In May 2012 I played a gig at The Railway. I was supporting an artist and was expected to not only bring an audience but to sell and collect money from advanced tickets. For some artists this is the norm but for me with a very small “audience” it was pretty discouraging. I can’t remember how many or IF I sold any tickets. I do remember thinking that must be a better way to promote live music.
A few weeks later I came up with a plan: create a special night, hire a venue , get great artists to play (including me!) sell tickets and put on a great show. Simple eh? The idea was to create a regular show – a brand if you like – that people would buy into, that way they would come and see it again and again without needing to know who was playing. They would attend because they knew that it would be a great night.
So I set about finding artists that I thought people would like and planning how the show would work. I wanted the show to be properly compered and took on that role myself. I wanted the artists to play 2 short sets as opposed to just one each as experience had shown me that sometimes an audience can leave after their particular artists has performed. There would need to be an interval, there has to be a raffle, artists would get paid (a share of the profits) AND the most important part ARTISTS WOULD NOT SELL TICKETS. That for me was the most important element and was vital to my business plan.
I wanted to make sure that the audience bought their tickets from me, that way I could take their email addresses and let them know when the next show was and that way SELL THE BRAND.
I would like to say at this point that I AM NOT A PROMOTER, I am a full time musician.
After deciding to hire The Attic at The Railway and securing the artists for the first show, I printed small posters and put them up all over the place, contacted the local paper and found a few “What’s On” type websites to advertise on. I carried these little posters everywhere with me and gave them to everybody I met.
I sold advance tickets that I hand delivered personally. On the night I gathered email addresses of those who wanted to know about subsequent shows and the raffle was a great success.
People love a raffle and it’s a great way of making a bit more money (keeping me and the artists happy) as well as ensuring that folk stay until the close (keeping the bar and venue happy).
It was a bit stressful as I had to put up £120 of my own money to pay for the hire of the venue BUT I made a small profit and had a ball.
Apart from a few short breaks over the summer and a couple when I couldn’t book the venue, I was putting on shows each month right up to April last year.
We had some great shows and the audiences were the best.
I got to meet some great artists.
I was able to put on acts from out of town. Dirty Proper came from Texas!
I NEVER MADE A LOSS. Although I got very close, one month I made £5 profit!
I was able to pay the artists MOST of the time. See above plus some nights weren’t that busy and sometimes the artists didn’t want the £2.50
What I did I did out of desperation and the belief that if THE PROMOTER actually promotes the BRAND and not the BAND people WILL COME. Yes I didn’t make a load of money but then I am not NOT a promoter.
I know there are loads of great promoters out there but I think that they need to stop looking for artists to sell tickets, generally they (artists) are rubbish at it. We have to sort out songs and equipment and travel and parking and merch and a myriad of other things AND actually perform.
Plus, if you continually use that tired old model of bands selling tickets, you are starting fresh every time you put on a night, it’s crazy. When you book acts GET THE AUDIENCE TO SIGN UP TO YOUR MAILING LIST and YOUR TWITTER FEED. That’s what the bands are doing and they are taking their audience, the one they played to at your venue, with them.
And before you poo poo the raffle, that raffle often made the difference between loss and profit. The prizes were generally naff and donated by the artists and once included a bag of bagels…with one missing….from Grant Sharkey!
You might be thinking that I just got lucky and that the time was right, I got the right venue/area/artists.
A year later I did the same thing with the old magistrates court in Eastleigh and used the same methods to put on four very successful shows. One show in particular I managed to pay the artists over £60 each and they all sold cds!
I have now decided to use what I have learned to plug my own solo shows as …. I’m not a promoter!!
Nick Tann is a British singer/songwriter who, three years ago, took the plunge by quitting his job and becoming a full-time musician. He books all his own gigs, publishes and releases his albums, builds and maintain his own websites, produces a quietly popular independent music podcast called “Is This Thing On” and does all his own publicity… He even wrote this! You can see what he is up to by following him on Twitter @Nick_Tann and checking out www.nicktann.co.uk where you can see what all the fuss is about
Finding a comfort zone while speaking to audiences between songs is something that has been problematic for MANY singers and musicians and one of the big reasons many clients have approached me for performance training and production of their live shows.
Unfortunately a lot of artists don’t see how negatively this sort of thing can impact their performances. Nevermind for a moment that not being able to speak well can make a show feel less polished and professional in the eyes of your fans.
