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Inside Seattle Rock: Playing the First Gig

29 September 2009 Stories and Appreciations 10,381 views 3 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

EDITOR’S NOTE: Previously, Christian wrote about the experience of playing in a band in 1990s Seattle. In this installment, he takes it to the stage.

Somehow, every new band that manages not to evaporate or self-destruct wants to get out of the basement and play its first live show. First shows are frequently quite difficult to land, in part because there is no transparent method for getting one. It truly helps to know somebody in a more established band who will ask for you to open for them. It truly helps to know someone who books a club. It truly helps to know someone who is sleeping with someone who books a club.

Once your band has wrangled a first booking, it needs an audience. In the pre-internet days, this meant having someone design and print a poster, which you would contract to have stapled up all over town on telephone poles. This was illegal, but it was the norm even during the Mark Sidran era.

Back in the 1980s, the more sophisticated bands maintained a fan list and actually mailed out fliers to their fans. (In 1982, my parents shelled out $5,000 for a Texas Instruments IBM Clone running something called “TI DOS”. It was the latest in technology. It had two 5-1/4” floppy drives, no hard drive, a mono-color monitor, and an early word processor which could be used to create mailing labels on a dot matrix printer. They let me use it at night for the band, as long as we provided our own box of floppy disks.) By the early 1990s, the computers were faster and more sophisticated, but we were still using the US Mail and telephone poles to promote shows. The internet did not become a real factor until later in the decade.

More established bands can rely on a promoter to advertise the show, knowing that their die hard local fan base will show up. If you are new a new band, you have to get your people out the hard way. Today bands can promote their own shows online at virtually no cost, using a MySpace or other social networking page and email. (I will address this very significant development in future writings.)

The one advantage of being a new band playing your first show is that you are likely to be playing at 9:30 on a Tuesday night. Since the only people who come to see new bands are close friends, your Mom, and the amiable drunk who is always at the bar anyway, it’s nice to have the show at a reasonably early hour on a work night. Unless you manage to get on the bill with a more established act headlining a weekend show, you are not going to play for a lot of people the first time out.

Some bands manage to cajole/beg/bully everyone they know into coming to a first show. That’s okay, but since you are unlikely to repeat that trick, you are better off growing your audience organically. And in any case, no matter how much you rehearse, you are not likely to have a stellar first show. Too many things can go wrong.

The first thing that can go wrong is that your performance will suck. Being well-rehearsed is essential. As I pointed out in the first article in this series, having an imminent show means a band has to make the best use of its time and put together a 30- to 45-minute set of music with minimal dinking around. Lots of bands never get past the sitting-around-taking-bong-hits-while-marveling-at-incredibly-amazing-influential-recordings-and-never-actually-practicing phase. Lack of preparation for your first show can be fatal, since the first show is really a kind of audition.

To find out how you really sound, record your rehearsals. This can be a buzz killer because frequently the tape reveals glaring problems in your song arrangements, tuning, and vocal harmony. Sometimes it reveals a glaring problem with one of your band members. As they used to say, “The tape doesn’t lie.” Of course, nowadays, nobody uses tape.

You also need to have your equipment in working order. The recording of the rehearsal will usually reveal some gear deficiencies along with the human and musical sort. A trip to the guitar shop for adjustments and maintenance is a good idea. So are new strings, and fresh drum heads. Musical instrument retailers are in the dream business, and they love outfitting new bands.

You need at least one roadie. Roadies are usually band hangers-on who can be drafted into service helping move the heavy equipment. If they have an aptitude for things musical and/or electronic, they may even be able to change your guitar strings, replace and tune drum heads, or make repairs to amplifiers. Sister Psychic had a guy named Mikey who is now the top luthier in Boulder, Colorado. He loaded gear, tuned guitars, drove the van, and dealt with the occasional belligerent drunk. We could pay him next to nothing (which is what we were making), but he never complained, and was a huge boost to morale. And he always had a smile on his face.

You need a sound engineer. House sound engineers can vary from spectacularly incompetent to downright excellent, but even if they are not discouraged, half-deaf, or indifferent, they don’t know your material. If you are a classic rock four piece (drums, bass, guitar and vocals), they can probably do a credible job with your sound. If you are a nine piece ska punk band with a horn section and backup singers… maybe you need your own sound engineer. House sound engineers are also notoriously low paid, so buy them a beer. And treat them with respect, always. Nobody is in a better position to screw you.

When you are playing your first show, you don’t get a sound check. Your gear is set up in front of the other bands’ backline, so you have about two square feet of stage to stand on per band member. Forget jumping around. If you do that, you will likely get a head injury when you collide with the bass player. As an opening act, you have thirty minutes to play (45 if you are on the middle of a 3 band bill), and about ten minutes after your set to get your gear out of the way. There is no backstage area in most clubs, and if there is, the headliner properly claims it, even if it is completely filthy and without a single amenity. If you are lucky, they will share some of their beer with you.

You get minimal lights. The house sound guy will probably just turn a few lights on before you start, and they will remain disconcertingly static throughout your short set. There is none of the drama of a professional live show with true blackouts at the end of songs, blinding strobes, computer synched lighting, or perfectly timed pyrotechnics. Worse than “set-it-and-forget-it” lighting is having a well-meaning but completely inept intoxicated amateur volunteer to run your lights for you. This is a Bad Idea.

During their first performance new bands tend to play too loud, too fast, too drunk and stoned, strutting around as if they are in a stadium, when they are in a tiny grubby bar in hock to the Department of Revenue and one more violation away from being closed by the Liquor Board. You are not rock stars! There should not be a lot of babble from the stage. You are not philosophers or comedians. You are playing for eight people. As Frank Zappa said, “Shut up and play yer guitar.”

Next time: Recording.

Christian Fulghum

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3 Comments »

  1. Depressing life of the local rock star! I’m gonna stick with yoga…

  2. Been there, done that far too many times and it’s all true. What you should also mention is that unless you are incredibly lucky or have a VERY dedicated group of friends who will bring their friends and their friend’s friends, your shows will probably go on like this for some time. You’re not going to be playing stadiums a year or two out unless you’ve sold your soul to Disney

  3. […] Monkey Goggles Klassics: “Inside Seattle Rock: Playing the First Gig” by Christian Fulghum […]

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