Inevitably, as you try to make money playing live, you will run into the question of what might be a reasonable amount of money for your act to bring in per night. (This question is also tied to what rooms you can expect to work in.)
Now, of course, there are no hard and fast rules. It’s not like everybody in the music business gets together and decides how live music payouts are going to work. However, as someone who has been “behind the scenes” on the money side of small venues and concerts, I can say that there’s some basic math which starts to make sense over time.
I call it “The 2X Net/ 4X Gross Guideline.” Here’s how it works:
A band’s monetary clout is directly proportional to the real value they offer the venue or event organizer. For an act to ask for a specific payout amount, the real value they represent to the venue or event should be 4X their asking price. The exception to this is when the band, in and of itself, is THE draw to the event. In that case, the multiplier is only 2X – but venue or organizer expenses should be factored in.
That probably doesn’t make any sense without examples, so…
Let’s say that you’re booked for a private party. You’re being paid to be entertainment for guests who will (very likely) show up whether you’re there or not. The overall event value, which includes things like space rental, food, decor, etc, is $4000. In such a case, it wouldn’t be out of line for you to ask for $1000 as a payout to the band, as $4000 is 4X $1000.
Or, let’s say that you’re looking to get booked at a club, and you want a guaranteed minimum payout of $750 for the night. The club may or may not charge a cover, but they will definitely be selling drinks and/ or food. For your request to be seen as reasonable, the booker has to be pretty danged sure that bringing you in will generate at least $3000 of revenue for the club. ($3000 is 4X $750.)
Finally, let’s say that a small theater is going to bring you onto a ticketed event. The only major source of revenue will be admissions. If you’re looking to be a $500 act for them, then you need to be able to bring in enough of a crowd to create ticket sales that cover your share of the production expense, plus $1000. ($1000 is 2X $500.)
Now, again, this isn’t some system of rules that everybody will recognize. However, I do think it will put you in the ballpark of what’s reasonable.
There are a couple of keys to using this idea effectively:
1) Remember that, for non-ticketed events, “real value” is something decided entirely by the venue or organizer. For some folks, it’s going to be all about how much food their restaurant can sell if you’re on hand. For other people, all they care about is that you’re really killer at playing tunes they like. It’s up to you to work with the booker in figuring out what “real value” means to them. If you don’t figure it out, there may be a large mismatch in terms of what you consider “real value,” and how the venue sees things…which can lead to real heartburn later.
2) Ticketed events can, on a regular basis, be run fairly lean. This is part of what creates the “push-pull” of the multiplier being lower, but expenses having to be taken into account. Bars and clubs often have high overhead, but they can factor in their overall expenses to the consumables they sell, and also carry a bit of momentum from sales not directly related to your appearance. At the same time, a certain level of “built in” draw can exist (due to the business model being something other than live music), which weakens the bargaining position of musicians. A theater or similar venue, on the other hand, doesn’t generate any income until a show plays in the room – and even then, it can be hard to predict how any particular performance will do. It’s not at all unreasonable for expenses to be a direct part of the payout equation. The flipside is, if you are very definitely THE reason that the patrons showed up, you have much more power and influence over the show’s success – and you should be paid as such!
At all points, a reasonable payout expectation comes from being able to figure out the scale of what you bring to the table.
I’m going to say something that is going to upset a lot of musicians.
I totally understand why you feel the way you do when you complain about fans at shows constantly having their phones out and taking pictures or videos of the performance instead of just watching it without using mobile devices.
But with cell phones, cameras, and social media all playing such a major role in society and the way we communicate, we have to understand that they are not going away any time soon.
So we can either keep bitching about them….or we can find a way to make them work to our own advantage.
This was the internal dialogue I was having in my own mind a few months ago while driving to Austintown, Ohio to work with the lead vocalist of one of my client-bands, Amanda Jones & the Family Band.
And it was during that 30-minute commute on Interstate 80 that I started kicking around an idea; one that I knew Amanda and her band would be the perfect band to experiment with.
This article, the first of two parts, is a detailed look at that idea, how we implemented and rehearsed it, and some of the important decisions that had to be made going into it. The second part, which I’ll release in the next week or two, will delve into what happened the night of the show, problems that arose and how we dealt with them, and will include video of the entire Facebook Live broadcast as well as video shot from the floor of the venue.