It can also result in you making LESS MONEY and getting LESS E-MAIL SIGN-UPS…both of which are the life blood of today’s independent artists.
So I spent a large portion of time over the past year-and-a-half exploring this very issue and looking for ways artists can improve at this extremely important, yet often neglected, skill. Asking questions, experimenting, testing some of the ideas on my own clients.
And it was amazing because it brought to the surface several things that nobody in the music industry was really talking about. That resulted in me putting together a series of three videos exploring speaking skills during live shows. Each video, around 15-minutes in length, tackles key points ranging from the way artists rehearse their shows to the manner in which they structure their sentences when pitching e-mail sign-ups.
The first video was posted nearly a month ago and the responses I received via e-mail and social media were fantastic! One of my favorite comments came from an e-mail subscriber who applied some of the concepts to her own performances and said, “what had seemed awkward and slightly terrifying in the past was actually fun and fluid.”
Set aside 45-minutes of your time and…watch…these…videos. They WILL help you!
ABOUT WADE SUTTON
Wade Sutton has dedicated his life to helping artists ditch their day jobs in favor of careers in music.
Serving as a live music producer and performance coach, Wade teaches singers and musicians how to turn their live shows into a kick-ass experience resulting in fans buying more merchandise and increasing e-mail sign-ups.
He also puts to use nearly twenty years of professional journalism experience by creating biographies and electronic press kits for singers and musicians while advising them on matters related to the media, public relations, and obtaining sponsorships.
You can receive a free digital copy of Wade’s book by clicking HERE.
As the band was packing up, I brushed by and could hear the owner spouting his contorted excuses about why he couldn’t pay the guarantee. I’ve heard it all before and I’ve felt that crushing feeling of not knowing how I would make it to the next town because an owner or promoter let me down. I was glad it wasn’t me in that position that night.
That’s why it surprised me to see that Tony just nodded and smiled as he listened the news!
It all made sense twenty minutes later when I saw him packing up the merch booth. As he stuffed an impressive wad of cash into his guitar case, he gave me the most valuable piece of advice I ever heard on tour:
“Don’t rely on the promoters. As long as you put on a killer show and have killer merch, you’ll always have enough gas to make it to the next stop.”
The bottom line is that if you want to be a professional musician, you should have a solid merch setup and promote it effectively at your gigs. Because it might be the only money you make that night.
What constitutes a solid merch setup?
The first thing you need to consider when developing your merch strategy is who your fans are. It should go without saying, but you’d be surprised at some of the misdirected merch attempts I’ve seen. So make sure to offer items that your fans want.
Don’t assume you know. Ask them. Not only is it a great opportunity to engage with your fans, it’s a solid icebreaker topic if you’re shy about starting conversations with them.
The more you get your fans involved in the development of your merch the more eager they will be to buy it. In fact, fan-designed merch (especially t-shirts) almost invariably outsells everything else on the table.
The other thing you need to consider is who the purchaser or decision-maker is. A great example is children’s music. The kids may be the consumers, but the parents are the purchasers.
Although your shows may be filled with equal parts men and women, do the merch buyers tend to be from one group more than the other? Pay attention to that and provide merch that suits the buyers.
Set up your merch booth professionally! Here are some quick guidelines to make sure people know you mean business:
Have an actual, packable, portable, merch table. It should be part of your regular gear and kept with your amps and guitars to that it’s with you wherever you go. Invest in a banner and tablecloth or whatever else you need to make it look nice. The investment in a professional quality merch table will pay for itself almost immediately.
Make sure it is well lit. I like to use flexible tube lights with a spattering of blinky buttons. The merch booth should be second only to the stage in spotlight coverage.
Position it in a spot that is visible when coming and going. As close to the smoke-break route as possible.
Have someone stationed at the table during the show. Placing an honor-system bucket on the table while you’re on stage is not nearly as effective as having an actual person there who is motivated to sell. A cut of the profits is a great way to motivate someone. Don’t take advantage of your friend’s kindness to run your table for free. Cut them in and you’ll feel the results in our wallet. Pay your money-maker. Don’t treat them like crappy promoters treat you.
