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Going It Alone: getting yourself gigs

Going it alone: A 12-part guide for bands on getting yourself gigs and making it stick

Dave Stockwell draws on his years of (relentless, filthy) experience playing in bands up and down the country to bring you his 12-step plan to keeping it real, avoiding the player-haters and hanging on to the last shreds of your self-confidence and self-belief as a band.

1. Introduction: what the hell do you think you’re doing?

Okay, so you’ve got a band going, but you can’t seem to get any gigs. The obvious question you’ve got to ask yourself is: “Why?”

Now if you don’t have that high an opinion of your own music, the best and most honest thing I can say to you is: don’t even bother trying to get gigs. If you don’t believe in yourself, and moreover if you don’t absolutely enjoy playing your own music, then why should you ask anyone else to?

Okay, okay, that bleedin’ obvious paragraph out of the way. You do like your own music, and moreover, you want practice your songs and play them so often that you grow to despise them (herein lies the impetus to write new material). You really want to get some gigs, so what do you do?

2. Recording a demo and getting people to hear it

First things first: record a demo. Don’t worry about glossy production or expensive studios; record your own practices with a four-track, a minidisc player/recorder (dirt cheap from eBay) or even a dictaphone. Whatever you can get your hands on with as little hassle/money as possible. Maybe you know someone who knows a little about recording and will be willing to lend you gear or even record a couple of songs for free. As long as you can hear what’s going on, it’s good enough to play to other people.

Okay, so let’s say you’ve recorded something and you want to turn this into some kind of thing to distribute to people. Whatever you do, don’t make it too long: if it’s just a demo of a new band, no one wants to hear every song you’ve written to date. Three or four songs is plenty as an introduction to your band. It’s also worth putting your best track on first – don’t save it for some big climactic ending to your demo: half the free CDs sent to DIY promoters I know get chucked in the bin before the first song is even finished. They might skip to other tracks to see if they’re any better, but there’s no guarantee of this because they rarely are. It sounds harsh, but if you don’t like something there’s no point in exposing yourself to it excessively. So don’t save anything for later – you’re trying to impress someone in as short a time as possible.

Burn a few CDs of your three or four tracks. Don’t bother with tapes, DVDRs, minidiscs, bizarrely shaped “business card” CDRs that won’t play in some stereos or anything like that. Everyone’s got a CD player at home, so stick with something everyone can play easily. If you want, write a small “press release” or equivalent giving some pertinent information on the band: your name, contact details, any history you might have that sounds impressive. Avoid trying to be funny, spurious hype, useless information, glossy press shots, transcribed lyrics or anything. Just useful information that will help whoever’s listening to learn a little more about who you are and where you’re coming from. A name and email address is often enough. If you want to decorate the whole thing to make it look a little more interesting go ahead, but bear in mind that you’re probably going to make loads of these fuckers and the most important thing is their function, not how natty they look.

Another place you can put your demo is on www.myspace.com . Though it’s a bizarre personal site kind of place, it’ s also an amazing resource for bands that want to get their music heard. You can create your own profile and upload up to four songs that people can stream or download at their leisure. You can also collect friends, acquaintances and other bands as named “friends”, which can then be hassled for gigs, advice and information in the future. It’s also worth thinking about making yourself a website with your own domain name if you’re serious about the band as a long-term prospect. Make sure you put links to your Myspace/internet pages on any CDs, packaging or contact information you give out: if given a reason to, curious people will always check random URLs out the internet in their spare time.

3. Finding people to contact and asking for advice, favours and contacts

Okay, so you’ve got a bunch of CDRs and maybe some kind of internet presence. Now, actually getting gigs: Do you go to gigs often yourselves? What kind of shows are they? Do you ever go to regular nights of bands in a certain independent spirit (i.e. not big rock shows all the time), or put on by people in their spare time? Do you know any people who put on bands semi-regularly, or put up any bands on tour from other countries? Fuck it; do you know other people in bands who play gigs? And the internet: do you talk shit about bands and gigs on message boards or chat rooms? Know anyone who runs websites or messageboards that advertise/feature/promote gigs or bands?

