It often sucks to be a live musician. We’re rarely paid; venues don’t have great sound; no one promotes the show; people don’t show up. We can’t correct all those injustices ourselves. But we do have to face the cold truth that it’s sometimes our responsibility when we’re treated like crap. If we want to be treated as professionals, at the minimum, we have to act like professionals.
We all hear stories of bad gigs. We also accept as musicians that we have to put up with a lot of them just for the “privilege” of playing live. What surprises me is when I hear how badly some musicians treat those gigs.
Here’s the thing: if you get paid to play a show, it’s a job. As such, treat it like one or expect to be fired. If you aren’t getting paid by the venue, perhaps you’re hoping to sell some merch. That’s a job. Venues should pay performers. We’ll cover that in a later article.
Here are your basic show-playing responsibilities.
This should be obvious but I’ve heard a few stories over the years of bands or solo musicians showing up to gigs without having rehearsed. If you’re playing shows every couple of days, or you’ve all played a thousand shows together, maybe you can skip a rehearsal before every show. But chances are, that isn’t your situation. Playing a show without rehearsing is like showing up for graduation having skipped class all year. Rehearse. Write down a general set list. Basically, be prepared for your job.
Have some contingencies
We can’t prepare for every eventuality. It’s expensive and time-consuming. But figure out the few things that tend to go wrong and plan for them. Do you always break strings during that one song? Put it near the end of the set and have a spare guitar. Is that one computer cable kinda hinky? Get a new one before the gig. Does your drummer have extra sticks? Do you have extra picks? If there are little things that you can be ready for, it’s good to take care of them before the show.
Show up on time
Obviously, if you’re traveling — and especially if you’re on tour — lots of circumstances will get in the way of arriving on time. But if it’s a hometown gig: don’t be late. It’s rock ’n’ roll. You’ll get a pass more often than not. But club bookers and sound engineers are going to appreciate the band that gets there on time and has their shit together.
End on time
Get offstage when you’re done. Most of your shows are probably not yourshows. You might be part of a line-up with other bands or you might be the entertainment on an evening of regular entertainment at the venue. There are thousands more likely circumstances that make this not your show than do.
The canon of rock ’n’ roll is full of stories of bands getting onstage late, arriving late, being high or drunk or otherwise incapacitated. This may sound romantic in a destructive way. But when I read them, I just think, wow that person is bad at their job.
And mostly the guideline for that is: you’re not the only ones working that night.
Respect the time of the other employees
Whether you’re in a coffee shop, bar, club, or even a stadium (especially a stadium), you’re not the only ones working that night. In fact, the larger the venue, the more people working. So when you’re late, when you go long, when you destroy property or generally make a mess of things, you’re not sticking it to the man. You’re sticking it to the labor force that has to do the messy work of security, bartending, clean-up.
Remember how you hate corporate jobs and don’t want to get stuck in them? Then don’t be the asshole CEO that makes everyone wait on you and do your dirty work.
That leads us to an overarching rule of doing your job:
Don’t f**k anything
None of this sounds very punk rock but it shouldn’t. You’re not rebelling against the club or your fans. If you want to be a punk about something, attend a protest rally, write an angry song, call your congressperson. But don’t ruin things that a fellow laborer has to repair or spend extra time fixing. When you’re unprepared, you’ll never know why a song didn’t work for a particular audience. When you’re late arriving, someone is rearranging their job to accommodate you. When you play longer than you’re supposed to, the staff of the venue can’t close on time and will get home late. When you break stuff, someone else has to clean it.
In general, don’t give any venue an excuse not to hire you again.
Talking about music performance like this may seem boring or antithetical to the romantic idea of rock ’n’ roll. But like the idea that we find the way that works for us to write and record songs, the idea of remembering the basics of live performance — treating it like a job — is so that you can repeat the good stuff.