So, you’re off to a good start–you’re a killer band, hungry for success and now you want to get out into the world and make a name for yourself. Here’s some more sage advice from The Guv’nor to put you well on your way to world domination.
4. Never, EVER, play for free
Seriously. This has to stop. First, it makes you look cheap and unprofessional. Second, it makes it harder and harder for other bands to get paid, too. Oh, and the hype about exposure? It’s all bs. Exposure is code for a promoter/club that is too cheap to pay.
Sure, you’re not going to earn squillions of dollars first time out. But there are some things us old farts have learned.
First, do your homework and find all the clubs in a 200-300 mile radius that are really doing well. Because the best kept secret in the business is that clubs draw crowds–bands, until they get established, do not. (And by clubs, I mean places with stages and not a few square feet of real estate between the dartboard and the big screen TV.)
Then learn to negotiate. Find out what others have been earning, if you can. Then talk to the promoter/club owner and make an agreement.
It goes something like this: “We’ll come in for a nominal fee to do one show–on an off night or as a warm up or as a band low on the bill. If we don’t do well, we’ll take that small fee and walk away. But if we do well, bring us back for several more engagements at a higher rate. Again, if things don’t go well, we’ll renegotiate. One hand will wash the other, because we both want to stay in this business and succeed” (see 9 below).
I don’t care how hungry you are for success. Never be afraid to walk away from something that isn’t going to help you build your career over the long run.
5. Develop a well-crafted show
For some reason, in this part of the world when I first started playing in the eighties, the four-hour show was the standard. I questioned it then, and question the whole idea of playing long shows even now. Audiences (and I count myself in that group) don’t want something that long–hell, even a blockbuster movie these days doesn’t go on forever.
I suggest that two well-rehearsed 1:20 sets with, say, a twenty- to thirty-minute break is all you need to start with. Bands that want to solely play originals probably won’t be playing lengthy shows like this, but they should at least play some covers that will be familiar during longer sets–it’s hard for an audience to assimilate all that new music right off the bat. But rearrange the covers and play them your way (see comment 1 for inspiration).
But whatever you’re playing, the show itself should be just that–a show. Do something memorable that will get people talking when they go back to work on Monday morning. And don’t strive to please everybody, because you won’t.
6. But don’t over expose
The economic principle of supply and demand is immutable: the greater the supply, the lower the price. And this is not just true in monetary terms. Overexpose your act in a small market, and you will wear out your welcome in a hurry. People demand novelty and bore very quickly. If you happen to live in a remote geographic area, make sure you develop an extensive repertoire and can play vastly different shows if you have no choice to play the same venues over and over again.
Better still, expand the boundaries of your territory slowly and gradually. New markets will develop over time if you work at them. And that will take the pressure off having to play local clubs on a frequent basis. That kind of scarcity will drive up your value and add a little mystique to your image.
7. Learn the power of W.O.M.P. and harnessing the energy of your fans
Kit Lambert, who, with Chris Stamp, was part of The Who’s first management team, was a genius when it came to building the band’s early fan base. He did it through what he called W.O.M.P. or Word of Mouth Publicity. In the days before social media, this consisted of identifying a core group of dedicated fans, which the band name the 100 Faces, who would be contacted when new shows were booked. The 100 Faces would, in turn, contact all their friends to ensure venues would be filled to capacity, especially on week nights when clubs were slow.
“If a booking came in on Monday for a gig on a Thursday,” Who historian Richard Barnes has written, “although there was no time to place an ad in the music press, Kit could still fill it by getting the 100 Faces to go into action with W.O.M.P. And simply by spreading the news by this grapevine through friends and kids at the Wednesday night clubs and dances, Kit could ensure the promoter an extra 150 to 250 kids would arrive from all over London to help pack the place” (Barnes, The Who: Maximum R&B, 38).
If you don’t think a club owner or promoter pays attention to that kind of thing, think again. Filling out the Marquee on a Monday night did as much to build The Who’s early career as releasing “My Generation.” (OK. So that’s a slight exaggeration, but you get my point.)
The important thing to note here is that, in this age of social media, this is both easy and hard to achieve. Most bands make the mistake of just slapping up an event notification on Facebook or their website then wonder why no one shows up. It’s because there is no human contact there. The Who made the 100 Faces a part of the organization–the fans felt the band belonged to them and were willing to evangelize for them.
So, set up your Street Team/Fan Club right away. Keep an email list and use it frequently. Manage your social media accounts effectively (watch this space for more on that). And love these people up–free swag, meet and greets, exclusive offers. Remember, the word “fan” comes from the word “fanatic.” And what band doesn’t need fanatics?
8. Learn the business
The history of rock and roll is littered with bands and artists that have been cheated, robbed, swindled and lied to. Do everything you can to educate yourself and not join them.
If your aspirations are just to be successful locally, draw up a basic contract for your shows–90% of the time, you’ll be doing shows on a handshake agreement, but a good contract will come in handy and shows you mean business.
If you are going for the brass ring, you need to learn about royalties, publishing, licensing and all the other legal issues surrounding your revenue streams. Set up your own publishing company and register it with a Performing Rights Organization such as ASCAP or BMI. Trademark your logo. At the right time, draw up an agreement between band members regarding revenue sharing and other expectations, such as what happens when someone leaves, to avoid unnecessary conflict down the line.
But the thing is: do all of this sooner rather than later. The earlier you put all these things in place, the less problems you will encounter when fame and fortune come knocking at your door.
I don’t have time or space here to go into the nitty gritty of all this. But there are plenty of good print and internet resources that will help you. A couple of great places to start are The Future of Music Coalition and The Lefsetz Letter.
9. And last, but not least, be nice to everyone while you are on the way up
… because, as the old showbiz saying goes, you’re going to want them to be nice to you when you are one the way down. Even at the local level, you don’t want get a reputation for being difficult to work with. The music business is a tight-knit community, and word will spread. Make sure you know how to behave professionally on stage and off. That means showing up on time and knowing what you are doing at sound check and on the night. It also means learning how to negotiate fairly, firmly and honestly. If you don’t know how to do this, find someone–another band member, a manager–that does, and let them do the talking for you.
These blogs have only touched on the big issues. There’s a lot more to learn. Whether you’re just starting out and have questions, or you’re an experienced musician who wants to add to what I’ve said, leave a comment, or send me a private message using the form below, and I’ll be happy to elaborate in future blogs.