Whether it’s finding the strength to play a gig to no-one on a Sunday night whilst coming down hard off legal highs that you bought from the internet; or arguing with a promoter who is saying he’s been in a car accident so can’t pay you as much as agreed for playing a bandstand in the centre of a Czech Republic town whilst 30 pensioners anxiously await your instrumental stoner doom rock; or playing a gig on the back of a flatbed truck in a pub car park, which will directly lead to children crying… Every gig is different. There are codes of conduct to be obeyed so you don’t end up going to hell for crimes of ego that ruin gigging for everyone involved.
There are common sense rules of decorum that people either never learn, and mutate into absolute monsters with no sense of awareness of their actions or there are those who are consummate professionals from day one. This is nothing to do with whether or not you are a “good” band or what type of music you are playing. If you are the person at the gig who’s decent from start to finish and adheres to these guidelines then you are the one that’ll be remembered and talked about (for the right reasons). You show up to a gig swinging your ego around thinking you are Kasabian gearing up to smash it on the Pyramid Stage, then you will also be remembered and talked about but for all the wrong reasons.
This is a guide for everyone who plays gigs – from the first timers to those who have been doing it years – and a look behind the curtain for those who attend. Swot up on this stuff and together we can make sure everyone is treated with respect and the best possible time is had by all.
In this DIY world of working together EVERYONE is on an equal playing field. No one is above or below anyone – we’re all working towards the same goal of producing music outside of a system intent on profit (but let’s try and break even at least… Can you imagine?!!). We’re doing this because we want to do this, so leave the ego at the door.
Here’s a checklist of things that you need to get right, in order to be a decent human at gigs.
Say hi to the other bands
You’ve arrived at the venue, maybe you’ve been driving for hours, maybe you just live over the road, wherever you’ve come from you’re not there anymore, so shake it off and get ready to SOCIALISE! First thing’s first – say hello to the other people you’re sharing the bill with tonight, no matter where you are on the line up.
You need plenty of personal space? You are not that into being out in public? You have some legit social anxiety? You are exhausted and had the worst day at work of your life? You have been on tour for 5 weeks, everything has blurred in to a constant mess of poor food, too much drinking, sleeping on floors and the same slight variation of the same thing every day and every night?
I get it.
It’s a tricky one this. Musicians by their very nature can be shy and not great with immediatly welcoming new faces and new conversations into their lives. It’s much easier to stay in and play your guitar in your room than heading out in public to be judged. I completely sympathise. Know for the most part that everyone is probably going through the same worries in their head. It’s way easier to show up, dump your equipment and stare at your phone. Saying hi to the other bands and creating bonds with other people within the circuit is the very nature of doing things DIY, it doesn’t mean you have go full Dave Grohl and film a documentary about each other’s overwhelming influence on popular culture, just be courteous and say hi! You are all working together to make things that shouldn’t happen (fighting the system, subverting norms, etc) happen, so start at the beginning.
Now, most gigs with more than one band playing involve the sharing of equipment. This even happens at major festivals – the less equipment swapped over between bands the quicker everyone can set up and the smoother a show can run. Normally one band will provide the majority of back line (this means drum shells, guitar cabs and anything else big and heavy). Then everyone else just brings the smaller stuff that’s more prone to breaking. Insider lingo: we call this stuff heads and breakables meaning guitar amp heads and drum breakables (snare, pedal, cymbals). If you are sharing guitar cabs and drums with other bands find out whose it is, introduce yourself and say “thanks.” They’ve gotten their big heavy equipment from wherever it was to the venue. Top work. Thank you. It’s now equal responsibility to ensure it’s used correctly and that it’s not trashed intentionally (or through ignorance) during the gig. If you want to willingly break equipment during the show then bring your own equipment to do it with.
Try to bring all your own heads and breakables, if you can’t then communicate as much as possible ahead of the gig to sort this. Showing up without any equipment and asking people to borrow stuff is bad form. If people are cool sharing then cool – but if you are playing with a band who are touring for weeks on end, you borrow their amp then it blows up on your watch then you’ve fucked them for the rest of the tour. Sometimes this is the reason bands come off as pricks – it’s protection.
