by Tom Stein, Professor, Professional Music Department, Berklee College of Music
You’ve gotten to the point where your music abilities are strong enough as a group to play out in front of an audience. You know that getting on stage will be the next necessary step to improving your act’s tightness. At this stage it is super-important to get the band playing live in order to generate enthusiasm and momentum. Getting a gig is the next logical move in your development as a band. Yet, because you have never done it, you don’t know how. It’s the old “Catch-22” conundrum: you need experience to get the gig, but you need a gig to get experience. What to do?
First, take a deep breath, and relax. Realize that every single person or band that is amazing at doing anything started out from the same place. For even the most incredible musicians, there was once a time that they couldn’t play their instrument at all. Just like you, they had to begin somewhere. You really have no choice other than to begin from exactly where you are. There are a number of things that have to happen before you actually take to the stage (I’ll list them a bit later in this article). You should first take an inventory to see where you are.
What are your band’s strong points and weak points? What do you hope to gain from playing a live show? Do you have all the equipment you will need? Do you have transportation for yourselves and your equipment? How far are you willing to travel? What do you estimate your expenses will be? These are logistical questions that will help give you some bearings on the type of gig most appropriate for you to go after. I would recommend that you write some things down, and create some useful lists or diagrams.
There are other important considerations. For example, what style of music do you play? How many songs or sets can you perform? Is your music primarily for listening, dancing, or background? Have you created a digital footprint for your music that will allow you to publicize your gig properly, ensuring that an audience will come? Or will you seek a gig at a venue with a built in audience, like a festival? Should you get paid?
I recommend that you make your approach as professional as possible. If you have prepared your logistical plan and know what type of audience you are trying to reach, you will be prepared to speak confidently and knowledgeably about all aspects of your intended performance with prospective venues, clubs, clients or festival directors. If they see that you are well prepared, they are more likely to give you a chance. It is important that you can tell them about what you do in a cohesive way, speaking articulately about why an audience will enjoy your music, why it is in their interest to hire you, and what’s in it for them. Try as best as possible to think from their point of view. With your speech you can paint a picture for them of the opportunity you are offering them, either to make money, enhance their reputation, or just have a lot of fun. Don’t be arrogant about it; just state the facts, and do your best to sell your band, keeping their interests in mind.
While you are preparing to sell your band, you will need to do some research into the opportunities that exist. If you know musicians who are playing out already, ask them where the best places are to play. Check listings in local entertainment guides, and go check out some bands. Hang around the venues as a customer to get a feel for what is going on. Talk to the managers and staff to find out who is responsible for booking. Try to figure out what will fit best in each venue and be prepared to offer that with a strong conviction that you can provide what the venue needs. When you do get in contact with the responsible party, present yourself in a businesslike manner. Dress the part. Shake hands, look people in the eye, and speak with confidence about your music. This usually takes a little practice.
Don’t be discouraged if you get rejected. Failure is an opportunity to start over more intelligently. Analyze what happened and make adjustments to your pitch for the next prospect. Observe how other musicians sell themselves if you are able to. Understand that adversity makes you stronger, and just keep at it, no matter what. Even if you fail a hundred times, you might very well book a gig on the 101st time!
At some risk of oversimplification, we can explain the steps of getting to a gig onstage into a few stages. Using terms relative to the music business, there is: preparation, sourcing, pitching (selling), negotiating, agreement, performance, and follow through. The preparation stage involves taking inventory as described above, plus getting the music tightly arranged and well rehearsed. It might be wise to create some sharp promotional materials. Sourcing means figuring out the places you want to play, doing your homework on them and getting in contact with the person doing the booking.
Pitching your music is talking about what you do, as previously described. You have to sell yourself, your band and your music; you do this by using words intelligently and enthusiastically. You will learn to talk about your music in such a way as to give those listening confidence in your abilities and talent. Closing an agreement usually requires executing some sort of contract, whether verbal or written. Sometimes this is called an “event confirmation”, or similar. The agreement exists to protect both sides through stipulating responsibilities and rights, and clarifying terms. To get to an agreement, a negotiation must first take place. Negotiating is an art form, and is a necessary part of human commerce and transaction.
Performing is where you deliver the goods as promised. If you do this well, you will find that each gig leads to more gigs. People like what they see and hear, tell others about you, and your reputation grows. Of course, if you mess this part up, you won’t last long in the business. So it pays to pay attention to all the details, and do your best to do a fantastic job that everyone will rave about. You are only as good as your last performance.
Follow-through is the last step, and often neglected by musicians. After the gig, you should always contact the venue and booking person to thank them and make sure they were happy. Listen carefully to what they tell you. Any complaints or suggestions for improvement should be taken to heart as they are giving you a chance to better yourself. You can ask them for future gigs and for referrals.
As you begin to see, there is more work to getting gigs than might at first meet the eye. Especially in the beginning, it can be tough to get momentum with booking gigs. It can feel a little like pushing a boulder uphill. The rewards can be tremendous, however. There is nothing like the electricity that happens between a good band and an audience, and the energizing effect it can have on a band. Playing live shows can also be frustrating, such as when an audience doesn’t respond. It is always a learning experience, in any case, and always worth doing.
-Tom Stein is a visionary musical entrepreneur, music producer, artist development consultant, arranger, bandleader and performer on electric bass, voice and guitar. He is also a professional educator; he teaches at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts and is the founder of Music Connectivity, a cultural diplomacy firm. www.tomstein.com
For more information on the IAMA (International Acoustic Music Awards), please go to: http://www.inacoustic.com