Hello readers, and welcome to Ultimate-Guitar's Ultimate Guide to Going Live. This series of articles will do just what it sounds like, and give you some good solid advice and guidelines for how to obtain, perform, and survive your band's live performances. This article will focus on how to survive your show, covering everything from stage fright to making sure you don't get your ass kicked by bar patrons.
This article will be making the assumption that you and your band are attempting to get somewhere in the music industry, and make a living as musicians. This means that you are intending to please your audience a little bit, and are willing to make a few minor concessions in order to survive as a musician. All purists, be warned: Parts of this article may upset you. Go write a song about it.
If you are a live band, then the audience is the single most important thing when it comes to your show. How you treat them, and how they react to your band literally makes or breaks your band's success. If nobody likes your band, you won't get any work. Simple as that. So be good to your audience.
Remember that people in groups are inherently a bunch of assholes. And when you get a bunch of assholes together in a bar, and give them booze, they become loud obnoxious assholes. This can lead to a number of problems that you must be prepared to deal with.
Every crowd has a wise-ass. He's the guy shouting at you to tune your guitar up, telling you that you suck, booing you between songs, and claiming that he's a WAY better drummer than that piece of trash behind your drum kit. You'll pretty much just have to ignore this kind of jerk. Don't respond to him, and don't encourage him. If he's willing to hurl insults at you, he's probably about one step away from hurling a beer bottle at you, and your expensive equipment. I've seen it a dozen times, and if you just ignore him, he'll almost always settle down and enjoy the show. There is one exception though. If a heckler wanders onstage with you and starts causing trouble, beat the living piss out of him. Nobody needs that kind of annoyance when they're trying to play a show.
Some people simply chose the wrong night to come to the bar and have a pleasant conversation with each other. Not everyone is there to see your band, and those who aren't will consider you to be a nuisance, and they will talk right over you. Once again, just let it go. Unless people have paid for a ticket to your private concert, they have every right (however rude it is) to sit in the bar and talk. Simply don't let it get to you. Hell, you'll be louder than them most of the time anyways. An important piece of advice is this: Don't be shocked when your band goes into it's first quiet song/section and you can still hear bar patrons talking. This is normal for a crowded bar.
People Looking For Trouble:
Some people are just looking for a fight, or someone to pick on. If a heckler gets too out of hand, and there appears to be danger to you or your equipment, have the bar's bouncer escort the guy out. If a brawl breaks out, grab your stuff and leave. You're a musician, not a prize-fighter.
A bar is a business. As such, you are a business associate of any bar that books you to play there, so act professional. Call ahead to confirm everything. Confirm a load-in time, a show-time, how much money you'll be making that night, what amenities (free beer!) the bar is providing, and any special conditions there may be. Once you've confirmed everything, here's a great tip: be on time. Nothing is worse for your band's reputation with a bar than showing up 20 minutes late and unprepared. The only reason you should ever back out of a show is if someone is too sick to move, or if there's a genuine family emergency. Your bassist getting called in to work at Arby's is NOT an excuse, nor is your singer getting dumped by his girlfriend.
Know the venue. Make sure you know if there is a PA system supplied, or if you will need to rent one. Know exactly how to get there, and how long the commute is. Know what entrance you load in at, and know the exits. Know the manager and the names of the staff, and be nice to them. Be especially nice to the guy in charge of the house PA system. He can make you sound really good or really pathetic. Make sure your band has an appointed "leader," who will be in charge of handling the business side of things. If only one of you is doing the talking, there won't be any crossed wires or misunderstandings.
More importantly, know the bar itself, it's atmosphere, and it's patrons. If the atmosphere of the place is somewhat relaxed, you can play a wider range of tunes, like acoustic ballads and experimental stuff. But if you're playing downtown at some questionable dive full of rough-looking scumbags, you better be playing nothing but rock, and it had damn well better rock hard. It's one thing to be true to your artistic self, and play an acoustic song in a rock club. But it's quite another to play "It's Rainin' Men" in a biker bar. You can only take your creative license so far when you're playing bar gigs.
Remember that you aren't just being heard at a live gig, you are being seen. Therefore, you must put on a show. Unless your name is John, Paul, George or Ringo, you won't get by just standing there strumming your guitar like a zombie. Now, I'm not advocating the sacrifice of playing quality in the name of jumping around like an idiot, but at least try to look like you're enjoying yourself. Rock out as much as is appropriate. Discuss with your band what clothes you will be wearing at the show, and make sure you're all cool with how the band is presenting itself.
It's not totally queer to plan some stage tricks/moves/stunts with the rest of your band as well, such as timing a jump so that you all jump and land on the same chord is cool. My band always does the big jump when we finish the chorus to "Back In Black." Even just making sure to interact with your bandmates onstage is good enough. This will make you look like you really know your stuff, and are able to think on your feet.
Another very important item to have with you is a set list. Plan what songs you will play, and in what order. You should also include the cues for when to introduce the band, when to talk to the crowd, etc... Why is this so important? Because when you're onstage in a busy bar, any time that you are not entertaining is dead time. It disrupts the flow of the show, and ruins the experience.
When it comes time for your frontman to talk with the crowd, make sure you all know what he's going to say. If you're not a punk band, don't make jokes about masturbating and crapping your pants. And if you do make jokes, make sure they are a little relevant. At a recent show, the frontman of the band I was watching said: "Man, it's good to have an audience at the show, for once... the other week I played for two people... and they were in the other band."
Light humour like that is what you should aim for. Don't try to be a stand-up comedian when you're not. Beware of joking about touchy news issues, or government stuff, or politics. If you're going to offend someone, do it with your music, not with your opinons on the news. It's also good to briefly introduce songs that have some kind of background story to them. Another thing that the venue managers will appreciate is to welcome people to Jim's Pub, or wherever you're playing, and encourage patrons to drink.
It's also good to remember the absolute basics. If you make a mistake, keep playing. This cannot be stressed enough. Nothing is more unprofessional than stopping in the middle of a song, and starting over, after stuttering an apology to the crowd. Just keep on going. My brother was a Default concert, and THEY screwed up and started over. It was pathetic. If you play a song poorly, then play the next one perfectly.
Whenever it's possible, stand at the front of the stage and face the audience. I've seen bands that just huddle around the drummer and stare at each other the whole time. If you don't know your tunes well enough to play them without looking at each other the whole time, then you need more practice. It's fine to just give a nod and a glance, or a little eye contact when there's a tricky part coming up, but don't huddle for the whole show. It's also a good idea to have the guitarist step forward and the singer step back when it comes time for a guitar solo, as it draws attention to the music, and away from the singer.
Simply put, make sure your putting on a good show to go with your music. It's live entertainment, and it's a tough business, so the better your showmanship is, the better you will do.
When it comes to stage fright, there's little I can offer in terms of a real cure. Simply remember that most people can't even do a fraction of what you're doing on stage, and they are just impressed that you have the balls to go up there and perform. Most people also don't notice or care when you hit one wrong note, or forget a chorus in a cover song, either. And if you're playing original material, who's gonna know when you screw up? They've never heard it before, right?
Now, it's normal to be a little nervous before the show, regardless of your experience, so here's what I reccommend: Pick a first song that is not incredibly hard for anyone in the band to do. It shouldn't have a hook that requires utter percision to play correctly, nor should it have vocals that will strain your singer too early in the show. By the time you've finished your first song, most normal stage fright will be gone, and you'll be good to go. You'd be surprised how confident you become when people are cheering you on.
Time for a very important tip: Watch your shit. Keep a damn close eye on any of your property that you bring to a bar. Drunks have sticky fingers, and a guitar is a pretty easy thing to run off with, and pawn for a few hundred dollars. Wherever there is equipment of yours, there must be at least one member of the band. What my band does is this: The four of us get to the venue, with our gear. Three of us grab as much stuff as we can, and take it inside. One guy stays back and guards the van. Once we're inside, one of us stays with the gear onstage and starts setting up, all the while keeping a close eye on everything. The other two of us simply go back and forth unloading gear. This way, all the gear is under constant supervision all of the time.
On another equipment note, make sure your gear is adequate to play a live show. If your amps are just not loud enough, or if one is way louder than the other, you have to do something about it. Rent or borrow an amp, or buy a suitable one. You can't have a 100W Marshall stack going up against a 30W solid-state practice-amp for the bassist. A good rule of thumb is that your bass amp should have approximately twice the wattage of the guitar amp, and your PA should be about the same. However, the more watts you have on your PA, the better, as this allows for more headroom before you get any feedback. This isn't a set-in-stone rule, but it's a fairly good guideline. It is of absolute importance that your singer can be heard clearly over the band. Nothing kills a crowd's interest like not being able to understand the signer.
Most bars will provide some kind of complimentary service for the band, usually in the form of a couple rounds of beer, and some food. There are a few things to watch out for in this department. Firstly, don't be greedy. Don't pig out on the complimentary chow just because you can. It's rude and unprofessional, so just take what you need. Secondly, and most importantly, don't get drunk. It's one thing to have one or two beers to relax a little, but don't get horse-faced. The two first things that happen when you are drunk are slurred speech and a loss of fine motor control. If your singer is slurring, and your guitarist can't even tell where his fingers are, your show will sound like crap, plain and simple. You're there to play, not to drink. Would you drink at your day job as if it were nothing?
Money is a definite perk. Make sure you have agreed on your payment terms before you play, including deductions, bonuses, and anything else that could affect the final payment. Don't collect until you are just about ready to leave. Just go up to the man in charge and politely ask if it's time to settle up. If the guy tries to stiff you on the money, be firm but polite, and insist on the original agreed-upon terms. It never pays to beat the crap out of the promoter over a money issue. But if he's definitely pulling a fast one on you, don't play there again. And when you DO get paid, remember that you are in a bar. Don't wander around with a roll of $20's in your hand, unless you want to get mugged.
I think I'll finish with a little word of caution about the best perk of all: Groupies. Girls love a rock band, and believe me, if you put on a proper show, you stand a good chance of getting hit on by a few ladies. All I'll say is this: If she'll go home with you, what makes you think she won't go home with anyone else? Don't think that you're the first guy she's ever propositioned in a bar.
Good luck everyone! Happy gigging.
Tom LeBlanc, aka: FrigginJerk, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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