Batten down the hatches. Put the kids to bed. Tell your Gran not to bother coming over for dinner because here’s a bombshell… Soundchecks are kind of a waste of time. Sort of. Not exactly. Look, chill out sound engineers, go back to playing Rage Against The Machine through your PA. It varies on the venue, which bands are playing, how many bands are playing and what instruments are being used. If you are playing a DIY venue with one microphone for vocals then you do not need to set your equipment up, mess around for 30 minutes whilst you figure out the perfect “sound,” then pack all your equipment down so the first band on can set up. Just get a level check before you burst into your life changing musical extravaganza and you’re off. From a band perspective this process gets quicker and easier the more you play, being able to judge what kind of volume level is right for the venue you are in is very important and having someone out front who’s job it is to make sure it’s the best it can be is essential. If you have a sampler or keyboard or something it’s worthwhile making sure it works before you start the gig and getting that out the way before doors open is a must. The work the sound engineer does can be the difference between a doozy of a gig and a total nightmare so check in with them when you arrive and find out what they need from you to make the evening run smoothly. Soundchecking every single band on a six band line up is not essential, though. Know your volume levels and crack on.
I’ve been at gigs where 4 bands all do sound checks with every member getting five minutes each to get just the right amount of the bassist’s vocals in their monitor, that basically goes right out the window the second you start playing because everyone just turns their volume up anyway. It can come across as a lot of dick swinging in front of other bands. Watching a guitarist from the middle support band walk whilst playing to the back of the room, is purely for that prick from Muse so the journalist from The Big Issue can get a “sweet photo” for the middle page spread.
Let’s not even go on about drummers proving that they can play the drums once they’ve set up. God up in heaven have mercy on us all sweet baby Jesus.
Packing down fast once you’ve played
You did it! The gig of a lifetime. The crowd has never seen anything like it. Your message of peace, love and understanding via the medium of Casio keyboard infused ambient house was transcendent. Now get the fuck off the stage, we have another six bands to get through before the 11pm curfew and it’s 10.45pm.
This is one of the trickiest stages of a gig to master as a musician. You’ve finished and you’re riding an adrenaline, sweat-riddled-high and you want 5 minutes to take it all in. Well don’t, do that after you’ve cleared the stage of all your stuff. Pack down so the next band can get set up immediately. If you are that next band then FUCKING WAIT JUST A FUCKING MINUTE FOR FUCKS SAKE. I play drums so this is me: wait until the drummer has got all their equipment and taken anything else that they may have had with them off stage. Once they are heading out, move like a panther in the night and start setting your stuff up, but not until they have packed up. There is NOTHING worse, NOTHING ON THIS PLANET, than having a member of the next band stood over you watching, setting their stuff up around you. Just give us a fucking minute. Work in unison.
Just like communism, if we all function as a unit to service the greater good then the gig will function smoothly ensuring an equal distribution of fun times for all. Nothing has ever gone wrong with communism so this analogy works just fine.
This bit only applies if you are running a tight ship with running times. If you are playing last then do whatever you want once you’ve finished, set off the pyro and confetti then swan around the venue drinking in all that adulation, feels good doesn’t it?
Watch the other bands
Hey, guess what? If you are on the bill with a few other bands and you make the effort to avoid watching them then you are a bit of a prick. Having played gigs for over 10 years this one can be a challenge. Sometimes other bands are shit. There, I said it. It’s not all wine and roses this. Other bands can be fucking terrible. Having to watch them play for 40 minutes when they were only meant to do 20, hearing the singer say “how much longer we got?” when he KNOWS, he fucking KNOWS, that they are going on too long. It’s tough. But even the best started off not so hot at one point.
This is about supporting (on so many levels) each other to create, inspire and do things that require effort above and beyond. If having a room full of people watch your god awful music inspires you to carry on, to push yourself and to always improve then the community works. If there’s only eight people at the gig and you wait outside before your set, who’s winning there? If the show is packed and you need ten minutes before you go on to warm up, sort out your equipment away from the band, then you’re excused.
If you are the band that has carted a shit ton of equipment to the venue and let other bands share the equipment, THEN those bands don’t even bother to be in the same room as you when you do your thing, it plays as insulting.
Respect your audience, ask them to step forward if they are far away. If they don’t want to then that’s cool too. People have made the effort to leave the house to come and watch you. Treat em’ right. If you are in the audience dish out that respect to each other too. ame rules apply here as to how you treat a pensioner on the street. Don’t push anyone that doesn’t want to get pushed. Pick each other up if someone falls down. Don’t sexually assault anyone. All bang up rules for life in general. Don’t do anything dumb that’ll hurt someone else.
Find a spot in the venue that acts as the merch area and set your goods up once you have set up your equipment. Share the space with all other bands on the bill and help out if someone wants to buy another bands merch, don’t steal their money though, thanks. Pack your merch down LAST, after everything. Load up your van but leave the merch until the very very end. That guy that wanted to buy a t-shirt might have been chatting with his friends or lost in the toilet or they just ran out to get more money. Station one band member (or crew, fucking look at you with your crew or friend or someone) with the merch just in case. You may even end up having conversations with people too.