What you need to do is ask these people how they do it. Ask promoters how they find bands to play their shows. Asks bands how their get their shows. Ask venues which allow independent promoters to put on shows what their criteria/prices are for having a gig there. Ask internet sites where/who they get their information from. Do not be ashamed of asking the advice of these people: as long as they are not wankers, they should be happy to pass on valuable information and tell you how they do things. Everyone likes to boast a little about their formula for any kind of success. And they should be happy to help you out just by talking to you or pointing you in the right direction at least. What you should also bear in mind: not only are these people in a position that you would like to be in, but they also have many other contacts. If you ask nicely, they might even be prepared to pass some of these along to you.

Give CDRs out to anyone you think might actually listen to it. It doesn’t matter if they’re in a band or a promoter themselves or not – if they like it enough they can copy it or give it to someone who is. What you are encouraging people to do is to network on your behalf, and unless you are prepared to have a good old go at doing it yourself by chasing new avenues for potential shows and regularly nicely asking people you know of for shows, you’ll be lucky if anyone else is prepared to do it for you (Note: there is a fine line between persistence in asking someone for a gig and out-and-out pissing them off. Gentle nudges, friendly enquiries and whatnot are far more palatable than badgering and demands they do you a favour immediately).

4. How amazing is the internet? How much better is it actually physically interacting with people?

If you don’t know many people near you who do shows, the internet can be an invaluable tool. Websites for bands, scenes and gigs will always carry links to sites that may be affiliated or serve a similar purpose for a different area. Places like our own diskant have hundreds of links to bands and promoters up and down the UK, and you should always check these out and email any appropriate parties about your band, providing a link to your own internet/Myspace page. (www.souvaris.com/links.php also has a much smaller number of links to promoters that have put on my own band in the past and have proven to be supreme human beings). One very important thing I’ll mention now: DO NOT SPAM PEOPLE . It’s rude, your email will end up filed in everyone’s trash folder, and you’ll probably be blacklisted for life. So when you do contact these people, do it on an individual basis (no mass emails!) and let them know how you found them – mention any names you can; anything to give the recipient a reference point or character witness for you contacting them out of the blue. If you are a regular at gigs a certain promoter puts on and they know about it, they know you will bring your friends to their gig if they put you on. If you contact someone and they don’t already know you, tell them who pointed you in their direction. Knowing someone who knows someone else is what community – and networking – is all about. For better for worse, its how the world works.

5. Personal qualities required when chasing those elusive first shows

Speaking of character witnesses: how about giving yourself one? With all this utilisation of other people’s good intentions and support, why not stick your own in and get involved more fully than only being in just another band playing gigs? If you help out promoters with the boring hard work that goes into independently putting on a show, roadie for a friend’s band, write CD or gig reviews for webzines, or do anything else that is part of bands playing shows for the love of music; I guarantee that you’ll get even more out of it than you put in. Plus, people who put on gigs will see that you have an active involvement in the musical underground that runs through the entire country, and that you are willing to sacrifice your spare time in the name of doing so. Maybe they’ll be more inclined to do you a favour if you are doing them — or their friends — favours.

The crux of all these last two paragraphs is: give someone a good reason to put you on. It’s nice to think that all bands get on bills purely by merit, but there are always practicalities and motives to think about. If you can demonstrate to a promoter that you are going to pull a few people in, or are easy and friendly to deal with, or help out a community they are involved in, in a number of different ways, they are going to be more enthusiastic about putting you on. A lot of it is about building up relationships and friendships, and you should be enthusiastic about showing anyone who’s considering doing you a favour about how you are going to repay them.

6. And if all else fails… become a promoter yourself!

After all this palaver: if you can’t get any gigs, put one on yourself! You’ll be surprised how many bands will jump at the chance to play a show if you specifically ask them to play at a venue on a certain date and mention how much you like them. Once you’ve got a band and venue sorted, stick yourself on the bill. A bit of nepotism once in a while shouldn’t hurt you. Plus, it minimises your running costs because you don’t have to pay one of the bands. Though it does mean you’ll be running around like a bastard all night (plus the days before the show promoting the shit out of it).

