Until about a year ago, my band fit the “bedroom musician” stereotype. I didn’t realize it at the time, but a small part of me was living what I call the Bieber Dream Syndrome — imagining that posting our music online was enough to gain a following out of nowhere.
Sadly, with the majority of musicians now posting their hard work (or minute-to-minute improvisations) to the web, the days of getting spontaneously “discovered” on the internet are behind us.
Social media promotion and networking are great tools, but there’s no substitute for hitting the pavement and checking out venues in person. Whether you’re new to an area, or you’ve been in town awhile, you’ll plan your best set when keeping a few simple thoughts in mind:
Set Length & Set Time
Some venues have strictly enforced set times and changeovers, while DIY venues operate more loosely, with set times changing from night to night (and usually running much later). Plan your set length accordingly! You can also plan your set order around your scheduled set time. Case in point: we recently played a midnight set on a Wednesday at a venue primarily frequented by 9-to-5ers for whom a midnight set is well past bedtime. Instead of making our best single a closer as usual, we put it at the beginning of the set. We grabbed a fair number of sleepy concert-goers on their way out the door, and they stayed afterwards to get our info. If we had opened with our slow jam, well… yawn.
House Etiquette… Or Lack Thereof
If you’re checking out swanky restaurants for your jazz trio to play for the big bucks, note the dress code. Paying gigs are rare, so if you want to ask the manager or maitre d’ for the booker’s email address, dress up like you’re going to a job interview (you are!).
On the other end of the spectrum, playing a house show or DIY club is one of the best opportunities to give the audience a rawer and more spontaneous performance than they might normally see from you. If you’re working with a home PA setup and no one can hear that sweet new synthesizer or effects pedal anyway, by all means, do a shot with the crowd, try a psycho new dance move, or if you’re feeling really gutsy, try out some audience participation.
Take your eyes off of that gorgeous lead singer for a minute and check out the audience. Who’s watching? College students who will die for your skronky guitar licks? Techies who will drool over your analog synthesizer? Teens who will Instagram your bassist’s giraffe costume post-haste? (My bassist has a giraffe costume and he’s damn proud of it). You can use this strategically to both increase merch revenue at shows (those Wall Street guys won’t make faces at dropping $20 on that expensive-to-press vinyl), and take a pass on shooting the booker an email if the crowd doesn’t seem super likely to take an interest in your sound.
Do show-goers stay for the whole show, or are they in and out for each act? Does the venue have a built-in draw? Is the cover so high that it seems like the band is having a hard time pulling any draw from the bar? These are good questions to consider when booking and setting a cover with the booker, as most bookers ask for your own projected draw.
Even if your friend’s band looks really cool on that stage under all of the LEDs, is the sound system doing them justice, or did the sound person leave as soon as the line check was over? Did you meet anyone new, or did the overall environment feel oppressive or exclusive? Your initial instincts can tell you off the bat whether it’ll be worth it to book.
Here’s my final thought: it’s part of your social responsibility as a local artist to support and book at venues that are programming quality live music rather than hustling bands in and out for the cash, and that are promoting an environment of inclusivity. Those venues are few and far-between, but they deserve your patronage and your follow-up emails. No time like the present — so tonight, put your laptop to bed and head to your nearest music spot — maybe I’ll see you there!