When you’re not on stage, be at the booth. Make sure that is the area to party with the band. Not backstage. You don’t make money there. Backstage is where you get swarmed by groupies that drink your beer and distract you from the show. If you bring that party up front, some of those groupies will probably leave with t-shirts and CDs instead of (insert dirty groupie joke here).
The merch table should be the last thing you tear down. Not only do people hate carrying stuff around all night, it’s at the end of the night that they cash out at the bar and have their credit cards in hand. PS: Accept credit cards.
Pay attention to profit margins. Please don’t do mental math. Keep track of ALL costs (including paying you merch girl). Even if you don’t have an advanced understanding of accounting, by keeping track of all the numbers you will learn to understand and optimize your profit margins.
Don’t over order. The money you save by purchasing 1,000 CDs does you no good while those CDs sit in your garage. You might need that money to re-up on t-shirts or flasks or get your guitar fixed. The profit from having more variety in your merch will make up for missing out on that bulk discount. Use companies that provide fulfillment-as-you-go like Kunaki for CDs. Support local business (like screen printers) whenever you can and you’ll find they will return the favor.
How do I promote my merch effectively at shows?
Now that you have a bunch of great merch and an attractive table, what can you do to get that stuff off the table and into the fans’ hands?
If you want to be a professional musician, you’ve got to get out there and do your job. As with any other business “do your job” refers to more than making music.
You are responsible for all the activities associated with turning your music into money. That’s the difference between a professional and a hobbyist.
This is why it’s crucial that instead of basking in your rockstardom with a herd of groupies or hiding in seclusion backstage, you need to be where the money is being made. The math is pretty basic: As the star of the show, people will gravitate toward you. So be where they will spend money.
What makes people want to buy? Here are some quick tips to help you move that merch:
Rotate your merch. Having the same stuff all the time discourages repeat buying. So switching it up and offering limited edition merch will go a long way. Anyone with a business degree knows that it costs 6 times more to get a new customer than a repeat customer. Since you probably don’t have a business degree, I reckon that’s an important statistic for me to share with you;)
Announce from the stage that you have merch AT LEAST twice per show. Here’s an idea to try: “This next song is from our new album, ‘___’! And until we finish playing it, ANY of our CDs will be available for $5! Just go talk to Jason at the Merch table!”
Price individual items higher than you think you should so that you can offer discounted bundles. “CD’s are $15 or 2 for $20.” Yes, this can even work if you only have one CD. People still buy music as gifts. Maybe even have some pre-wrapped gift editions on display to “plant the seed” in their minds.
Design, commission, or otherwise achieve really good album covers. Those still make a difference, but there are some new considerations. This image should look good on an MP3 player. So crazy, intricate designs don’t do well for that.
Don’t skimp on the quality of your merch (especially t-shirts). Your merch represents your music very directly and very publicly. You should want the world to know that you provide quality products (music AND merch), not that your out to make a quick buck.
Have a cool shirt. Unless your logo is so cool that it stands alone (Rolling Stones, Misfits) you have to spruce it up. Lyrics on t-shirts sell well (let your fans pick the lyrics). Also fan-designed shirts, as I mentioned before.
Display your awesome shirt on the stage. Drape it over a speaker. Have hot chicks wear your shirts and sell them right off of their backs (LITTERALLY)! Get women’s t-shirts and onesies (both very neglected yet highly in-demand products).
If someone buys a t-shirt, thank them form the stage. Point them out. “Look how cool Jerry is in his new t-shirt!” Buy him a beer. That’s a MUCH BETTER use of your drink tickets than getting wasted and falling off the stage. In fact…
Use your drink tickets to sell merch, NOT to get drunk. Some places will even sell you additional drink tickets super cheap. You can get pretty creative with that. Or you can simply hang out at the merch booth, mingle with fans, and buy drinks for people that buy merch.
Put a stack of CDs at the bar or cashier and make arrangements with the staff so that they can buy a CD when the pay their tab.
Have change on hand. It really bites to lose a sale because you couldn’t break a $20.
Ultimately, it’s important to note that marketing is not sales. Marketing is all the stuff you put into presenting your products professionally, and effectively engaging with your fans so that they want to buy. This should be part of your whole thought process and routine.
