I have a friend who wrote a great podcast script called “From Bedroom to Bar”. He talked about his own experiences as a singer-songwriter as he went on that first adventure from sitting in his bedroom writing songs and singing them into a computer, to his first actual public performance in the local pub. This adventure can manifest itself in many different ways depending on your own situation and experience.
Even though it seemed he had a head start in being the manager of a local pub that put on regular live music nights he was actually terrified of getting up on stage himself. He had an outgoing personality, a natural charm, a good singing voice, an acceptable standard of acoustic guitar playing, and some very original songs, and yet that first step onto the stage was still daunting. One of the live music nights at the pub where he worked as an ‘Open Mic’ night. This was a regular Tuesday night event and with some encouragement from friends he finally plucked up the courage to play. There are sure to be some in your local area or town. Some musicians are dismissive of ‘Open Mic nights’ but don’t let that put you off. They’re a great way to take your first steps ‘From Bedroom to Bar”.
For a start, the audience is usually full of people just like you – singer-songwriters who are daring to perform in front of an audience to present their very personal experiences to anyone prepared to listen. So, this is usually a very supportive atmosphere in which to do your first ‘gig’. The usual requirement is to be able to do 3 songs, with a 4th one up your sleeve in case you go down really well. Three songs will usually take 15 minutes. The advantage here is that there will be a house PA so you can just turn up with your instrument and music. If you’re a vocalist I would always suggest taking your own mic as well and not being too embarrassed to ask to use it.
You usually need to turn up quite early to find the person who is hosting the event. They’ll have a list of people who want to perform and it’s usually ‘first come first on stage’. If you can calculate it there may be some advantage in working out how to turn up just in time to secure a place in the middle or at the end of the night but this plan can sometimes backfire. If you turn up too late you may be too late to play as Landlords are under a lot of pressure to stop live music nights at a certain curfew deadline.
As the host gets to know you and your material they may suggest that you go on first, after half an hour, after an hour or even at the end as they’re also trying to put on a good night’s entertainment. This usually involves putting the ‘painfully sensitive songs’ at the beginning and the good old ‘sing-along up-tempo songs’ at the end.
Always be gracious in accepting the host’s decisions about this. They’re usually musicians and will often do a small set themselves but as Open Mic hosts, they’re always very supportive of you and your material and will try to put you on in a slot where your songs will be appreciated the most. If you manage to develop a following at the open mic nights then the next stage is often to be asked to do a paid gig on a different night of the week. Wow! You’d better be ready for this! The bar will most likely have regulars who in turn have favorite nights and there might be weekly quiz nights and DJ nights. The live music nights are often at the weekends and will mostly be attended by regular customers.
When you do get offered a gig like this it’s really important to gather a few friends to come along as well. I always ask them to sit or stand near the front and make sure they started clapping first at the end of a song. Clapping is contagious. When one person claps other people clap too. If nobody claps at all the silence is painful. When it’s my turn to support musician friends I always anticipate the end chord and clap on the very next beat as loudly as I can. If there’s enough background noise I also give a little “Whoo!” That makes the musicians, the audience and more importantly the management feel good. Get enough “Whoos!” and you should get repeat gigs. Don’t forget to ask your friends to take photos and make short videos of your live performance on their phones at every opportunity.
Once you’ve established yourself at your local gig you’ll be able to approach other venues in your town. If you’re playing as a solo artist, duo or trio there will be cafes, restaurants, and hotels as well as pubs that need live music all year round. Do your research. Study your local newspapers and magazines for ‘What’s On’ sections and get to know your potential clients’ needs. See how often they have live music, what style of music they like, and google the artists that play there. To start with only approach the venues where you think your style of music would fit into what they already do.
Make sure you have a Facebook page, Youtube channel, or website with examples of your performances. You really don’t need to pay out for professionals to film you. The latest smartphones produce excellent quality videos as long as your friends can hold them still and don’t stand right in front of the speakers.
Although the photos that friends take will help you build an online presence it is worth investing in a professional studio photo session. The stylized poses may make you cringe but certain venues will want to put a hard copy A4 Studio photo on their ‘What’s On’ boards and a digital version on their own web sites. It might set you back up to £200 but it shows your intent to be professional. Another way of getting gigs is to be your own promoter. Some venues in towns and cities do this but if you live in the country there’s usually a local village hall that has a live entertainment license or a pub with a redundant skittle alley. Again do your research, as putting on your own gig like this can end up costing you money. There will be a fee to hire the hall and the cost of promotional materials and you may need to hire in equipment you don’t have yourself, usually PA and lights. If you’re lucky enough to have a social community of about 200 people in your area, that includes other musicians, you may be able to get a crowd of 50 who will be happy to pay a few quid on the door to support live music.
If you’re playing as a solo artist, duo or trio you would do well to team up with a local band and offer yourself as the support act to start with, then as your following grows you might want to develop into a band and have someone else support you. Collaborating like this is usually essential to even cover your costs, it’s also good fun and you’ll double the potential number of people that will come to the gigs. If you make sure you follow this up online with links and followers your fan base will grow quite quickly. This is then very useful in persuading a wider variety of venue owners to book you for gigs as they will hope you’ll bring in more customers than they would otherwise get.
It’s always fun to perform at local festivals and often the local live music pub will be involved in running the stage or selecting the acts from their favorites that play all year round. They’re often fundraising for a local cause and the musicians will play for food and drink and no fee. This is good to do now and then as you’re able to encourage people to donate by throwing money in the hat or buying raffle tickets. It’s good free publicity for you as it’s likely to be covered by the local papers and it makes you feel good too.
Finally, never underestimate the power of private events to help grow your fanbase. There are usually one or two reasons to have a party each year in any extended family and you can offer to play for a small fee. Some musicians cringe at the thought of playing weddings or birthday parties but the truth is all the people there will go away and tell other people about the event and the entertainment. As in any industry or social setting, the best publicity is always word-of-mouth and personal recommendations. Good luck!
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