Playing live might be something you love to do, but that doesn’t make it easy. We sometimes only think about the work it takes to pull off individual shows without considering everything we’ve done to get where we are. Even if you’re an unestablished musician early in your career, you’ve probably spent thousands of dollars on instruments and equipment and have devoted countless hours to your craft. This is all to say that you and your music are valuable, and what you do with your work should be rewarding in some way.
Playing live takes significant planning and preparation to pull off. For most unestablished bands, live performances mean coordinating with venues, weeks of rehearsing, and promotion––and this all happens long before musicians get up on stage. No matter what your goals and experience level are in music, performing needs to be rewarding in some way for it to be worth it. When considering whether to play live or not, ask yourself if you’re likely to get one of these three things:
Connection with listeners
If a performance opportunity is likely to deepen or expand your connection with listeners, then you should consider saying yes. Our digitally driven world continues to change music in profound ways, but nothing substitutes how it sounds and feels for a person to hear music live in a venue. This means that everyone from established artists to young musicians making music in their bedrooms miss out on massive opportunities to develop their careers when they don’t pursue live shows seriously.
However, this doesn’t mean that each and every show is bound to give your music meaningful exposure. As a general rule, if someone is asking to play for free with the promise that lots of people will show up and become fans of your music, that’s most likely not going to happen. If a show seems like it will actually bring new fans to your music, then go for it. But if not, you’ll need something else to make it worth your time.
Some musicians should take every performance opportunity for their music they can get. These include new projects, bands that haven’t performed in a long time, and unestablished acts that want to road-test new material. If you’re looking to gain experience playing live, you can definitely find it all over your region, if not right in your own hometown. If your band is new and unproven locally, don’t expect the shows you land to take place at great venues on weekend nights. The performance opportunities you’ll most likely get will be open mic nights, modest shows at coffee shops and other unconventional venues, and off nights opening for bands you’ve never heard of at small clubs. Think of this as paying your dues. With the right attitude and tenacity, you’ll eventually develop your live performance experience and move on to better opportunities.
Many musicians should be thinking and talking about money more, not less. There’s a destructive idea floating around some segments of the music industry that money is toxic and ruins the purity of music. While making superficial music designed only to earn money will hurt most of us as musicians, ignoring money in music completely will end up hurting all of us. It takes lots of money to be able to be a serious musician. From music lessons to expensive equipment and instruments, a serious music career demands huge financial investment. If a performance opportunity promises to pay you for your time and effort, it’s worth considering. Serious musicians need to find income for their work anywhere they can find it––without compromising their values, that is. If a venue or music festival is offering to pay you but there’s not much else in it for you, it’s worth considering if the money you’ll earn can pay for your life and help you invest further in your career.
Asking yourself if a show will either pay, connect you with fans, or give you a meaningful experience is a good way to help you decide whether to take it or not, but it still won’t always be easy to decide. If you have a bad feeling about a performance opportunity, don’t take it. Ones that better fit your needs will come your way eventually.
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.