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Live music

Time to stop inviting friends to your gigs?


Being in a new band is a sure way to make sure you stay in touch with your friends. This because as a spankingly new band, nobody will have heard of you…meaning you won’t have any real fans, and will rely on your chums to provide the bums on the seats at gigs you play. As such you will find yourself staying in touch with even the most boring individuals just so that you can invite them to your next gig. We’ve all been there, and irritated lots of people in the process (or been irritated by the aforementioned boring gig invitees).

However, there comes a point where it’s prudent to start looking beyond your ‘friendbase’ and start trying to build a genuine ‘fanbase’. This 'having-a-fanbase' business, of course, is generally the key ingredient to being a popstar, but this essential fact is easy to forget – or wilfully ignore. Making proper fans is difficult and the soft option is to pester friends regularly to come along to your next show. And pester we musicians do – via phone, email, Facebook, letter, carrier pigeon…but it is ultimately a fairly self-defeating strategy. 

What generally happens with friendbases is this: your first gig with your new band is a sell-out. All your mates, and your bandmates’ mates come out in force to support you. You feel like a rock star for 15 minutes, you end up getting off with your guitarist’s sexy but impressionable second cousin and, high on success, decide to put on another show a couple of weeks later. This show is reasonably well attended by your friends, but as you start to play your second shoegazing-hip-hop-grimey-post-rock number, you get a niggling feeling that there are quite a few mates who came to the first gig who didn’t bother to come along to the second. By the time your third gig comes around, you’re struggling to pull a crowd. By the fourth show, even your mum and dad are busy that night. No amount of Facebook-ing, tweeting or personal appeals is going to reverse this situation.

You shouldn’t be offended by this. After all, when you became mates with somebody you did so based on common interests; a shared concern for each other; a mutual love of Carry On films; delighting in some sort of bedroom peccadillo that might actually be illegal. Your best mate Charlie Chum absolutely did not befriend you just so that he could attend every single gig you are ever going to play in your life. And, what’s more, Charlie may adore you – but not your music. In fact he might not like music at all. So why subject a mate repeatedly to something he doesn’t like? Frankly, it’s not very nice of you. And besides which, Charlie prefers watching footie at home on a Monday night to trooping down to the local Dog and Duck for a gig, and has a very busy life involving 2 kids…which is why he is washing his hair by gig 3. You can't compete with football and nappy-changing (or both) indefinitely; the nappies ALWAYS win.

Besides all that, friends aren't evangelical about your music - most will view it as your hobby and who spreads the word about people's hobbies? - but real fans, when they get on the case, can seriously wax lyrical about you. So if you want to grow in popularity, you HAVE to build a fanbase (there is also the added bonus that by ceasing to invite your mates to gigs all the time you might stop losing friends and alienating people). The question is: how do you build this fanbase? It's very difficult, and involves loads of work, but based on my experience of building my own, er, shall we say 'boutique fanbase', and watching other (infinitely more successful) acts go about it, these are the main things you need to do:

1 Write great songs, and ensure they are stonkingly-well produced. Easier said than done of course, but if you don’t get the music right, nobody’s going to like it enough to become a fan.

2 Give some of this music away for free – in exchange, preferably, for an email address. Some acts are a bit sniffy about doing this, but people need to hear your tracks in order to be able to like them (hence the freebie) and you need some way to communicate with fans (hence the nabbing of an email address). 

3 Find ways of targeting people who will actually like your music. If you happen to be the next Rod Stewart, maybe find some Rod Stewart fan groups on the internet and ask them (politely) to have a listen to your tracks, invite them to give some feedback etc. Find the correct audience: don’t go onto One Direction forums flogging your ‘Maggie May’-inspired EP.

4 Rehearse your ass off, because you will need to be a great live act in time for my next suggestion.

5 Play loads of gigs that are not 'yours' – i.e., where you are not topping the bill (or booking the venue and taking the door etc.). Put your ego aside for ten minutes (well, ten years) and play second fiddle to as many already popular bands as you can. In a nutshell, the aim of the game is to nick other bands' fans. And of course, don't bother playing live at all unless you are truly fantastic.

6 Try to capture as much data as humanly possible at each and every gig. Again, you need to stay in contact with the people who like your music. Use this data to invite people to the next show.

7 Repeat steps 1 to 6 until you are not relying on any cousins to make the crowd look decent.

If you manage all the above correctly, and are finding yourself in that happy place where you have a lot of genuine fans downloading your music and attending gigs, it’s time to take things a step further, by seeing if you can get some industry / media figures enthused about your act. It’s these sort of ‘filters’ / gatekeepers that can ‘upscale’ your project and increase the number of fans. This can be done via a lot of research into who's who in the music biz, creating big Excel spreadsheets of industry contacts, and approaching them extremely carefully and methodically with your music. Heck, you could even consider hiring the likes of Prescription to do the hard work for you. It’s really important however not to overdo the communications – just as your friends will get peeved by being nagged about your music, so will industry figures, journalists and bloggers. Often, the key thing is to ask for advice rather than a record deal – people in the entertainment industry tend to have big egos and love venturing an opinion, so you might have a better chance of forming a relationship with, say, a Svengali by acting like you find him/her interesting and getting their insights on the future of the CD (there isn’t one – you heard it here first) instead of bombarding them with your music. 

