weren’t flooded with a million bands playing every night, vying for every bit of attention they could get. Of course we had great shows in places like Huntington Beach as well, but that was more due to the club being owned by Dennis Rodman and the vibe of the club itself being so fun than it was because our audience actually gave a damn.
Touring is what makes bands tick. When you spend a few days or a couple weeks or more in an enclosed van in the middle of nowhere you learn a lot about each other. A bond forms on a tour that lasts a lifetime. It may not seem like it at the time, when you’re broke, smelly and tired, but years later you will embrace those times as being what the band was really all about. One word of caution though, if you’re ever in Brookings, Oregon and a large, angry man with a gruff voice asks you “Headbutt or haircut” take the haircut. Believe me, you’ll be glad you did.
If I missed anything, or if you have any of your own experiences in a rock band, drop me a comment!