Part Five: Getting On Stage

Last updated on: Sunday 2 September 2018

Getting on stage and playing live is key for honing your sound and building a fanbase. But how do you get your first gigs? We explain…

Playing live is a really important part of most artists’ careers, both creatively and commercially. And it’s especially important at the outset when it is arguably the most effective way to build an initial fanbase.

Though, while established artists make lots of money from playing live, at the start of your career it’s unlikely gigging will make you rich. Indeed, once you start travelling to venues beyond your home town or city, you might start losing money. Live only really starts to become profitable once you are playing mid-sized theatres.

Which means early on in your career you should treat gigs as a marketing platform. Which doesn’t mean the whole show needs to be one big sales pitch, but pick gigs that will let you play in front of the right kinds of people, and make sure your audience know where they can follow you online.

A good trick is to tell your audience that they can see photos from the show, or access some of the tracks you’ve performed, or get discounts on your next gig, by connected through social media or email.

But how do you get those gigs? Well, truth be told, until you can prove to a promoter or venue that you can pull in at least a small crowd of people to see you perform, they are going to be very nervous about booking you.

The easiest way to get your live career going is to stage your own shows, initially for friends and family, and slowly pulling in a wider crowd. Depending on the kind of music you make, these DIY shows might be gigs, or a club night, or simply a party, whatever works best to showcase you and your music.

If you need to hire a venue for your DIY gig, pick somewhere that’s the right size and which has the right vibe for your music.

You’ll usually find that a small venue early in the week isn’t very expensive to hire at all, and at certain times of the year they might cut you an extra special deal if you can get enough people through the door. Remember, small venues usually make more on the bar than they do from rentals or ticket sales, so if you can pull in an audience who will buy drinks, then they may well be up for negotiating on rates.

When booking a venue make sure you are clear on what you are getting for your money – what kit does the venue have, do they provide a sound person and security, do they have a mailing list or social media you can use to promote the show? Assuming it is a ticketed rather than a free show, who is selling the tickets, you or the venue? With sites like Music Glue and Eventbrite it’s now very easy to sell tickets online in advance. But what about on the door on the night?

Once your live career has started to gain some momentum, hopefully you will start being booked by other venues and promoters. That makes things a little easier, though there is still the matter of doing the deal with the show’s organiser.

At the outset you might be asked to play for free and you need to decide whether that is something you are willing to do – either because playing a show is good practice or it will enable you to play in front of a new audience made up of the right kind of people. But be very wary of pay-to-play gigs, which is usually where a promoter will force you to commit to sell a minimum number of tickets to play.

At some point you will probably want to hire a booking agent who will help you find gigs and, most importantly, will take over the ‘deal making’ and will often be able to get you more money – good agents drive a hard bargain!

Some artists start working with a booking agent before they get a manager though, as with management, the best way to get a good agent is to get things going yourself – ie put on your shows, get a few gigs – and then let relevant booking agencies (ie who specialise in your genre and work with new acts) know about what you are up to.

Two other quick things to mention about live – one creative, one commercial.

First, do put some time into thinking about what your live show is going to consist of, maybe playing at some parties with friends to work out what you are most comfortable with and what gets the best reaction.

Going live is easier for some genres than others. If your music is very studio/production based you will have to think of ways to make that work as a live performance. Either that, or promote your brand by DJing, dropping in a few of your own productions or remixes, and encouraging your audience to check you out online.

Second, whenever you perform your own songs in public, that is exploiting the ‘public performance’ control of your song copyright. And whenever your song copyright is exploited, you are due a royalty.

When you join collecting society PRS For Music you actually give it the exclusive right to license your so called ‘performing rights’. What that means is that if someone books you to perform your own songs, they also have to buy a licence from PRS covering the copyright in those songs, and PRS will then pass that money back to you minus its commission.

Which means that, in addition to any fee the promoter may pay you, you should receive some PRS money for every show you perform as well.

Providing, that is, you are a PRS member, that you logged all your songs with PRS, and you told PRS about the show and the songs you played. Of course this only applies if you perform your own songs. If you perform someone else’s work, they will get the PRS money.

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Words: Chris Cooke – Last updated Sep 2018