Taking career advice from multi-platinum artists should always come with some generous grains of salt, but this latest dispatch from Imagine Dragons‘ recent interview with NPR has me particularly befuddled. In it, singer Dan Reynolds imparts his advice to aspiring musicians that “you have to take every chance you have to be seen.”
The full quote, thanks to Hypebot, offers a bit more context.
Reynolds: I would say have no ego. We opened at a mall for a mime in Las Vegas. We said yes to every single show. And looking back, maybe we should have said no to that one.
Sermon: No, no, no. We wouldn’t have this story!
Reynolds: Yeah, we wouldn’t have this story. But I think that you have to pay those dues, you have to take every chance you have to be seen. And that was important because finally one day someone was in the crowd who mattered in the music industry, and they got our EP, and they took it to somebody, and then we got signed.
I want to believe that he’s right, that all it takes is for you to put in the hours, and, at some point, some hypothetical label executive will stumble across your band riding in on a silver chariot. But in my experience, and in my view of how the music industry really works for the 99.99% of artists actually grinding through it, not picking the lucky ticket and trickling up to the top, I’m not sure I can sign off on that advice.
1. Bad Gigs Can Actually Break Up a Band.
A few months ago, Sophie Chernin of the indie rock band Madam West wrote a great article detailing some of the irrefutable reason why you should not just go ahead and take a particular gig when it’s offered to you. There is such a thing as a “bad gig,” and it can seriously hurt your band in a number of ways.
Nobody is immune to making regrettable decisions, so your career is going to develop with mistakes built into it no matter what. I even find that bands grow and mature quicker as a result of bad gigs. And, yes, sometimes mistakes can lead to funny stories, à la Reynolds’ “mall story.” I’ve played tons of bad gigs — some were hilarious and fun, some were 100% unavoidable and, luckily, inconsequential. But that isn’t always the case.
There are promoters out there who are literally ripping off bands. There are bad and reputation-killing bookings. There are out-of-town gigs where you’re not going to make back your travel costs, and the set time is too short to make good on the opportunity anyway. In situations like these, band morale is a serious factor. If you’re putting in the work, you want it to pay off or else motivation starts to dwindle, and your bandmates will start to feel like Sisyphus.
I’m not saying you should sit around and wait for fame to come knocking on your door, and, conversely, I’m also not saying gigging isn’t a sacrifice and a hustle. If you’re going to succeed, you absolutely need to be performing in front of people and often. But, that said, don’t just say yes to every single show. Consider the pros and cons first, and ask yourself if this gig is going to help you get closer to your musical goals.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “Booking a Tour? Why Not Book Two Instead?!”
2. At a Certain Point, Saying “No” Becomes Empowering.
Saying “no” to a gig isn’t just a privilege reserved for those who can afford to turn down less lucrative offers, it’s a right that every musician is free to exercise at any time. There’s a certain empowerment that comes along with saying “no,” and I can’t overstate the clarity and perspective one gains when he or she commits to turning an offer down.
Empowerment may also come in the form of sending a message to those who might be looking to take advantage of your band — talent buyers, booking agents, music supervisors, festival curators, etc. — that you’re worth more, or require more, than what has been offered.
In this regard, saying “no” helps you and your band gain confidence in your value and allows you to recognize that your art and your audience are not to be taken for granted. This is a really powerful feeling and can be a watershed moment in a band’s career.
3. Every Gig Should Serve a Purpose.
This is my version of Reynolds’ advice, and perhaps what he should’ve more responsibly said in a nationally syndicated interview. The first two arguments are somewhat abstract, but this one is more concrete. Every gig you play needs to serve a purpose.
If you’re playing the same old songs to the same old people, you’re not selling records and you’re not saving up money to invest in further projects like albums, tours, or videos, your band is on the fast track to dying. Similarly, if you’re booking gigs here and there, but you’re not totally sure why here or why there, there’s a problem, and there are probably better ways you could be spending your creative energy.
There are a million non-monetary reasons why playing a gig could be worth your time — such as, networking, résumé- or relationship-building, having a place to stay one night on the road when no other offers are made, visiting friends or family in another city, even just playing because it’s going to be fun, and so on. Those reasons are for you to make up yourself, as long as you stick to them.
In the end, play tons of gigs, and whichever ones you want. Play that gig at the mall opening for a mime if you want, but just don’t take every single gig thinking this might be the one that a major label rep walks into, because there are better, smarter ways to work on advancing your career. And some of them involve a bit of saying “no.”
As for touring, every artist has their own reasons for wanting to go out on tour, as it’s a deeply personal experience. Here’s the introduction to my free course, Touring on a Shoestring, which includes a handful of unique reasons why some of your favorite artists both love and despise it.