I picked up these tips about the music business over a 25 year career, and they do not constitute any legal advice or even sound judgment. Take from it what you will and good luck out there! If you would like to contribute an idea, contact me by email. If I think it’s helpful, I will add it to the rest and give you credit beside the tip! Please feel free to link to this page!
Every young band brings too much stuff to their first gigs. Leave that second 100 Watt amp, the genuine Hammond organ w full-size Leslie cabinet, the complex guitar rig with 8 pedals and two rack units, the roto toms, the 3 extra guitars, and the drum cage complete w/ gong, etc at the rehearsal space until you’re headlining with roadies to help. Small, tight rigs don’t anger the sound man, fit on stage, are easy to set up and break down quickly (opener sets, festival gigs, anyone?), and work more reliably. Simple Works.
In a jam for a guitar strap? Find a guitar cable (hopefully a bad one), loop one end on itself, use duct tape to tape the loop shut then wrap more tape around the loop, cut a ¾ inch slit in the tape inside the loop for the front guitar peg and attach the strap, then w/ the strap attached measure the distance you’ll need to the back peg (put the strap around you and hold the guitar up so you get the right measurement), loop the cable, duct tape it, make the slit for the back peg, have a beer, play the gig!
Duct tape will eat the finish off your guitar. This includes duct tape fixes to guitar stands, so be careful when you repair/replace the foam on your guitar stand with duct tape! Gorilla tape will rip the top off your guitar but other than that it is the BOMB! You could fix a battleship with this stuff.
Spare the world your two chord jam. We've heard it before, we’re not as high as you are, and it’s more fun for you to play than for us to hear.
When you’re loading into a restaurant to play the night gig, think about the venue’s current customers. Don’t bang into an unnecessarily loud sound check. Ignore the impulse to warm up at full volume. Look at it from the owner’s perspective. They need those customers, so do your best not to drive them off! Lightly test everything, then when you’re all ready play bits of a few songs to test different things out. Then stop! This goes for every gig…when everything is working and the monitors sound good. Stop playing! Some guys sit and noodle on and on like everyone wants to hear them practice, playing to the house music…It’s annoying. Also, you’re at the venue to make fans and friends and contacts. Being annoying seldom helps your band succeed.
Redundancy, redundancy…wait for it…redundancy. Have a spare tuner, power supply, spare cables, spare tubes for your amp, extra strings, snare head, kick drum head, have a spare for anything mega crucial and simple to fix. Know what you’re going to do when you break a string, break a snare head, when your expensive guitar rig goes down, when your kick drum pedal breaks, when your keyboard samples erase themselves 10 min before the show, etc. I've seen all these and many more last minute catastrophes happen many times. Your gear takes a lot of abuse when you move it (throw it in the back of a van, spill Jagermeister on it, etc.) and eventually you will find yourself in front of a packed house with something broken and will need to have a plan!
Your boutique ribbon mic is great…for the studio. Now for the live gig go buy a Shure Sm-57 (for amps, snares, etc), Sm-58 (for vocals), or a Shure 87A (for a great vocal sound). Sound men will know what to expect and you can drop these in a beer, dry them out and use them at the next gig. In the case of a certain unfortunate Sm58, I write from personal experience.
Drums may sound better when you hit them harder than an Alabama trailer park drunk kicks his dog, but if you can’t hear the singer, no one cares how good your snare sounds.
Be careful if a sound engineer offers to record your show while he’s mixing. They might offer to do this for a little extra money, but be careful, recording and mixing are two separate jobs! Some guys have it really worked out so they can do both, but most don’t. Many of them will spend your whole set in headphone world focusing on the recording while the sound in the room is so terrible the audience walks away. The show in the room should be more important than the show in the headphones. Also, if this engineer hasn't ever heard you before (or only rarely), is the recording going to be very good? Will he know where to push solos, what the best vocal effects to apply are, the strengths and weaknesses of the band, etc? Here’s another idea; work a deal out with the club and engineer. Come in and record live in the afternoon Sunday-Tues when no one is in the club. You can get the right balances, get the right effects you want, and do multiple takes if necessary. This is a really good way to get a cheap recording to sell at shows, to learn from, and the best possible pre-production for your studio album.