But I’m also going to talk about the things that could have gone better than they did as well as what I think we should do differently the next time we attempt something like this. Even the most planned out shows can have things go wrong or pop up forcing musicians to think on their feet and adapt. Like boxing legend Mike Tyson used to say…everybody has a plan until they get punched.
THE PEOPLE INVOLVED
It would be a good idea to introduce you to the folks involved and why all of this went down in the manner that it did.
For those of you reading this not already familiar with me, I’m Wade Sutton from Rocket to the Stars – Artist Development and Music PR. I work with bands all over the world (thanks to Skype) and provide to them an array of PR-related services like bio and press release writing (I have an extensive journalism background), website and press kit creation, and more.
I also help artists hone their live performance skills and assist in the production of their live shows. I previously founded and directed one of the largest singing competitions on the US East Coast, one that saw the live attendance at the show’s annual finals surpassing an estimated 27,000 people.
The band involved in this little experiment is from an area just outside of Youngstown, Ohio, which is about half way between Pittsburgh and Cleveland. They have been clients of mine for about one year and we were just recently beginning to really dig into their live show.
The lead singer, Amanda, has been singing for several years but didn’t truly throw everything she had into music until after graduating from Mt Union University in Ohio. The band, Amanda Jones & The Family Band, is just that: a family band. Amanda’s father, Michael, is the acoustic guitar player. Her sister, Brittany, is the keyboard player. Brittany’s husband, Nathan, is on bass. The drummer, Frank, and electric guitarist, David, are not relatives but have been with the band for some time now.
When they first started performing, they were a Sugarland tribute band. It isn’t difficult to figure out why because Amanda at times sounds strikingly similar to Jennifer Nettles. But wanting to be something more than a tribute band, they began putting more time and energy into writing original music. The current set list is made of up a healthy combination of originals and covers. And while their music would most certainly fall under the country genre, their original music, individual style, personal likeability, and energy gives them an incredible amount of crossover appeal.
They also don’t burn out their local audience, instead making it a point to book dates outside the Youngstown area, including shows in Cleveland, the Pittsburgh market, and even down into West Virginia.
The band has also received its fair share of media coverage as well. They have performed live (more than once) on the television morning news program on Cleveland’s FOX TV affiliate in addition to making multiple appearances on Froggy radio in Pittsburgh.
So this is a group that has worked hard to grow beyond being a local band and, while they aren’t famous or well-known, they are performing and operating on a regional level.
LOOKING FOR SOMETHING A LITTLE BIT DIFFERENT
Back to the day I was driving to work with Amanda.
This idea of artists blasting audiences for using their phones at shows was weighing on me and I kept coming back to one question: If fans at a live show will have their phones out, what can we do that will get them to use those phones in a manner that benefits the bands.
I knew a couple of things going into this. I wanted it to be something that involved Facebook Live and I wanted it to be something much different than what people typically see of a FB Live broadcast.
I began formulating an idea that was born from two immensely popular performances I had seen over the past few years.
The first source of inspiration for the idea was a U2 performance I saw a couple of years ago in which the band invited a member of the audience to join them on stage. The woman they selected was given a cell phone tied to the band’s Periscope account. For one song, the fan was given free reign to walk around the stage showing what ever she wanted on camera and it was all broadcast live on Periscope. If I remember correctly, this all happened in that time period between when Twitter really started pushing Periscope (in direct competition with Meerkat) but before FB announced that it was working on the now popular Facebook Live feature.
The second source of inspiration for the idea was when Bruce Springsteen performed during the Super Bowl halftime show several years ago. The thing about that particular show that I always carried with me after watching it wasn’t how much energy Springsteen had on stage but was how he interacted with the cameras in addition to playing to the live audience. It created a sense of breaking the fourth wall and made for a television broadcast that was much more engaging for those watching on TV.
So taking those two performances as sources of inspiration, I knew we wanted to do something that was extremely engaging for both the audience attending the show live as well as the folks watching on Facebook AND we wanted to create something that would encourage people to share the video AND we wanted to walk away from it with incredible footage that the band could then repurpose and use for marketing materials, including a sizzle reel that could be shown at trade conventions or to send to colleges at which the band is hoping to be booked.
