A Beginner’s Guide

How To Approach Grassroots Venues To Book Your First Show

Chris Muirhead for DMS - 13 Jul 2018
Emerging Artist Series

Let’s set the scene. You’ve scoured your local scene for the musicians that are going to help you realise your musical vision; you’ve rehearsed and rehearsed and learnt a little theory on the way; you’ve attended a load of gigs to steel your resolve and you’re now thinking about how to transition from the garage or rehearsal room to the stage. Sound familiar? Making that jump is the first major hurdle in fulfilling your musical ambitions, and as a new act with very little crowd draw or stage stature, that hurdle can often seem insurmountable.

Our Chris spent some time with venue managers and promoters Dan James and Benjamin Turner, to ask them the best way to go about securing your new project some stage time, how to approach the people that you need to impress, and what avoid when doing so.

What’s the most important thing to think about when you’re ready to gig and want to start approaching venues?

DJ: “Go to gigs! The best possible way to get on stage is to go along to the sort of shows you want to get on. never underestimate the power of supporting a venue and a promoter – they will remember you for it, if not straight away then certainly after the 3rd or 4th show, because they rely on repeat custom. It may sound like business jargon, but ‘network!’ Don’t be shy; go and chat to people, gig-goers literally wear their influences on their t-shirts, and they are sometimes in bands themselves. The music scene is a community, so come at it without an ego and be nice - it will get you in a much better position to play shows than a Facebook message or unsolicited email ever will.

BT: One of the best things you can do is take the initiative and put on your own show. Venue owners and promoters are busy with a huge array of things to keep their enterprise going, especially these days. They will appreciate it - and be more than happy to help - if you are able to take a slot and fill it with bands that will work together. People can get a bit jaded seeing advertising for shows all coming from the same local source, so a different person pushing a show would actually be doing them a favour, mixing that up a bit! If you’re prepared to organise a show, you might even get the venue for free, though more often you will need to pay a small fee to rent the place (this fee usually includes the sound guy). So, be aware of how much money you need to make in order to break even and aim to smash that – promote, promote, promote! Think about what legendary bands like Fugazi did, and take their advice: ‘make your own scene’. Invite everyone you know; make it an event, not just a show; and put everything into that event, make it really special. When people trust you to put on good gigs, they will trust you with the price you’re asking for a ticket.

The Fleece is one of Bristol's cornerstone grassroots venues, offering regular opportunities for new talent to shine and new acts to get themselves in front of a captive audience. These venues are vital to the growth and development of the next generations of British music. Image: The Fleece

Thinking back to where you had your first show, would you say you always have to play at an established music venue to start out?

BT: I think I was 9 years old, it was at a village hall and it was ridiculous!

DJ: You can play at a school, a rehearsal room, youth centre, a students’ living room… anywhere that isn’t going to get noise complaints!

Once they bag their first show at a venue, what advice can you give to young musicians about how to behave?

DJ: Don’t be a dick. Remember the sound guy’s name and the venue owners’ as well, and don’t get funny if they don’t remember yours at your first gig. Don’t expect free beer unless you have brought a lot of people through the door – be grateful if it is offered, but don’t expect it unless it’s been organised in advance. Don’t try and get loads of people on the guest list if you’re not running the door, and don’t get totally hammered and make the bar staff’s lives harder. In fact, consider it your job to be to make their lives easier – it will be remembered if you are helpful and respectful.

BT: Don’t run before you can walk. You should be focusing on having the best possible set ready for the gig, and be flexible – if you have to cut a song because time is running out, be cool about it; if you have to start earlier or later than planned, don’t make a fuss. Venues and promoters want bands that they can rely on, it doesn’t matter how amazing your set is if you are a nightmare to deal with – expect to be swerved. Don’t worry about merch and backdrops and lighting rigs until you are 1000% happy with the set - once the songs are totally ready and you have played them live a couple of times, that’s when you can spend time getting T-shirts and stickers done; it shouldn’t be a priority for your first few shows.

DJ: Stay for the whole show and don’t disappear after your set - this goes back to not being a dick. Never underestimate how grumpy venue staff and sound guys are. They are likely sleep deprived, hungover and wondering how they are going to pay rent this month - all at the same time, all the time – and seeing your fresh little face might make them even grumpier. Help them out by making sure your gear is stowed away back stage and your crap isn’t all over the floor – make their lives easier and they will be glad to get you back!

Pete Townshend has smashed more guitars than most small music shops hold in stock. The Who could get away with it, you can't. Leave the stage and the venue as you found it and you may just find yourself invited back to play again.

What about when you are on stage, any advice for new musicians?

BT: Buy a tuner. Today. If you don’t have a tuner, buy one today, even a cheap one, and then save up for a decent one. Don’t turn up to a show without a plectrum, or a spare cable, or spare strings, sticks etc; EVER. It will make you look very unprofessional and will be difficult for anyone to take you seriously. If you haven’t saved up or taken the time to get these bits yet, you aren’t really ready to gig. In terms of your bigger purchases, spend your money on a good head or combo amp, not on a flash guitar – a basic guitar will sound fantastic through a nice head or combo amp, an expensive guitar will sound awful though an awful amp.

DJ: Change your strings, don’t imagine that your dull strings are going to sound better when they are mic’d up and a lot louder; change them regularly.

Be organised and contact the other bands in advance to arrange equipment sharing. You don’t want to all turn up with 3 full backlines, but you equally don’t want to be scrambling around for a cab at 8pm and holding up the show.

Be well rehearsed. You will enjoy the gig much more if you know exactly what you are doing – and it really does show if it’s under-rehearsed. Remember, it’s meant to be fun so talk to the audience and don’t be afraid to have a personality on stage. Once you have finished, get off stage promptly. The next band don’t want to watch you chatting to the wellwishers for 10 minutes, you can do that over a beer once you have packed away.

Dan-the-audio-man's band the Cabarats dressed as the Mystery Machine team at last year's Halloween special at the Random Arms & Energy Room. Since closed by developers, this was Southeast Cornwall's sole surviving grassroots music venue, playing a crucial role in the creative youth development of its surrounding communities. Photo: Dom Moore

Big thanks to Dan James and Benjamin Turner for giving up their time to sit down with us. Next month, Chris will be catching up with local multi-intrumentalist and performer Steve Strong to discuss how to start getting those seemingly-elusive out-of-town shows and what to consider when embarking on your first tour(s).

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