Playing your music live to an audience is one of the greatest experiences and likely the most powerful tool you have in your arsenal as a musician in 2019.
Live gigging is one of my specialties, and with over 1000 live shows under my belt, as The Edge would say, I’m going to take you on a musical journey.
If you’re making music at home or in a professional studio with the intention of releasing music and becoming a rockstar, right now, could quite possibly be the most important time ever, to hone your skills, get out, and play live.
In our high tech world, producing music is super simple and can be done at home – by almost anyone. It’s often the way newcomers discover music and begin their music careers. And it seems that today everyone is doing it. In my 30 years as a performer, the opposite has been true.
When I began in music, I learned to play an instrument, developed my chops by gigging and touring endlessly, saved money, and went to recording studios to produce and release music. You know, cassettes and CD’s.
When required, I always had the benefit of just booking a show at the local pub, turning up, playing to a crowd and getting paid. It was a no brainer, really. I suspect things are a little different now.
If you’re making great music on Garageband on your laptop at home, releasing your songs online, and getting a good following via your social network or website, can you book a show at the local pub? Maybe. However, I suspect not.
You see, in the new world, recordings have lost their currency. They have become a marketing tool because songs can be downloaded and shared for free. I believe, the only currency you now have is live music.
Live music can’t be downloaded. It can’t be shared. It can’t be streamed for 0.00003 cents per listen. People have to pay money to see you play and there is nobody else like YOU in the world. You’re unique and original and that’s your ace in the hole.
You get where I’m going here. Having the ability to play your original music or any music for that matter, live in front of an audience at pubs, clubs and festivals, is more important than ever. That’s where you’ll build a solid career and actually make some money along the way.
Initially, most bedroom startups just cannot do this. They can produce great creative music, absolutely. But if you’re a player who on your own or with your lineup can put on a show, you’re miles ahead of the pack.
Yes, it can be a challenge, but remember, you don’t need to be a band. You can be a solo act with an acoustic guitar, keyboard or laptop. But you do have to commit to putting together a show that will build interest in you music career.
Yes, I’ve released stacks of records and videos over my time as a musician. Without doubt however, my entire musical life has been dominated by one thing: live performances. At last count over 1000 live shows and of those 1000 shows, many were three-hour performances.
Now that’s a lot of playing – and it doesn’t take into account all the rehearsals. At a guess, the rehearsals would multiply the playing time of live shows by two or three. No wonder my hearing is knackered and my voice is a little shattered.
When I began, it was ALL about performance and learning your craft. The recording and albums came later. Honing my skills and musicianship kept the money rolling in through tough times by picking up cover band shows and fill in gigs when required. Very handy indeed.
I mentioned in the last episode about your comfort zone, that early on, I suffered from stage fright. Once I conquered that fear, playing live was nothing short of brilliant. It’s a super adrenaline rush and nothing else compares to it. Really. However, it has to be said, live performances have their low points too.
Playing to empty rooms, being heckled, and having things thrown at you, are some of the downsides of playing live shows. In fact, my beloved Gibson acoustic has a massive dent near the sound hole from a glass of beer that a drunk patron hurled at me one night. Lucky it didn’t hit me in the eye. For the record, it was a cover gig.
Do you remember the riding your bicycle adage? Well, learning to play an instrument is just like that. If you’ve done the grind and learnt your chops, you can take a break from playing live. When you need to tour again or jump into a fill in gig, you’re always good to go. Just splendid.
Preparation and rehearsals
There have been two main schools of thought around rehearsal and playing live that I’ve encountered over the years.
The first is to rehearse your band a minimum of three times a week, every week. This method requires an obsessive bent on perfection and control over the band’s development. No shows are booked until everything is just right – but we all know nothing ever is!
The difficult thing about this approach is that you need all members to be in the same headspace and devoted to the cause. In this scenario, you’ll also be corroding your love of the songs you’ve crafted. That’s dangerous in my opinion.
She’ll Be Right
The second approach is the ‘she’ll be right on the night’. There should be minimum rehearsal studio contact by all members. Yes, there may be some discussion about song selection and loose arrangements, but it’s mostly left to creatively unfold on the night of the gig.
In this case, shows are booked early and there’s no turning back. You get your shit sorted out at home, and turn up at the gig. This can be a terrifying situation for some people – me for example. Others, however, thrive in this impromptu environment.
Believe me, it can be fucking magical when the stars align and it all comes together on the night. But I am telling you, it doesn’t always happen!
Actually, I’m probably somewhere in-between these two approaches nowadays. Because I predominately play live with incredible musicians, most often, not a lot of rehearsal is needed. In this way it keeps the songs fresh and there’s a little occasional spontaneity that can lift the performance.