There is an inherent problem with the vast majority of Facebook Live broadcasts done by music artists wanting to air portions of their live show. More often than not, the artist places their phone on a tripod (or has somebody else hold it) and the phone is situated off to the side of the stage. The artist then performs for their audience and totally ignores the camera. So it leaves the viewer watching online feeling like they are a fly on the wall…a passive observer.
It results in a very strong feeling of detachment for the viewer, something that is in direct opposition of the engaging experience artists should be trying to create for fans.
When I arrived for my appointment with Amanda, the idea was pretty much fleshed out and we immediately began planning it. We were going to take a three song portion of an upcoming live show, put together a high-energy performance for those three songs, and broadcast it live on Facebook Live…and we were going to have the camera operator moving around on the stage with the band. This meant making sure the camera operator knew everything that was going on performance-wise so she would have the camera on the appropriate band member at any given time and so we could capture specific angles at specific times. And, most importantly, the band was going to be performing to the camera as much as the audience at the venue.
We were essentially creating a live mini-television production for FB Live.
We then decided to add an additional layer by erecting a video screen at the venue on which the broadcast would be shown as it was happening live. The reason we did that was because we wanted to encourage fans at the show to break out their phones, share the broadcast with their own Facebook friends, and leave comments so they could see their own names and comments pop up on the screen next to the stage…all things that would make Facebook detect the video as “interesting content” and hopefully push it into more people’s news feeds.
WHAT WE HAD TO DECIDE
In planning out this three song broadcast, we had to make some pretty important decisions. The two things that jumped out immediately were figuring out what three songs would be performed during that broadcast and during what live show would the broadcast take place.
As far as what three songs we would use, we took a look at all of the band’s options. As I said previously, their set list includes a combination of originals and covers. I suggested to Amanda that we stick to using only originals for the broadcast. As many musicians know, Universal Music Group has been on a tear pulling down covers of their songs done by music artists and posted on Facebook. Even though we could have used covers owned by other publishing companies, I felt the broadcast and video content was too important for the band to risk butting heads with any publishing companies. And it wasn’t like they were lacking quality originals that could be used for the broadcast.
I also wanted them to use originals that were upbeat because the performances during that broadcast were going to utilize an extensive amount of movement. I wanted the entire broadcast to be full of energy so anything remotely close to a ballad was tossed from the start. We eventually whittled it down to three songs: Jones Family Reunion, Ready to Fall, and Wine, Whiskey, and Beer.
Jones Family Reunion was the perfect song to start the broadcast with for several reasons. Not only is it a very fun and upbeat song, it also does an incredible job reinforcing one of the most interesting aspects of the band’s branding in that most of the members are family. That was extremely important because it is one of the things about the band that a lot of fans remember when they are first exposed to them. So starting the broadcast with that song allowed us to introduce people watching it to one of the things about them that is different from most other bands out there and it was done in a very high-energy manner.
Ready to Fall was a natural fit for the second slot. It gave us an opportunity to do a song that was about falling in love but wasn’t a weepy, slow song. And while it was upbeat, it was one we could bring down the visual energy (for the first half) by having Amanda sing at the mic stand and putting more attention on the lyrics for a period of time. We did this on purpose because we wanted to come out of this song and ramp up the visual energy for the end of the broadcast but we needed the audience to SEE the energy increasing over that time period. Doing so keeps the show visually interesting for both the audience at the venue and watching on Facebook Live.
Wine, Whiskey, and Beer was the finale for the three song broadcast. The song is a fan favorite and includes a call-and- response. It was also a very appropriate song to continue increasing the visual energy coming out of Ready to Fall enabling us to keep a very natural flow to the show and the Facebook Live broadcast. It also gave us an opportunity to show that even though the band’s performances are branded as something that families can take their kids to, the band can still let loose in a manner that parents would be okay with having their children at the show. It is a party…but it is a controlled party.
So all three of the songs were selected because not only were they catchy and energetic, they all had their own way of reinforcing the band’s brand and image. This is an area in which I’ve always felt too few bands are giving their attention and it is holding them back in a big way.
The next thing on our plate was figuring out at which show this Facebook Live performance was going to take place. We had several options available to us but there were two that stood out: the band’s appearance at WinterFest in downtown Cleveland or at their show at a venue called Bootlegger’s near Yankee Lake, Ohio.