Being a full-on promoter that does regular shows takes a lot of dedication, work and not a little in the way of organisational skills. However, doing the odd one here and there isn’t too tough if you’ve got the desire to do it. I could write an entire separate guide for someone actually looking to do their own gig promotions, so I’ll spare you too much detail here. Instead, the best advice I can offer you is to talk to people who already put on shows themselves, and ask them how they do it. You’ll be surprised at how simple it is to book a band or two and book a venue… but then you might be surprised at just how many things can go wrong in a huge variety of ways. Going one step further than asking and actually physically helping people out with organising shows will give you a massive insight into doing it yourself, and if you do this they may well be prepared to help you out with your own show — again, community spirit could well be your watchword towards success.

If you really are going to do your own gig, I’ll proffer but two specific warnings that I’ve seen people contravene and subsequently fuck something up (okay, I’ve done these myself more than once):

Don’t book too many bands to play.

Tight schedules rarely work, at any level. Having only three bands play in one night is good. Four is probably fine.* More will do your heart no good at all with all the stress of trying to make sure everyone gets to play for a decent amount of time.

Don’t get drunk at your own show.

If you’re doing the show yourself, you’ll be in a position of responsibility and will be dealing with money, people and possibly a professionally-run venue. If you’re drunk, odds are that you’ll fuck something up regarding one of these. If you want to drink, get someone else to stay sober and make sure things go well.

These warnings aside; promoting your own gigs can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Introducing a band you love to people and ensuring that artists and audience have a good show can give a lovely warm feeling in your heart if things go well. You’re helping people out by indulging yourself in music you really enjoy. So if you’re going to do it, why not do it well?

Okay, this is the basic getting a gig guide over. Now here are some pointers for if you do actually get put in touch with anyone, or even get any shows sorted….

*This is assuming that you’re not putting on a night of grind/thrash bands that play for a maximum of ten minutes, or a night of interstellar prog mumblings where bands play for hours on end each. But that was obvious, right?

7. An over-simplified guide to promoters:

There are generally two pools of types of small gigs open to new bands looking to get themselves their first few gigs:

1. Gigs put on by people who are enthusiastic about hearing new music and are willing to give new bands the opportunity to share a stage with someone more established than them.

2. Gigs put on by people who are aware of quite how easy it is to make money out bands that are either naïve about the arrangement of roles between a band and promoter, or just willing to suck the cock of Satan because they are that desperate to “make it” or “succeed”.

The former of these gigs are (usually) characterised by:

The promoter identifying themselves as not-for-profit (i.e. will pay bands all the money left after initial costs).

Smaller bills of fewer bands to enable the acts that play get enough time to prepare and play well.

Cheaper door prices (unless it’s a big foreign touring band with lots of associated costs headlining).

An ironic or nonsense name for their promotions – e.g. “Milky Bath of Cleopatra”, “Cops and Robbers”, “Scott from Beijing, China”, “Knom”, etc.

Homemade, personalised posters & flyers.

Mildly shambolic gigs populated by people who are friends or fans of any of the bands, the promoters, or very enthusiastic about new music. Very few scuffles, disagreements or people taking the piss (hopefully). No ‘industry types’ in sight.

Bands of (normally fairly) reasonable temperaments, willing to share gear and help each other out.

The latter of these gigs will usually fall into one of the following categories:

The band being asked to pay a ‘registration fee’ or similar before they will be added to any bills, apparently to cover administration costs, OR;

The promoter asking bands to sell tickets to their own fans, and promising to pay them back any profit over and above “the first 20 sales” each band makes (effectively getting you to promote the gig and charging you for your efforts), OR;

So-called “flyer deals”, where bands are given flyers to distribute to their potential audiences, which are to be handed in when each person arrives to pay their way in. When paying in, they will be asked which band they have come to see, and flyers will be put in separate piles for each band. How much each band gets paid is determined by how many people said their name on the way in. Basically it’s exactly the same as selling your own tickets, except you’re not asked to get money off people straight away. The corollary of this is a strong possibility that if someone turns up to the gig and says they’re not here to see any particular band, the promoter will keep the income instead. Nice.

Regardless of which of these you encounter, you can predict that any of these gigs will be characterised by:

Chaotic “varied” or “eclectic” bills cobbled together from any gullible bands the promoter has spammed or randomly persuaded to play on one particular night. Thrash metal going up against indie power ballads can actually happen.

