Are Gigs Worth Doing?By -
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
After hundreds of hours of hard work and practice, your band has landed its first public performance. You couldn’t be more excited. As soon as it’s confirmed, your head starts spinning with visions of screaming fans, lines down the block, crowds swaying to your music under the bar lights, and sold-out venues.
Your band kicks the rehearsal schedule into high gear. After all, you want your first gig to be stellar. You blast all your social media accounts—both personal and those your band just created—with information about the show, and you put up posters around town.
The big day comes, and you all take off early from your day jobs. The shorted paycheck stings, but the sacrifice will be worth it since this is your big break. After sending one last tweet about the performance, you finish loading the gear into your van and head out to the venue.
On a good day, it’s an hour away; today is not a good day. There are three wrecks on the highway, and with rush hour traffic it takes you nearly two hours to get there. Good thing you left really early… but now dinner will have to wait until after the show. When you finally arrive, you can’t help but notice that the bar’s a little more run down than you’d remembered. But that won’t matter when the crowds fill it in and the lights go down… right? Shrugging it off, you set up, run your sound check, and head backstage—to a tiny room with a couch and a table—to hydrate, shake your stage fright, and focus.
And then? The doors open. It’s time.
When you walk back out onto the stage, you notice a group of friends and family at the tables in the corner. Twelve or so familiar faces have made it. You tell yourself that the rest are stuck in traffic and will be there soon, and you start playing.
Aside from your group, there are maybe another ten people in the bar when you start. By the time you finish your set, the bar’s crowd has quadrupled. Problem is, half the bar is watching the big game on ten screens, and another group is waiting for a fight to erupt between two drunk, angry patrons. Besides your friends and family, only two tables have looked your way.
The rush of booking a show and performing on stage in front of strangers is strongly countered by the feeling that none of those strangers really noticed. With mixed emotions and a growling stomach, you pack up your gear and head out into the night.
Welcome to gigging.
Gigs versus Concerts
“Gigging” and “gig” are terms casually thrown around in the music world. You might have heard or even said, “I can’t make it to your party… my band has a gig that night,” or, “We’ve got five gigs in the next two weeks.” Generally speaking, a gig is a chance for you or your band to do your thing; hopefully you’re getting paid for it, but that’s not always the case. A gig could be an event, a festival, or at a bar, restaurant, or party; it could be for ten people or four hundred people.
While these opportunities to play are great, gigs most certainly are not concerts, so don’t be disappointed when some people in the crowd seem distracted. In fact, you should count on it.
At a gig, the focus isn’t on you or your band. It’s on the happy couple, the game on the bar’s TV, the food or drinks, and the other people at the table. With gigs, you’re simply a part of the ambiance, an enjoyable element of the event or venue… but you and your music aren’t necessarily the draw.
Now, your fans can show up to gigs. And, with the right touch, you can win over a gig crowd that didn’t come to see you. (With some events, like weddings, this requires a delicate balance—don’t steal the happy couple’s thunder!) But the fact remains that you and your music are not the reason most people are there.
With a concert, though, music is the focus. People aren’t at the venue to watch some game or visit with friends or drown their sorrows—they’re there for the music. (If there happen to be drinks, great!) Whether they bought tickets to your concert in advance and traveled just to see you or they dropped in to see who is playing at their favorite venue on a night you happen to be playing, with a concert, people are there for the music.
Should You Even Book Gigs?
I’m sure that it’s frustrating to practice for hours, travel to a venue, unload your gear, run a sound check, play your heart out… and be ignored in favor of some televised event or dinner conversations. Even if you do win over the crowd at a gig—maybe even sell some merchandise or collect some email addresses—there’s the nagging thought in the back of your head that those people weren’t there to see you.
But that doesn’t mean gigs don’t have value.
Early on in your music career, gigs might be your only opportunities and chances to perform. Take them! Gigs will help you hone your craft and performance skills in a way that rehearsing in your garage never can. You’ll develop your set list; you’ll also learn to read the crowd, throw the set list out, and wing it if needed. Playing to rooms of people ignoring you helps you build up a thick skin; you’ll need that later on, when you gain traction, reviews, and fans (because no artist is exempt from negative reviews and haters). Even later in your career, gigging can provide reasonable income and exposure. If the gig pays well and you like the venue, do it.
And those fans we just mentioned? You know, the people who genuinely like your music, and not just because they’re your friends and family? You get those through playing gigs. Sure, people might not have come to see you, but, if you’re good, they’ll notice you. If you’re really good, they’ll buy something or sign up for your mailing list. They might even come see you again, bringing a few friends along. That’s the best way to organically grow your fan base.
Gigs also let you interact with your fans on an individual, personal level—something that gets harder to do as you begin booking big concerts. Lastly, gigs keep you humble, pulling you out of your “music-is-my-whole-existence-why-haven’t-you-heard-of-me?” bubble and giving you a fresh perspective.
While gigs have value, I’m willing to bet that you’d rather book a concert over a gig. I can’t really blame you. Performing for people who appreciate your music, connecting with hundreds or thousands of fans, packing out a venue—these are the thoughts that keep you going. Concerts are the dream for most musicians. That dream is needed to get you through the bumps you’ll hit along the road; it’s what helps you persevere. When you start booking concerts instead of gigs, even at a small scale, the fact that people come and pay specifically to see you boosts both your ego and your wallet. If you have the chance to book a concert, take it!
As tempting as it is to ignore gigs and chase concerts, you need to spend a significant portion of your music career playing gigs. Gigs provide the steady base—your performance skills, your core fan base, your tough skin and humility—that you need for a successful, long-term music career.
The truth is, you will not be able to book many (if any) concerts until you have some experience gigging and have created a following of fans that will pay to see you perform. So gigging is really a path to bigger and better things over time.
In the end, if you have a legitimate opportunity to play and you have an opening on your schedule—whether it’s a gig or a concert—take it!