Gigs and Performing

Crafting a Set List: Your First Step to a Great Gig

By NationWide Source - Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

You’ve gotten THE gig, and you’re super excited. You’ve been rehearsing, but now you’ve kicked rehearsals up a notch or twelve. You’ve also come to the place that most musicians dread but every musician must deal with: You have to make a set list.

Some bands don’t bother with set lists, but they are important. Why? A bad set list can ruin a show. A good set list can take a decent band and make it sound like a good band. A great set list can reel a listener in, keep them with you for the entire show, and win you new fans.

There are many different things to consider when creating a set list, but we are going to focus on five key elements for creating and using your set list to its fullest potential. These five elements are:

  • Purpose/Audience
  • The Technical Stuff
  • The “Feel” of the Song
  • Transitions
  • The Art of Spontaneity

The Basics

Before we send you off into the world of set list creating, we should go over a few basic concepts.

  • For the purposes of this article, a “set” is going to be 12 songs. Depending on your songs and what kind of set you are playing, this number will vary, and that’s okay. Once you’ve looked at the five key elements of creating a set list, and you know how much time you’ll have for your set, you can adjust your number accordingly.
  • Generally, a good set is divided into three or four parts, with each part having its own peaks and valleys. Let’s call them “set-sections.” The number of set-sections you will have will depend on the length of your set, but even a two song set needs to have contrast within it.
  • Not all sets will look the same. You may have a gig where it’s appropriate to play an album in its entirety. Or, you may have a gig where you only play covers. These rules are not one size fits all. Don’t be afraid to experiment and fit the set to the gig, whatever that may look like.

Now let’s look at what you can do to craft a great set list.

Purpose and Audience

When you create a set list, you need to determine the purpose of your set.

The first consideration is the setting or venue. A set for a coffeehouse will probably look different from what you would play at a wedding, and a wedding set list will look nothing like a set for a summer festival. The venue itself will help determine some of your decisions—a small stage with only enough room for two people might not be the best time to play a song that sounds best with your full band.

The second, and perhaps most important, consideration is the audience. At each of the places I mentioned above, the audience will react to you in very different ways. This is why you should create your set list with your audience in mind. They are, after all, the people who are (hopefully) paying to see you. If you are in a small room and people are paying attention, it might be all right to bust out the B-side from your second release that no one but your mom has heard. But, at a busy festival or in a crowded bar, you may want to play songs that are known attention-grabbers or fan favorites that have stood the test of time.

When you have a general idea of the audience you will be playing for, you have another factor to consider: How do you want the audience to respond? You are onstage and have a microphone to carry your voice across the murmur of the crowd. People will be listening to you, even if it’s only for a moment. There is some authority, however small it may be, that comes with your position. Do you want your audience to get up and have a good time? Great! Plan your set so they can get up and dance, and give them a couple slow songs to grab a drink.  You want to raise awareness for your favorite cause? Use your music to put people in a frame of mind that will allow them listen to you when you talk about that charity. You can’t force people’s responses, but if you have a purpose for your set, you can help guide your audience in the direction you want them to go.

The Technical Stuff

Okay, so you’ve identified your setting, your audience, and your purpose. Now it’s time to get into the nitty gritty of creating your list. There are a few rules to keep in mind that deal with the details of your songs.


Though the average listener might not know what key you’re playing in, if you play too many songs in the same key consecutively, the audience will likely think everything sounded the same and lose interest—even if the songs have different tempos and a different feel.  A good rule of thumb is to never play more than two songs in a row that are in the same key.


As with key, it makes a difference to vary the tempo within your set list. Try to categorize your songs into slow (60-80 BPM), mid-tempo (80-110 BPM), and fast (110 BPM and above). Then, in each of your set-sections, try to have a variety of tempos. You can also group tempos or have one slow set-section that has some tempo variation with its broader “slow” category. Maybe try slow-mid-slow in one section, or come way down and do a slow-slow-mid and ramp back up into a more energetic set-section. This variety keeps your audience from losing interest.

Complexity and Energy

If your drummer has gone crazy playing over 140 BPM for the last set-section, you may want to slow down a little bit and give his muscles a break. Really, it’s the same no matter what instrument you play.  The lead singer may enjoy nailing those difficult high notes, but—if you don’t bring it back to their comfort range—their voice will begin to tire, and your sound may suffer. Try to keep your more challenging numbers separated to give you and your band a break. Bring them back in when you need to re-capture your audience.

The “Feel” of the Song

In the same way that you don’t want too many songs in the same key played together, you also want to pay attention to the “feel” of the song. Though the term “feel” is subjective, there are a few concrete things we can look at.