If you absorb that into how you manage your business, you’ll never have to ask for the sale, which I know is the hardest part…
Finally found the time to write a blog again! It’s been a while since I’ve been trying to find ways of making an income from my music. London is very expensive and it doesn’t forgive mistakes. Definitely one of the hardest cities to live in. People run like crazy all day including me and it takes (in average) about 3 hours to go to work and back…plus don’t let me even get started with how expensive the underground is..if you visited London..I’m sure you noticed.. 🙂
Anyway it’s me babbling again!!! heheh Got to stop this and get to the point! So…
I’ve been living in London for more than 3 and a half years now, I changed several jobs, worked everywhere (restaurants mostly) and I’ve been a part time Sales assistant in a jewelry shop too since 2012. Needless to say that as an Artist I hated the job and it killed my creativity. There was nothing wrong with the job itself..but it wasn’t for me. I was literally coming back home from work and there was no life in my eyes.
If you hate your job…you know what I’m talking about. Anyway…this thing couldn’t go on and on anymore. I’ve been there for too long…almost 3 years. So I started pushing myself to think of new ways to improve my life.
If you know me, then you know I am present on my social networks and I interact with all my fans…a lot. I appreciate these people. These people care about me..and I care about them. We established a wonderful relationship. Ahhh the magic of the internet! So I thought…well the best way of making an income from my art is to give the opportunity to my fans to support me financially and thanks to the universe that works in mysterious ways.. a friend of mine introduced me Patreon. Patreon is a platform that gives the chance to people to support their fav artist! AMAZING, RIGHT? He has one himself by the way…his name is Tommy Darker and this is his Patreon page if you want to support him!
I started working on my Patreon page in the end of January 2015…and I took the risk to quit the Sales Assistant job hoping that my fans will be there holding the net to catch me as I fall. And guess what! THEY DID! I love these people so much!!!! I started contacting people about my Patreon on the 7th of March and just a week later I raised $482 from 25 patrons so far! It’s going great! I believe more people will jump in in the future and that probably means I will be making at least a basic living from my art.
The Way Patreon Works:
You choose one of the rewards…there are several amounts…you go with what you want. Even $1 is appreciated! You DO NOT get charged right away. You get charged ONLY when I post a creation (new song, cover song, lyrics, video etc). So for example if I don’t post anything for 3 months…you do not get charged. If I post a creation once a month (which is my goal) then you get charged once a month. You can edit/cancel your pledge anytime you want! I love Patreon already and here’s to a great new beginning with more Art from me that I hope will enrich your lives and make you feel good when you listen to it!
Pledging on Patreon is a Win Win situation! You support an artist financially..and you get exclusive rewards back!
Support your favourite artists. It’s the only way for you to keep getting more of the Art you enjoy/like!! This is my Patreon page by the way if you want to support:
Many many thanks for reading this! I appreciate each and every one of you showing support.
With love and positivity,
Héllena is a Greek independent artist, currently residing in London, trying to make a sustainable living from her Art without having to sell out. If you want to contact her and exchange ideas here are few links where you can find her. Say hi, she won’t bite 😀
We see it everywhere in the music biz: [Insert Artist Name here] has a new single!
But, what does that really mean?
Well, to break it down, there are SINGLES, Singles and singles…
The SINGLE- AKA Major Label Release or the Times Square Billboard
When a major label artist releases a single, it’s a big deal. It’s a big deal because it means the label is investing tens of thousands of dollars (yes, that much) in advertising and promotion to get that single out there in the market. They literally have teams of people calling up individual program directors on a daily basis to get them to play the single on their radio station. This involves both relationships and favors. For example, a label radio promoter might ‘sweeten the deal’ with a program director by offering free tickets to a big name artist show in exchange for spinning a lesser known artist’s single. It happens all the time. Major labels pretty much own the content that gets played on major radio stations, which is why you hear the same playlists over and over.
And, just so you know, a #1 song in the country market will make a million dollars. So, if all the promotion works, it pays off big for the label, the artist, the publishers and the songwriters.
The Single- AKA Legit Indie Release or the Highway Sign
When a legit indie label or indie artist releases a single, they can hire radio promoters to work their single at radio for a fee or they can run a professional DIY campaign.
