Nightmare Gigs

Hey, it has to happen, right? All those wonderful nights where people compliment your playing, tell you the band is great, and you get along well with your “employers” (eg club, bride & groom, company, etc) should be balanced out with jobs that make you appreciate those finer moments.

Equipment/Personel Issues

Although I’ve never had a player NOT show up, I’ve had some come very close to being late. Our drummer got lost on the way to a wedding gig once. This was before the age of cell phones. The technique used by our singer was to remotely change her answering machine message on her home phone to directions to the gig. Then she found out she didn’t have enough time to record it all so she re-recorded it at a break neck speed before the beep went off, thinking that the band member would call her number (by pulling off the road and using a pay phone). Her efforts paid off, that’s exactly what the guy did, got back on the road and showed up 15 mnutes before we were to play.

In this day of cell phones and navigation devices, this is less likely to happen but people do forget their cell phones or they’re out of a charge.

With respect to equipment, I’ve never had a failure but I’ve heard many a story of their amp suddenly smoking. I’ve been lucky in that aspect – but as a guitarist you can have some backup. If you use an external foot board (with various effects) you can plug directly into the PA (provided there is a free channel) and get the amp fixed later. If the footboard dies, you can go off the amp straight and use the onboard effects (useful to get a modeling amp here…like Line6)

One thing that threw me with my Line6 amp until I figured it out – my power cord is a plug-in type on the amp end. I forget that and when I move the amp around it sometimes comes loose and then -ack! – I have no power! Nothing comes on! Lesson here: when you set up, double check all connections so there’s no surprises on stage.

Interesting Crowds

Here’s where the stories get a bit more….colorful.

Story #1: A long time ago we were playing on a slightly raised stage (about 2 steps) and I had my heavy Les Paul Custom on my shoulder when this guy comes over to me and motions me to come closer so he can talk to me. I bent over – and this guy grabs me by the neck and pulls me closer to him so I can hear his request. I’m nearly falling off the stage at this point (a thigh-high railing kept me on) but this apparently inebriated person didn’t notice. When I finally got away from him, I told our bassist (who called the tunes) and he ignored the request until the guy came over to me a second time. “Frank, call that tune and get this guy off my back!”, I growled and we finally played his tune.

it gets better…

Story #2: We were playing a private home on a large lot of land down in Morgan Hill, CA. I was filling in with this band and they had equpment and lights.

Well, these good ol’ boys were drinkng when we got there and while setting up, there were some hostile looks cast our way (not sure why other than their happy, elated state). It got dark and it got cold. The people throwing the party wouldn’t let us use their restroom to change clothes either.

So we got our stuff plugged in, used our lights after dark and played I guess 2 sets. That was our arrangement and then another band was coming on. They wanted to use our lights, we wanted to leave. Even though they were asking a favor, they gave us attitude: “Hey, man, can you dig playing without lights?” We got all the sound equipment loaded onto the trucks and waited until the last minute to pull the plug on the lights. By then, all the band members were on alert that we were taking off fast.

Sure enough, when the plug was pulled on the lights, there was some confusion at the party. People wanted to know what was going on. We jumped into our vehicles, and took off down the road. I don’t even know if we got paid for this gig.

Last Story…

I was in another band that was quite Top 40’ish and less rock (although when we did do rock tunes, that was my forte). We got a gig at Fort Ord near Monterey, CA (which was closed under the Clinton years).

I’ve played military bases before, but I don’t know what they were thinking when they booked us. This was not a coed crowd – it was all enlisted men, no one to dance with, so it was purely entertainment. And they didn’t want to dance (obviously) – they wanted to ROCK. And they weren’t shy about expressing themselves. In essence, we were boo’d off the stage and trying to make a go of eeking out a single set of our more rocker tunes. They wanted Van Halen and we were doing Men At Work. Lesson here: know who your audience is and what they want!

I believe our contract was honored and we got paid, but we couldn’t wait to get out of there!

Note that these are only a few “bad” stories while most nights are much less exciting – thankfully!!

This week I’m going to Utah with my girlfriend to attend the Sundance Film Festival. I hope to have a story or two when I get back!


Do You Really Want To Make Money Playing Guitar?