WinterFest was a great opportunity for them. It was a performance that was tied directly to a much bigger event (so they weren’t solely responsible for bringing in the crowd) and it was one at which a lot of people were expected to turn out. But there were some cons to trying to do the broadcast there. Because the show was going to be outdoors on a November Cleveland day, I was concerned the wind would nix any plans to erect the video screen on which the FB Live broadcast would be shown. One strong gust and that thing would have been sailing into the air and out over Lake Erie. And even though we knew attendance for the festival was expected to be pretty high, we knew attendees would have a lot of things to do and look at and we didn’t know to what extent that would suck people away from the stage to do other things. Lastly, WinterFest was right around the corner from when we started fleshing out this idea and we wouldn’t have very much time to rehearse for it.
Bootlegger’s was the other attractive option. The band had performed there on two other occasions and, both times, had big turnouts. The venue is pretty much in the band’s backyard and, like I said earlier, they make it a point to not over-saturate the local market by doing too many shows locally. The show was booked for late January and gave us more time to prepare. And, most importantly, we discovered that the venue had just spent major cash on a new lighting and effects system that would blow people’s socks off. Having decided that we wanted to take video from this performance to use for marketing purposes, this was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
We circled the Bootlegger’s date as the show during which the Facebook Live broadcast would take place.
INTO THE REHEARSAL ROOM
We set aside two Sunday afternoons to work on the production of the broadcast, with each session lasting two hours,
In helping the band with this, I had to focus on two things: Making sure their performances were planned out with a lot of energy and I had to work with the camera operator on walk her through everything we would need her to do. Remember that she needed to know everything that was going on during the performance, where on stage it was happening, and where she was going to have to be to get the best angle. A friend of the band, Alyce, volunteered to be the camera operator so I asked that she be present at both rehearsals.
We addressed the performances first. Fortunately, the band brings a lot of experience to the stage as well as a willingness to try new things, is fantastic at accepting coaching (a rarity in this business, believe it or not), and already came in with a greater than average level of energy and enthusiasm. So it wasn’t difficult to get them to ratchet the energy up a few more levels. We then focused on creating visuals that would stick out to people watching the show. This included sections in the broadcast in which Amanda was on her knees with Michael and Nathan on either side of her, Amanda tossing beach balls out into the crowd, and Amanda actually singing while riding on Nate’s shoulders while he walked around playing bass during the finale of the broadcast.
It was all stuff that would look great performance-wise even without the impressive lighting at the venue. Since we had only a couple of hours to sort everything out, we took a “broad strokes” approach creating and working on these very cool visuals in cleaning up any major problems that popped up.
While we were hammering down all the movements that would take place during the broadcast, we also had to hash out things like when Amanda and members of the band would be performing to the camera operated by Alyce vs when they were performing to the crowd attending the show at Bootlegger’s. Proving that they were in fact the perfect band to run this little experiment with, the band had no problem hamming it up for the camera during rehearsal.
Once all of that was done, we had to address the final layer: Alyce’s presence on the stage during the show. I wanted to make this as easy as possible for her so grabbed Brittany’s iPhone (the same one we would be using for the Facebook Live broadcast) and I had the band run through each of the three songs while I recorded the video as if we were doing the FB Live broadcast. We then sent the video file to Alyce so she could study before the second two-hour session. It basically provided her with a video walk-through of where she had to be and where the camera had to be pointed at any given time.
The second two-hour session was spent doing repeated run throughs of the three song set. We also worked on Amanda’s delivery during the transitions when she would direct the crowd to sign-up for the band’s e-mail list, give them the rundown on the merchandise giveaway that was being run through sharing the FB Live video, and directing the audience on the call-and- response going into the last song. And this gave Alyce several opportunities to operate the camera through the entire set while we made adjustments to the performances and added more movements to the show.
We wrapped up that second rehearsal with a ten-minute FB Live broadcast during which the band and I discussed the work that went into it.
So now you know about everything leading into the show and the Facebook Live broadcast. In Part 2, you will get a very detailed look at everything that took place during the show, problems that popped up, things that went exactly the way we were hoping as well as aspects of the show that could have gone better, and you will get to see the actual Facebook Live broadcast in its entirety as well as video of the performance shot from the floor.
Additionally, if you haven’t already grabbed yourself a free copy of my music business book, The $150,000 Music Degree, you can do so by jumping over to www.GiftFromWade.com.