Thank the sound guy and thank the promoter
This one applies at the start and end of your evening, but it’s good to do this one at the end of the night for sure. They’ve made it possible for you to play guitar whilst being carried around on someone’s shoulders in a room that tomorrow will have a pregnant yoga class. Top marks and thanks.
Bad band behaviour anecdotes
I once played a gig where the second the band were finished the drummer legged it. He got up and ran out the door meaning I had to pack down all his equipment in order to set my own up. BAD FORM.
Similar but maybe worse…I once did a gig where the guitarist immediately went from stage to his laptop and sat on Facebook whilst we packed down and loaded the van. THE SINGULARITY, IT IS UPON US!
I once did a gig with a band from America at a small pub venue where they played to around 40/50 people. We supported them and attempted to engage in all the above etiquette. We introduced ourselves, made sure it was cool borrowing equipment. Asked how the tour was going, if they were cool for somewhere to stay, if they needed anything. They nodded and basically wanted to be left alone. We played, they definitely didn’t watch but just sat in the bar staring at their phones just the other side of the door to the venue. They played and played to a very attentive crowd of people excited to see them. Afterwards they went back to their spot in the bar and carried on staring at their phones until their crew were done packing up their stuff. As their fans left they noticed them in the bar and excitedly asked for photos and wanted to chat with this band they looked up to. These guys could not have been less into it. They reluctantly allowed the kids to get photos with them and offered very little in return. Look, I get it, they were probably on tour for weeks, exhausted, missed friends and family back home, maybe they were sick of each other etc etc. But whatever was up with them that night tarnished my opinion of them. Don’t listen to their music anymore, will definitely not make an effort if they come through the UK again. They brought bad vibes to somewhere it was not necessary, acted as if they were Lord and Lady Shitterington of Big Fucking Deal Manor and THEY PAID THE PRICE WITH THIS BLOG POST. TAKE THAT BAND I WON’T NAME OUT OF RESPECT.
If you follow this guide and attempt to adhere to the basic guidelines I’ve layed out then things will go well for you. It may not lead to worldwide fame and adulation, but it may mean that you play a gig with a band from another part of the country, you strike up a friendship, they then invite you to play in their town. Then a couple of months later you plan a weekend’s worth of gigs together taking in a few towns. Then when they put out some new music you get excited and order it online then play it all the time and tell your friends about it, then they come back to your town and your band and their band play a gig together and those people you told about this band come along and everyone has a great time AND DONALD TRUMP DOES NOT GET ELECTED PRESIDENT AND DAVID CAMERON DECIDES TO JUST PACK IT IN ALREADY.
Seriously. Be a good person at gigs to the people putting on the gig and the bands you are playing with and the people that have come to watch you and everything will be ok.
Read: Peter Criss – Makeup To Breakup. My life in and out of Kiss – The greatest book ever written? Maybe. Join the member of Kiss who thought painting his face as a cat was totally scary, crazy and rock & roll as he attempts to right all the wrongs bestowed to him by the members of Kiss and ultimately, the universe. No-one is safe is this rock autobiography/the transcribed ramblings of an angry man screaming on a corner. The guy’s ego is so beaten and withered that at one point in the book he compares his penis size to the other members of Kiss. He goes through one by one and says how each of them measure up. A 70 year old man wrote a book where he boasts about his genital size compared to 3 other men who are also pensioners. It’s rock and roll bravado taken to dizzying heights.
Watch: This Is Spinal Tap – A film about how ridiculous a band’s ego can get. Surrounded by yes-men, fame and success, it’s easy to start believing your own bullshit. Here’s one and a half hours of perfect satire on this condition. Once you get on board with Spinal Tap is easy to see it everywhere with real life bands in interviews and such when their own sense of grandeur gets too much.
Listen: Ted Leo – Listen to anything and everything by this man. The few times I been able to talk in person to Ted Leo (whether it’s been borderline legal or not) he has been a total gent and all round excellent human being. No ego, humble, a love and respect for music. His music is an encyclopedia of punk DIY ethics and forward thinking ideals that I definitely look to for inspiration, you should too. Want to be a good person and do things right? Just ask yourself WWTLD?
Coming up next time….
How to start a band. Here’s me with all this OH I DID THIS ONCE and THIS IS HOW IT SHOULD BE by someone who’s been doing it ages. I’m all caught up in myself that I’ve not once even laid out the simple steps you should take to even start making music with other people with the intention of making it public. So let’s do that. Next time on Serial.
Daniel England plays drums in a few bands including Isaac