Lesson #3 Getting a gig (part one)

 So now you’ve got a killer set. (see lesson two) No use having a smoking band and not playing for the world. In fact playing live is the key, the path to the top. Yes, we’ve all heard strange stories of people who made a tape in their bedroom, sent it to a label and woke up the next day and they were rock stars. It’s interesting to note that in my twenty-five years of working in and around major labels I never met one of these fictional characters. Every band I ever saw make it big did it by playing live. (and making great records but we will cover that later)

Let me start with the bad news. Getting gigs is the worst part of being in a band. It is a thankless task. It is extremely hard and, at times, damn near impossible.  Throughout your band’s existence this job and the problems associated with it will not go away.  If you are lucky someone who does it for a living will take over the job but for the time being it is up to you. Now that I’ve told you all of that depressing news let me tell you something else. It is possible and, there are quite a few tricks to getting gigs.

Here’s a few tools that may help. A demo, a presskit, a copy of pollstar. Ok let’s start at the end. Pollstar is a magazine that tells all about professional tours. I get mine for free. I think the subscription price is ridiculous so look for another way to get it like an ad on Craigslist or Ebay or stealing it out of a local rock star’s garbage.  If you can’t get a hold of one don’t freak out it’s a great help but you can work around it.

Next is a press kit.  You know what that is don’t you? It’s a package with copies of all the band’s glowing reviews from Spin and the LA Times. It has a cool picture of the band included.  This is something that you make yourself at first.  When you haven’t yet left the basement it will consist of a picture taken by someone’s girlfriend and a single page that says “My mom hates my band!” written in crayon. That’s a good start.  Now here is a shocker. Lot’s of bands make shit up! Wow. Imagine that. They do.  Oh yeah there is also a band bio which is the story of the guys in the band, what other bands they were in, how many Grammys they have etc. Again, just make it up.  Put something together and try to make it look better than a pile of papers you bought off the dude that lives out of the shopping cart in your town.  Don’t worry too much about the exact content. Later on this blog I will tell you how to get press.  Really I will. And not only that I will tell you some tricks of the trade that actually work.

OK last tool the demo. Over the course of my life I have seen more angst and over thinking  over demos than any other part of being in a band.

Here are some concrete rules about demos. Believe what I’m about to tell you because lots of people will tell you I’m wrong. When they do ask them “Have you ever signed a band to a major label recording deal?” and “Have you ever taken a band from nowhere and helped them work their way up to stadium shows?” If they answer yes to both these questions and you believe them then immediately say “Manage our band and we will give you 15% of everything including the publishing!” If they say no listen to me because I have done both these things.

1. The quality of the recording of your demo doesn’t make much difference.  Spending $21,000 to pay the guy who’s brother knew that guy from the  Rolling Stones will be a waste of your money. You don’t have money do you? If you did then you probably wouldn’t be trying to be a rock star. For your first demo make a decent  live recording of the band ripping its way through a SHORT SET. That’s it. You can use your laptop, an old tape deck, your ipod it doesn’t matter. The important thing on the demo is does the band RULE and are the songs GREAT. Once again I will say it, you may not believe it but it is true, THE QUALITY OF YOUR DEMO DOES NOT MATTER!!! In many cases the promoter (that’s the music biz term for a guy that controls gigs) will not listen to the demo or will pop it in for about two minutes to get a feel for your general sound. LAter on, when your band starts to move up, you will have plenty of opportunities to make better recordings with pro gear. Even then if your demo doesn’t ROCK then it sucks.

2. Other musicians are the key to getting gigs and getting ahead. Being an asshole to every one you meet because you think that this will give you a mysterious aura is a stupid idea. Now, if you really have talent I realize that you may actually be an asshole. This combo is common. If you know that you are an asshole and you can not suppress this charming quality then someone else in the band will get the gigs and do all of the band business. This rule can’t be ignored since it will destroy the band’s chances immediately.  If you are the asshole and you are reading this don’t worry. I know that you are worried because you are the only one in the band that really knows how to become a star. I know this because all MASSIVE BAND ASSHOLES feel this way. Don’t take this blog wrong assholeish behaviour has its place in rock. It’s just that booking gigs is not the place. Instead the band asshole should be content torturing the nice guy that does all the work. This is standard behaviour for band assholes.   Let’s continue…

Being nice to other bands is key. They will get you gigs. They will recognize that your band is great and want to be associated with you. They will talk about where they gig and what tours are on and shows that are being put together. Pay close attention. Be nice to them. Praise their band. You can always find something to compliment about their set even if you just say the drummers cymbals are shiny. The better the other band is the nicer you should be to them but no matter how good they are DON’T KISS THEIR ASS LIKE YOU’RE A FAN.  There is nothing that will send a talented musician running faster than a fan. Fans make rock stars uncomfortable. Fans pay at the door. Fans stalk rock star’s girlfriends. You must not, under any circumstances act like a fan.  Even if you meet Jesus Christ, the guy who’s records you’ve worn out listening to, you must act cool and behave as if you and he are PEERS. If you do not know this word look it up, it’s important.

