In this column I’ve discussed issues from the professional level all the way back to the musician who’s just starting out. For the next few issues, we’re going to look at what’s in the middle.
For those with a little bit of stage experience, the whole process can seem a bit bewildering, or even just a bit of a hassle at times. The following Peak Performance series on gigging will outline how things work, why they have a certain order and logic, and how to make the most of them so they’re the least amount of effort.
To kick off the series, let’s examine the simple but essential step of getting to the gig. Many have their own war stories about this – like missing or stolen equipment, towed or ticketed vehicles, band members who never showed, and so on. Let’s think like pros, and sort these issues so that the first thing you do is the last thing you have to worry about.
Scope out the territory.
This is the most basic thing a band should do, and of course is something that often doesn’t happen. Simply visit the venue where you’re booked and observe the situation on the ground. Where are the entrances? Is there parking? How long can your equipment van sit in that spot? When should you arrive?
These are all things you should ask the house manager, who has answered these questions so often that he or she might even have a sheet breaking it all down. Always take a notebook because inevitably youll need to write some things down. Plan to follow instructions to the letter, especially if you want to be invited back.
The biggest issue I’ve run into is parking. Even the simple act of pulling up in an alleyway and unloading your gear can be problematic. Some clubs I’ve played in big cities even have a time limit on loading, as they share access with several other businesses fighting over the same tiny bit of space. Take it for granted that neighbours will be hostile to the venue and the musicians who play there. You’ll get no mercy from them if you park in a space theyve designated as off-limits.
After your gear has been loaded in, where will you park (safely) during the gig? It’s always better to spend a little more money on a nearby parking garage, preferably with an attendant. That may just save you the hassle of having your van ransacked, or stolen.
Wheels and more wheels.
Speaking of vans, how are you getting your gear to the club? Who is going to drive? Maybe you were thinking of all showing up in your own cars with your own gear. If the venue has plenty of parking that might actually work, but the more cars and more drivers, the more things can go wrong. Far better to have one big vehicle with everything in it, especially if there are issues around loading and unloading.
There are only so many issues you can sort ahead of a gig, but if it is particularly important then you owe it to yourself to have your van serviced the week before. If you really want to be thorough about it, think about having a back-up vehicle as well.
Make a list and check it twice.
What are you taking? Make a thorough checklist of everything thats needed: instruments, amps, stands, accessories and so on. Cross-check this with what’s available at the venue, because you may not need to bring much if there’s a good house kit and backline available to you. Make sure all of your gear is marked, especially cables, multi-boxes, amps and small accessories. This will help you to keep track of it on a stage crowded with other bands equipment.
Take my advice and have a full rehearsal a night or two before the gig. This practice should include every bit of gear that youre taking with you to the venue then, at the end of practice, the whole band can pack everything into the van.
There’s logic to van loading as well. Put the heaviest objects in first, as close to the front as possible, situated so they wont shift much, if at all. Fill in the corners with smaller, more stable items, like keyboards in cases, drum hardware bags and pedal boxes. Save the most stable, safest area for guitar cases and the kick drum, usually by the back doors or along the sides. Then fit the toms wherever there’s still room. The drums should all be bagged, to keep them from getting cracked and scratched, not to mention damaging other instruments.
You’ll need to park the vehicle somewhere safe until the gig – in a covered, locked garage. Not out in the street! Its not just potential theft – there’s also the danger of heat damage on a sunny day, or even getting towed. All these preparations are usually better than everyone having to get off work early, meeting at the rehearsal space, and packing the van, just to make it to the venue on time for soundcheck.
The more informative this series of articles is to you, the more likely it is that you’re a supporting band. That means you’ll need to know when to show up, around the schedule of the headlining band.
Think of the bands on stage like layers of an onion. The bottom layer is the headlining act, who packs in and soundchecks first. When they’re sorted, the next band on the bill puts their gear in front of that, and then the next. Whichever band plays first is usually the last layer of equipment to go up on stage. The sad reality of this is that you might show up to find that everyone else is still waiting around for the headliners to finish soundchecking.
Whatever happens, have a plan in place. Always make sure one or two people are in the van to unload and another to guard the equipment on the street. The heavier and more extensive the gear the more people are needed.
Never, ever, leave the van (or any gear) unlocked or unwatched. Get your stuff out and into the venue as quickly as possible, then send one person to park the van while the others see about setting up the stage.
Here’s where things get a little weird. You’re at a gig, you’re having a great time on stage and the audience has given you all an enormous lift. You want to go out there after your set and mingle, party, and support the next bands. But no, you have to pack out, now. One band member needs to go and fetch the van while the others strip the stage of your gear. Sometimes this has to be done in a big rush, especially if there are many bands playing. If there’s a safe place to stow your gear, then maybe you can delay loading it for a while.
I’ve seen bands with elaborate stage set-ups get their gear off stage and into the van in 15 minutes, simply because they have a system. It’s usually like this. Guitars unplugged and into cases immediately after the last song. Cases stacked by the stage, then bigger gear off the stage, usually amps and keyboards. Meanwhile the drummer is breaking down his kit and hardware, while another member bags cymbals and toms, moving them to the side of stage. Then everything should best back into the van, exactly as it was packed the night before, though some may want to take their instruments home, if theyve brought their own wheels.
This is the most dangerous time of all. A few guys are out late at night in a big city with a van full of thousands of dollars-worth of equipment. If anyone in the band has got to get up early the next day then they should leave immediately and drive the van to their home, locking it in their garage. That’s the safest option.
The next level of safety down from that is the attended carpark mentioned above. The very worst option is to leave the van parked on the street with your gear in it. If you have to do this, then at least have a good car alarm. That’s one small investment that can keep your career from taking a serious hit – because if you’re serious about going pro, then youll be playing many, many gigs in all sorts of places and situations.
Getting your gear to the gig is just the first step, though. Let’s tackle step two in next issues column: Surviving Soundcheck.
Thomas Goss is a producer, band coach, and composer/orchestrator with an international clientele that includes Che Fu, The Idea of North, and Canadian jazz star Nikki Yanofsky. He is Education Composer-In-Residence for Vector Wellington Orchestra.