Normally fairly expensive door prices, to cover the promoter’s “costs” – especially if they are trying to ‘promote’ for a living.

A bland, meaningless name for the promotions company, normally with a nice shiny (and presumably expensive; here are your “costs”) corporate ID – e.g. “Silver Fox”.

Posters and flyers which are much glossier than DIY handmade ones, but are all exactly the same – only the dates and bandnames change with each different promotion.

Grimly efficient gigs where bands get the plug pulled on them and are wrenched off the stage or sometimes even blacklisted from future gigs for over-running their allotted set time, expressing a point of view that is not concurrent with the promoter’s, etc.

Usually attended by close friends of each band, who only roll in to see that band and then roll out the door, unless they particularly enjoy dishing out abuse to other bands. Also, the occasional clueless/drunk A&R man ‘representing’ a backalley record label, and other associated scam artists.

Bands that haven’t a clue about any kind of etiquette and regard all other bands as enemies preventing them from making it to the top. Normally comes complete with emotionally histrionic (i.e. sulky) frontmen or guitarists, and drummers who refuse to let anyone else use any of their kit, OR;

The precise opposite: bands who turn up to the venue without any of their own gear and insist that the promoter said it was okay for them to borrow all of yours. Your stuff then inevitably then gets broken and said band refuses all responsibility for ensuring that it is fixed. Sometimes this band will call themselves “punk rock”. Everyone else calls them cunts, and you should educate them as to what a punk attitude really is. After smacking them about a bit.

These descriptions are somewhat polarised and politicised, and I’m sure you can tell my personal viewpoint on the matter. The reality is that things are rarely as clean cut as this – people are always shades of grey between the two poles, and you should never forget that arseholes will always be out there if there is a quick buck to be made. Similarly, good people are abound, and their practices may well fall more into the latter category of promoter than in the former. This is especially true if they are well established at regularly dealing with touring bands that attract more than a handful of people. It’s that fine line between professionalism and exploitation that you’ve got to look out for.

A good example of this kind of thing, are the number of venues located in central London (especially Camden) which have their own in-house promoters who put on gigs 5-7 nights a week, and they will accept demos and calls from bands willing to wait until a bill of at least vaguely-musically-related bands can be put together on a particular date. Though they share a lot of traits with them, I am assured that these are a lot better than most of the scumbag ‘promoters’ I’ve scandalously generalised about above. In fact, a lot of London-based bands in search of “making it” are quite content to tread the pattern of playing each of these venues in turn for their entire existence. But please note: these venues are known to everyone in the trade as “the toilet circuit”. No joke. They aren’t pretty, but can be a source of fairly regular gigs if you can be bothered with the bullshit that comes with them. I know a number of people who have quit their jobs and have tried to survive on the dole whilst they play at being potential rockstars — presumably hoping to woo A&R reps from major record labels on those mornings they’re not queuing up at the Job Centre.

8. Ground rules to establish yourself about gigs:

Regardless of who the promoter is, before you even ask for a show you should work out some basics:

Are there any days/times that any member of the band is not free to do a gig?

There is nothing worse than a band (or being in a band) that confirms a show and then pulls out a week later because the drummer forgot that it was his girlfriend’s birthday and he’d already made a commitment to do something with her. Or maybe he can’t make an early soundcheck because he has to work late. Make sure everyone knows their priorities and gets them straight. Promoters will always appreciate this.

How much is it going to cost you all to get to the venue ?

If the gig is out of town, you’ll need to at least approximate how much your petrol/transport costs are in advance. If you’ve plan ned things well, this should be your only cost that you need to cover when playing a gig. It’s not unreasonable to let the promoter know how (preferably in advance) much it is costing you to get to and from the gig, and it’s certainly not unreasonable to ask if they can at least try and contribute towards paying these costs by letting them know what this is – ideally it’s how much you would like to be paid as a minimum. NB: Depending on the size of the gig/promoter, this may be simply impossible for the promoter without losing money themselves. DO NOT be offended if they genuinely cannot afford to pay you. Be grateful that they have tried to help you out as it is. This is especially true if you are a new band and no one knows who you are. But DO be offended if you know that they are trying to rip you off, and don’t be afraid to let others in the community know about it.

What are you going to do with any money you make ?

