The Dos and Don'ts Of Local Live Music

As a concert promoter and a fan, I’ve had the pleasure of hosting and going to a number of local live music shows, and I've enjoyed the hell out of most... but not all... of it. As I get ready to see some of my friends at NAMM in a few days, I thought I’d just take a few minutes to ramble on with a few personal observations that have stuck with me regarding the four major components of any local music scene: the venues, the promoters, the bands, and the fans. I don’t mean to sound so negative here, but when everything comes together for a night, all I remember is a damn good show. When it doesn’t, this is the stuff that sticks with me.
Let’s start with a general overview of your venue. Like any establishment in the hospitality industry, it should be clean and comfortable for your customer demographic, and the service should not suck. Have a decent sound system for your artists. They work very hard to craft and perfect a sound, and if your system doesn’t do them justice, then you’re disrespecting their art and disappointing your customers who came out to hear them play. I know that not all venues have the luxury of having a nice big stage and stage lighting, but whatever area you use to display the talent that you book, please help the artists do their best to entertain your customers with their music... at the very least, turn off the damn TV’s behind and around the performance area so that the artists can have their spotlight during their set. You can be a sports bar and a live music venue, just don’t try to be both at the same time. If you have more than one artist playing per night, try to provide a safe and secure area for them to stash their gear before and after their sets... or at least a few parking spaces near the artist entrance and a diligent security person there to watch their stuff all night. If you book your own talent, do your homework and book the right artists for your events. The last time I checked, people were more likely to stick around and order another drink when the band following the one they came to see was similar in genre and just as good, if not better. Don’t open with a reggae band followed by a country band followed by your nephew’s kazoo tribute to Tool. The idea is to get customers talking about your venue, but not about mistakes like that.
If you’re going to call yourself a promoter, then get out and promote. Notice that I said “get out” and promote. Yes, social media and other internet portals can be great avenues for promoting your shows, but if you truly believe in what you’re doing, nothing will sell your shows better than the passion and enthusiasm on your face when you go out and talk to people about them. Think of the fans, bands, and venue before you put a show together, and place their needs above yours. The fans are the lifeblood of live music, and if you don’t give them a memorable show (without a kazoo tribute), they’ll spend their money somewhere else the next time they go out for an evening. Don’t try to make a killing in one night by booking five incredibly mismatched bands, even though they might be the best drawing bands in the area. People do not go out to see five bands; they go out to see a show. If you’re going to charge someone $10 to see a show, then don’t give them two dollars worth of a band they love and make them suffer through eight dollars of “why are these bands playing together?”. Treat your artists with honesty and respect. They’re people first, and they deserve to be treated decently until they screw you over. Be straight up with your artists, be willing to put terms of the gig in writing, don’t ever double-book a show (which is total bullshit and you know it), and if you ask the artists to arrive early and stay all night, be willing to provide something for them to snack on so they don’t starve. If your festival doesn’t draw as well as you’d hoped and you can’t pay everybody what you’d promised, pay them what you can and keep paying them until you’ve made good on your word. You weren’t going to share your personal rewards with them if the festival went huge, so don’t take it out on them when it didn’t. And for Pete’s sake, please show up to your own shows.
Play the music that you believe in, not what you think people will like... unless you’re a cover or tribute band. Be businesslike about your band from the moment you decide to play live shows. Approach venues, talent buyers, and promoters with professionalism and understand that you’re one of hundreds of artists competing for a show. Get your stuff together by assembling a nice EPK to make it easy for whoever does the booking, and keep it up to date. Make your contact info readily accessible, and then respond ASAP when contacted about a gig... even if it’s only to say “Let me check with the guys”. Unless you’re planning to open for a national act and can sell tickets on their behalf, don’t try to get a show at a venue that’s well beyond your draw capabilities, and don’t lie about your draw capabilities to get a show. Venues rely on attendance at live music shows to generate revenue. If you screw a venue over by not bringing in the anticipated numbers that they expect to pay their overhead, you’ve put them one step closer to going out of business, cutting out live music and/or changing formats to karaoke or DJ’s, or getting them thinking about going with a pay-to-play business model so they can stay in business. Don’t forget to bring your gear to the venue, and don’t forget to take it home when you’re done. Don’t be too drunk or wasted to perform your show. Don’t put two dozen people on your guest list. Don’t invite all of your friends into the green room. Don’t show up 15 minutes before your set and leave immediately after, unless you’ve got a real reason besides you’re ‘too cool’. Don’t ever think because you’re in a band that your sh*t doesn’t stink. Take care of your fans, because they put you in a position to think that your sh*t doesn’t stink. When the day comes that you can roll up to your shows in a half-million dollar tour bus that your record label bought you, then you might be able to call yourself a rock star... but your sh*t will still stink if you forget the people that got you there.
If your buddy is in a band and you want to see him play, pay your way in like everyone else... unless you’re willing to give away freebies from your chosen profession to all of your buddies. If your buddy’s band put on an underwhelming performance, tell them truthfully; they may not take the initiative to get better if their friends always say “you guys were great”, and they’d probably rather hear it from you than from some unknown schmoe. Show the artists some respect when they perform. If it’s a small, intimate venue, put away the cell phone, shut your pie hole, and pay attention. If it’s a huge, loud venue, make yourself a part of the energy in the crowd. If you’re not there for the entertainment, don’t ruin the experience for those who are. If the overall sound is too loud, tell the sound guy. Loud is cool, but too loud pushes people away from the experience and causes permanent hearing loss (just ask me), and the sound guy just might have better hearing protection than you and not know how loud it really is. If you’re not there for the entertainment, don’t ruin the experience for those who are. If you see a great band at a show, buy some merch or at least give them some social media shout-outs and bring along friends the next time you see them... they appreciate that. If you have a great experience at a venue, show that venue some love on Yelp to maybe help draw more business their way and help them keep creating great experiences for others. If you know of a promoter that consistently puts on terrific shows, let them know you appreciate their efforts... and again, tell your friends. Ultimately, it’s the dollars that the fans spend at shows that keep the shows going. If those dollars are spent at good venues for good promoters booking good bands, then (at least in theory) that should continue. If those dollars are spent at crappy venues for pay-to-play shows with less-than-desirable bands, then those shows will continue... you have a choice. But try to go to a local show when your time and finances will allow it, because without local artist shows today, there will be no national artist shows tomorrow.
GigBoss, Partner and Co-Founder