Is the song shuffled? Does it have more of a dance beat? Are all the choruses played half-time? Try to separate rhythmically similar songs, or only play two back to back.


In the same way that you can tell the difference between a flute and a trumpet, your lead singer’s voice has different timbres, or sounds, that fit together in different ways. Likewise, you can switch effects on an electric guitar or switch to an acoustic guitar to further vary the timbre of your set. Keep these differences in mind from song to song, and use timbre as a way to bring diversity to your set. By experimenting with timbre in a set-section, you may create a whole new feel that you and your band love.

Mix in these experiments with a tried-and-true song to keep your audience engaged.


It’s important to consider how you are going to get from one song to another. Are you going to tell a story? Introduce your bandmates? Go straight from one song to the next? Planning your transitions will help your show run smoothly.

Transitions are also the main distinguishing factor between an amateur musician and a professional career musician.

Practical Tips:

  • Know who is going to start the song. Is you drummer counting off? Is the guitarist starting out with a riff? Assigning responsibility for the start of the song lets everyone be on the same page and helps eliminate empty time between songs.
  • Have an instrument play behind spoken transitions. This prepares your audience and your band for what’s happening next. It also adds sonic interest to the story.
  • Carefully craft a musical transition between songs. This can be difficult, but, when done well, it can impress your audience and keep them engaged with what’s happening onstage. It’s best to do this with songs that are in related keys. For example, if your current song is in C, and the next song is in G, a musical transition will work well since G is the dominant chord in the key of C.

The Art of Spontaneity

It’s important to have a plan for your set and transitions as you prepare for your show. But what happens when life throws a curve ball your direction? Perhaps your audience isn’t paying attention to your well-crafted set, or the sound man gives you a 10 minute warning 20 minutes from your big ending. What do you do then?

When a wrench gets thrown in the works (because sooner or later it will happen), you don’t have to be afraid IF you have rehearsed well. Being unprepared when challenges arise is when real problems begin. Knowing your whole set so well that you could play it in your sleep helps you recover quickly when things don’t go as planned.

If the audience isn’t listening the way you would like them to, try rearranging your set-sections or the individual songs in those sections. If you have to cut your set short, know what you want to eliminate and where you want to pick back up.

You may even find that a change in your set leads to something marvelous. If you forget a song in the middle of the set, you might find that the audience actually responds better without that song.

I can promise you that you will have problems, but they only stay problems when you don’t learn from them. If you can recover well and take stock of what happened, those problems become opportunities for you to play an even better show next time.

Creating a great set list is a skill that takes practice and lots of trial and error. The more shows you play, the better your sets will be. Don’t be afraid to get out there and try different sets, but pay attention to people’s reactions. Figure out what works for you, and you will be on your way to having a great live show.

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Thinking Outside Your Geographic Region | Luke Wade's Webcast

Thinking Outside Your Geographic Region

By NationWide Source - Estimated reading time: 1 minute

Last week, we were thrilled to host a webcast concert for one of our local clients, Luke Wade. We brought in a team to run the video and audio for him, opened our doors, and enjoyed the evening with Luke’s friends, family, and fellow musicians… as well as his fans watching live from around the world.

It was a great way for Luke to connect to existing and new fans who aren’t quite local enough to see him play in person. The Q&A session, eye contact with the main camera, and live audience contributed to the sense of a cozy, intimate performance. Which is good, because that’s exactly what it was.

Luke’s doing another webcast this coming Monday, and we know he’d be thrilled if you tuned in!

Videography by Cameron Smith. Audio Engineering by Damon Mapp.

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Struggling to Hit the Notes? Perfect Vocals in 5 Steps

Struggling to Hit the Notes? Perfect Vocals in 5 Steps

By Anna F - Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Don’t hate me, but it seems that the life of a serious vocalist—whatever your genre—is less the Hollywood portrayal of all-night partying (and all that comes with such a scene) and more of self-control and pampering. I mean, the things it takes to really care for the vocal instrument seem, ahem, a little nerdy—or boring, if you like. But, please don’t let a little boring deter you, because this is serious stuff. It’s not like you can pack your vocal chords up in a nice little case and put them away for safekeeping, like most instruments.

So, what are some practical ways in which you can care for your voice box (also known as your larynx, which houses your vocal chords or vocal folds)?

Hydrate. With Water.

This step is something that you can do pretty much anytime, anywhere: drink lots of water. The reason for this? The more water you drink, the thinner the mucous on your vocal chords will be, which means less vocal interruption for you.