Now, one last thought on all this: there is still a place for your friends – there are times when you will still REALLY need them. For example, in a crowd-funding project, or to support you at a very important showcase. You don’t need to write them off completely – you just need to think hard about when to blag a favour. And in the meantime, go out looking for real fans. Good hunting.

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How to get a good gig

A gig. Hard come by sometimes.

A gig. Hard come by sometimes.

It’s tough getting a gig, isn’t it? First you have to get to know promoters, then you’ve got to convince them that you actually have an audience, and finally you have to listen to them say “no” anyway, because Billie Piper has decided to leave ‘acting’ behind to do a comeback tour of the UK and there’s no room now on the bill for any independent musicians like you. Ha!

Depressing stuff. However, all is not lost because in this post, I thought I’d make a few recommendations about some of the other ways you can get, or put on, a good gig.

1. Become your own promoter

Don’t just sit there waiting for Live Nation to call – run your own shows. Many venues, particularly in these times of double-dip recessions and whatnot, are more than happy for bands to pay a hundred quid, play a gig, invite their relatives along to drink themselves silly and let the band keep the takings from the door. The key bit here really is ‘keeping the takings from the door’. It’s hard to get people to come along to shows – either they’ve heard you before, have kids that need looking after or just generally aren't inclined to venture out into another miserable, wet British summer night. So, when booking your venue, be realistic about how many people you can definitely get to come along to your show – in other words, don’t book the Albert Hall when you are going to struggle to fill the function room in the local Slug and Lettuce.

However, if you do your sums right, you may find that you can actually turn a little profit from booking and performing at a small venue. If you spend £100 on a venue and convince 80 people to pay £8 to watch your band, you’re looking at taking £640 at the door, meaning a profit of £540. If you’re in a 4-piece band, that’s £135 each – not awful for an evening’s work (and certainly not awful for a band playing original material).

As with much else in the music industry these days, the key to success in getting people to come along to your self-booked and promoted show is, yes, our old friend, ‘data’. To have any chance of filling your venue, you ideally need to compile a database of absolutely everybody you know, along with ‘real fans’ on your mailing list, and let both groups know (in a polite, non-annoying way) about the event.

2. Do gigs in unusual places

Many acts forget this, but the function room in the Slug and Lettuce is not your only option for a cheap performance space. You may actually find that more people are interested in coming along to a gig in a toilet than a proper venue, because they view it as a more interesting experience than standing around in a humdrum room watching a mate’s shoegazing band play.

Additionally, such weird shows can attract media attention – I did a series of gigs on London public transport back in 2006/2007 to promote my Twisted City record (I played on a bus, a boat, a train and a taxi) and these, ahem, ‘concerts’ resulted in two TV appearances and a whole lot of other coverage that I would never have got out of my more conventional gigs. In hindsight, perhaps my efforts were a little on the gimmicky side, but, done in a clever way, odd gigs can really boost the profile of an artist.

3. Do unusual gigs

In addition to thinking about unusual venues for your gigs, think how you can make the content of the gigs themselves unusual. By this, I mean looking beyond musical content and thinking about how you could create a show that involved lots of different art forms. For example, you could involve photographers, painters, video-makers, dancers and other arty buddies in presenting an event that allows punters to enjoy a wider range of artistic content than just your music.

There are loads of advantages in doing this – firstly, you’ll make the event appeal to a wider audience, and secondly, the arty people you’re collaborating with are likely to bring their own fans to the event, thus increasing the size of the crowd that has the fortune / misfortune of hearing your band play.

4. Do gigs online

If you’ve been doing a lot of online promo you may find that you end up with a decent number of listeners – but, thanks to the global nature of the internet, they happen to live all over the planet. This means that although they’d absolutely love to, they’re simply not going to be able to make it down to the function room of your local Slug and Lettuce anytime soon.

Thankfully, there is another way to play to these people – via online gigs. I’ve done quite a few of them in the past via Ustream and they can be very enjoyable, engaging experiences for all involved. Not only can fans see you play live, they can interact with you via a chatroom and ask for requests, comment on tracks, clap virtual hands and share your live performance on social networks. For cash-strapped, gig-strapped musicians, online gigs are definitely worth looking at.

And finally…

However you approach getting a gig, there are few important things to remember when the events themselves come around:

  • Make sure you put on an incredible show.
  • Don’t forget to sell merchandise – it can significantly boost the revenue your show generates.
  • Always ask people at the gig to join your mailing list, either by the good old ‘list at the door’ approach or through some fancypants smartphone / texting arrangement.
  • See if you can convince local bands with decent followings to support you (and more importantly, bring their fans to the gig!).
  • Even if you are running your own gig, you should view it as a platform to engage industry professionals. So try to get some industry people down – publishers, promoters, A&Rs and teaboys. Despite the merits of the DIY approach, a bit of record industry cash can still go a long way – and mean that you might not have to do interesting gigs in toilets for the rest of your career.

'The Prescription' is written by independent musician and Head of Digital Communications at Prescription PR, Chris Singleton.  

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