I love and play my Martin 12 and Larrivee’ 12 strings as my primary instruments and would not trade them for the world, but rest assured, if you play a 12 string you’ll spend half your time tuning it and the other half playing it out of tune. This is the” Aaron Thompson Rule”.
Tune Again! Nothing makes a great part sound worse than being out of tune!
Don’t use cheap ass cables. They really do rob your tone and will break on you constantly. Probably at your most important gig...I call this the “Radio Shack Cable Rule”.
Did your 9 volt battery leads pull out from the plastic part with the snap connectors that attach to the battery? In a pinch, strip the wire back about 1/8” and snap it between the plastic connector connectors and the battery connectors.
First: never, ever play “Stairway to Heaven” in a music store. You’ll piss off the staff and announce you’re an idiot. Expect to pay more for your gear. I mean this seriously. By the way, that “bottom line” price almost never is. Even at the big chain stores! If you can, make a friend with someone that works there that will show you dealer’s cost and charge you a fair mark up on that. Also, that new friend is probably another player and a good contact to other musicians. Also, your new friend probably can give you a heads up on upcoming sales, also, they can tell you about new products that are cool and most importantly new products that are NOT! (In Yoda voice: “Save you money they will”) Also, that’s a lot of “Also’s”, so this is probably a good tip…
Your booking agent, record company, lawyer, and manager (excepting the lifelong friend types) will love you only as long as you feed them. Their best interests will not always be yours. Don’t be paranoid but keep your eyes open. Don’t look for or expect to make friends with these people. They’re business partners. If it happens that Clive Davis becomes your lifelong friend that’s awesome, write me from the top. Their best interests will not always be yours. This is not because they’re evil. This is the way of the world.
GIVE UP YOUR DREAMS OF PLAYING MUSIC FOR A LIVING. You’ll never make it. If at any point while reading the last sentence you felt anything inside agree, you might not have what it takes to make it in the music business. If you stick with it you’re going to hear “No” more often than “Yes”, have a lot a “we’re gonna be rock stars” moments immediately followed by “we’re not gonna be rock star moments”, you will rehearse and practice your ass off only to have bands fall apart just after you’ve finished recording (and paying for) your first cd, you’ll have record execs, DJ, and other industry types say they’ll come to see your band play because they’re so interested and cancel at the last moment, etc, etc…in short this is no place for any lack of confidence. If you fall into the “lacking confidence” category, grab some friends, jam with some beers on the front porch or in a local bar. That’s what music’s really about anyway.
Don’t Fire the Drummer (yet!) It is ridiculously common for bands to fire their drummer at the first bump in the road professionally speaking. Everyone blames the drummer when the band doesn’t sell 100,000 copies of their first album, or they have a bad gig at a big show, etc. The drummer is the engine and incredibly important to the groove of the band, so you have to choose carefully, but the guy that has helped get your band out of the garage and on the road may not be the problem! Drummers are a different breed (at some point they sat in a small room hitting loud things for hours and hours and hours) but many are lovable and cuddly and at the very least shouldn’t be dropped like a hot rock every time something goes wrong. Also, more often than not the band never recovers. Seems that guy (or girl) had something important to add to the chemistry after all.