So be nice. Give free CD’s. Give free T Shirts. Give them your number and say something along the lines of “Hey do you guys have any gigs lined up in Cowtown? No? Gee here’s my number I can give you some info on a show that you may be able to play.” Here’s a good tip. Never walk up to someone that you don’t know or only know slightly and say anything that translates to “Help me.” Instead always say something that translates to “Hi, I may be able to help YOU.”  Remember get phone numbers and websites. These people are going to help you get to the top. Many of them will be in other bands,  start labels, be DJ’s , become producers, work for promoters etc.  While your at it offer a floor to sleep on to every decent band that comes through town. Even if they say no you’re on your way to a mutually beneficial relationship.  Here’s a story to illustrate this rule:

In the mid to late 80’s Providence Rhode Island was  a kinda hip town with an active music scene. There was an underground club called The Rocket. Everyone played there. I played there. Future Rock Stars played there. There was a band called “What Now”. They were a good, three piece Alt Rock band. They drew decent crowds and were on lots of the bills at the Rocket. Even if they weren’t playing they hung out at the club. Everyone that couldn’t afford a hotel room slept at their house. It was a big, old Victorian house in the bad area, just around the corner form the cool record shops.  Everyone ate pancakes cooked by the band’s leader Dave A. Great guy. Very helpful.  Since I knew him, slept at his house and ate his pancakes when he released his first single I listened to it, very carefully. I liked it. I offered them a deal on my label.  Cool huh? Well even better they often crashed at my house in Jersey. While there they met another band Miracle Legion. They were a big underground band. When they dumped their rhythm section they stole What Now’s bass and drummer. That led to a few world tours and a major label deal. After Miracle Legion broke up the bassist and drummer went on to back up Frank Black from the Pixies. More world tours, serious cash and lots of attention from members of the opposite sex. Much cooler. All of this happened because they were nice to the other bands and served up pancakes.

3. No rock show is wrong to attend. If you want to play live you better be hanging out watching all of the bands and going to all of the clubs. If you are too young for clubs that means parties and all ages shows. The guy that only goes to see Swedish Death Metal Shows because that’s what’s cool is missing out on lots of chances to meet club owners, bartenders (they usually sleep with club owners), doormen (they know great gossip), soundmen, stage crew and most importantly other musicians. A good musician that is on his way to the top will know lots and lots of people.  If you are not friendly because you are the dark, depressed frontman then bring along the friendly drummer. Go to shows. Watch theband’s stage moves and how the set is put together. Learn, learn, learn. For a musician most shows are like going to classes in how to rock.  The better the show the better the lesson.

OK that’s the end of part one… part two will deal with the nuts and bolts of getting your first show and how to turn that into more shows…. stay tuned……………..

Copyright 2010 Brad Morrison/Billiken Media

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9 thoughts on “Lesson #3 Getting a gig (part one)

  1. So Brad, I’ve written half the songs my band are performing and the other half are collaborations I’ve done with a few producers who are not well known yet. Should I use the recorded tracks the producers produced to show promoters or should I redo them with the band? What do you suggest?

  2. good advice bro…
    what if were a great band with a killer lead guitar section and talented musicians all around but are lacking a front man???

  3. Hey Brad, we’re having a bit of a dilemma. We’re trying to get gigs in L.A. but every venue requires a minimum of like 30-50 followers. My question is, if almost every venue requires a large draw, how do these waves of bands even start out and succeed? Its almost like they want you to stay away haha. Idk, any bit of advice on this matter would be greatly appreciated, thanks.

    • Hi Ryan,
      I’m gonna love replying to this one. This trend which has been around for a long time is sad testament to the promoters being utterly unable to tell good from bad, success from failure or even worse they have no guts or style. They want you to fill their club and promote their shows since they are unable to do it themselves. In the late eighties this got out of hand with the “pay to play movement” which swept through LA clubs. Sad, disgusting, immoral scum…. I encountered the pay to play bullshit when trying to push bands up the ladder during that time. It was like beating your head against the wall. This is what I learned.