Now depending on the charts they are targeting, fees vary widely from a few thousand for the ‘life’ of the single – or however long it is still moving up the charts – or a few thousand a month. In country radio, for example, major label artists typically release and promote to Billboard charts and up-and-coming artists generally release to secondary charts (Music Row, Billboard Indicator). Even these secondary charts come at a pretty hefty price tag, and artists I know have spent $20,000-$30,000 on promoting one single. Because of royalty rates, don’t expect to earn a bunch of money back either. A few years ago, I was a writer on a song that reached the top 60 on the Music Row charts and it paid a whopping $30.
For myself as an indie artist, I’ve found a great option in radio promotion in the UK and Ireland. I partner with KEMC Global; they are reasonably priced, and they get results that turn into actual revenue because the royalty rates are so different there.
If you do hire someone to help you promote your music, make sure they have a track record of working with artists in your genre. And, as always, ask around to see what other successful indies are doing.
The single- AKA I’m Saying it’s a Single or the Yard Sign
This brings us to the last type of single. This is basically when you say you have a single, but what it really means is that you put it on iTunes and maybe your hometown radio station is playing it. It’s sounds cool, yeah, but it’s just not the same as the two types of singles described above. At the very least, if you’re serious about your career, consider trying a DIY campaign around a new single or album, or clarifying your release as an iTunes Single release.
The Closing Thought
So, there you have it. There are SINGLES, Singles and singles. While we can’t all be major label artists, the good news is that you do have options to run legitimate single promotions with an investment of time and money. And, remember if you want to be legit, then you have to work on getting your music on legit music industry charts,; ReverbNation doesn’t count.
Have any questions about radio promotions? Hit me- I’ll answer whatever I can!
Let’s face it. Being an indie artist is hard work.
For many of us, it means we serve as our own booking agents, music publishers, record labels, publicists/marketers, distributors and accountants. We have to get creative, roll up our sleeves and make things happen in our careers often with very little support or funding. How many times have you searched for resources online, ask friends for advice or just jumped in and learned by doing?
Lately I’ve been working on a new record Ghosts in the Field, and I’ve been thinking about the complex process of releasing a record as an indie artist. And it is a process—one full of planning and a lot of moving parts.
To help bring it all together, I’ve created the Ultimate Indie Album Release Roadmap for you! And, because I’ve been blogging for a few years, I included bonus how-to resource links (dashed line boxes indicate links) on topics such as lyric videos, radio promotion, media tips, pitching to film and TV and more. (Note that the same concepts would work if you were releasing EPs or even singles).
Have I missed anything? What would you find helpful to add to the mix? Share your comments below!
About a month ago, I got home from a 60-show summer tour, on which I didn’t set foot in a single music venue or club. Every show took place in the living room or backyard of someone who supports my music. We did shows in 19 US states and one province of Canada. We drove around in our VW Jetta (335,000 miles on the odometer and going strong), and we had the time of our lives.
This is the third summer that we’ve done a summer house concert tour, and just like the previous two years, this year’s tour exceeded our projections and expectations. I think it’s safe to say at this point in time that this is my jam. I love house concert touring, and I’m never looking back.
Why? I could probably go on for longer than you likely want to read, so I’ll distill down to 3 reasons why house concerts have been so powerful for me.
1) I can make real money at house concerts.
I’ve done countless shows at traditional music venues over the years, and one thing that was constantly frustrating for me was that even though I would do a whole bunch of promotion and get people to come out, I would often leave with not much more in my pocket than gas money to and from the show. That’s because there were always other people to take a cut of the money that came in at the door – the bouncer, the bartender, the booker, the other artists on the bill.
In my house concert model, there is no one else to take a cut of the money made at the event, and so 100% of the proceeds from the night come directly to me. And since the experience for the audience at a house concert is so intimate and connective, guests at the shows seem eager to show their appreciation in a generous way (in the form of donations and merch purchases), especially when they know that everything they give goes directly to benefit the artist.
When I say “real money,” here’s what I mean specifically: the title of my book about my house concert method includes the phrase “How I Made $25K On A 2-Month House Concert Tour” – that’s the amount I earned in the 50 house concerts I did on my 2013 summer house concert tour. If you do the math, that’s an average of $500 per night of guest donations and merch sales. I don’t know about you, but that blows away any average earnings I’ve had on any other kind of touring. And that was 2013; this year was significantly better.
2) I make a lot of new fans at house concerts.
