Hey, Local Bands, Stop Doing This Bullshit
If you are in a local band, I am probably about to talk shit about you. I am not sorry.
If you missed it, last week 365 Days of Horror published a painful yet important piece about the deeply flawed practice of curating local music “festivals” based on pay-to-play shenanigans that benefit nobody except the lazy promoter who organized them. As the years go by, their tactics change and their lingo gets more suave, but the sad truth is that shady music promoters aren’t going anywhere. I mean, being a slimy, cheating, no-good, pizza-faced, rat-bastard swindler of a rock and roll promoter is the third oldest profession in the world, bested only by prostitution and farming. However, what if I told you that shady assholes in the music industry weren’t your band’s biggest enemy?
If you’re a local band who isn’t getting asked to play cool shows and isn’t getting responses back from promoters in your town or elsewhere, your band’s biggest enemy is probably your own damn selves. A lot of bands make the same mistakes over and over without even realizing they’re mistakes in the first place. So abandon your pride and listen closely to my advice – some of these might be tough pills to swallow, but it’s just the way things are in the 2010’s, the decade we thought would be full of personal jetpacks and cities in the sky but is actually mostly full of inexplicable 90’s nostalgia and wannabe instagram models complaining about subpar wifi in public places.
COMMANDMENT I: THOU SHALT BE PREPARED TO PLAY
This all seems obvious, but take time to think about all of the following technical matters, because shockingly, many bands do not: Do you have reliable transportation for all of you and your gear available the day of the show? Will all of your members be done with work by the time you are expected to play? Are you capable of being sober enough to play your songs well for the duration of your set? If you plan on borrowing gear (like a bass cab or drum kit), did you clear it with the other bands BEFORE the day of the show? Drummers, did you pack extra sticks? Guitar/bass players, do you have a fully functioning rig? That means no faulty pickups, none of your cables are touchy and bound to die mid-set, and YOU PACKED EXTRA STRINGS????
Finally, most importantly, just be on fucking time, especially if you’re playing first. It’s infuriating when an audience is waiting for the opening band to show up. The longer they wait, the less likely they will be to hang out for the whole show to see every band.
COMMANDMENT II: THOU SHALT LOAD QUICKLY
The less time you take to load gear on and off stage, the more time you and the other bands get to ROCK OUT and HAVE FUN. How do you load more quickly? Well, have your gear unpacked and ready to go on stage before you play. During the previous band’s set, get your stompboxes in order, amplifiers out of their cases, and your cymbal stands set up so you can drop your shit on the stage, plug in, and be ready to go. After your set, DO NOT break gear down on stage if you don’t have to. Get yourself and your gear off the stage ASAP so the next band can set up – that means waiting until you’re offstage to dismantle your drum hardware. There’s nothing more infuriating than waiting on a clueless and persnickety drummer tediously dismantling a kit in the exact spot of the stage where you are waiting to get your own shit set up. Soundpeople always want to check drum mics before everything else, so if the drums are slow to get set up it REALLY slows the whole production down.
Pro tip – y’know what makes loading WAY easier? Sharing cabinets and/or a drumkit with the other bands! Don’t be stingy – if people seem trustworthy, offer to let them use your stuff so there’s less bullshit to lug on and off stage between bands. You’ll all have a better time for it.
COMMANDMENT III: THOU SHALL NOT ENGAGE IN CRINGY STAGE BANTER
“How the FUCK are you doing tonight!? I can’t hear you!”
“Sing along if you know the words!”
“Be sure to stick around for [band that is vastly more popular]!”
If you aren’t REALLY good at stage banter (and if you’re not Guy Kozowyk or Valient Himself, you probably aren’t), don’t force it. I actually think it’s awesome when bands play their set straight through with no talking. All you need to do for “banter” is to introduce yourself at the beginning of your set, encourage people to buy merch from the touring bands at the end, and thank whoever put on the show at some point. Any more than that is usually self-serving, unnecessary, and obnoxious. If you really can’t stand silence during your tuning breaks, get some samples lined up to make noise so you don’t have to ad lib cringy bullshit. Weird synth sounds or snippets of movie dialogue are WAY COOLER than you asking the crowd if “anyone has a good joke”.
