Every band has to take low paying gigs from time to time. It may be a new venue/market where you don’t have a following yet, or it’s benefit for a worthy cause that you are pleased to volunteer for, or just one of those nights where very few people show up and the venue doesn’t want to pay you. Whatever the situation, you need to make the best of it. Here are a few commonly overlooked things you can do to make that lousy gig a little bit more tolerable.
- Sell Your Merchandise. Always bring your merch with you to each and every gig, no matter how small or inconsequential the gig may seem. If you don’t have any merchandise (CDs, T-shirts, Hats, etc.) You are missing out on an important revenue stream. It does take some cash and time (esp. for a good CD) to get merchandise for resale, but it will almost always pay off. Start with a logo. Hire a graphic artist (or ask your family, friends, or even fans if any of them would be interested in helping out the band. You probably know someone already who has the artistic talents you need) and make sure it’s done well. Plaster that logo everywhere, on T-shirts, CD inserts, hats, even underwear. Price it at around double what it cost you to have them made and you are in business. There are many companies in your area that will gladly help you put your logo on almost anything. Do an Internet search for “promotional items” and you’ll see what we mean. You can always ask other bands in your area where they are getting good deals on their merch. (Prices vary widely, so shop around).Denver singer/songwriter Wendy Woo once played a gig at a coffee shop, where there was no cover charge and no pay from the venue. She sold hundreds of dollars worth of merch and turned the gig into a lucrative success.
Benefits and similar all ages events are terrific for selling merch. Kids who aren’t allowed to buy beer will instead spend their money on CDs and T-shirts. We’ve seen local bands sell out all their merch at nonpaying, all ages theater gigs where they were opening for a national act.Don’t forget to mention from the stage where in the room CDs are available. As a door guy this author saw a lot of people leave without buying anything because the band only sold stuff at the end of the night. Fans will ask the door man, the waitresses and bartenders where they can get a CD. If the answer is “I dunno.” You’re losing a sale.
- Build your mailing list. It’s as easy a clipboard, paper and pencil. You should always try to build your mailing list at every gig. How often do venue booking managers ask “How many people can you bring in?” If you can reply with “our email list has 7,000 names on it,” they may be more interested in booking your act. A mailing list is invaluable to keeping in touch with your fans.The best way to get people to sign up is to have a band member walk around the room after each gig or during set breaks and personally invite people to sign up. If that becomes too much hassle for the band recruit a friend, family member or fan to walk around during the set and ask people to sign up. (If they walk around selling CDs as well, you’re gonna sell more of them.)Email lists can be a hassle to maintain manually and can land you on spammer lists if you aren’t careful. There are many solutions that you can find yourself with a short search on the Internet.If your fans are the sort that don’t care for email, then get their Facebook names, or Twitter handles, or Snapchat or Instagram or whatever social media they like and contact them there.
- Make an Impression. A great big logo on the bass drum head is a good start. A six foot wide banner hung as a backdrop is even better. Nothing frustrates us more than when a friend or colleague tells us about this cool new band they saw recently, but whose name they can’t remember. By the end of your set, everyone in the room should know your act’s name. Don’t be shy. Repeat it at the start and end of every set. Mention that you have merch available, and ask the audience to please sign up on the mailing list. And above all else: play your heart out!You never know who will be in the room. Even if it’s a sparse crowd and there doesn’t seem to be much energy there, play like it’s a sold out stadium show each and every time. If you’re not into it, then learn to fake it. Believe me, there are acts on the road right now who make their living by pretending to have a fantastic time on stage, even when they are deathly ill.Love.45 used to play hotel gigs in Denver, before they were signed, in order to help them pay for studio time and the cost of mailing out hundreds of promo packs. One night we attended one of these gigs where the crowd was pretty lame. But there was this one guy, in town to visit relatives, who was blown away. So what? It turned out that he worked for a major label and said he would go back home and tell his boss and anyone else who would listen that the band should be signed. You never know who is out there.The band Sucker was based in Vail, CO. At one gig they impressed a software exec. who was in town for a snowboarding vacation. The result was enough money to record and videotape one song that ended up being used in a popular Nintendo game. They even included the video as a bonus in the game.
- Be Professional. OK, so it’s one of your bread and butter gigs where you usually draw a full house, but this night it’s half empty because of bad weather, a big playoff game, or something else you can’t control. Do NOT let this affect the way you play. Play it just like the house was full. Fake it if you have to, but smile and act like you’re having the time of your life. Do NOT get drunk, play sloppy, take long breaks and quit early because you’re in a bad mood. Do NOT get mad at the door guy, the booking manager, the opening act, or any of the staff because you didn’t get paid as much as usual. Force yourself to smile and say “Thanks.” Remember, the venue staff only made half of what they were hoping for, too. It’s not always easy, but it’s very important. There are bands we won’t mention who have worn out their welcome in an entire region due to years of repeated unprofessional behavior. It doesn’t matter if you are the best guitar player since Jimi Hendrix. If you act like an asshole or a prima-donna all the time, word will spread and you’ll be lucky to get coffeeshop gigs.
Most of this stuff is just common sense, but it will help to take your act to the next level if you can deal with the lousy gigs as well as the great ones.
By David A. Barber
Author of Gigging, Everything You Need to Know About Playing Gigs (Except How to Play Your Axe)