How To Make a Living Playing You Own Music Live – Part 2: Making it Stick
Welcome to part two of my series of articles on making a living with live gigging. If you missed part one go back here and read it first, it covers a lot of important topics that you’ll want to have an understanding of before reading ahead. Here we go!
Face to Face Tips and Tricks
So you’ve made a list of venues to visit, what can you do to give yourself your best shot at getting their attention and getting work playing music there? Here’s a few simple tips to get you started. Friday and Saturday evenings are a no-no for bars and restaurants. Management and floor staff will be extremely busy and you’ll only rub them the wrong way if you ask for a quick chat about live entertainment at peak times. The same goes for lunchtimes and evenings generally wherever food is served. Before midday and between 2 and 5pm are good bets for certain spots, some clubs will only open from 4 or 5pm so get in soon after opening. This will give you your best shot at actually getting 5 minutes with a decision maker without getting on their nerves.
Dress well. Obvious but needs repeating, tidy hair, good clean shoes. Carry yourself with dignity and confidence, over confidence is better than under confidence. They may have had other acts in looking to play, or might already have music, why would they hire you? Looking and acting the part is important, of course your performance has to be good to get the repeat work but no one will ever get to see and hear you on stage if you can’t convince someone you deserve to be on stage in the first place. Make sure the most chatty, charismatic member of your act/management is doing most of the talking.
Have your things together. Business cards, a smart phone you can take details down in, a diary or diary app with your available dates. Know your rates; when asked “how much” don’t stutter and stammer, have a set of rates and times and options. Always charge a little higher than you need to but let them know you’re willing to negotiate, especially where regular work or perks like meals are an option. Have a spiel memorised, but don’t blurt it robotically, just use bits of it when appropriate. Your spiel should include, bare minimum, the type of music you play, how many there are in the band, any notable venues you’ve played, any notable press/media you’ve received, the fact that you promote all your events on social media and with posters.
Always be polite, no matter what comes, please and thank you all day long. I’ve dealt with some incredibly rude individuals when asking around for gigs, and you may too, so keep your cool and don’t sink to their level, it’s not worth it, your reputation is worth more than the short term satisfaction of an angry outburst. The vast majority of people I’ve dealt with playing music have been sound, very good people, so don’t let the rotten ones bring you down.
Finally; bring backup. Two people walking into a venue always adds weight and credibility to your pitch. You can bounce ideas and banter off your partner, it helps with nerves and motivation when entering new places and it puts you in a position of power and authority much more so than walking in somewhere on your own. Obviously if you’re in a band this is easy, but if you’re a solo act consider bringing along a good friend, a sibling, parent or partner. Make sure they understand what you’re trying to achieve and are happy to help and support you. Make sure they dress well and are as polite and dignified as you would expect someone to be who is representing your act.
Go For the Long Shots!
The wonderful thing about music in general is the possibility of being suddenly shot up the industry “ladder”, be it permanently or for a single engagement. This is why you should never limit your gig enquiries to “my level” whatever you think that is, aim high and you will get the odd big win. A great example is when, after only 6 months of working in The Dublin City Rounders, I called the office of
the President of Ireland, spoke to the secretary and enquired about live shows at the Áras an Uachtaráin (The Irish President’s residence). She was very polite but said that the events for the year had been booked out and suggested I email our details to her for future reference. Yeah I’d heard that one before. But sure enough a few days later I got a call asking could we perform at the Aras for President Higgins as another act had cancelled due to illness. And there we were with a gig at the President’s place with just one phone call and an email. Make sure long shots are part of your strategy, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you the kinds of doors that one gig opened for us, and personally it was a once in a lifetime occasion we’ll never forget!
I later found out that when the previous act had cancelled, the stage manager had to choose between The Dublin City Rounders and another VERY high profile Irish act (a lot more established than us at the time) and he went with us on a feeling. You just never know how things will turn out in this biz.
It’s a Numbers Game
Don’t set your sights too keenly on any one venue, booking is a numbers game. You might walk into 100 spots over the course of a month or two, and if you have a success rate of 5% that’s 5 gigs, 10% it’s 10 gigs! Some of these might become residencies and off you go. Every gig you do can be used to get the next gig. And like those working the hook up culture and night club scenes, learning to deal with rejection is all part of it. At first it can be tough, but every venue that doesn’t hire you or doesn’t do live music is just one you can strike off your list and move on. After a few of these rejections any initial impact wears off, you no longer take it personally, and if you’re confident enough in your product you know it’s “their loss” anyway, onto the next, onward and upward!
I must have had maybe 150 to 200 rejections either by email, face to face or over the phone in my career, and that didn’t stop me booking hundreds more successful shows for my acts, so you’ll be fine, tough it out.
