New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. The music scenes in these cities typically garner a huge amount of attention from bands and fans alike for good reason. If you’re a young, ambitious band, successfully growing a fanbase and becoming well known in any one of these cities could connect you to a world of possibilities within the music industry. But while building your presence in a large scene comes with its massive potential payoffs, playing shows in bigger cities comes attached to massive challenges, stiff competition, and some big missed opportunities you can only find in smaller scenes.
Hell hath no fury like a band scorned, right? Spending time and energy over emails settling on a date and promoting a show only to have a booking agent or promoter back out at the last second has got to be one of the most frustrating situations for a band to experience. And if you’re a small fish in a big pond, it can seem like you have little to no recourse when it comes to getting the shaft from a big club in your scene, but there are a few things you can do when you get burned by a venue or promoter.
Even if you’re not new to performing, navigating the payment situation after a show can be awkward, especially if the turnout was bad. I’ll never forget my experience after a show in Dallas a few years ago. After a nice write-up in the Dallas Morning News and coverage from a local blog, my band hoped some locals would come out, but the 200-person capacity Deep Ellum venue was empty save for a lone bartender who was on his phone during our whole set. Knowing full well we weren’t getting paid, I asked him if there were any drink specials for bands after the show. “Only bands who bring people get drinks,” he answered without looking up from his phone.
Whether you’re aware or not, there’s a few unwritten rules of how band’s conduct themselves within their local scenes. Break them, and you could face repercussions ranging from lost show opportunities to being the subject of ridicule by your peers. We’ve assembled five rules for you to follow if your band is interested in staying out of trouble and maintaining a good reputation. None of these rules have anything to do with the music your band makes, but they’re important because conducting yourself in a disrespectful or aloof way has the potential to keep you from reaching your goals.
It usually takes years of incredibly difficult, thankless work before a band is ready to bring their music on the road. For most bands, touring is the culmination of thousands of tiny failures and successes, so it’s no wonder that our culture has such a dramatic association with a band leaving their hometown to take on the world. Single tours have spelled the untimely demise of many talented bands, but musicians simply can’t develop their careers without it. If your band wants to avoid burning out on the road, you’ll have to bring a balance to the way you think about touring.
Despite the best efforts, being an active musician requires traits that transcend musicality, and this can cause problems for artists who purely focus on music without taking the time to develop other important music industry skills. For example, the skill it takes to cold-call music venues and ask for shows is hugely important if you want to start making a name for yourself in your local scene. But even the smallest venues are typically inundated with emails from another band asking the same thing, and if you go about it the wrong way, you could end up severing an important relationship that your band will need for years to come. Here’s a few tips to avoid pissing off the venues you work with:
Love it or loathe it, touring for long stretches of time is mandatory for bands who want to be taken seriously. Even if things go well, touring can be a hugely taxing endeavor for most bands, with the chief difficulty of most tours being that musicians are often asked to work for weeks and months at a time in exchange for little or no money. And unless you’re packing the venues night after night or are touring with a cover band, your band is most likely not making a whole lot of money on tour. Bands run the risk of going broke and breaking up if they go too long between working and paying the bills at home. So, what’s a serious band to do when it’s in the position of needing to regularly tour but simply can’t afford to? Try getting a remote job.
I’ve got a controversial opinion for you: playing a show at a “real” music venue isn’t always everything it’s cracked up to be. When you picked up an instrument and started performing, you probably had big dreams of playing massive stages in front of sold-out crowds of adoring fans. But the reality is that it’s pretty damn hard––if not near impossible–– for most bands to sell out even smaller venues, and that not all music venues are created equally. In fact, depending on your unique situation, skipping the venues to play more house shows might be a much better bet.