Occasionally you may find yourself in the pleasant situation of being paid more than it cost you to play a gig. You need to make sure that the entire band knows what will happen to the money if such a situation arises. You might want to split it evenly between you. You might want to store it away against future losses, or start some savings towards paying for a studio recording. You might need it to fund your kitty for the merch you’re selling. Just make sure everyone knows and is happy with the situation, before selfish greed takes over in any lone member of your party.

Is the promoter offering any kind of food/drinks or catering ?

One unexpected cost that can hit each bandmember’s individual wallet is the cost of a gig where you have to find your own dinner and beers. If you get the opportunity (especially if you are travelling to the gig), always ask the promoter if they can supply you with a hot meal or possibly even a few beers and take it out of any money they had planned on paying you – it is far cheaper for them to cook up a meal for a few people and buy a crate of beer than for each of you to visit Subway and the bar a few times individually. Any touring band will ask for this as a matter of course, and if you’re supporting them it’s not too much hassle for a promoter to expand on what they’re already providing. It’s also very much worth your while letting the promoter know if anyone has any special dietary requirements (for example, a lot of bands related to the hardcore scene are vegan or veggies).

What’s happening after the show ?

If you’re out of town, will you need a place to sleep overnight? If so, where are you going to securely store your gear? Always let a promoter know if you need help in finding a place to crash, and if you are staying over don’t be afraid to ask if you can leave your gear at the venue until the morning – it will always be safer there than in a car or van that’s waiting to be broken into on the street. If you are going home after a gig, make sure that you have transportation arranged and a plan for how you’re getting back safely.

Can you share any gear with other bands playing the show ?

Gear sharing can get sticky, but always try and work out sharing speaker cabinets and drum shells (i.e. not the cymbals or snare) if possible. If you ever turn up to play a gig with your full drumkit and then can’t put your stuff backstage because it’s already been filled with two other complete drumkits and a bunch of unused amps you’ll know exactly why. It also helps a lot if you’re in the common situation of not having a van to cart yourselves+all your stuff around in. The other thing gear sharing does is to massively speed up changeovers between bands at gigs, which can be invaluable if you’re playing one of those bill crammed with loads of bands.

Some pointers about gear sharing:

DO be prepared to give as much as you take: arrange to bring stuff that some bands can borrow, and to use something of theirs in return.

DO offer to repair or replace anything you break which isn’t yours.

DO ask anyone that breaks your stuff to repair or replace it.

DO call them an arsehole in all possible public places if they refuse.

DO expect guitarists to get uppity about lending people their amps or guitars, so don’t bother asking unless you’re desperate.

And one more thing I encountered the other week: if you’re lending someone your gear, make sure you get all your other shit they’re not using out of their fucking way. Take care of your own gear if you don’t want it broken! Recently my band played this gig where I had arranged to borrow a guitar cab from the guitarist in the headlining (New! Upcoming!) band we were playing with. He seemed a nice and unassuming guy who had no qualms about me using his gear, and was perfectly friendly and polite. However, once his band had finished soundchecking, he literally walked straight off the stage to prop up the bar, leaving his shiny new (label-bought) Marshall head atop the cab with everything still plugged in and the footswitch snaking across the stage like tripwire. In the absence of any roadies, apparently he expected me to make sure his gear was properly taken apart and put somewhere safe whilst we played, and then restored to its previous position before they stepped up to play. What a dick.

9. Not just a gig or two, but a whole load of shows… What the hell? You want to tour?!

Okay, so maybe you’ve done a few gigs. Now you want to string a few together and call it a tour. Let’s get a couple of things straight for starters: Firstly, touring is one of the greatest things in the world. Secondly, doing anything as complicated as arranging a tour is one of the most time-consuming things in the world. You also need to be massively organised if you want to book it yourself, as you are effectively acting as both your own manager and booking agent. It’s when you start trying to do something like this that you realise precisely why so many bands employ two separate people to do these jobs for them. Basically, it’s a massive pain in the arse.