Happy 2010 folks,
Band update: our lineup is complete!! Our new bassist is fitting in nicely and things are tightening up in practice.
One of the undercurrents that has been unfolding the past two months is a certain amount of resistance to the material we have taken up. This happens in most bands at some point. You start or join a band thinking you’ll be playing the stuff you really enjoy, and end up playing a song like “Celebration” from way back in the 1980’s.
What’s up with that?
A band has two main directions it can go in:
1) Original – You can forge your own path just like the Police, Green Day, Van Halen, and everybody else on your iPod by playing all original compositions
2) Covers – You can play for money by entertaining crowds with dance music.
Neither path is really easy to do. Both require money up front for equipment and promotion, although going all original requires more. Books have been written on both of these subjects so my discussion about these topics won’t be exhaustive, but I’ll cover the main points.
All Original – This is the path my oldest son Ryan wants to pursue. He’s a drummer and really doesn’t want to play other people’s music (called “covers”). In fact, one of his good friends is already in a band :
These guys have a CD they are recording, an artist designing their logo, and an ad for a rhythm guitarists who’s first requirement is a driver’s license. 🙂
To be original, they have to be different in some way. They need songs that are memorable in whatever genre they are writing in. Like Rings of Saturn, they need a graphic design artist to come with something new and eye-catching for their logo. And they need a CD – badly. That’s studio time, hopefully with a good producer and engineer so the quality come out acceptable.
The money will be scarce at first. In fact, in this “death metal” genre Ryan likes so much, his first concert I drove him to had 13 bands playing and the tickets were $25 in a venue in San Francisco that held maybe 1,000 people. That’s not a lot of money rolling in. Plus, they had an aggressive schedule – their next night was in Portland, OR. I told Ryan they probably rode in the bus all night. “Can’t they take a plane?” he asked. Not on that kind of money.
Of course, with greater risk can come greater reward and if your band does become the next Metalica and then you can make demands (called “riders”) in your contracts that there are no brown m&m’s backstage (yes, Van Halen did that just to see if anyone was paying attention).
Cover Band: This is the route most musicians take, including myself. One can make a lot of money here if they are smart about it, but like any monetary venture, there are things to look out for.
Your expenses are going to be similar but on a smaller scale than the Original band. You are going to need equipment – PA system, maybe lights, but not a huge one. You don’t need a CD of full length songs, but a demo CD that does a medley of 5 or 6 of your songs. And a website. Many bands begin with MySpace but add a decent hosted web site later on like Touch of Class:
My friend Kevin plays trumpet in this band and when I saw them play at ShBooms! in San Ramon, they keep the crowd on their feet all night. Their web site offers video clips of them playing, a song list, and photos. For that you’ll need to pay for the domain and the web site and most likely will end up hiring a web developer to make your site stand out.
Both the cover band and the all original band need attention to play out, but the target venues are different. Cover bands want to play (at least) clubs and for more money, corporate parties and weddings. Original bands will want to play select clubs that cater to original music in that genre you’re in, which is a much narrower selection.
Material selection – this is where many bands break up or lose members. Most musicians have an idea of what kind of music they want to play. Even though they may be in a cover band, they don’t want to “sell out” and play disco. They want to stay true to their roots (whatever those roots are).
However, if your goal is to make money and get out of clubs (clubs pay the least), you need to understand you have a target audience. Your job is to entertain and get them to dance. If you’re playing a club, the club owner wants as many thirsty customers as possible in there. The X company wants great dance music at their Christmas party. And the bride at her reception wants to celebrate her new union with her groom. This is where you drop songs like “Smoke on the Water” that nobody can dance to and start playing “Celebration”.
A fantastic reference for the budding working musician (for any kind of musician, drummer to vocalist) is Cover Band 101 by Stefan Greene. The author talks a lot about material choices before he gets into web sites, demo CD’s, demo DVD’s, and gear. If you’re serious about making money, get this book. And I think even if you’re serious about an all original band here, there’s enough information about promotion that some of it carries over for any kind of band you’re in.
Sometimes my students are surprised by the material I play. I guess you could call it “shocked disgust” lol. But I try to find a way to have fun with it. Every band member needs to project that they are into the music they are playing. Few things are worse than a band with a bad attitude. You’re having fun, they’re having fun. They go home having paid $50 between cover charge and drinks, you go home with $100 in your pocket (or more if it’s not a club).
What’s that bumper sticker? Oh yeah “The worst day fishing is better than the best day working”. To make money playing your beloved instrument in front of an appreciate crowd is a wonderful feeling and sometimes beats the steady, but sometimes less satisfying path of a regular job. Or you can be like me and do both. (Sleep optional!)
Then there are those gigs where everything goes wrong. That will be the subject of the next blog. 🙂
Rock on,

Birth of a Band

Hey folks –

Ok, while that title sounds dramatic, it IS a lot of work to put a band together from scratch, carve out a distinct look and sound and persona and start working.

The name was picked: The Black Pearls. There’s another “band” (more like a duet) in the UK with that name. While you can get sued using the same name, it’s not likely. But I do know of a band locally here that got sued from a band in New Zealand and had to change their name. Interestingly, their new name was better anyway. So I’m not worried.

The next order of business was finding a bassist. We had one for a short bit, but he dropped out due to personal reasons. We auditioned a guy who was from the Berklee (yes, that’s spelled correctly) school of music in Boston. Steve Vai went there. I wanted to go there but couldn’t afford it. It’s a “wow” thing to have on your musical resume for sure.

So this guy played great and sang well. But the original guy who dropped out freed up and wanted to give it another whirl. With better vocals and a stronger sense of commitment, we went with Rikk.

Okay so now we’re complete, the gigs just start rolling in, right? Noooooo. Rikk sings so there are adjustments to be made. Songs he can pull off need to be added. Background vocals might need to be rearranged. There is an adjustment period that will go on for a few weeks while we still try to nail down a repertoire of songs that 1) People like, 2) we can do well. Each song on our list needs to fill both criteria so we need to constantly be assessing ourselves.

Bill, our keyboardist, doled out some of his own money to buy some digital recorders so we can have that feedback from our practices. We can hear if our background vocals are awful (and on one song they were!) or if the ending isn’t tight, or whatever. It’s a snapshot in time that shows you what an audience will hear and every artist flinches at hearing themselves. Robert DiNero doesn’t watch his own movies. I can understand this. While most people are thinking he nailed it, he’s seeing everything he’s doing wrong.

Next blog will be about gigs. The job market out there is tough – how’s a band to make a living?

Keep practicing