It’s easy to be hardcore when you’re a young musician. I remember those days well. You’re willing to play any gig at any time, drive as far and in whatever weather as needed, compromise your own comfort and income, drive a beater, live on ramen noodles and cheap beer, and to do anything else required to live the life you love, because, deep in your heart, you just KNOW that it’s going to pay off. You are gonna write that song or create that sound that sets the world on fire and it’s all gonna be gravy after that. You just need a little more time.
So time passes. Some musicians do, in fact, set the world on fire. Not you, though. High school turns to college, twenties turn to thirties, and the same lifestyle grind continues. You’re not that old yet, right? You may have picked up a spouse and/or kids by now, which changes the game a little, but you will just pick up some cover gigs for cash and maybe teach some lessons and all, you think, will be good. But it isn’t. Your original music isn’t paying the bills, so you go full on cover band. At least you’re a working musician, right? Not so bad, you get paid, and more time passes, enough time to notice a crucial difference. Where before you played to get past local gigs to the next level, now you just play a circuit that keeps you busy, hopefully, but leads nowhere. Maybe you’re in your forties by now, day job and all, and, one night on stage as you bash out “Mustang Sally” or “When I Come Around” for the millionth time while an over-served girl pukes on the dance floor, you start thinking that being a live juke box for suburban drunks isn’t what you signed on for, and maybe it’s time to adult up and quit this nonsense for good. I mean, you tried, right?
You might have lived out a variation of this tale. I know I have. I ended up so far away from where and why I started out that I forgot, for a while, why I ever did this music stuff in the first place. I learned a whole lot about the game of music and about myself over thirty years in the rock and roll trenches and I today want to share a few tidbits of that knowledge with you, Gentle Reader, in hopes of improving your mental game and saving you a step or two. Here goes nothing!
TIDBIT #1 – THE REASONS WHY WE PLAY ARE IMPORTANT!
We all must be who we are, as musicians. We have to accept our deep, inner identity because that is the part of us that made us start playing. If you had a burning desire to write songs when you were sixteen, part of you probably still does at forty. You have to honor that or it will drive you crazy. That was the big mistake I made. I started as a songwriter but got seduced by cover band money in my thirties and gave up writing for over a decade. I only made music for money. Thing is, music is not only about money. If you need both money and creativity to be happy, a balance between is needed. Cognitive dissonance is your enemy and will breed resentment. Keep your reasons alive!
TIDBIT #2 – BAR BAND LIFE SUCKS AFTER A WHILE!
Let’s face it, playing in a four- set-a-night bar band is not for everybody. It has its moments, to be sure, and is great for your chops, but it gets old fast for some of us. It’s a world away from life in a one-set original music band. No one dreams of getting old playing hours and hours of overdone material to an often indifferent or even hostile crowd of drinkers. Combined with a day job and a family, this life can be a spirit killer. Some folks are fine with it but, if you’re not, admit it to yourself. A gig is most definitely not a gig. Play in projects and venues that inspire you to do it again, not to just get drunk.
TIDBIT #3 – NOT QUITTING IS ALL ABOUT MORALE!
People quit things that they have lost enthusiasm for. The more years you spend in the game, the more vital it is to nurture your enthusiasm and positive morale in order to keep playing it. If you lose those things, you’ll be phoning it in forever and people will know. No matter what gig you’re doing, you’ve got to want to be there and feel good about it. Dig out your inner teenager again and remember why you first joined a band. As long as you can feed that inner teen with what he or she needs, your outer adult will be able to get through the tough nights and low points that come with all levels of music. Your mental game really is everything. Play it well.
I’ve come through these lessons and many more and am happy to be a fifty-year-old original music artist. My cover band days are probably done. Writing and recording music is why I’m here and always has been. I’m still hardcore, and I’m totally ok with with what I now do. To hit that point is to truly master The Art of Not Quitting.
For some artists, stage banter is just a box they check.
“Oh, I’m between songs. I need to say something…”
And so they proceed to yak about whatever. Maybe it’s about what the next song means to them, or something. Who knows. You only get about 10% of it, because they do at least one of the following things:
They might speak very quietly, getting lost in audience chatter or other goings-on.
They might drop the mic down to their chest, or for bonus points, their navel. Their speech sounds very thin and distant as a result. (And even quieter.)