Your funk or hippie band will get your friends dancing and kill in your hometown. If you’re good you’ll pack out local venues for a while. Every town has (or should have) one of each. Probably won’t get far on the road though unless you perform naked except for a sock on your penis like the Red Hot Chili Peppers
When auditioning a new musician either as a replacement or new position test them with your most diverse stuff. The new person might really nail one thing but not have any clue what to do with the rest of it, so don’t spend all rehearsal trying to perfect one or two songs. Try songs with different rhythms and styles, ballads and rockers. Give them music to learn beforehand. Just 2 or 3 songs are enough. Yours probably isn’t their only full time gig (yet!). You’ll find out a lot about their work ethic by how well prepared they are on those songs. If the musician is great, but you really don’t have any personal chemistry after one or two rehearsals think again. In a band, your ability to communicate in a common way and not kill each other after a 6 week to 6 month tour in a van and trailer is crucial to your growth creatively and professionally. Everybody’s beautiful in their own way, but if you just can’t see yourself hanging with that guy(girl), ever, you’re going to have a tough time communicating creatively with them...
Practice. Really practice. I don’t mean run the scales you already know over and over. Push yourself. Guitar players…learn the entire neck not just the first position chords. Yes I know about Bob Dylan, you are not Bob Dylan (most likely). Learn your instrument and it will pay dividends to you. Singers same deal. Learn some music theory, keys, chord progressions, rhythmic notation. The more you learn the more doors will open up to you. Other musicians are being groomed earlier and earlier for their music careers. You are competing with children from well to do and connected families that are getting private lessons in singing, stagecraft, mix technique and more at early ages. Families with money and connections are paying for expensive studio time, first rate instruments and gear, flying their kids to do radio shows at age 15 (I’ve seen it). Look at how many former Disney shows kids are on the charts for better or for worse. Like it or not they are your competition. “I don’t play that cheesy music you might say, I’m a ‘real’ artist”, great! be a real artist like the guys in Radiohead. Those guys can really play. They know some theory and have clearly done their homework! Be a great indie artist if that’s your calling. Don’t use your indie ethos as an excuse to be a poor performer and writer. Get as many tools in your toolkit as you can. Be great at what you do. Remember the 10,000 hour rule to greatness. Somewhere along the line you must put in the effort or you will most likely end up wrapping burritos (not that there us anything wrong with that) so if that’s not where you want to end up, recognize how much talent there is in the music business, how many people want to make a career playing music and prepare yourself.
If you don’t have a marketing plan for the new album, you've just created 1000 custom coasters with your band’s name on it! Awesome! Some people worry about putting their music on a compilation CD. If you’re out there playing often, eventually someone will ask you to contribute a song for their compilation album. This might be for a charity or for profit and represents a group of songs someone with a few thousand to spare thinks would make a great album. Some artists think this will hurt their sales, or they’ll lose control of their song’s copywriter, or just aren't sure if it’s a good idea. Here are the facts; most compilation organizers I've met are not out to steal anything from you. They’re usually enthusiastic live music fans that really think your music is good. Make sure any contract you get is a non-exclusive agreement (so you can use the song on other CD's) and doesn't transfer any copywriter ownership. Also, if the CD is not for charity, make sure you like the payment schedule and then don’t count on seeing any money because guess what; most compilations don’t sell very well! Check the contract, don’t expect to make any money, kick back and enjoy the free publicity!
Band photos: don’t show your quality footwear…get a close up! Show the personality of each member by getting close. Don’t stand 5 feet apart cos you’re photographer will have to zoom way out and you won’t be able to see anyone’s expression. Avoid train tracks and urban blight…that’s been done to death. Try standing extremely close and get a good tight shot. You’ll look like you’re much farther apart in the photo than you feel in real life. Make sure the band is the focus not the background!
When flying, always pack your phone charger in your carry-on baggage, so you don’t get stuck with a dead phone if your travel plans go awry, and you’re stuck sleeping on the Dallas airport floor, overnight, in a puddle of coffee that someone spilled hours before, that soaked into the carpet padding so you didn't see or feel it, until you wake up damp, smelling like day old coffee, (again).
Buy a light Gortex or highly water resistant rain jacket for load in, over air conditioned clubs, day trips etc. You will use it constantly!