Finally, it is extraordinarily lame to ask “Who wants to hear another one!” when your set should be done. Your drunk friends will shout for more but everyone else will hate you. If you kick ass and the audience REALLY wants to hear more, they’ll tell you. Unprompted. Fake encores at local shows are for people who only play blues scales and religiously watch VH1 original films. Don’t be that person. Speaking of playing too damn long…
COMMANDMENT IV: THOU SHALT NOT OVERSTAY THY WELCOME
This is one of the tough pills I talked about earlier, but I see SO MANY otherwise quality bands fuck this up – people are going to get tired of watching you play, EVEN IF YOU ARE A GOOD BAND. If you get on stage and play 20 straight minutes of absolutely kickass rock and roll, and suddenly cut your set off and leave the audience wanting more, YOU’VE WON. Everyone thinks you’re badasses. Audience members will buy you beer. You will probably get laid. HOWEVER, if you play that same 20 minutes of music and then another 10, 15, 20, 30 minutes… people get antsy. They start checking their Instagram. They go for a smoke break. They go on a beer run. They remember they have to work in the morning. Meanwhile, every other band playing after you has that many fewer people in the room to watch them play.
Now, different settings come with different expectations. The rules are different if you’re a jazz combo serving as background music for a cocktail party than if you’re entertaining drunk punks in a basement. Read the room and keep in mind the setting, day of the the week, and how many bands are playing that night. You’re the only band playing at a backwater townie bar on a weekend? Go nuts, play until your hands fall off. You’re opening a 4 band bill at a DIY space on a Tuesday? No one has time for your 3rd saxophone solo. Keep that shit short and sweet. You don’t have to play every good song you’ve written at every show. In fact, if you don’t play the same set every time, it gives people a reason to keep coming out to your shows multiple times a month!
If you really don’t know how long you should play, ask the promoter what they want, then play slightly less than how long they tell you to play because they were probably trying to be nice and not hurt your feelings about how long you should REALLY play.
COMMANDMENT V: THOU SHALT PUT THE TOURING BAND 2ND TO LAST
If you came of age in a DIY music scene, you’ve probably picked up on this golden rule, but I’ve played enough shows on tour that were fucked up by locals insisting we “headline” that I’m going to hammer it home here. If you built a show around a touring band, you should always give that band the best slot on the bill. 90% of the time, that slot is 2nd to last, with the most established/popular local band playing last. This is the time of night where the fashionably late have finally arrived, and not many people have gotten tuckered out and bailed yet.
At most DIY shows, a lot of people bail before the last band plays. If you’re in your hometown, you’ll have plenty of other nights you can play to these exact people. That’s not true for the touring band, so let them have the spotlight. If you ever go play their city, I’m sure you’d appreciate them doing the same for you, right?
An illustrative example from my life of local bands not “getting it” – on my last tour, in Oklahoma, we were playing a townie bar where admission is free and the bands get paid based on drink sales for the night. It was us and two locals. One of the local bands said that peak time for people to be at the bar to drink was at about midnight, so if we played last we’d be on stage right in that window. We decided to trust them, which completely bit us in the ass because he neglected to mention that his band, which played right before us, was intentionally abrasive noise performance art that would (and did) drive almost everyone out of the bar during their set. They seemed proud of their accomplishment, utterly oblivious to the fact that they cut both our audience and our pay down significantly while pissing off the venue that agreed to host a show. If you want to make a statement with inaccessible art, please do it on your own damn time, not on the time of a struggling DIY band on a self-booked month-long tour. Which brings me to the last commandment of being a likable local band…
COMMANDMENT VI: THOU SHALT GIVE ALL THE MONEY TO THE TOURING BAND
Being on tour is expensive as hell. For small DIY shows, there’s no reason for a local band to accept ANY of the door money at the expense of paying the band who drove to your town to play. You probably spent $3 worth of gas driving 15 minutes to get to the venue, and then you get to sleep in your own bed tonight. But to get to that show, the touring band probably had to put $50 of gas in their shabby van which they will sleep in that night. They need the money more than you. Think it seems unfair? Go on tour yourself and see how it feels when locals take a 50% cut of the $100 that came from the door after you drove across two states to play a shitty dive bar with no doors on the toilet stall.
Many thanks to Joe, 365 Days, Randall Thorr, and Stockhausen for contributing to this grouchy-ass list. Photo of local and Good-Ass Minneapolis band New Primals, who are NOT the kind of dipshits who break these DIY commandments, via Reviler.org.