How To Make a Living Playing You Own Music Live – Part 1: Getting all up in Their Faces
In the first of a series of posts, Rohan Healy gives some pointers on how to make a living playing your own music live.
Hi there, my name is Rohan Healy. Over the past 3 years I’ve performed over 600 shows with The Dublin City Rounders and in my father, David Virgin’s band across Ireland and the UK. In my younger days I performed another couple of hundred shows solo and with acts like Jimmy Willing & the Real Gone Hickups, Quiff N Coffins and The Epistolary in Ireland, across Europe and in Australia. I don’t mind saying I’ve accrued a wealth of knowledge and experience through it all that I hope to share with you now in a series of articles. This is a huge topic and so I’ll try to condense the best and most practical advice into this piece both for those just starting out and those who’ve been gigging a long time.
Here we go!
In this article I’ll be focussing on booking shows, finding gigs, how to get paid to play music and what to play when you get the gig. Let’s get to it.
Say Yes Then Make It Happen
The biggest obstacle many bands, duos and solo acts come up against is “not being ready” when an opportunity calls. Let’s say you are offered €300 to play a 2 hour show at a restaurant or corporate event, the show is 2 weeks away and you only have 45 minutes worth of material. Many will miss out on this opportunity because they believe there’s no way they can / could stretch their show to meet the 2 hours. First of all say YES, then work out how to do it. Obviously you could add time to your set by learning some tasteful covers, you could write new material, you could play the first 20 to 30 minutes of your set again at the end, you could ask a musical friend with a similar style to play 30 minutes while you take a break. And so on.
What if you’re a 4, 5 or 6 piece and the cash on offer is too low? Say YES, break the act down to a duo of the principal performers and take the job. I spoke to Glenn Hansard at an event at the US Ambassador’s Residence in Dublin not long ago and spoke about this. Very often The Frames would have to send just a couple of members to tour The States as they couldn’t afford it otherwise.
The list is endless; don’t have a PA but the gig requires one? Say YES then sort one. Already have a show at the same time? Can the other show be moved around? Say YES then sort it.
Now obviously don’t say yes to work that is clearly too difficult or too low paid, but do think outside the box when negotiating or when offered work, especially early on. Paid gigs can be hard to come by at the start and you may have to expand your comfort zone to get them, so don’t go into every situation with a set of ideas in mind, be flexible but firm. The Dublin City Rounders we’re once asked to play at a reputable hotel in Dublin, however the manager asked would I remove my hat for the show. Needless to say we did not do the show. Some things are non-negotiable.
The Approach: Going Face to Face
The internet and smart phones have made it increasingly easy to connect and communicate. They have also diminished the quality of that communication to a certain extent, especially with regard to selling yourself or your act to a prospective venue, booker or client. It’s tempting to sit and shoot emails and leave phone messages from the comfort of your home, and while there are certainly important uses for email and phone communications, for first impressions you can’t beat the Face to Face. You know it from experience, how easy is it to ignore a phone call, or pretend you didn’t see an email, then there’s the reality of spam filters and full inboxes, many times your message will never even reach the recipient!
It’s much harder to ignore someone standing in your venue asking for just a moment of their time, and you’ll have a much higher chance of getting a real, immediate, yes or no response as to whether they are interested in having you perform instead of getting the “call back tomorrow” or “can you email me again” run-around!
Making a real, human, impression on someone is worth a thousand cold emails.
Following Up – It’s “YES” until it’s “NO”
So you’ve made contact face to face, great. Now you need to follow up in a polite but consistent manner until you get a definitive yes or no answer. Following up with an email the next day is a good idea. Don’t use attachments or direct “hyperlinks” as these can get caught in spam filters. If you must use links paste the url and remove the blue “hyperlinks” so they are no longer clickable. Once you are in a back and forth with emails it’s safer to send links and attachments. Call your contact later in the week to nail down whether or not they are keen to book, and when. Tell them you’re diary is filling up and you need an answer soon if possible. Still no response? Try dropping in again and catching them face to face to press for an answer. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve gone without a response, believe the lead to be a lost cause, give it one more call/email and actually get the show! Just because you can’t get through/can’t get a response don’t assume you won’t get the booking. Keep pressing until you get your answer. Assume it’s a “Yes” until you’ve received a definitive “No” from the person in charge. Also if you get a “we’re booked until Jan/Feb/March etc” take a note and remind yourself to contact again when they may be booking new acts, no gig is no forever.
I have a simple saying that I live by when booking shows “Maybe means yes, no means maybe”. If a venue flat out does not want to book you it’s not the end of the line with that place. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve called a non responsive venue back a year or two later, the management has changed and I get a booking right away! No doesn’t mean no forever. Plus when talking to a prospective promoter or venue never say “such and such a venue wouldn’t give us a gig”, always use “we are in negotiation with such and such a venue, and might have something coming up there later in the year”. It’s not dishonest; I’ve had so many dead end gigs become fruitful after a period of time!
You Need an Angle
The one question you’ll invariably be asked by promoters and venue owners when asking for gigs is “What do you do”. “I’m a singer songwriter” is not going to help you. To give you a quick example my answer to that regarding The Dublin City Rounders is always “We’re a ragtime, rock n roll and blues duo”. That usually does it, immediately the persons mind is filled with familiar imagery, and can see how it would fit with their venue. However don’t be afraid to cater to the venue. If I’m walking into a biker bar we play “Rockabilly and Blues”, if it’s a 5 star hotel or restaurant we play “ragtime, western swing and early jazz”, if it’s a country bar we’re all about the “bluegrass, country blues and western swing” and so on. All of these are true, it’s the same act, however the breadth of our set allows us to tailor our sound to the situation. We’ll play most of the same songs at most gigs, yet we can rock it out or pull it back as needed.
My point is that you need to do a little thinking on how you’re going to answer “what do you do/what style of music”. How can you can frame and present your act in such a way that it sounds appealing, unique and desirable. You want to find the balance of safe and familiar, and unique and edgy. “Hi we’re Bog Standard, we’re a trad band a la the Dubliners and The Clancy Brothers”, this would be perhaps too safe, whereas “Hi we’re Bog Standard, we’re a Traditional Irish Fusion act with elements of dance and comedy”. Immediately you want to know more. Find your angle, develop it over time, and tailor it to the venue you are approaching.
Building a Repertoire – The Replacement Method
This is a touchy subject, original music vs covers. And the answer to the repertoire questions varies wildly depending on the purpose of the act. If you just want to get paid to play music and are not interested in song writing I won’t be a huge help here, but there are many resources online dedicated to establishing a covers or tribute band and making a good living out of that. No judgment, just not my field. I’m going to assume that being paid to play your own music is the ultimate goal of most reading this, as it has been mine. But the question is how do you convince a pub to book and pay an original band on a Friday night, and more importantly where are you going to find the two to three hours of material to perform!?
Firstly with regard to building your repertoire, whatever you do don’t feel pressure to learn a bunch of specific “crowd pleaser” songs – I’m looking at you Wagon Wheel, Wonderwall and Galway Girl – it’ll only hurt you long term. If you need to pad out your set with cover versions find songs that you genuinely love. I’ve no problem singing a great old Hank Williams, Slim Whitman or early Elvis tune, but I have never played the three songs mentioned above; you’ve got to have standards. When someone asks me to play a very well known song that is not in our set I just say “I’ve never heard of it”, that’s usually enough to catch them off guard then just start into whatever song you were going to play. Thanks to musicians using iPads to get up lyrics and chords at will during shows now in order to play requests, some audience members have been given the impression every musician knows every song, you’ll encounter this and it’s unfortunate. They think you’re a human jukebox. Thankfully there are still plenty of discerning music lovers and decent ordinary people who appreciate music learned, practiced and performed. For every person who goes wild for Stairway to Heaven there’s someone rolling their eyes and leaving.
So by all means add tasteful covers, and even better, add very old songs that you can traditionally arrange and register with your Performing Rights Organisation to fill out your set. Ultimately however the goal should be to perform as much original material in your set as you can. I spoke on radio with songwriter and RTE DJ Niall Toner last year about something he called “The Replacement Method” in which the objective is to slowly over a period of time replace your covers with originals that are of a similar style. So if you’ve got a couple of slow dance waltz covers, write a couple yourself and swap them out over time.
Finally on this point, don’t be rigid with your set. Depending on the show you may play more original material vs covers or less. A 45 minute or hour showcase, album launch, support or headline slot you’ll probably be playing 90% -100% original, however a 3 hour pub show might require a few more “old classics”.
Get Creative with Venue Spaces
When building a list of venues to approach we usually think pubs, clubs, hotels, restaurants and specialised music venues. These are all great of course, and well worth a shot, but may be difficult to crack unless your act is a little more (or a lot more in some cases) established. That’s why I recommend thinking outside the box. One of the most well know Dublin music venue success stories of recent years is Abner Brown’s Barber Shop in Rathmines. A barbers by trade that began hosting live music nights and in a relatively short period of time had garnered international attention and attracted guests like Michael Stipe of REM and Northern Irish alt-rockers ASH. Flower shops, small cafes, gallery spaces, the list goes on. Don’t be afraid to pop in and ask if non-traditional shop or space would be interested in having live music on. You might not make a fortune out of the gig itself, but it’ll give you something to talk about to bigger players in the gigging game, you’ll improve your performance and learn your trade.
The original idea with The Dublin City Rounders was to play traditionally arranged ragtime and original music in beer gardens and smoking areas for tips. Within 6 months we were performing at Aras an Uachtarain, within a year we were on national radio and TV and not long after that we were seen by 7 million people on BBC1 and had a song in The Irish Times Song of The Week. My point is that where you start is not where you’ll end up, you’ve got to start somewhere, get creative.
I’ve got a lot more to get through on gigging including tips to optimise your face to face encounters with venue decision makers, how to go for the bigger shows even when starting out, how to ensure you get shows by playing “The Numbers Game”, a section on gig behaviour and etiquette to get you rehired and develop your professional reputation and much more!
About The Author.
Rohan Healy, a dual citizen of Ireland and Australia, is owner and CEO of Beardfire Music. After studying acting, music, legal studies and commerce at Trinity Catholic College Lismore, Rohan began a full time career in music which has spanned the past 15 years. In that time Rohan has written, recorded and produced 10 solo albums, appeared on The Voice UK and Busker Abu with The Dublin City Rounders, shared the stage with the likes of Cat Power, Lloyd Cole and Jim Lauderdale, booked and performed almost 1,000 shows in Australia, the UK, Ireland and Europe and has dozens of production, songwriting and performance credits on other artists’ works.
Rohan also studied acting at The Australian Theatre For Young People and appeared in a number of stage plays as a young adult. Rohan works closely with father David Virgin (Healy) (of SPK, Sekret Sekret) and brother Al “Quiff” Healy (of Quiffs N Coffins) on The Dublin City Rounders, The Annual Dublin City Rounders Alt-Country Song contest and the running of Beardfire Music.
Rohan offers personal music business consultation on booking, management, live performance coaching and music exam prep, publishing and royalties, and is a music producer at Beardfire Studio.