With this in mind, if you are still adamant about touring, I suggest that you find another band to tour with. The benefits of this include sharing the workload of trying to find gigs, and doubling your likelihood of finding them, and splitting the costs of van hire (you really should bring your own entire backline as well as sleeping bags, pillows & clothes). You’ll also need a long list of people you can contact to hassle to organise a show for you – which is why touring is so much easier if you’ve done a string of gigs before and got on with the promoters at these shows well enough for them to want to invite you back. So you should start emailing and phoning people. You’ll ideally want to start trying to book dates at least three months before the gigs, which means you’ll need to make sure everyone in the band is willing and able to tour at a certain time together, and that it’s not during a stupid time of the year (Christmas, the dead period in the middle of summer when no gigs happen, clashes with other shows or festivals, etc).

If you’re still enthusiastic about touring (and you should be: it really is the best fun in the world if you’ve managed to organise everything so no major disasters occur), you’re best off seeking advice from friends who have done it before. Hassle them for contacts, tips, and people who have/drive vans which would be suitable for taking a load of sweaty people around with lots of heavy & expensive equipment around the country. Or you can ask me about it some more – email (dstockwell at diskant dot net)

10. Putting your music out on pre-recorded matter – a brief bit of advice

You mean you want to do it properly? And no one wants to sink the cash to do it for you? Then check the end of this article for links to doing it yourself thanks to the rah fantastic rah Jonson Family and also the irrepressibly friendly and awesome Bearos Records. Who needs record labels? Do it yourself!

Or maybe you’ve heard about the explosion of CDR labels in the last few years. These are innumerable and you’ve probably got at least three friends who run one each. Why not do a personalised, or “limited edition” run of CDRs? People always appreciate someone putting their time and effort into something homemade over some glossy generic piece of shit that anyone can waste £500 on getting a design company to arrange for them. I’ve got CDRs packaged in ripped up cardboard boxes and plaster paint, hand-sewn tote bags, re-stitched denim, wallpaper samples, and hand-scribbled pieces of paper. I’d take that shit over a glossy photo of a band beneath a computer generated logo inside a crappy jewel case that’s begging to be broken any day. Plus, if you charge reasonable prices you can easily cover your production costs and maybe even store some money away to put towards future losses (gigs, follies, broken gear, getting a round in at the bar to stop people arguing) .

11. This, and further thoughts regarding merchandise:

Given the option, you should ALWAYS bring merch to sell at gigs if you feel it’s of a quality you would be happy to buy if you were a punter (think hard about how happy you are to exploit people for their money too). It can be invaluable in helping to cover costs on the night, and if you want to tour you will NEED that money. Every touring band knows this and lives by it: Explosions in the Sky were able to tour for nine months of 2003-04 with their day-to-day living largely funded by lucrative t-shirt sales. The fact that I have somehow ended up with three of them in my own wardrobe is testament to this. CDs and t-shirts will always be in demand if you play a good show. Vinyl has a more selective audience (unless you play in continental Europe, where people seem to go mad for it). If you’re thinking about selling anything beyond this, think about how you would feel if you were a punter and you found a band selling additional junk on their merch. Would you go for lighters with a bandname on it? What about posters? (If some nice silkscreen ones have been done, they can be very swish and highly desirable). Badges? Fanzines? It’s all up to you. Fugazi, for example, won’t sell even sell t-shirts in addition to their music; whereas Wolf Eyes will sell you any kind of “customised” records packaged in broken guitar strings, globs of glue, blocks of wood and scratched/smashed LPs for “customised” prices, but hey, each one’s a unique memento. Vincent Gallo sells his t-shirts for £70 a time because they were designed by a “professional artist” (himself). In the end, it all depends on your personal politics.

12. Useful links:

Diskant links!
You dolt.

Oxfordbands.com guide for bands starting out
Localised, but with plenty of useful content that may or may not have been cross-referenced/plagiarised here.

FatCat Records’ DIY section
All kinds of essential information for anyone interested in doing anything with music themselves.

Jonson Family Records
DIY guide to putting out your own records.

Bearos Records
All kinds of resources and guides for bands and labels (go to ‘articles’).

Fourier Transform
Loads of links to resources on how to make a record.

Foxglove @ Digitalis Industries
Prolific and frequently astounding DIY CDR label, paired with its own “real” CD sister label, a printed matter label and a fanzine too. All by Brad & Eden Rose. To be loudly applauded.

BBC Radio1
“Unsigned” and “how to” guides. If you really must.