Every house concert I do is hosted by someone who supports and loves my music. The guests at the show are people the host has invited because she/he wants to share my music with them. This results in two important things that add up to more fans: 1) every person at the show has been given an endorsement of me and my music by their trusted friend, the host, so I’m set up for success in winning over the crowd before I even play a note of music; and 2) each show is populated with an entirely new group of people I never would have encountered if I weren’t in this particular host’s home. I essentially create a new market for my music at each house I play.
There is also no other performance experience I’ve had that is as intimate and connective as a house concert. What this means on a practical level is that there is a much greater chance that the people in the audience will form a bond with me and my music than they might at a traditional venue. At a venue, there can be a lot of distractions – noise from the bar, a coffee grinder buzzing behind the counter, inattentive chatter. And the physical infrastructure between the performer and audience in a venue can create an emotional barrier – I’m talking here about things like a stage, a big sound system, and bright stage lighting. At a house concert it’s just me, the music, and the audience, all in the same intimate space.
As an example from my 2013 tour (which is the tour on which I based all the figures in my book), I added 500 new names to my email list over the course of those 50 shows. That’s a much better email list signup rate than I’ve ever had in traditional venue shows.
3) The deep connection I make with people at house concerts creates a community of supporters who will support me and my music for years to come.
I keep hearing people talking about how if an independent artist can create a solid group of superfans, that she/he can sustain a career over the course of years from that kind of hyper-dedicated support. I’m here to tell you that it’s true, and I can’t think of a better way to develop that community than at house concerts.
The connections I make with people at these shows go way beyond the casual fan-performer interaction in most traditional venues. The bonds forged here result in relationships that, when nurtured, become part of an ever-growing community that supports me in everything I do as an artist. They’re the ones hosting house concerts for their friends, buying every album I release, and supporting my crowdfunding campaigns for new projects.
Sound interesting? Want to know how to get started?
Start with the people you know. I believe that the power of this model is that every artist can create their own market through connections within their own community. Maybe you already have a budding email list of fans, or maybe you just have some good friends and family members who support the music you’re making – reach out to those people and ask who is interested in creating a fun, unique, and memorable night with you in their home. In my model, all they need to become a host is a place to gather and a minimum of 20 adults to come to the show. It’s a low enough bar for entry that you should be able to get some nibbles.
The cool thing I’ve experienced about house concerts is that they can be viral. At nearly every show, a guest approaches me and says how much they’d love to host a show at their own house the next time we tour. We’ve gone from 1 show in Houston to 3 shows in Houston. We’ve gone from 2 or 3 shows in the Seattle area to 7 or 8 shows in the Seattle area each time we come through.
As for all the essential details of how to run a successful house concert, I’ve been educated by a lot of trial and error over the last 3 years, and I’ve written down everything I’ve learned in a how-to book I created for artists who want to learn from my model. It’s a great place to start if you think this is something you want to try, and the cool part is that you can tweak it to match your own style and your own community of supporters.
But I think some of the best news of all is that you don’t have to wait for anyone to get started. Unlike so much else in the music industry, where there are gatekeepers who let only a few people in to the game, this model is completely in your own hands, on your own terms, and totally within your ability to achieve once you decide to do it. The only question that remains is, “What are you waiting for?”
I was originally going to title this article “The Ultimate Party-Band Setup,” but I figured that being so superlative would invite unnecessary arguments. There’s always somebody who’s done a killer job with a setup that ISN’T what you think is the best, and so it’s plenty easy to get dragged into a vortex where “but this worked for me!” is being shouted by about 20 people.
Why would you care about the setup for a party-band? Simple: Party-bands are another avenue for you to make money by playing music. In fact, party-bands are one of the avenues for you to actually be paid to be a musician. (Most bands that play original material, especially in the pop and rock genres, are paid to be a crowd-drawing attraction that just happens to involve music. The lack of understanding of this has led to a lot of consternation in the music biz, in my opinion.)
“Hold on!” You’re saying. “What in the blue-blazes is a party-band?”
Fair question. In my mind, a “party-band” is a group that primarily plays covers, and that makes the majority of its income playing for events where people would have attended without the band having been booked. These events can take the form of corporate parties and other private functions, fundraisers, community festivals, grand openings, weddings (ESPECIALLY WEDDINGS), and other such goings-on. Many jazz groups are party-bands – musicians hired to bring a classy feel to a gathering that’s being held for a purpose other than purely listening to the band. It’s worth noting that some party-bands are good enough and lucky enough to gain followings, followings that can sometimes eclipse the fandoms of local acts that play originals.