They might mumble.
They might prattle away at high speed.
They might use 50 words to convey a 10 word concept.
Very quickly, they start to lose the crowd. The audience’s attention drifts away, like a canoe filled with restless river otters. Nobody can figure out precisely what’s going on, so the focus on the stage drops away. The energy level craters.
As near as I can tell, the trouble comes from not realizing that the entire time you’re on stage, you’re performing – or rather, that’s what’s expected. If you stop performing, the emotional connection between you and the “folks” starts to get scratchy and intermittent.
The audience wants to be lead on a journey, and they will go where the band takes them…but only for as long as they feel like the leaders know where they’re going. If you seem to be meandering aimlessly, the spectators unconsciously dismiss you from your space at the front of the pack.
If you’re going to talk, make the talking actually feel like part of the show. It should be obvious to the crowd that you are still asking for their attention.
1) Make an effort to get your speech to “concert level.” You don’t have to be annoyingly loud, but the overall volume should be comparable to your singing voice. This helps to telegraph that, yes, the performance is still happening.
2) To aid in the above, use the mic as you normally would. Park it in front of your mouth, where the element will receive your voice at the highest relative level possible. This will help your speech to be crisp, intelligible, and also tonally rich – all things that signal that you’re still in the captain’s chair.
3) Form your words deliberately and precisely. Especially in an acoustically challenging environment, talking like you have marbles in your mouth makes you incomprehensible. Incomprehensible people don’t hold the attention of audiences very well.
4) Slow down. Not painfully slow – that’s just as bad – but leave a touch of space between words and sentences. Running everything together is rather like mumbling.
5) Get your message across in as few words as possible. I’m not saying that you can’t go on a five minute monologue if that’s what you want to do, but I am asking that every word in that monologue actually be necessary. Rambling might feel to you like you’re saying a lot, but it’s actually a momentum killer that conveys very little.
If your stage banter actually feels like part of the show, it enhances the experience. If it feels like some weird afterthought, it will get treated in accordance with that perception.
At coffee, I run into everyone. Our town only has one coffee shop, so it’s easy to find everyone there. I ran into a couple of musicians that I’ve jammed with, and I dig their tunes! Well, like me, they signed up for Distrokid – and like me, they have the eternal musician’s struggle: Record, listen, hear the mistakes, re-record, listen, hear something “lacking”, re-re-record, listen – and so on.
The thing that a lot of us (musicians, writers, artists, people) do is that we work hard on whatever our passion is, look at it, and then find everything wrong with it. Even when it’s someone like me who LOVES the little mistakes (read: “nuances”) that make things imperfect, I constantly hear things that need to be fixed. Even when a recording is produced and polished, I love having a little something that is off in it, but it has to be just the right kind of wrong.
So many of us keep shelving things because of those little mistakes. The wrong drum hit at that moment, a wrong note hit, a line of lyric misspoken – more and more things make us keep our music/art to ourselves.
Listen to some of the great recordings of the past. Listen to Zeppelin live at The BBC, listen to Tom Waits’ recordings in a barn (or his amazing VH1 Storytellers), listen to BB King live, or John Fogerty! They all have these moments that the rest of us struggle with! And, what do they do? They keep going! They released the music, they let the art out! Sure, a lot of artists rely on the beauty of our technology to help produce a “perfect” track…. No comment.
So, what do we do? Do we allow our mistakes to be a little part of our performances and recordings? Do we keep all of this wonderful music, writing, art to ourselves out of fear of our worste critic (it’s ourselves – The Storyteller), or maybe we just do something crazy like emphasize the mistake?! Whatever we decide to do, just get the art out there! Perfect or not, just bloody let it out!
Someone once asked the rhetorical, “what if Hendrix had left his music on a tape in the studio instead of releasing it or playing shows? What about Kurt Cobain or Joe Cocker? What about Janis Joplin? They all made mistakes, hit “wrong” notes, they were all perfectly human on their recordings – so why can’t you be?”
That was the thing that pushed me over the edge. Sure, I still want things mixed and sounding like they do in my mind – but if there’s this or that on there – a dog or car in the background, or a note that doesn’t quite go with the tune, or even a ragged vocal moment – I let it sit for a while before I say I need to try again. And, as I let it sit, they grow on me and I learn to love those little moments in the songs. Even the hiss of the amp can sometimes add another dimension to what I’ve been working on.
