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October/November 2015

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Status in the Scene Part 1

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Status in the Scene Part 1

Every town where live music is regularly performed has some kind of scene: an ongoing series of performances by local and visiting musicians that adds up to its own culture. Some scenes are thriving, with great live acts, dedicated audiences and venue owners who encourage the performers. Other live music scenes can be stagnant, with the same bands playing all the time, so-so audience turnout, and venues that barely survive. 

Most likely your own local scene will feel like a mixture between the two extremes, with some great shows and quite a few off-nights; audiences whose loyalty is a real struggle to win; and some places doing well while others struggle.

Over the next three issues we’’ll explore what role your band is likely to play in a local music scene, depending on your level of achievement and reputation. Another way of putting it is status. When all the bands are lined up on an imaginary scale, how far along is yours? The decisions you make and the gigs that you’’ll play really depend on what status you’’ve reached in your scene.

Getting started

The most basic level of status is that of a new band on the scene. Some might use the word ‘beginning’, but I prefer to say ‘breakout’. Any healthy live music scene is going to have established acts around which much of the gigging revolves. A new group of musicians brings some fresh blood into the mix and can really liven things up. On the other hand, they have everything to prove and virtually no credibility until the scene starts to notice them.

So many breakout bands are well and truly ‘beginners’ in terms of experience and professionalism, and they come and go with such frequency that it can actually drag the scene down a bit to make things too easy for them. This is why some of the biggest club scenes have the most stringent gate-keeping, with many hoops to jump through before a band is accepted as having even ‘breakout’ status.

Knowing the territory

It’’s astonishing how many musicians think that they can just enter into a pub/club scene without any advance knowledge, and move quickly forward in status simply because they’’re technically accomplished. They want to be recognised as leaders in a group of unknown people to whom they don’’t yet belong.

It’’s so much better to just go out and attend gigs every chance you get. Learn who is running the show and doing the work behind the scenes: venue managers, barkeeps, techs and bookers.

Find out who are the bands with the biggest following, but more than that, who is in that following and why do they always show up? What are the different vibes at different gigs, and is there anything beyond the style of the music that’s responsible? Most importantly, get to know everyone who seems like they might want to help you, because you’’re going to need them if you’’re serious about your passion.

Forming alliances

One band practising in its basement is an unconnected bunch of people. Two bands who know and trust each other pretty well are the beginnings of their own scene. Three or more interconnected bands can form the basis of their own musical culture, if they perform music with a similar resonance and like to support each other live. If the interdependency is strong enough, the musicians can change from band to band, or start new bands without losing their status.

This formula is the same for any status in a scene, whether breakout, established, or touring. It can also cut across status, with a breakout band becoming established very quickly through their contacts with more accomplished bands, or local heroes being taken along on tour by major acts.

Getting gigs

Once you’’ve spent time making connections and attending gigs, it’’s time to turn that exposure into action. Don’’t go too far too fast. Some members of your band will likely be itching to play the big gigs from the very start, but the more a gig is about your ego the less it can be about winning and maintaining a faithful audience. It’’s better to do the hard work of playing smaller gigs with an intimate connection to attendees –– that way, they can really get to know you and feel like they’’re a part of what you’re doing musically, rather than just existing to make you into a star.

Therefore, don’’t fear the smaller gigs –– the all-ages shows, the street fairs, the coffee-houses, the student union appearances. These are opportunities where the stakes are very low, and you can afford to make all the mistakes you need in order to develop your instincts and polish your act. Most of all, you’’ll have time to connect with your audience, to chat with them casually after the gig after you’’ve fought for their attention during your act.

Meanwhile, try to book yourself and your mates’ bands. This is so much better of a strategy than just trying to book yourselves. More than likely, you’’ll have much the same crowd of followers anyway, so most of them will stick around for the whole show. And don’’t be afraid to experiment, like several bands booking out an unlikely venue and inviting all their friends and family, and then making guest appearances in each others’ sets.

Audience development

When you’’ve paid some of your dues as described above (and they can be hugely fun to pay) then you may find the process of booking more and more serious gigs starts to take over on its own, with bookers asking when your band is going to play at their venue, or established bands calling you up to ask you to open.

The reason why? Credibility. You’’ll have shown that you can get an audience together and make a few hundred people feel great, and that’’s some fairy dust that the scene wants sprinkled over it. As much of a pain in the neck as breakout bands can be, great new bands that have their own following and are connected in the scene are an indispensable resource. Local scenes would eventually collapse without them. You are needed.

If you can build on your momentum, then you’’ll eventually reach a new level of status, in which your band becomes a part of the scene, moving forward to its rhythms and natural evolution. For some advance advice, don’’t miss next issue’’s installment of Building Blocks: Status in the Scene, Part 2: Established Bands.

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. He is Education Composer-In-Residence for Orchestra Wellington, and his online orchestration course is available from macProVideo.