The complete care, feeding, and economics of a party-band are a topic area that’s far too wide to tackle in this article. Suffice it to say that “event acts” can make good money, bad money, or no money depending on the local market and how the group is run. That’s not the point of this article. This piece of writing is about the technical side of things…
…and for a party-band, the technical side of audio production is driven by a simply stated yet befuddingly vague reality:
There are no hard and fast rules. In some cases, the band must be an inoffensive background element. In other cases, they must be front and center. The case that applies may even shift in the middle of the show.
Now, I don’t want to overstate things, but I once had the pleasure of working with a band that had the handling of the above COMPLETELY figured out. They were called Puddlestone, and I had lots of fun at FOH during their shows. I miss the crap out of those guys.
So – how did they have the whole bit of “background, foreground, and everything in between, even at a moment’s notice” completely figured out? Simple. Puddlestone could, for all intents and purposes, choose any arbitrary SPL (Sound Pressure Level) to play at. If we needed to be quiet, we could be quiet. If people wanted something more “in your face,” we could do that as well. (Even so, when asked to turn up the band I wouldn’t go as far as some people thought they wanted. I had the option of not running the PA any louder than what I thought was necessary, and so I was pretty conservative.)
How do you get a band to be able to play at almost any arbitrary sound level? Well, the first thing to do is to recognize one very important “natural law” of live audio:
The Loudest Player Is As Quiet As You Can Be
Makes sense, right? Whoever is making the most noise on deck is the human that sets the minimum volume. Furthermore, the person making the most noise with the least flexibility in regulating that noise is “the muso to beat.”
What I mean is that some musicians have more ability to regulate their volume than others. For example, I have largely given up on trying to get drummers to play more quietly. The reason is because a drumkit’s volume is so intimately tied with the drummer’s muscle memory as a player. How the drums feel, and how the drummer hits them are not at all trivial to the drummer’s ability to play properly. Really accomplished percussionists do have the chops to vary their volume wildly as a situation demands, but not everybody is at that level (or even cares to cultivate that skill).
On the other hand are the folks who play amplified instruments, like electric guitar and electric bass. In general, these musicians have a lot more flexibility with their volume – at a functional level anyway. They might hate being asked to turn down. They might lose some of their “mojo” when the volume is reduced. Even so, the instrument feels basically the same at high and low volume. Yes, there are nuances to how a guitar or bass reacts when the amp is really “talking” to the instrument. Even so, the player’s fretting and picking hands don’t have to move at different rates or exert less force when the amp’s master volume is rolled to a different position.
Anyhow, the issue with all of this is that if the loudest player, playing as quietly as they can, is too loud for the event, then the party-band’s client is going to be displeased. Displeased clients are unlikely to hire you back. Not being hired back means not making as much money. Your volume problem can quickly become an economic problem.
There are all kinds of things that contribute to your “mandatory minimum” level. The Party-Band Setup To Rule Lots Of Them is basically constructed around getting your mandatory minimum SPL to be as tiny as possible.
“Boo!” You shout. “Boo! Hiss! Edrums don’t sound right and the cymbals have no nuance and you don’t look cool playing them and they just SUCK.”
I can actually sympathize, but I need to be clear and direct:
In all likelihood, nobody really cares but you.
Especially when you’re playing events where the band is a background element, the nuances and subtleties of an acoustic kit are basically worthless. The majority of the folks in the room just plain don’t care if the kit doesn’t sound 100% lifelike, and that one dude who’s “got a band” and is judging you for not being “rock enough” probably isn’t the guy writing your check. Even if there’s a point in the night where you become foreground, the majority STILL won’t care. They just want to dance to some tunes that they know at a volume that’s just enough to feel a bit of “thump” and “snap.”
…and the thing with Edrums that they allow you to stick a volume knob on your drummer. The drumkit becomes like an electric guitar: The feel of the instrument becomes essentially divorced from the volume produced.