Getting Re-Hired – Gig Behaviour and Etiquette
Getting a first gig is tough, so don’t squander the opportunity by putting on a bad show or making a less than glowing account of yourself. Of course it goes without saying that the show is the most important thing, a great performance is required, however it’s the way you act around the show that will make the biggest different in getting re-hired and good recommendations. Here are a few quick tips on how to place yourself above the rest when it comes to gig behaviour:
Be on Time – C’mon lads, this is basic. Set reminders, set alarms, sort your transport, have a plan B; if it’s a new place and it’s far away get there well ahead of time. Set up quickly, quietly and as tidily as possible, don’t inconvenience the patrons or staff if possible, don’t leave dangerous leads and cables strewn across the floor. The same goes for packing down. As soon as you hit your last chord tell the DJ to start playing/put the house music back on, unplug and pack everything away. You don’t want to be carrying amps when you’ve had a few after the gig, or while sorting money, plus there’s always the possibility of a frisky patron grabbing your guitar or mic and risking damage or theft.
Drink and Intimacy – These are controversial topics. I don’t drink at shows, ever. Gigging is a large part of my job. I need to work with heavy gear and electricity, I need to manage sound at some shows, I need to play guitar and sing to a high standard, I need to deal with patrons and staff politely and professionally, I need to manage money and future bookings and business, and I need to ensure the safety of my gear, my workmates and myself. Drinking reduces my ability to effectively do any of the above. Now if you’re established enough to have a driver, roadies, a sound/light crew, a stage manager, a tour manager, a secure back stage at every show by all means have a few drinks afterwards. Even then you hear of bands like hardcore punk legends “Sick of it All” who have all that and still don’t drink at shows because it effects their performance and long term health.
And the same goes for intimacy. Just because a starry eyed lad or lady has had a few drinks and thinks you’re the next Mick Jagger doesn’t mean you should take advantage. You have a duty of care to behave responsibly with audience members who are attracted to you. Like the bar staff, you are working until you leave the venue. Not only will you develop a bad professional reputation if you decide to go all “discovery channel” with too many tipsy fans in the venue, you could risk some pretty serious personal issues as well, I’m sure I don’t need to go into any more detail.
Now I’m no prude. I love a drink on a day off, I just don’t mix work and heady pleasure. By all means get a girl or guys number if that’s what you want to do, and have a pint after the show if the gear is packed and you have a lift home. Just use your common sense and think long term, don’t blow it all for a quick fix. Put it this way in 2016 I did 217 shows with The Dublin City Rounders, if I drank as much as was offered I’d be raging alcoholic, and if I chased the ladies I’d have more kids that Genghis Khan! Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
The Show Must Go On – I’ve played so many shows that were almost a complete disaster. The sound guy wasn’t there, the PA wasn’t there, the stage times were wrong, we’d forgotten some important piece of gear (I once forgot my cowboy boots and had to go back to get them, no way was I going on stage in runners!), a band on the bill didn’t show or is late. The list is endless. You have to make it your business that some kind of show will take place no matter what. Power failure? Candle lit acoustic gig. A band didn’t show? You do two sets. Sound engineer didn’t show? Get on that desk, figure it out and make a noise somehow! Beg, borrow, steal and think outside the box to make sure the show goes ahead. This is where getting to the gig early will save your butt. It gives you time to think, sort missing gear and make a plan B. Never throw your hands up and go home, save the day again and again and you’ll gain a great reputation with promoters, venues and audiences.
In Summary – Always think of your live performances like any other job in terms or you behaviour when off stage. If you wouldn’t do it in an office space or if you were working in fast food, don’t do it at your show!
It Gets Easier
I’ve outlined a lot of practical, applicable steps above that can be used to secure bookings. It looks like a lot of work, and it is, not only that but you’ll come up against unique challenges and have to find unique solutions that only apply to your situation! But it does get easier. Every show you book makes it easier to get the next one. In time you’ll have a steady stream of regular shows, and you’ll begin to get people calling you for shows instead of always being the one initiating. It’s important to continually raise your standards and fees as you develop. The more you’ve played the better your act will be, the higher your profile will become, the more respected you will be within the industry, the harder it will become to book you and therefore the more it will cost, as it is with any industry. Think long term, decide where you’d like to be in 2, 4, 6 years and work towards it.
In short, yes, it is possible to make a living playing live music, and when you add the other income streams available through music; merch, music sales, publishing and royalties, teaching and consultation work, you can certainly do well for yourself. But like any business it takes time, good ideas and hard work to establish yourself. But sure what else would you be doing anyway!
Thanks for reading and look out for my upcoming articles where I will cover music publishing and radio, royalties and Performing Rights Organisations, live and studio performance tips, and song writing.
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.