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Tips for local bands just starting out.

I’ve been at local rock shows for decades and I’ve listened to more local bands than I can count. I’ve watched bands go from local nobodies to household names and I’ve seen bands fizzle and die. After all this time I thought I’d write out some tips for making the FEW strangers at your local rock show like your band, buy your merch, add your songs to their playlists, and share with their friends. 


  1. Rely on your music. Yes, a good show is important too, but no amount of lighting, dancing, costumes, or any other gimmicky stage antics will cover up weak songwriting. Good songs cover for off nights.

  2. The sound of your instruments matters! 

    1. For guitars; pickups and amps matter most. (and that’s coming from a guitar builder). Know your genre. Sometimes modeling systems can give you good results, but does your local venue have a good enough sound guy to make your DI sound good? My general philosophy is to not rely on the house sound and bring an amp that can handle the room without being fed through the mains. If the sound guy ends up knowing what he’s doing, it’s a bonus and not a requirement. Understand EQ, your guitar lives in the mids. Bass and treble are nice, but can muddy up your bands total sound if overdone. If they’ve got a mic on your cab, the odds are the frequency response of that mic won’t extend down to the lows you’re trying to feel when standing next to your cab. Highs fill in on their own with vocals and cymbals. Don’t neglect these frequencies, but understand that they are seasonings, not the main course. 

    2. Bass: This is the most neglected tone I hear live. I will try and stay positive here, but the lack of bass tone has ruined many a set. You need a significant amp and a compressor at minimum. If your speaker cab doesn’t have wheels, odds are the magnets on the speakers aren’t significant enough to do the job well. The wavelength of some bass notes can be north of 20 ft, the amplitude of vibrating bass strings can vary widely, etc etc etc. There’s a TON of variables with bass. A quality amp and compressor pedal will keep your bass tones from stepping out of line. When selecting an instrument the pickups and the amp matter most. Get a quality instrument. I know some of you are all about having 11 strings and I’m sure that fills the “uniqueness” quota in your head, but PLEASE make sure that the instrument does a good job with the traditional bass note range. The mechanics of how a note is produced by an electrical stringed instrument are such that you can’t have one instrument that does it all, so focus on what’s most important. 

    3. Drums: Drum heads need to be tight enough to activate the shells and produce tone. Go for quality over quantity with cymbals. Be deliberate with your drum tones. There are a lot of great drum sounds, but none of them happen by accident. Match your drum sounds to your genre. If you are mixing shells from different kits, make sure your volumes aren’t mismatched. 

    4. Vocals: The MOST important for gaining new fans (unless you're an instrumental band. . .obviously). Audition multiple mics and find the one that works the best for you. Look for something with a narrow pickup pattern to minimize unwanted signal bleed, the terms you’re looking for are super cardioid or hyper cardioid. Make sure you can hear yourself. These days there are plenty of monitoring solutions for cheap.Train your ear to hear yourself and the pitch that other people are hearing. The best thing I ever did for my singing was join a barbershop choir for a few years. It trained me to hear myself and to tune what I was singing so much better. Now I am confident even without stage monitors. Learn to control breathing and use all the resonating chambers in your skull. Learn proper vocal production technique and how it’s applied to your genre. 

  3. Tuning: get a pedal tuner and take the time to tune. Don’t rush it. The crowd would rather wait another 25-30 seconds for the song to sound good. This feels like an ETERNITY on stage though. Get comfortable with it. Make sure your guitar/bass is properly intonated. I played a couple shows back in 2002 with a band that is now a household name. The first time we played together they were AWFUL. Then we played with them again 6 months later and you could tell they were on their way to great things. The only real difference was they took the time to make sure everything was in tune, every song, the whole set. They might’ve been a little less inebriated the second show as well. . . 

  4. Tempo: be on time!! The tighter your group can be, the better you will sound. This goes for ALL musical styles. Practice with a metronome by yourself and as a group. Make yourself a human metronome. 

  5. This might be the hardest one. Your music is probably VERY meaningful to you. It is NOT to the strangers at your local venue. Again, let your music speak for itself. If the song is good enough, the meaning will come through. If it’s not a good enough song, telling the story won’t change that. Concert goers might feel connected to the song and maybe even buy some merch, but they’re not going to go home and dig up the song on spotify and add it to their daily rotation playlist very often. It’s a maybe, not a winning strategy. Treat the stories behind your songs like cologne, it should be a special treat for those who get close enough, not something you push on everyone within 10 feet of you.

