This column has covered club gigs several times in the past, but here I want to focus on three important points that fit nicely into this Stage Trek miniseries. First, finding and booking gigs at local clubs. Second, keeping those gigs fresh – leading to further bookings. And third, how to make those gigs pay you something worth your time.
I’ve previously recommended breaking into the local club scene by doing research; going to all the live venues, following bands and seeing how well they do in different places. That way you’ll know the lay of the land. You’ll also meet people and make connections, and maybe those connections will become allies, business contacts and audience members. The next step is getting to know the managers and seeing how to get booked in each venue.
Some may be happy to give you a break and book you in, often at short notice. But before you sign on for a Wednesday night headlining gig, stop and think things through. Do you have enough of a following to make it work? Will they show up on that night? Will they pay a cover charge? And how will it look if no one does show up?
You see, the venue will likely be open anyway. They need something going on most nights of the week to bring in bar custom. Your gig may be a way for them to keep employees busy, but won’t always benefit your band financially. My advice – don’t take on a headlining gig, especially not on a weeknight, until your band really can fill that room.
The most reward for the least effort is opening for another band or bands. You won’t have to take all the responsibility for bringing a crowd, or take the fall if no one shows up. Of course, you should prove to the headliners that you have some kind of following, and you should stick around to support them and keep your crowd there to whoop it up. You’ll get some compensation and most importantly be a part of greater things. You can also evaluate your band against the other acts.
The biggest consideration about staying around is that you’ll be there when the door take is counted and divvied up. You may get paid a flat fee or more likely a percentage, but even if your 5-10% only adds up to $20, you should still collect it. Don’t ever give anyone the impression that you don’t care about getting paid. There are already too many people in this world who think quality music shouldn’t have to cost anything.
You can show up with more people, play a better set, and even have the headliners praising your awesomeness – but what really matters is if you ’clicked’. Did your music fit in well with the style and energy of the whole evening? Did people get revved up, or did you empty the club? In joining a scene, you’re becoming part of the culture of your audience and adding to their memories and sense of self.
Don’t be afraid to build on that sense of belonging. Sometimes your own creativity can be heavily influenced by the bands you open for, and the crowd that follows them. If you find yourself writing more in a style that those people enjoy, then don’t beat yourself up for ’selling out’. You can only sell out if you don’t sincerely mean what you’re playing, and you’re just trying to be popular to make more money.
Catching the spirit of your audience in your music can never be selling out if you love playing it. That’s just the reality of the scene; bands that succeed reach out to their audience and grow with it creatively. That’s how art and business work together, and how musicians build careers.
Once you have a handle on this key factor of audience development and band interconnection you should capitalise on it in human terms, not just financial. Sometimes much larger acts support smaller ones – opening for them but playing down a bit so as not to overwhelm the audience, and then joining the smaller act on stage as guests. Those kinds of gigs have a lot of heart and become meaningful, even poignant memories for their audiences – especially if the gig was some kind of fundraiser, or farewell on behalf of one of the smaller acts’ musicians who might be facing some challenges.
Being part of a scene like this means learning the ins and outs alongside more experienced bands – how they deal with different venue managers, how much they have to shake the tree to get it to drop their takings, and how they rotate their club appearances. If you’re reading this article, it means that you want to learn how to manage yourself.
Think how much more you’ll learn in alliance with an experienced act. Just be prepared to assume the role of rabbi once your band gets more established, and take a promising band under your wing if they click with you.
Many great bands owe their start to a single club where their music clicked – like the New York Bowery’s CBGB or London’s Batcave – but it really takes several venues to make a healthy scene. You may well find your music has different appeal at different clubs. This is because part of the audience is more loyal to the venue than the bands, they feel comfortable in that place and will trust the management to book acts they’ll like.
As you rotate appearances, try to see which material interests crowds the most and why – not so you can pander to them, but so you can build creatively on those interests and start creative dialogues. It can be as simple as a song that always gets the staff in a great mood – or maybe a song with a social statement – music instead of conversation.
Playing a variety of venues, audiences and sets will help keep your music fresh. You’ll be more motivated to write new material in response to the feedback you get, improve your chops and your stage presence. There are no guarantees, but I don’t know of any other way to build a following…
Which leads us to our final concern, making some money out of all this effort. Here things get a little more complex, with many factors that can add up to positive or negative cash flow.
The first is simply whether you can get anyone to show up and pay a door charge. Once again, you have to make an effort to ally with bands who are making money where audiences pay to get in. This is a team effort – unless you are the most popular band at school or something.
Next, you have to learn to cut costs and avoid little expenses that add up to big ones. Things like everyone taking their own cars and paying for downtown parking, running up a big bar tab, or hiring huge amounts of gear that you don’t yet need. If this is a working band, originals or covers, then you need to take home some income, not just pizza money. This is the beauty of sharing expenses with other bands, especially with gear and promotion costs.
The best outcome you can hope for is that the simplest strategy results in the most earnings. It’s always better to have a leaner act, smaller amounts of gear and shorter set-up time. Music that expresses the most emotion and meaning with the fewest artificial ingredients is not only easier to practice and more enjoyable to play, but also makes the most economic sense if you’re trying to go professional. That’s true if you’re a folk band playing acoustic guitars or a synth-pop band with a couple of keyboards and tape delays.
Of course, sometimes stripping things down to the basics is its own kind of gig, and also pays pretty well into the bargain. Find out how as we travel onward in our next episode: Stage Trek, Episode 7: In Search of Cafe/Unplugged Gigs.
Thomas Goss is a producer, band coach, and composer/orchestrator with an international clientele that includes Billy Ocean, Melanie C, and Canadian jazz star Nikki Yanofsky.