Written by Ethan Teel, Instructor and Writer for Opus Music Academy
On May 31st, 2014; my alternative rock band, The Owl-Eyes, had our first live gig in front of an audience. At the time of our first gig, I was excited to see that after months of searching for members, racking my brain for a set-list and having very sporadic rehearsals; the moment had finally arrived to see if the drama was worth it. Little did I know that this gig would come with drama of its own.
Five years later, we have gotten to the point where we can play at least two to three shows per month. Inevitably, I discovered that all gigs tend to be rocky. Pun intended.
As someone who loves to assist all generations of musicians in following their dreams, I came up with 12 tips about performing live music and what one may encounter at a gig. If you’re practicing hard and playing hard, intending to perform in front of a live audience, here are 12 tips and tricks for the trade:
- Tip #1 – Make sure you’re having fun and sounding good while doing it.
- Tip #2 – Don’t take anything too personally during a performance.
- Tip #3 – Know that what you play live may not sound like what you’re trying to record or what has been recorded.
- Tip #4 – No gig is out of the question.
- Tip #5 – Do your research into the venue you’ll be performing at.
- Tip #6 – Your booker is your best friend.
- Tip #7 – Communicate everything.
- Tip #8 – Don’t be a Diva, and know how to handle Divas if they occur.
- Tip #9 – Backline whenever possible.
- Tip #10 – Develop your set so there’s as little dead-air in between songs as possible.
- Tip #11 – The type of gig will affect how you perceive in order to achieve.
- Tip #12 – Thank everyone at the end of the show.
All that matters at the end of the day is that you’re having fun playing and you’re sounding good while doing it. The former is more important than the latter. If you are not having fun playing, then what’s the point of playing in the first place? If the resulting music sounds good, that’s a plus. If you want to sound good, practice as much as possible. Refine your sound. Think of it like a metaphorical savings account, the more time you invest, the more skill you’ll incur. I would argue that you’ll receive a much greater return on this investment, however!
Don’t take anything too personally. When it comes to performance problems or even technical malfunctions occurring during the show – if you don’t make it obvious that something has gone wrong, the audience is none the wiser. Every show has a metaphorical smokescreen that distracts the audience when a mistake occurs – don’t break the illusion because you’re upset. Keep on truckin’. Do keep in mind that the more you practice, rehearse, and play; the less frequent these problems will become. You’ll also develop the skills to improvise on the fly if these problems or malfunctions should occur. When it comes to criticism: eventually, you’ll learn which criticism you should listen to, and which you should disregard. It takes time, but much like practice – the more you put in, the more you get out of it.
Live music and studio-recorded albums are two separate beasts – each with individual nuances one must navigate. Depending on the music, the difficulty of performing it live will vary. If you’re a punk band just play your tunes loud and fast. However, if you’re a progressive metal band with lots of keyboard parts and no one to play those keyboard parts – you might want to take some time to rearrange the compositions so they’ll work without the keyboard. Perhaps your rhythm guitar player can play the keyboard part on the guitar; keeping the same melody but altering the tone and texture. Maybe the song works better as a solo-acoustic ballad. Creativity is key! There are a million different things one can do. Remember, much of performance is subjective – just choose what you believe sounds best in a live-show context.
No gig is beneath you. Let me be clear: you have every right to turn down a gig if you believe it isn’t a good fit. However, if your goal is to make performing music your primary source of income – in the beginning, you cannot be picky. A gig is a gig no matter what you perform, where you perform, and whom you perform with/for. You should play each show as if you were Queen at Live Aid. You want to take as many opportunities as you can. Playing live is the number 1 way to generate buzz about your musical talents. You’ll never know what a live show might lead to. I’ve since played gigs where I was offered free studio recording time because the owner of an independent studio was in the audience and enjoyed the show. If you need a big paycheck to help make the decision, weddings are a sure-fire way to make money. A few friends of mine in Minnesota have found an ingenious way to pay for their original work as a rock band – by doing side work together as a wedding band. The funds made from the wedding gigs are used to invest in their original sound and art. Don’t forget about church music either. As long as churches have existed, they needed musicians to perform their hymnals and churches pay handsomely.