  6. If people wanted to be preached to, they’d go to church. People go to shows for the music and the atmosphere. I know there’s things in this world that are really important to you, and it’s important to get that message out to your audience, but do it with your music. Downtime between songs isn’t a time for a sermon. If you HAVE to try and preach to people, keep it cathartic, upbeat, and avoid polarizing social topics. If you can’t be upbeat and happy (I get it there’s musical styles where that does not fly), still avoid polarizing topics. You can skip this tip if you want to alienate people and limit your “target market” to people that like your music AND already agree with your politics. You’re not changing any minds during your set.

  7. Have fun but don’t be pretentious. Things like getting off the stage and dancing/moshing with people can go wrong and come across as “trying too hard” to people who don’t know you. I played with a band once that brought boxes to stand on at the edge of the stage while they were playing. That can be cool sometimes, but there were maybe 15 people there while they were playing, so it came off as a major douche canoe move. Read the room. Always be high energy, sometimes the audience will feed that back to you, most of the time they will not. It’s a guarantee, however, that if you are not high energy the small crowd at your local venue will not be. Leave everything on stage and you’ll make an impression. This goes for EVERY member of the band. I’m looking at you bass player. This message is probably most important for bass players.


That does it for the mission critical bits. Next we’ll cover some nice-to-haves that make you look like a seasoned veteran and not a beginner. 

 

  1. A lot of local venues do a soundcheck before they open their doors. I never really understood that since they will then break everything down and change the settings on the board and have to do it all over again before the band starts their set. So, make sure to line check before you start playing your first song to make sure everything is working. 

  2. Understand hand signals to communicate with the sound board operator. Index finger pointing up/down means more/less in my monitor, the OK symbol means good, the thumbs up/down is ambiguous and frustrating. 

  3. Come up with a routine for checking your vocal mic. When the sound guy asks you to check the mic and you’re lost trying to figure out what to say, you’re not inspiring confidence in the couple of strangers deciding if they’re going to stick around for your set. 

  4. If you have multiple guitars with you, get them out of the way. Fairly often I’ll see some kid show up with his 3 guitar tree stand and be all excited about it. Inevitably, it will get knocked over. Fender makes a guitar case-looking-fold-out 3 guitar rack. It’s expensive, but get something like that and get your guitars back in a corner. 

  5. I hate to say it, but your gear says a TON about your music. Be aware of what your gear is saying. I know that gear is expensive, but there are budget friendly options; used gear, 2x12 combos, lesser known brands, etc. Focus on cymbals, pickups, and amps. From the second you walk on stage you’re making an impression, so anything you bring on stage with you will color that impression.

  6. Sell merch at or below cost. You’re a local band grasping at any foothold you can find. Your merch will not make you any significant money at this point, so invest in your future and make it as easy as possible for people to join the fanbase.

  7. Be quick and efficient setting up and tearing down. Get everything dialed in at the rehearsal space. The only thing you should have to adjust once you get on stage is volume. Nothing says “I’m new at this” more than making people wait for you while you figure out how to make your gear work right.

  8. Be realistic and honest. You’re a local band with a small following at best. Act like it. You are not a rock star, maybe you will be one day, but you’re not. You’re a nobody who likes to play music. Treat everyone like you’re beyond thankful that they showed up to see you play. You should be beyond thankful that they showed up. 

  9. Don’t expect to get paid. Yeah, I know there’s all these people online who talk about how many resources go into playing music. It’s expensive, it costs a lot of time and a lot of money to make good music. That’s not what you’re getting paid for, you’re getting paid based on how many tickets you sell. The sooner you get on board with it, the less upset you’ll be. If your music is good enough, you’ll start to sell more tickets and you’ll get paid more. You’ll know when that starts to happen because there will be more random strangers at your shows than people you know. Until this happens, don’t even think about getting paid. The venue has rent, electricity, employees, gas, water, sewer, marketing, maybe they’re paying off PA gear. . . let them keep the money so that they can stay open. You keep supporting yourself with your 9-5 until your music catches on. 

  10. Don't be the guy/girl that puts all your eggs in the “I have to be a musician for a full time job” basket. The most successful musicians I’ve known personally are either one of two things now; A success in music, or a success in another field. Finish school, get a good job, have a happy life, and never stop playing music. You will ruin music for yourself if your self worth is tied up in how many people came to your latest show and how many streams you have on your latest release.

  11. Be different but not weird. Huge advancements in music are relatively minute. Go study the advancement of modern music starting with Scott Joplin in the late 1800’s and make note of the big advancements and revolutionary artists, then go listen to the songs before and after those advancements. Be different, but not so different that you’re weird. 




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