For new bands, the experience of getting up on stage and playing is exciting and meaningful no matter the circumstances. But for seasoned musicians, shows with wretched sound, empty rooms, and non-existent payouts quickly gets old. The “down for anything” stereotype musicians have had flung at them is dangerous because it’s an attitude that devalues the immense work songwriters and performers put into their craft. If you’re serious about making music, you have to learn how to discern what opportunities are worth pursuing from the ones you should be gracefully turning down. Here are three shows to say no to if you’re an experienced musician:
Shows that you and your music won’t add any unique value to
Any show in which your music doesn’t provide something uniquely valuable should be declined. A neighbor’s BBQ, a friend of a friend’s wedding, a local benefit concert supporting a cause you aren’t invested in––these are all examples of concerts most any band can play. Saying no to these kind of shows is vital because they take up your time and energy without giving anything back in return. However, an exception to note is performing at a benefit concert supporting a cause you care about. Your interest in a cause translates to value because it’s a performance you’ll be likely to promote and take seriously.
These kind of opportunities are great for new musicians, but are usually huge time-wasters for experienced artists. Your music and your time are valuable. Don’t waste your energy on shows that young bands would love to play in your stead.
Shows that don’t get you closer to your career goals
It can be hard to spot a bad show before you’re up on stage and playing at it, but there’s some sensible questions you can ask to help. Does the show in question pay? If so, how much, and will the compensation be worth my time and effort? If asked by a touring band to open, is it because they just need someone to bring people through the door? If that’s the case, is taking that sort of show worth it? If these questions sound sort of selfish, it’s because they are, but in a good way. Rather than viewing your music and time as something boundless, serious musicians have to flip the script and view what they do as finite and important. You can’t and shouldn’t take every show opportunity you get because lots of shows aren’t worth your music and your time. Take the shows that actually help you in some way and skip the rest.
Shows at unproven venues or events
If you have any doubts about taking a show, it’s important to listen to your intuition. Whether it’s a venue with bad sound or a fledgeling music festival where no one shows up, a show can turn into a major disaster without the right planning and resources. A way to spot these kind of shows is by paying attention to the specific terms a promoter or booking agent offers. A classic show pitfall to avoid is when someone wants a band to play for free in exchange for the chance to perform in front of a huge crowd. Spoiler alert: there is almost never a huge crowd in these type of situations. Research the show opportunities you’re given and turn down the ones that look suspect.
Just like how a band gains musical experience by playing shows and writing music over the years, a musician’s discernment around show booking and touring develops in tandem. Saying no sort of feels at odds with the intrepid creative philosophy surrounding music, but learning how to is one of the best things you can do for your career.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician, and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.