Make sure you are well hydrated by drinking the recommended 64 ounces per day. If you have an affinity for dehydrating liquids (such as alcohol or caffeinated beverages), you’ll need to up your water intake even more; a good rule of thumb is to drink at least as many ounces of water as you are the dehydrating beverage in addition to the daily recommended amount. That’s a lot of water! To help get you in the habit, have a water bottle (or two) with you at all times, especially when you’re performing.

Another great way to keep your vocal chords hydrated is to steam. You can do this by using a facial steamer or by boiling a pot of water and breathing in the steam. Do this two to three times a day for about 10 minutes, when possible.

Note: steaming can’t replace drinking water. Nice try.

Avoid extremes

Though some suggest drinking hot tea or water before a performance, it’s best to avoid boiling hot water as it can cause inflammation, especially on already fatigued vocal muscles. Ice water, which causes muscles to contract, is not your friend either, particularly after you’ve warmed up or during a gig, as it can significantly reduce your vocal range.

So, what do you do? Ideally, stick with lukewarm water. If you do drink tea—I like Throat Coat Tea—try heating the water and removing it from heat right before it boils. This way you get some warmth without doing damage.

Use Your Inside Voice

Like extreme temperatures, extreme vocal volumes can put a real strain on your voice. Over time this strain can lead to vocal nodules (nodes). These nodes are the bane of a singer’s existence, and it’s one of the major things we’re trying to avoid with all this vocal care talk. Nodes do not heal easily, so it’s best to prevent them, if possible.

So what are these extremes of which I speak? You’ve probably guessed that yelling and screaming aren’t good for your precious vocal folds. (Though, you can be trained to scream properly, if that’s the sound you’re going for.) At the other end of the spectrum, whispering can also be too demanding on your vocal folds, especially if they are already overworked and in need of rest.

So, what’s a singer to do? In your everyday socializing, try to be aware of the general decibel level of your surroundings. If you’re in a crowd, you may not realize that you’re speaking at a higher volume because everyone else is too. Sometimes those situations can’t be avoided, but when you can, speak at a normal volume.

It’s the same when you’re rehearsing and performing. Over-singing is not good. You’ll want to communicate with your sound engineer until you get a good monitor mix. You have a part to play in your mix as well. When you’re singing, you’ll want to make sure you’re close enough to the mic to kiss it. When you’re doing your mic test (testing 1, 2, 3), sing at the same volume you would during your performance so that your monitor mix will be accurate. And, speaking of monitors, in-ear monitors are ideal. Yeah, yeah—not everybody likes they way the feel or sound. However, if you have access to them, it’s a great idea to get used to them. Either way, without some kind of well-mixed monitors, the decibel level of the epic music being played around you can cause you to sing louder unnecessarily, resulting in vocal fatigue and strain.

Lastly, resting your voice before gigs is ideal, when possible.

Warm Up & Stay Warm

For all you athletic-types out there, you know that before you start your workout, you need to warm up. You don’t want your hammy to cramp up. It’s the same with your voice. Before you begin rehearsing your set list, it’s a good idea imperative that you warm up your vocal chords. Your muscles need to stretch and warm gradually; you’re not made to suddenly go from inactive to highly active. To prevent injury (i.e. the afore mentioned nodes, swelling, laryngitis, etc.) and increase vocal range, stability, and expression, you’ll want to warm up those vocal muscles and practice correct breathing.

If you’re not sure where to begin, it’s ideal to have a professional vocal coach’s direction with breathing exercises and other warm up techniques. If you’ve had some coaching before and just need something to guide you at home, there are plenty of vocal exercise CDs, videos, and websites out there. I’m a personal fan of Vocal Warm Ups & Exercises by Christina E. Branz. Whatever you choose, you want exercises that will help you breathe correctly and stretch your vocal range with walk ups and downs.

Once you’ve done your vocal exercises, you want to stay nice and limber vocally. If you’re singing in a cold climate (whether outside or in a highly air conditioned venue), it’s not a bad idea to have a scarf handy—a trendy one doubles as a fashion statement, killing two birds with one scarf. Another way to stay warm is to continue your breathing exercises.

And remember, your drink of choice for vocal health and optimal range should be lukewarm water.

Beware of Allergens

Smoke, smog, mountain cedar, milk. Whatever the cause, anything that increases your allergic response—mucus production, people—can impede the quality of your vocals. Sometimes severely.

If you can avoid smoggy and smoky areas, do it. If not, for environmental allergies—as well as seasonal allergies—I like to use a nasal saline rinse (i.e. NeilMed Sinus Rinse, SinuCleanse, etc.) to wash away pollen and pollutants, reduce sinus swelling, and thin out mucus (I know, I know. Snot is gross. But it’s a reality.) There are also slippery elm lozenges, other herbs, and over-the-counter meds that soothe sore throats and help control seasonal allergies, but it’s probably best to consult a doctor before starting a new medication.

