The dark art of chasing down gigs

The dark art of chasing down gigs

Forming a band is about as straightforward as wrestling a well-greased python. You know the scenario: finding a guitarist with an off-switch; settling on the hundredth suggested name out of sheer exhaustion; not to mention figuring out how to layer ethnic yodelling over a bebop bass line. But all this stuff is a slice of Victoria sponge compared to the endless life-blighting hassle of getting gigs. We spoke to a bunch of local musos not only to investigate the state of the ‘market' but also to share their experiences and advice. Some were established while others were new; some were mainstream while others were boldly original; some were booted, suited and electrified, others were elegantly minimal acoustic. But for all this excellent diversity, they agreed strongly on the main issues and strategies.

It turns out there are definitely gigs to be had but getting them takes plenty of work and a bucket of emotional resilience. Both our panel and the Hot Music Live database show that there are definitely fewer opportunities than there used to be. On the other hand, there are many excellent acts in the area. So, high supply and low demand means an economic advantage to venues as buyers over performers as sellers. Venues can and often will seek to minimise their risks by exercising control and limiting costs. That can mean lower fees and more bookings for ‘safe' acts such as covers, classic rock and even open mic nights. While some places are genuinely adventurous with a passion for promoting great music, others are simply doing what they see as the right thing for their business or even just following the spending rules set by the brewery.

A secondary factor is noise levels. When local residents grumble about over-exposure to Jim Marshall's finest, it's not surprising when pubs settle on an acoustic-only policy. Finally, venues like to book people they know and trust; it's just so much easier to get a gig when you've got a gig. The winners right now look to be acoustic acts and mainstream bands and there's maybe something of a developing scene for jazz and soul. If you want to follow your muse and write bold, original music, sorry, it is likely to be a harder journey.

There are no golden bullets to share today. However, there are some approaches that people have found helpful.

First, network like crazy. Figure out who you need to know and, equally, who needs to know you. Get connected to promoters, festival organisers, venue owners, charity fundraisers, musicians, studios, photographers, open mic hosts, in fact anyone involved in the local scene. And make sure that you are a useful person to know. Effective networking is about mutual benefit; that singer you helped out with advice on live sound is more likely to become the person who recommends you for a festival slot. Don't expect immediate results here, networking is a long game but it reliably improves the odds of getting work. While web sites and social media pages are an important part of the mix, it's still critical to know and get along with the important players. The good news is that the scene is pretty relaxed and most of the key people are very open to connecting on Facebook.

Second, grow a thick skin. Rejection is common but even more likely is just being ignored. One very successful local band leader reckons that while 9 out of 10 of his emails get no reply, with patience and a cool head cold calling can lead to gigs. Obviously, the less your email looks like generic spam, the more likely it is to get read so it's best to be concise, focused and based on what the venue might want to know. It's typically more effective though to make your pitch, face to face. Not only is it harder to ignore but it also demonstrates some commitment and confidence. You can also take along a marketing pack, and, if you're cheeky, you may be able to play a sample there and then on your tablet or phone.

Third, treat your music like a product. Be clear about what you do, where you want to play and why people will come along to hear you. Not a very rock and roll attitude maybe but for a venue, booking a gig is a business deal and your job is to market an attractive and well-defined product. Based on a recent conversation with a local bar owner, here's what a venue typically wants to check out before booking you: 1. your genre and repertoire; 2. your line-up; 3. your experience and gigging history; and 4. links to studio recordings and live videos. For marketing, it's also good to be smart about media trends and innovations, not only generic digital resources such as Facebook, Twitter and SoundCloud but also specialised local sources such as Hot Music Live and Cov.

Fourth, find out which venues like your style of music and have a good reputation for working well with musicians. The Hot Music Live directory of local venues at will give you useful information on what type of acts are booked where. If a music venue has a good crowd and a great atmosphere, it's often the case that the owner is really committed to the scene and a good person to approach. If you're confident, accessible and willing to travel, consider working with an agency to play better-paid weddings and corporate events. Some pubs are now starting to use agents too. It's also good to watch out for the frequent changes to the gigging landscape: venues frequently start and stop hosting events as new bars open, pubs change hands and landlords try out different ways of attracting customers.

Finally, decide where you stand on the issue of playing for free. Some smart and successful people argue that every gig deserves a fee. If we play for free, we get personally ripped off while lowering the perceived market value of all musicians. As the old joke says, try getting a gourmet chef to cook you a five course banquet for 'exposure'. On the other hand, no-pay no-play limits your opportunities to sharpen up your act and get known. The more you play, the more people take an interest and the more credible you appear. As a bonus, gigs often come from gigs and it's not unknown for someone to leave their card at the sound desk. So, it's very much your call but there are plenty of successful local acts who have started out playing sessions and benefits for a beer or two.

So, getting work is tough but possible. It takes patience, emotional resilience, focus and flexibility. However, with experience it gets easier and over time more and more of your gigs become repeat bookings. And of course, the more gigs we all go along to support other local acts, the bigger the market for live music.

Thanks so much to all these fine people who contributed to this research:

Alan Moores, Andrew Gough, Andy Holdcroft, Bill Gibbons, Carl Lewis, Caroline Dyson, Dionne Sambrook, Ella Billiald, Holly Hewitt, Ian Bourne, Jody Maynard, Juliet Green, Peter Drew, Robin Peachey, Solomon Dee, Stephen Steinhaus, and Thomas Ray Hinks.


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