Do your research. The more you know about what type of venue you’ll be playing in and what the audience that night will be anticipating, the fewer surprises you’ll encounter. Don’t hesitate to even visit the venue beforehand. You’ll see how your music will sound in the audience, how much room is on stage, and what type of room you’ll be playing in. All of this will help you determine what you’ll need to do to get the best sound. For example, closed-in indoor spaces with very little sound absorption like garages, gymnasiums, or museums; tend to suck to perform live. Why? The natural echo and reverb will cause sounds not only to bleed into each other but it will also amplify certain sounds and reduce others. Drums become extremely loud – so much so that drum mics will have no use whatsoever. The drums will bleed into the vocals, making the mixing of said vocals virtually impossible. Either the singer will end up sounding too quiet, or you’ll get feedback. The only happy medium is to reduce how loud the drummer plays; not fun as a drummer myself, but it is necessary. However, depending on the stage size, drum mics are perfect for outdoor gigs. You can blend in as much of the drum sounds as needed, and as long as the mics for the singers are positioned in such a way that it won’t catch the bleed of the drums, you’ve got it made in the shade with lemonade.
Make sure you stay in contact with the booker of your show. I figured at this point, the reader might be wondering, “gee Ethan, all these tips sound great, but how do I even get to play a show in the first place?” This is what a booker is for. Bookers sometimes work independently or for a certain venue. You contact the venue that you’d like to play in and ask if they got contact information for a booker that works with/for them. You then work with the booker and venue to select a date and get all the details finalized. If situations arise where you’re unsure if your band will perform at it’s best – contact the booker and no one else. It is the booker’s job to be the mediator between the venue and the bands once the date is set. Sure, the venue might have some knowledge the booker may not have – such as how the payout will work – but more often than not, you’re going to get that information within the 1st phone call or on the venue’s website. However, if something arises where you don’t know how it’s going to affect the show – contact the booker, not the venue. Let’s paint a hypothetical scenario. Let’s say you’re group is performing in a bar, and you have a band member under 21. Legally, in the state of Minnesota, the age requirement for a performer in a bar is only 16. However, bar and club venues do have the right to exclude anyone under 21. If you contact the booker, he or she will make arrangements to ensure your young performer will be able to play. However, if you decide to reach out to the venue – they might just ban your group from ever playing at their establishment at all. Why? “You didn’t tell us on our first phone call that your band was under 21?” or, even worse, “Yeah, you simply just can’t play. Sorry.” However, with a good booker on your side, they want to make sure both the band and the venue walk away with very little headaches. Your booker is your friend, use them wisely.
Communication is key. If no one has any idea what time the gig is, where it’s being held, and what time each member is planning on arriving; load-in and set-up can become virtually impossible: making the gig null-and-void. I’ve had the displeasure of playing shows where the opening acts on the bill had no way of communicating with us, and eventually just didn’t show up. This is entirely 1000% unprofessional. If you encounter folks like this that do not like communicating in the style you feel most comfortable with (either by phone, text, or even a facebook message): kick them to the curb. They’re not worth the headache. If your a band member with a manager or bandleader who likes to give what you find to be an “unnecessary” amount of phone calls, at least reply by text. It’s better to be slightly annoyed by the number of phone calls then to have no gig whatsoever because no one in the band had any idea if you’d show up or not.
There’s always going to be that one member in every band, possibly even your band, that will not just be inefficient at handling drama, but will create the drama in the first place. They’re divas. Nothing is right for them. Rather than trying to go with the flow, they’ll try to take everyone down to their level. Sometimes the diva isn’t even in the band. Sometimes it is a person who works at the venue. At the end of the day, the best way to handle divas is simply to smile, say “yes sir,” or “yes mam,”… and then just go about doing what you had originally planned. The only time you should put up a fight is if they become aggressive, threatening, or physical. Other than that, just recall the penguins of the Madagascar movie; “just smile and wave boys, just smile and wave.”