Yes, Edrums have a different feel than actual heads on actual shells. Yes, the cymbals feel different. The thing to keep in mind is that having the drummer get used to an electronic kit is something that happens in rehearsal, where it’s actually possible to get settled into the various quirks of the instrument. As such, the drummer can take the time to develop some muscle memory on the quiet kit, and that muscle memory can be used on the quiet kit every time – which removes the necessity of figuring out how to play the same groove as last week, only with 10 dB less force. The drummer just plays the same way every night, with the drums coming through the PA at an event-appropriate level.
Go Direct (And Silent) With Everything
“No way! No way! An amp modeler just doesn’t capture the mojo of my specially-selected, all-tube Fender/ Marshall/ Mesa/ Orange/ Bogner/ Egnater/ Ampeg/ Whatever…and modelers just sound crappy and you don’t look cool playing them and they just SUCK.”
Notice how I wrapped that up in the same way as I did for the Edrums? Now I’m going to say the same thing as a follow-on.
I can actually sympathize, but I need to be clear and direct:
In all likelihood, nobody really cares but you.
What this all comes down to – and this expands on the issues with the drums, by the way – is that you, as a musician, very probably are interested in things that your audience is disinterested, or even anti-interested in. Again, when the band’s purpose is to be background, the folks that you’re playing to (or just around) don’t even want any of those sonic events that you think are so magical. They want to hear their favorite songs, played live, except at a level that’s similar to what they would get with an iPod or phone plugged into a half-decent stereo set at “inoffensive.”
The other thing is that “too loud for the event” is too loud, regardless of where a prized amp’s volume control is set. Telling a displeased event coordinator that “gee, I’ve only got the amp at two” is meaningless. They don’t care about how the knobs on your amp’s faceplate interact with the circuitry inside the case. They just know that you aren’t doing what THEY want, and consciously or unconsciously, they are regretting having hired you. That’s a very bad thing for a party-band, especially if you want the good paying jobs.
As a final note for this section, I will tell you that I’ve heard modelers sound both bad and great. I’ve also heard all-tube rigs sound gorgeous and atrocious. A player that knows how to dial up a basically pleasing, ensemble-appropriate tone is much more important to the endeavor than how the guitar rig generates signals.
It is, of course, entirely possible to quickly wreck all your effort at creating a silent stage. You’ve gotten Edrums that you can live with. You’ve found guitar and bass modelers that don’t torment you. The keys player is elated at not having to lug around that amp that feels as though it were lined with lead.
And then all that effort comes to naught because you break out a set of conventional wedges at the gig. Before you know it, you’re turning everything up to “rock” volume anyway. Here comes that event coordinator, looking mighty irritated…
The thing with a minimum-SPL setup is that the endeavor goes “all or nothing” in a hurry. Getting your monitoring to be as silent as everything else is pretty important for “presentation,” but it’s also great from a functionality standpoint. Create a rig with separate mixes for everybody, and everybody can go hog wild without bugging anyone else. If the bass player wants the level to be earth-shattering in his head, it’s no problem. The audience doesn’t know, and nobody else on deck needs to care.
Because party-bands aren’t always the featured part of an event, you do need to have flexibility with your in-ear setup. Having an option to go wired (in case of problematic wireless traffic) is really important, because you just don’t know if anybody will care enough to do frequency coordination with you – and on a silent stage, not having your in-ears is just not an option.
Some Final Thoughts
“Running silent” is an investment, both of time and money. It’s also not as easy to pull off as a straight-up rock band setup. It requires a fair bit of “homework,” because you have to get used to making it work correctly all the time, every time – you can’t fudge your setup and just get by. This also means that it’s very helpful for you to be as self-contained as possible. Ideally, you should be able to get your in-ear rig doing exactly what you need it to do without the help of an audio human that’s unknown to you. Further, some audio humans may not know quite what to do with a band that runs everything (including the drums) direct. Even if you don’t want to have an entire FOH PA for yourself, you might want to have a band engineer and console along for your shows. A person you trust who can tie into whatever sound system is provided can be a tremendous help.
Having a silent stage isn’t strictly necessary to being a party-band, but it can be a big help in getting you the widest variety of gigs possible. Event work can get you into some very swanky places – places that I think Puddlestone could have gone if the band had stayed together. (The bass player ended up moving, and the other guys just didn’t have the heart to continue without him.)
To keep this article at a manageable size, I didn’t dig deep into all the issues surrounding direct guitars and in ear monitors. If you’d like some more detail on these topics, pay my site (The Small Venue Survivalist) a visit: