We asked a friend of zinginstruments, a certain veteran gig promoter by the name of Jim Long, to write a special piece about getting your first gig. Jim has been a promoter, roadie, tour manager, stage technician and has put on gigs by Silver Jews, Boredoms, Papa M, Acid Mothers Temple, Tall Firs, Radar Bros, Electrelane, Dead Meadow, Four Tet, Explosions in the Sky, Joe Lally (fugazi), Michael Gira… Now he prefers to be in the crowd with a beer enjoying the gig with the rest of ‘em! Enjoy!
Getting your first gig. What's the big deal?
Actually, for most it's a pretty big deal.
Along with public speaking or throwing yourself out of an airplane, playing a gig is up there as one of the most nut-crunching, fear-inducing things you can do.
But fear not.
Like everything, there are good ways of going about getting your first gig, and really stupid, half-arsed ways.
So how do you go about getting one with the least amount of stress possible?
1. Don’t be a jerk
We’re serious! In your quest for gigs worth playing you’re going to meet all kinds of folk; snarky soundmen, bored barstaff, Under Assistant West Coast Promo Men (a rarer breed but the Stones wrote a good song about them).
And you won’t just meet ‘em once. Even in large cities the music community tends to be pretty tight knit; bands, venues, record shop workers, promoters, barstaff. You’re gonna get to know these folk and over time not being a jerk is going to open doors for you.
The good news is most of these people are like you, they love music (they just happen to be up close to it as their day job so like anyone they have their off days).
So yes, fuel up on attitude, but save it for the stage. When you trudge into a deserted bar for a soundcheck, remember the kids on the bar might well be in band themselves, or promote gigs, or know of cheap practice rooms.
2. Go to gigs!
You already do right? So do it some more.
How are you gonna know what a decent gig is if you’ve never been involved in one?
This isn’t research, this is you feeding your passion for live music by going to as many gigs as you can. Whatever makes you buzz at a gig is the kind of gig you wanna be involved in, whether it’s a sweaty mosh pit, or spoken word poetry at the local library.
A gig is a gig. Someone performing and an audience listening (hopefully..)
3. Watch out for those 'battle of the bands' nights
You know the kinda gig you wanna be playing, you have an idea of what a ‘good’ gig is for your music. Keep that in mind.
Ever been to a great unsigned battle of the bands night?
No course you haven’t, no-one has.
Ok that’s a bit cynical, they can be a good way to kick start live performance as a youngster, but don’t agree to a gig unless you know what kind of gig it is.
Many of these ‘battle of the bands’ nights will insist on you selling a book of tickets in advance to secure your gig. 4 bands selling a minimum of 25 tickets each, well-um that sounds like a good idea to me...it guarantees a decent 100+ crowd right? Wrong!
What you’re gonna get is 4 bands that are wholly unsuited to sharing a bill, each bands ‘fans’ completely disinterested in the other acts, and everyone having a sucky time. Heck if you can get 25 people along you’ve already got enough people for a cozy little shin-dig. Which leads us to our next pearl of wisdom..
4. D.I.Y. (Do it yourself!)
This might be the last thing you wanna read. Put on a gig? Me? Where? Who would come? I can just about put on my guitar strap...
But think about it.
If you’re gonna play on some cruddy bill with bands you don’t like and bring a load of mates down to see you, then why not take a chance, hire a venue, and put two or three acts on you like (and yourself!).
Most venues will give you the room fairly cheap (and take 100% of the bar) or you hire a room, pay a sound guy with their own desk, and you even get to design the posters yourself. Put your own bar on and you might even make enough to pay the other bands for the pleasure.
5. Approaching other bands
Go out and watch local bands (point 2 above), then approach the ones you like and ask if you can open for them at their next gig.
If they ask how many people usually watch you double it!
Often its these bands that are one step ahead in this gig lark, they’ve played all the bad slots in town and wised up to promoting their own gigs.
Pro-tip: when you’re watching bands you like and want to play with, find out who has arranged the gig.
Too often the promoter is cast in the same mould as the used car salesman or lower league football manager. The truth is most of them don’t do it for a living (they have a day job just like you).
A lot of the time the promoter is one of the acts playing, but there’s also usually a host of people putting on gigs in your town.
Once you’ve identified these you’ll find over the course of a year that it’s the same few promoters putting on all those great gigs you went to before. These are the guys and girls you wanna play for.
You know the best venues in town, and you want to play them! So hang out there and get to know the staff. You don’t have to brown nose your way to a good gig, but getting on a friendly level with the venue staff will do you no harm.
Lots of venues have an in-house booker, you’ll hear about listings well in advance. Keep badgering them. Bands are always pulling out of gigs and bookers always like to have someone friendly and reliable they can count on to fill a slot at short notice (this is where not being a jerk comes into it’s own!).
We can guarantee they will choose the act that’s least hassle over the wannabe rock star every time. You might even bag a support with a touring band!
8. Booking Agents
This route takes a little more perseverance, and will bear fruit when you’ve already built a solid reputation on your local circuit (as being a great act to watch but way more importantly for being sound, reliable and not pissing people off).
Any touring band playing your town will have a booking agent, and a handle of them cover the whole country. So draw up a list of the bands that are touring that you’d love to support and get on the internet and find out who their booking agent is, or badger the venue to tell you.
Then contact the booking agent and let them know that any time they need a support you are the act for them (they can check this with all those venues, promoters and bands you’ve already won over). Google is your best friend here. Do some searching on [Local Band] + Booking Agent and see what comes back. You'll be surprised who you find.
Not that hard, was it. Now the hard work begins, pick a couple of these points and put them into practice today. Before you know it, you'll be on the stage kicking it with the rest of them, thinking to yourself 'this wasn't so hard after all'.