      Don’t do it. You do not need them. If you don’t believe me then try to do it once, hussle your ass off, come up with a gimic and try to bring in the 50 people. Then when he charges them 10 a head to get in (500 for the door) and hands you $75 ask yourself who got the better end of the deal. Now if you read my blog regularly you may notice that I repeatedly defend people who make a living working with music. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t a bunch of shysters that just want to milk musicians. There certainly are and they need to be avoided at all costs.

      You do not need them. When I ran into this problem I looked for spaces that I could rent in LA to do shows. I did it through contacts since I was in NY and London and rarely in LA. I put a couple of bands together, found a space and threw a party. I kept the door prices low enough to just cover costs. I avoided advertising since only substantial gigs can support real advertising. Instead I tried to get music writers to mention the shows, and DJs. Then we papered LA with flyers. The first one was OK, the next one did well and soon we had a roving party on our hands. Then I offered gigs to better out of town bands and started making money. My ambition was to bury pay to play. It didn’t work since the two bands at issue ended up vaulting over the head of the pay to play clubs.

      When I promoted punk in Bridgeport in 1980 and 1981 there were very few punk clubs in the world. The RAT in Boston, CBGB’s in NY, Brother’s Three (if you can believe it a pizza place) in West Haven and that was it for the whole northeast. The club was hassled endlessly by the cops. They wanted me out. One night a Rastafarian walks in and tells me he has the same problem on the other side of town where he is promoting small raggae shows. So I put him on stage and he invited all the punks and a few of the bands to his venue. I returned the favor. Pretty soon we had punk/regggae shows with Reggae dance hall clubs as the after hours scene. As it got bigger it was harder for them to hassle us.

      When you come to an obstacle go around it. People in LA have cars right? How about a flash party in a large empty parking lot? One generator a cheap PA and a hundred cars sounds like fun. How about busking for the crowd outside the asshole’s club? IF you get hassled and shut down it just adds to your reputation. I know, it did for me every time.

      Remember it’s about breaking the rules. That’s what gets you noticed. Musicians always live on the fringe, that is if they are really into it. That doesn’t mean that you are the Latin Kings. The cops know the difference. As much as they hassle you they realize that you are just providing entertainment.

      I’ll mention another anecdote since it springs to mind. When I was a teenager we used to party in a ruined mansion in the woods. It was a cool place to have a party but it sucked since it was dark and in the middle of nowhere. Just out of the woods was a local firehouse. One night I decided I had enough of hanging around in the dark so we rode our bikes down to the firehouse and sat right in the middle of the manicured lawn. The next day I started telling everyone to meet there from now on. Everyone thought I was nuts. Within a week we had about twenty kids. The firemen, all volunteers, were a little nervous, but when they figured out that we weren’t gonna trash the place they started opening the firehouse doors and turning on the radio. By the end of the summer the place was mobbed with about a hundred kids every night. The cops would glide by and stare at us and we would stare back. Of course, everyone was getting stoned in the woods across the street, we were all arriving drunk or stoned but we kept everything out of sight. What could they do?

      Read my blogs about staging an all ages show. All of the essentials of promoting a gig are mentioned in that blog. Think of a creative place to play. Be sure to make lots of noise. If you become a civic problem that’s a godsend. Try to get into the papers. “Local youth banned from parking lot parties” in the paper goes a long way towards getting you noticed and getting you access. Make noise, make it fight about justice. The papers love the downtrodden and exploited so be downtrodden and exploited. Throw a party, get shut down. Run to the LA times and plead your case. “All the clubs are set up so our friends have to show up and pay a total of five or six hundred dollars at the door! then they’ll give us a hundred bucks! Is that fair?” The clubs in question will squirm in their shoes. The promoters are trying to excercise control and secure their monopoly. This is power. Control is an illusion it only exists as long as you recognize it. If you step outside of their system and do what you want you’ll soon realize that the only power they have is the power you give them…..
      Ghandi once said about fighting the establishment “First they ignore you, then they call you crazy, then they try to destroy you then you win”…power to the people ryan…………..Good luck……..Also look for allies, lots of bands are having the exact same problem…..How about arriving at the club some night in a caravan of cars and blocking the street in protest. Ten bands and friends could make a shitload of noise and move mountains.

  4. my band plays deathcore, and was just wondering what the best way to get gigs is if your music is about as far from mainstream as you can get

    • Roy,
      Good question. I would suggest that you read my four part article about staging an all ages show. In short the solution to your problem is to put together your own place to play. Promoters are creatures of money. Even though they may have prejugdices about what music they book these stupid attitudes will collapse when they are faced with any kind of show that draws a big crowd. If you can’t get booked then put together your own show. If you can draw a big crowd this is your ticket to bigger and better things. Any small time promoter will jump on any band that can draw. Often you have to prove it to them. Here’s an idea, book a show in some rented hall. Pack it with people. Shoot a two minute video of the packed club that ends with you walking up to the door guy that proudly shows off one of those crowd counter clicker things. The crowd counter says “234” or something like that. Then it cuts to your band melting the paint off the walls and the kids going nuts. Label it “Video of Police busting up Big TOxic Blast show” or some other title that will get his attention. Try sending that around to the clubs…….when you meet an obstruction go around it……good luck……..tell us how things pan out…………

  5. Hey Brad,
    Loved the advise first up, very helpful.
    Just one quick question.
    You stated that the three things that would really help you get a gig were a demo, a presskit, and a pollstar. With the presskit, you said that it should contain some photos, clippings from the newspaper etc.
    I would really like my band to make a presskit, though the only thing we have is a few snap shots form a live performance we did in our school hall. Is there much more we can stick in our presskit, seeing as we are a relatively new and young band (just about to leave highschool)??
    I can’t think of any way to get into the newspaper without doing something drastic like nude running down the main road at peak hour!
    Any advise will be much appriciated!
    Thank you!

    • Hi Surfing dude,
      I like the way you think. Perhaps you should have the hottest girl associated with the band do the nude running thing. There is more chance that people will tune in to that.
      As for the press pack for a new band. This is always a tough thing. Start with the usual posed band photo. Find someone that wants to be a photographer and has a decent camera. Then you find a cool spot. Stand around looking cool. Make sure you dress like a rock star.
      Next step is to drum up some stories. If you appear in a club. The page that contains the ad from the club with the bands name in it becomes part of the press pack.
      Third step try to get a story in the paper. What kind of band is it. Speed metal? Alt rock? Punk? Use the bands style as a jump off point to think of ideas. LEt me give you an example. Your band is a punk band — how about “Local Punk band plans benefit to buy ramps for skate park.” Speed Metal – “Local metal band denies satan worshiping.” Hyper patriotic Country rock? -“Local band plans car wash to raise money for the troops.” Notice how all of these titles have certain things in common. The bands music fits the story, the community is involved and the band will be playing some kind of show. If you are famous then playing a show is news. Until that time there has to be some kind of story. Here is the dirty little secret of every newspaper. The staff at the newspaper don’t actually write most of it. People send in press releases and these become the stories. The closer you can get to sending a story that they wouldn’t have to change at all to put in the paper the more likely it will be used. The way you exploit this weakness is to create a story, write it up, add a band photo and send it to a few local papers. Lots of places now have small town papers. These are easy to bait into writing about the band.

      here’s another angle that i have used on more than one occassion to drum up some press. Here’s the truthful headline
      “Local musicians think you all suck and that this town blows since there is nowhere to play!” This headline fits most of small town America. This is the way you run this Public Relations Scam. First you write a letter to the mayor and maybe one of the other officials in the town like a town councilor. These people NEVER get actual letters from actual citizens. They may occassionally get an email from some old lady that is pissed the park closes at five but never a letter. In the letter you are extremely polite and you complain that there is nowhere to play and nothing to do and that every kid is bored as shit. Then you write the local paper saying that you wrote the mayor and he had a whole week and he still hasn’t solved the problem that every kid is so bored they want to kill themselves. Then you immediately, like three days later, release a press release that says “Local music promoter plans protest concert in park” The press release announces that the local kids will show up with skateboards and blankets and frisbees and other threatening instruments of destruction on ——-fill in a date. They will be there to see “YOUR BAND NAME” play. This will be a protest concert to protest the lack of anyplace to play. Right after this news becomes public you go to town hall and ask for permit to stage the concert and protest. You need to set up one of your friends to play the part of a wanna be promoter. Pass out flyers in the school (anonymously). Notice I haven’t suggested that you get a PA, build a stage, play a show. This scam is based on the fact that the adults will all overreact. SOme of them will make noise (that word is pronounced “writestupidletters) in the press saying your band is a threat to peace and security. Others will make noise about “give the kids a break”

      I watched someone pull this stunt in my hometown in the early 70’s. After the police, town council, PTA and mayor finished arguing they had set up a concert space in an old warehouse on the edge of town. FOr two summers every band within about twenty miles gigged at this place and made good money on the door. The best thing about this kind of PR campaign is it gets the press writing about you. Remember the press wants a story. THE VAST MAJORITY OF WHAT YOU READ IN THE PAPER IS MADE UP! This is the truth. I know because I have spent years making the stuff up. If you want to be in a successful band then call attention to yourself. That’s how you build up a press pack………………………………………

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