by Kat Mills
After nearly 20 years of playing solo gigs, from busking on the street to high-profile festivals, I have learned some lessons about how to make the experience better for you, your audience and your wallet. And, believe me I still have plenty left to learn………
Getting the Gig
It is who you know. You’ve heard it before, but fostering long-term relationships with people who count is very important. You need the momentum of regular press coverage, an updated website, new recordings and a growing fan base to get attention. I’ve mailed out thousands of cold packages to no avail. The good gigs have come from a personal relationship I have worked on over time.
Label your Music
You won’t want to. You’ll want to say “It’s hard to define.” People need a way in. They need to categorize. It doesn’t mean you’re a sell-out. I made peace with the label “singer/songwriter” a long time ago. It’s what I do. Folks can learn about your unique qualities when they hear your stuff.
Know Where to Spend Your Precious Dollars
I used to drive for many hours to play gigs where I wasn’t paid nearly enough to cover my expenses, all in the name of “exposure.” The very best places to spend are equipment and recording. If you want to play regularly, you have to have a decent instrument that stays in tune and sounds good. And to grow your fanbase and get better gigs, you’ve got to have a recording that sounds great. Cousin Eddie may have an “awesome” 4-track in his basement that he’s learning how to mess around with, but be serious about sound quality. Finding a reputable producer/engineer has done more for me than any other business decision I have made. I am proud of my recordings and still eager to share them. And CDs and PAs pay for themselves with time.
Keep a Detailed Mailing List and Have it Out at All Your Shows
The days of snail postcard mailings are over (thankfully), but even email databases can be unwieldy, so find a system you like and keep it updated. Remember that even the most avid fan only wants an occasional gig reminder, and please use your BCC option so that each individual can’t see everyone else’s email info at the top.
Playing the Gig
Be prepared. Maintain your own equipment, and know how to use it. You can never trust that the house PA will fit your needs, so getting familiar with sound is a must. Microphones can be touchy. Find one you like and use it at every show. Anticipate trouble. Pack two of everything (capo, tuner, wind screens). Keep your gear organized. Have the details of the show clear (directions, parking, time slots, etc.).
Never Let Them See You Sweat
If you make a mistake, roll with it. It makes audiences jittery when they hear a performer apologize, for any reason. Don’t worry about taking your time to tune your instrument. If you are smooth, the audience won’t care. If you really need to take a break to fix a string, find your pick, or have a full-blown anxiety attack, politely excuse yourself from stage with all confidence.
Talk on Stage, But Not Too Much
Develop your stage presence and schtick. Folks love to hear a good story about how a song was written or what it means, but it needs to be treated as seriously as your musical material. Try different approaches, see what works with audiences, and refine your stories. Have a handful you can call up when you need them. Be funny, if that comes naturally to you, but mostly play your music and let it speak for itself.
Make Eye Contact With Your Audience and Get to Know Them
Use a part of your brain to size them up as you play. What ages? What styles? Are they there to listen, or are you just nice background? Think about what you would want to hear in that setting. It’s okay to give the people what they want.
Volume of Music
Remember that most live music is way too loud. People do come out to bars and coffeehouses to see their friends and enjoy themselves, not just to listen to you. Turn it down a bit and they’ll seek you out.
If you really want to improve your skills, book a regular gig in the same venue. Playing the same space a number of times allows you to get comfortable with your setup, and to face some of the same people multiple times. You’ll be forced to raise the bar for yourself each time.
Keeping the Gig
Take the high road. The customers (meaning the booker and your audience) are always right. You will impress people and be remembered if you are on time, friendly and flexible. You are the hired help. Act like it (at least until you get that mega-deal from Columbia records).
Know where you are on the totem pole. This means listening as much as you play. Get to know other musicians in your area, in your genre. Figure out who you are better than, and who is better than you. See if those a bit better than you will let you sit in for a practice session, jam or gig. I learned a ton filling in for Mel [Paskell] when he had to miss a couple of Barebones and Wildflowers gigs back in the day. He’s a great guitar player. I’m good, but not great. So I really had to sweat to do something that would do justice to his parts! Those kinds of opportunities are golden.
Know Your Worth
Once you know where you are, demand what you are worth. As long as musicians are willing to play for free, none of us will get paid. There is a time when you take any gig you can get, because they are all exciting, and growth experiences. And then there comes a time when the skills and talents you have worked so hard to refine must be compensated. When you are really good, you make it look easy, and that makes people think that you’re just hanging out having fun. They don’t tend to realize that many hours of practice, writing, editing, hauling gear, driving late at night, staying up all hours, breathing smoke and taking it all down again is work. It’s joyful work. It’s artistic work. It’s definitely easier than a lot of other jobs. But it is work and is worthy of a fair wage.
Thank the people who help you. From baristas to booking agents, the people that help you deserve your sincere attention and thanks. I tip the bartender. I write a nice note to the director of the festival. I learn the names of the sound guys. I keep a running joke going with an old drummer on Facebook. Cultivate kindness and it will keep you from getting bitter.
And the number one rule of show business: always leave your audience wanting more. Play a clean set and get out. That’s how you’ll get them to keep coming back. Good luck and rock on!
Kat Mills is a singer/songwriter of extraordinary talent and grace, currently based in Blacksburg VA.
Her third and latest solo CD is available now at her website.