It gets worse (or “less perfect”) when playing live. When I was playing with a band, I would mess up a lot, I mean a lot. Now that I play solo shows… I mess up even more! It doesn’t matter to the audience how many things I have to think about; which pedal should be pressed, what distance I should stay from the mic, switching from a barred aug9 chord to an open min7th… Most audience members don’t ****ing care. They only care if it sounds good and they’re having fun. So, I’m learning (yes, still in the process) to roll with the punches of messing up on stage. In fact, a few of the screw-ups I’ve made on stage gave me ideas to change the songs for the better! How cool is that?!
So, let the mistakes be heard! Maybe do something crazy and accentuate them! Don’t do a million takes to try and make it perfect, you’ll never be satisfied – I know I’m rarely satisfied at the first dozen listens. I’ll always have the struggle of the musician who loves the sound of raw music and emotion mixed with a person who is, in many ways, a perfectionist about how I want things to sound or be presented. I’m letting the former win the fights more and more just so I can get the music out there. Even if only one person hears it and enjoys it on any level – that’s better than none.
So, I will continue to release music, wrong notes and all.
Now, while I appreciate all forms of music, I think that these classic jazz musicians nailed it with their quotes:
“There are no wrong notes; some are just more right than others.”
“It’s not the note you play that’s the wrong note – it’s the note you play afterwards that makes it right or wrong.”
“There’s no such thing as a wrong note.”
“Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”
“There are no wrong notes, only wrong resolutions”
“I played the wrong, wrong notes.”
“Should I bring my amp?” the musician asks in the show-planning email thread.
Thanks everybody, see you next mon- okay, I’m kidding.
But the answer is yes. If you have some sort of device that you can use to tweak the sound of your instrument, even if that’s just a bit of extra volume, you should definitely have that handy. Here’s why:
1) What if the PA and/ or monitor system can’t quite get the job done?
Of course, if you’re careful about advancing the show, this is much less of an issue. However, it’s still possible that, for any number of reasons, you won’t be able to get what you need. Maybe there won’t be enough mixes, and you’ll have to share with someone who needs monitor-world to sound very different from what you need. Maybe you won’t be able to get enough volume. Maybe something will be tuned very strangely. Maybe you actually need an active DI, but the engineer doesn’t have one on hand. You want to have a fallback option, even if it never becomes necessary. Speaking of which…
2) What if the live-sound setup is adequate, but suffers a failure?
Sometimes, the last direct-box just dies, and that’s it. Sometimes a monitor wedge quits, and there isn’t a spare. Sometimes your in-ears don’t work the right way, or at all. Sometimes a whole mixing console (even an expensive one) just takes a giant dump.
If you’ve got your amp, you can still make some noise and have some kind of show.
3) What if the live-sound engineer is stupid, uncooperative, malicious, or absent?
I hear the horror stories. The person behind the console doesn’t always get what you need, or they may try to make every band – even a Celtic folk ensemble – sound like 1980’s-era Metallica. They may not understand your directions, or be able to carry them out. They may not have time to recreate (from basically scratch) the sound you’ve been dialing up for months in rehearsal.
(You have dialed up your sound in rehearsal, right? When you can hear whether or not it works well with the rest of the band? Please, answer in the affirmative.)
And some engineers are just plain jerkfaces who think they know better than everybody else, or, when you need something, they’ve gone out to take a 45-minute smoke break. When that happens, you will benefit greatly from having some knobs that you can reach over and turn.
You have to have some level of control over what’s happening to you.
4) What if the engineer likes it when you can make your own choices?
I can only speak for myself, but I’m all for letting you get yourself dialed up. It tends to reduce stress for both of us, and I can get a clue regarding what you want without having to start with a purely abstract conversation. Plus, if you have different tonalities that call up for different songs, you can just make that happen naturally while I translate it out front.
Now – what does this not mean?
Well, it does NOT mean that you have to carry around enough audio firepower to be “loud” in the upper bowl of a stadium. Save your time and back. A smallish rig that’s perfect in rehearsal will do the job. (There’s another lesson: Rehearsal volume and blend should be show volume and blend. If your band is going to the gig, and then suddenly adding 10 dB or drowning somebody out, that’s a whole other issue.)
