I’m old, which to a lot of young musicians means I should have given up playing rock ’n’ roll years ago. But at 46, I’ve only recently begun to understand what this journey was all about. I began playing professionally when I was 16, and never stopped. Today, I’m playing better than ever, I’m working more than ever, and I’m actually making a living as a musician.
I’ve toured the United States, performed in Europe, and I’ve been paid huge amounts of money to play my drums. I’ve also worked in the seediest dives on the planet (for free), played gigs to two people and a bartender (for free), and have been heckled and physically accosted on stage (for free).
Right about now, you’re likely whispering into your mocha latte, “Who gives a shit?” Fair enough. Except this: In my 30 years in the business, I’ve gained a wealth of experience from which young musicians might benefit if they just take a moment to absorb. And so I’ve made a list of 10 things local bands tend to do early in their careers that can totally screw them. Some items may seem like common sense, but if it’s one thing musicians aren’t known for, it’s common sense.
So here it is — 10 things local bands should never do:
• Don’t expect to be paid when you’re learning the ropes. If you’re green, just get out and play. Play open-mic nights. Play house parties. If you can land a gig at a club, great. But don’t demand pay while you’re paying your dues. Soon enough, if you work hard, you’ll be paid what you’re worth … if and when you’re worth it.
• Don’t have your parents handle your business for you. I’ve worked for adults whose moms do their booking and promotions. Nothing is more off-putting to a club owner.
• Never arrive late. Not only is it quite unprofessional, it puts everyone on edge. The sound guy, management, the other bands — everyone is wondering when the hell you’re going to show. You are not a rock star. You are a working musician. Act like it.
• Never leave early. This could also be phrased thusly: Don’t be a dick. Don’t leave after you finish your set. Stay and support the other bands. Encourage your fans to do the same. A scene works when everyone supports each other.
• Do not, under any circumstances, dis the live sound engineer. The sound guy can be your best friend or your worst enemy. Make him your best friend. He’s seen a million bands just like yours. Be the one band that shows him appreciation and respect.
• Don’t complain about the backline. If instruments are provided for you, say “Thank you” and get on with your show. Don’t complain that the drum kit is too small, that the bass rig isn’t the one you use, that the guitar amp doesn’t give you the right tone. Be glad you don’t have to set up and strike your gear and play your ass off.
• Don’t take your time loading off. When you do use your own equipment (99 percent of the time), get your shit off the stage before you start packing it up. Unless you’re the last band on the bill, don’t linger on stage chatting with your fans.
• Don’t expect people to just show up. Just because you’re playing a popular local club doesn’t mean people are coming to see you. Chances are, they have no idea who you are or what you do. Promote yourself. And don’t just rely on social networking sites. Make fliers. Give them to people. Make eye contact. Hand out CDs. People will be more likely to remember you and, maybe, come to your shows.
• Don’t dis other bands. We’re all in this together. Standing in the shadows of the club scowling at other bands doesn’t make you a moody rocker; it makes you an asshole.
• Don’t do it for any other reason but love. Music is a gift. Treat it as such. Even on the worst nights — when your rig is on the fritz, when your band isn’t tight, when your fans don’t make it out — you are playing music. And that is incredibly awesome. Be grateful. Don’t try to be the next big thing. Just write good songs and play them with passion and conviction. That should be reward enough.