But because the players in bands, such as Five Mile Sniper, are so accomplished as live musicians, no-one would ever know if a song went sideways or we lost our way. But yes, it does still happen!
I will say one final thing regarding rehearsals and this is one of my pet hates. The rehearsal room is absolutely not the place for personal practice or a ‘jam’. You come to rehearsal prepared.
You come rehearsal prepared from the hours you’ve put in at home on your own. If you turn up to my rehearsal space without knowing what’s going on, you’re fired!
The Live Zone
Let me indulge for a moment. In episode 14, It’s a Cover Up, I talk about playing trite predictable cover songs to an unappreciative audience who keep barking requests at you. It is a form of old school torture. But it can be okay at times and it can certainly pay well.
There is nothing, however, quite like playing in an original band to a room full of devoted fans that know the songs you have written. Fans that adore your music and support you. Fans who scream with adoration between each song you perform.
When the band you have created is on a roll and playing flawlessly to a full house of starry-eyed punters, it’s simply breathtaking – even a little hedonistic. When you get there, you will understand why it’s very, very hard to give up. That’s why all the old rockers keep coming back for that last tour!
I remember many times being in this intoxicating live situation, and not once did I have to think about the words I was singing. Never did I think about the complicated guitar tunings and chords I often used because I was in the zone.
Yes, it sounds totally corny, but this zone is a departure of sorts. You drift into an adrenalin-powered space where you’re musically on autopilot and connecting with the audience on another level altogether. The musicians are communicating without words on an almost subconscious level. It’s quite surreal and magical.
This is what live music can become for you, if you work hard at it. Releasing records is fantastic but performing in a well-oiled, amazing band can be a surreal experience that is frighteningly addictive. This is why I encourage you to consider departing your safe recording space, take a chance, and play live.
Putting it together
From my experience, putting a solid lineup together is best done via word of mouth and through your established contacts. That said, I’ve still recruited great players through advertising, although it can be laborious task that wears you and your team down.
Advertising in all the right places is essential also. If you don’t seek out appropriate mediums, such as certain street press or online forums, you’ll have everyone enquiring about the position. An ad hoc or scattergun approach with your ‘Musician Wanted’ advertising is highly discouraged.
You’ll have cover guys, metal heads, part timers and flakes wanting to come in and ‘try out’. If you’re not clear and assertive with ad enquiries to join your band, you’ll be steamrolled by tyre kickers. Believe me, it can be a nightmare auditioning the wrong people for days on end.
Word Of Mouth
Word of mouth is a great system of recruiting, although it tends to work best if you’ve been in the game a while. Over time you will have built your network and developed relationships – what I call ‘connections’. You’ll find out about them in the Success Formula episode.
The latter part of my career was wholly built on established relationships. I didn’t have that luxury when I began 30 years ago and you may not either. Don’t despair, it will happen quickly enough. You must remain focused on being an active and positive person, and good things will eventually come your way.
Every time any of my bands recruited a new member, we would have a trial period to allow either party the option of exiting. This is when band agreements (see episode three Taking Care of Business) can come into play.
Evolving as a live act
Getting a live band lineup together is only just the beginning. Bands always evolve over time. It takes time to get to know people and their true nature. If your band is generating a following and industry interest, you’ll begin to see people’s true personalities emerge.
This can be either a good or bad thing. Just like in any business situation, as soon as there is an indication of success and money on the horizon the lawyers and accountants step in, and it can get awfully serious very quickly.
That’s okay though, if you’re all in the same head space and chasing the same result. Work out the nasty stuff and then get down to writing and playing great music that we can all enjoy.
The honeymoon is over
After the honeymoon is over with your new lineup, you may also see people stepping up to be involved: writing songs for the band, requesting to sing some songs, asking for a greater share in song writing credits, being involved in art concepts and photography, being more vocal about the choice of venues and tours for the band, logistics of travel arrangements, and accommodation.
The list is endless and each request can challenge and displace other band members who are trying to find their place in the band. Bands are always evolving and I suppose you need to keep in mind that in order to keep peace and balance, you may need to dismiss members from time to time.
It’s just the way it is. It’s awkward and uncomfortable but necessary at times. I’ve fired plenty of band members over the years and it’s heartbreaking. Most players are there for the love, not the money, and that makes it even harder.
Make it so
The overarching concept here is: enjoy your music and explore all options available to you. Playing live is one of the most fulfilling experiences you can have and it can potentially reward you with a life long career.
Once you’ve developed your chops and built a network of live musicians you will have opportunities coming at you from all angles.
Give it a go.
Playing in a band, duo or ensemble is more important than ever now to be a professional musician. Let me know of your battles with putting together lineups or even firing people.
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In the next episode of Indie Confidential is the last is this series and i’ll be talking about hitting the wall, that is, what to do when you hit the wall in your career.
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I’ll catch you soon.