Mid-July 1982. For a 20th birthday gig, it had been a disheartening night. My band had just finished playing the classy, quirky, and incredibly-hard-to-fill venue On Broadway in the heart of San Francisco’s punk scene. We hadn’t known that the nightclub was going downhill fast, mostly due to the long flight of stairs, spacious vestibule, and posh exterior that kept the casual passerby from hearing what was going on onstage. But after playing a well-rehearsed gig to about six people, our San Francisco debut had fallen flat.
We hadn’t paid much attention to the squat, comical man in the Hawaiian shirt and funny hat who’d sneaked in without paying, chatted with the manager, and shook his head laughingly at our Baroquely kitschy mixture of prog, punk, new wave, and Goth. But later on, as we were packing our gear into the van in the alley below the club, he stuck his head out of the back door of the club below On Broadway, and invited us to play a set right then and there.
The name of that ground floor club? The Mabuhay Gardens, or The Fab Mab as everyone called it in the West Coast punk scene. Every legendary act had played there: X, Black Flag, The Circle Jerks, The Dead Kennedys… Now we were being asked to play The Mab right out of the blue. Would we do it? You bet your safety-pinned cheek!
Within 20 minutes, our gear was whisked downstairs and onto the relatively tiny stage. In fact, the whole place was rather tiny, something much more obvious from the stage than from the seats. But it had something that the soulless place upstairs lacked – spontaneous energy. From the moment we started to play, the little club started to fill. Our friends from the girl-power art collective Chihuahua showed up as well, and brought some thrashy energy and war-whoops to the bopping audience.
By the time we got to the end of our set, the whole place was going nuts. Filipino barbecue was sizzling, drinks were pouring, and a capacity crowd was shouting for more. We started to replay numbers as our set list wasn’t that long, and with each replay we tried to get the crowd to let us go. The encores took half an hour, and we were asked back by the manager to open a Hallowe’en show for two well-established bands, The Dickies and the Butthole Surfer’m sharing this reminiscence from my chequered past in the San Francisco scene because I want to start this series of article with some thoughts. What I notice now, over three decades later, is how naïve and clueless we were as young musicians. We had an overawed view of the Fab Mab, and had hardly ever gone there. We hadn’t bothered talking to the manager before, or experienced the range of acts and progression of nights in an average month of gigs. And we’d certainly never visited On Broadway, and had no idea that the place only filled up with a major act. We blindly fumbled into a great set, which might have been ours to begin with if we’d bothered to take a few steps to learn the territory first.
So my first piece of advice is what someone should have told me in my late teens – don’t ever try to play in a scene of which you know almost nothing. You want to be a local success? Then know the territory. Forget about gigging at first, just go out and be an audience member. And don’t just go to one night at each venue. You should go many nights to the same club, and see how the energy and attendance changes from night to night depending on the bands, the mood of the audience, and the date. While you’re there, mix it up with the audience and make new friends. Find out why those people are there, and which bands they support on the evening’s roster. This can be the fun-est kind of research there is, if you just commit yourself to truly being a part of the audience and joining in, and not sitting in the back observing everything in a detached way. If you’re truly a go-getter, then you’ll be talking to the musicians in the bands as well and get to know them as people, not just future contacts.
Another great way to understand a local scene is to follow a band, whether you connect with them or not. Make it an experiment. Find a band that’s doing well and attend their gigs for a while. Notice their regulars, and how often they show up in support. What’s that band doing right? How are they reaching out? How do they connect the local venues into a circle of regular gigging? And do they have different followings in different clubs?
After this kind of exposure to the scene, then you’ll get a better sense of what venue fits your band. For my little Grave Wave band in the early 1980s, the Fab Mab was a great club because anything could happen on any night, and lead to other things. The On Broadway was a terrible club, because it was like being locked in a large red velvet closet with no audience.
You’ll see similar situations in your local scene. Always estimate what it would take to pull off a successful gig for a band at your status level. You may find it much easier to play at a very small venue, like a café, as your first gig. Or you may see that one club has an audience that turns out for music of your band’s style far more than another. Even if the first club is much less successful, you’ll be welcome there.
The other side of this coin is judging whether you can bring something new to the game. If you see an opportunity to create a place for your music and audience, you may want to try it out at a venue in which it will be a welcome change, or even a sudden shock. Don’t be afraid to approach a club manager with a crazy idea like this – the whole idea of running a nightclub is crazy to begin with. The worst they can do is tell you ‘no’. Just be ready to back up your shot in the dark with hard work if the answer is ‘yes’.
One of the best opportunities for a breakout band is playing a venue that recently opened. Everything is new, and all the acts that play there are usually on a fairly equal footing. What’s more, the owners will be eager to build audiences from their acts’ circles of friends and followers. There’s a kind of honeymoon period built into a new venue’s opening weeks as well, in which people will show up purely out of curiosity to see what’s on offer. The early careers of some historic bands are tied closely to certain nightclubs – the success of both the band and the club were intertwined.
Venues and performance opportunities are plentiful, but they don’t fall from trees. You have to slowly cultivate a number of relationships to develop a list of clients whom you can depend on for gigs, and you have to reward those clients with well-attended, high-energy shows. Over the next few issues, we’ll explore the logistics of booking and performing a wide variety of venues. Don’t miss Stage Trek, Episode 2: In Search of All-Ages & School 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. He is Education Composer-In-Residence for Orchestra Wellington, and his online orchestration course is available from macProVideo.