It does NOT mean that you should be obnoxious. The point of having the amp handy is that you have a tool for ensuring that the band continues to sound like a band under different circumstances. It’s not so that you tear people’s heads off, or dial up enough high-mid that your instrument clangs like a steel bar against concrete.
It does NOT mean that you’re prevented from running direct if you want to. If everything’s as smooth as butter, and you love the sound of the PA, and the amp is completely superfluous, no problem! You don’t have to run any audio through it if you don’t want to.
The point is to not leave your backup at home. It’s easy to not use it, and really hard to go back and get it.
If you’re playing in bars and clubs, there will most likely come a day when you encounter a certain artifact. Some might call this artifact “The Scepter Of Plagues.” Others might name it “The Odiferous Transducer Of Doom.”
The rest of us just call it a mic that’s been beaten half-to death, and which has never been cleaned.
Such awfulness alone is a really decent reason to have your own vocal mic. There are other justifications, of course, like predictable performance (especially if you use your own vocal processor), and knowing that you’ll have a transducer handy which works nicely with your voice.
But there are so many mics out there! How do you figure out which one is the right choice?
1. Forget About What You Liked In The Studio
Some mics used in studio settings work well on stage, it’s true. Some people use “on stage” mics in the studio anyway.
At the same time, though, a LOT of mics that are great for recording are a giant ball of trouble for live audio. Sure, they sound perfect when you’re in a vocal booth with headphones on, but that’s at least one whole universe removed from the brutal world of concert sound. They’re too fragile, too finicky, too heavy, their pickup patterns are too wide, and you can’t get close enough to them to leverage your vocal power.
…and yes, I know that those studio microphones look cool. I also think they look cool. Looking cool is neat, but what’s awesome is actually getting the job done. I personally run into very few “studio” mics that can actually function usefully in the nightmare hellscape that is commonly referred to as “live vocal reproduction.”
2. Don’t Agonize About The Spec Sheet
There are people who spend months looking at all the numbers associated with every mic they might want to purchase. They worry about the sensitivity, and the self-noise, and how low the frequency response goes, and the impedance, and…
Folks, any halfway decent mic that’s actually designed to be on stage will be fine in all those areas.
If you want to spend time looking at something, look at the frequency response graph and polar patterns. Even then, recognize that those plots can be fudged and averaged to look better than they really are.
Mics with flatter response curves will tend to behave better across different systems. Some manufacturers “dial up” a lot of studio-mic-esque high-end into their offerings, which causes them to sound better on systems without a lot going on in the high-frequency area. However, that can also translate into feedback trouble and harshness when you perform on a rig with an extended response.
Mics with tighter polar patterns are generally better at rejecting feedback and picking up less of everything that isn’t you. Tighter patterns mean that you have to be more diligent about staying “on the mic,” though, and may cause you sudden problems if you have a tendency to cup your hands around your microphone.
3. Rent Your Shortlist, And Rehearse With Them
Once you’ve narrowed your possibilities down, try to find a pro-audio rental house that will let you pay to try them. If you can’t find a rental, reach out to your contacts and see if you can get a loaner.
Then, get in a real room, with your real band, and rehearse as hard as you can using a relatively unsophisticated audio setup. (Caveat: If you use your own vocal processor, definitely make sure to rehearse with that, and definitely make sure to use all the presets you call up during a real gig.)
The point of this is to figure out how the mic actually delivers in all the noise and chaos of a show. The microphone that’s the right choice for will “make it easy to sound like you.” The reason for the simple audio rig is to find out how the mic works WITHOUT a lot of toys and whizbangs attached. A good mic won’t need superhuman effort and a rack of processing to get the necessary gain to hear yourself. A good mic won’t need a ton of EQ fiddling to dial up an overall tone that fits in with the rest of the band.
Also, that “rest of the band” bit is very important. It’s nice if a purchase candidate sounds sweet through the wedges when nobody else is making noise…
…but the mic REALLY has to work for you when the drummer gets excited, and the guitarist turns up, and the keys player recalls a patch that occupies the entire audible spectrum, and the bassist is trying to move the stage through sheer force of sound pressure.
The right mic will satisfy the needs set out above, and will also be well constructed, feel decent in your hands, and mate with XLR cables without fuss or flimsiness.
Buying your own mic is an investment in your career. Take your time and find something that actually works for you.
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