BACKLINE! What is Backlining? In live music, back-lining refers to the act of having all the bands performing that night load their equipment behind one-another on stage. This means the first band to perform we’ll have their amps in front of everyone else’s gear. The second band will load their amps behind the first band, and this process continues for all bands on the bill. As far as drum-sets go, you’ll have one main kit used as a “house-kit,” that all the drummers will share. Just simply swap hardware (cymbal stands, kick pedals, the snare, and the cymbals respectively). This is perfect because the changeover time between bands becomes super quick.
Dead-Air is the enemy. As a performer and fan of live music, there’s nothing quite more aggravating than seeing a band simply tune on stage and not even address what they’re doing. Even a simple, “give us a second, just gotta tune,” is better than doing absolutely nothing. You lose all momentum your set had the minute silence fills the air. Therefore, you must work out a system where music or noise is constant the minute the first song begins playing. There is a catch, you don’t want to go full David Lee Roth and try to spin soliloquies when you don’t have the experience in doing so. A common complaint I received in the beginning regarding my band was, “you talk too much during the breaks,” and I have since learned that instrumental sounds, including feedback, are much more appealing during a live show than a full paragraph about the next song to be performed. Of course, it is important to introduce the band during the show, and I have since worked out a system where the bands jams while introductions are being made. It’s all about balance. Don’t go fully silent, but don’t make too much of a commotion in between songs. Again, creativity is key. Just keep the vibe of the set going in whatever way you can. Simple jams, drum grooves, an instrument playing the main melody line of the next song while the rest of the group gets ready: all of these are fine alternative than just dead air or the sound of a guitarist tuning. The audience is watching, engage them!
Depending on the type of gig, the situations one may encounter can feel quite different. I’ve had gigs in cover bands as well as gigs as The Owl-Eyes and even gigs where I filled-in a role for a different original band. In regards to the cover band gigs, they came with some drama as well, but it lacked the overwhelming nature of an original-music gig. In general, with cover gigs, you’ve already got the bedrock of the setlist to keep everything anchored. You know the audience is going to be receptive to the music because that’s the only reason they came out. It’s not like a club gig where you’ll have regulars at a bar upset about your performance drowning their ill-mannered & poorly-timed conversation. Therefore, if you encounter any headaches, you can perceive the gig to be more like a job and less like a show. This dilutes the drama one may experience. With original music gigs, the drama can sometimes feel “personal.” That being said, it is never personal. At the end of the day, it is simply the way things are in the music industry. Sometimes the sound guy isn’t professional, sometimes the venue owner waits until the very last second to deliver the pay-out. However, like I mentioned in point 2 when it comes to criticism; it is never personal. Music is a subjective art form and therefore, everyone is going to have a different idea of what the perfect sound is. Just recognize what your sound is, and go from there.
Thank your sound person, the venue, the audience, and all the bands on the bill at some point during your set. This is a quick & easy tip, but a necessary one. It takes a lot of people to get a show going, and you want to show that appreciation at every opportunity. It’s always best to be humble. Humble folks tend to be invited back to play more often.
To conclude, the contemporary musician’s working life is no bed of roses. Although we’ll play gladly and without hesitation, this life does come with hurdles one must learn how to navigate. The Owl-Eyes had many hurdles to overcome in preparation for performing live. My music was technically complex and I grew up in a small Missouri town where I was practically the one working musician. While the project began when I was 12 (making the project 12 years old at this point) we have only been active for 7 years (our first EP dropped in January of 2014). It took a move to Minnesota for college, several bad shows where I had no idea what I was doing, several band members coming and going, as well as several sleepless nights before I got to the point where I was happy with where my band was at. We still have the dream of becoming a globally known recording and touring rock act, but we also know that Rome wasn’t built in one day. It takes a lot of work, grit, and determination to turn dreams into reality. Just keep these 11 points in mind, and you’re going to have a great time no matter what your next gig is. Now, go out there and break a leg.