If you know your sinuses react to dairy, red wine, or any other food or drink, it’s advisable to avoid those a few days prior to your performance. If you do indulge, never fear. You can always use your sinus rinse and herbs. And, as always, drink lots of water. (Have I mentioned that yet?)

Lastly, and not to be bossy, but… don’t smoke. That’s a completely avoidable nasal, sinus, and lung irritant, among other pesky health issues (i.e. cancers of various kinds). You may be going for that husky vocal timbre, but at what cost? Okay. I’m not your mom. I’ll step down off my soapbox.

These five steps are so easy to implement that you really have no excuses. Go for it. Pamper yourself. Take care of that voice of yours, and it might just keep working for you for years to come.

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6 Music Gigs You Haven't Thought Of

6 Money-Making Gigs
You Haven’t Yet Thought Of
Plus: We’re having a giveaway (enter below)

By Gregory Douglass - Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

written by: Gregory Douglass

There are many ways musicians and bands can make money with their music. Perhaps the most obvious way is through performing and touring. Any given tour might rely on club, coffeehouse, and even college performances to generate income along the way – but there are other ways to generate additional revenue that may not already be on your radar. So here are 6 music money gigs you haven’t yet thought of:

1. College Keynote Concerts. College gigs are great, and are arguably the most lucrative gigs in the indie music biz. While college gigs can be a nice pay day, they are also the most competitive gigs to book. Most musicians and booking agents are going after college gigs in the same ways – through college booking conferences like NACA, or directly through Student Activities organizations. Try thinking outside the box and consider an educational tie-in with your performance pitch in the form of a keynote concert. Perhaps you or your bandmate could talk to the student body about the songwriting process and cap off your presentation with a performance. For keynote concert bookings, consider contacting various clubs & organizations outside of the Student Activities department.

2. House Concerts. House concerts are still an underground, growing trend – though they are still met with great resistance by many shy musicians who feel that they are just too close for comfort. As a touring singer/songwriter myself, I personally give house concerts my golden stamp of approval. They certainly are intimate, but you can’t ask for a more appreciative audience than a house concert audience! They are ideal for solo artists but great opportunities for bands to strip things down for a night as well. House concerts can be more lucrative than public venues with a $10-20 suggested donation jar and the higher level of interest in merch sales that they typically generate. If you’re lucky, your house concert host may even make you a home cooked meal or offer you their guest room for the night to help save you some dough on the leg of a tour.

3. Virtual Concerts. With platforms like LiveStream, Ustream,, Stageit, and even Google Hangouts now – virtual concerts have never been easier to administer behind the scenes. Consider setting the stage at home in front of your computers built-in camera, or step up your game if you have the right gear to do so. Stageit is specifically for concerts and has a virtual tip jar already incorporated, but you can also embed some basic HTML code on and sport a Paypal-powered virtual tip jar yourself. Make virtual concerts like these apart of a larger crowd-funding campaign for your next tour or album campaign.

4. Venue Rentals. If you’re really ambitious, you might consider doing what Ani Difranco did to build her legacy and rent venues. This will obviously cost you a chunk of change up front, but you might be able to fast-track your way into presenting your band in venues that are more suitable or more preferable than the usual direct-booking venue. If you are willing to hustle and ensure that enough people fill the house to make it worth the cost of the venue rental, than you can have your cake and eat it to.

5. Corporate Events. There are always Corporate companies looking to book entertainment for various internal events, and they usually have a decent size budget to work with. Corporate events gigs are not unlike the wedding gigs in that they are typically background music for attendees, so they may not be for everyone – but they are usually a nice pay day in the end.

6. Street Performances. For more seasoned/professional artists, street performances may seem too entry-level, but they don’t have to seem that way. Adapting to the new indie music biz model is adapting to fresh perspective on how to sustain a living as a working musician, so this might be the perfect exercise in checking one’s ego at the door. Street performances can be great opportunities for fast-generating tip money, as well as great new exposure opportunities. Especially on the pedestrian streets of tourist cities and towns, or any other areas with heavy foot traffic. Even KT Tunstall still plays street performance gigs now and then for nostalgia purposes.

You’re a rock star.

Here’s to your creative genius!


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10 readers will each win a $50 Amazon gift card
2 readers will win a one-on-one coaching session
with Gregory Douglass


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Are Tours the Right Choice for Your Band?

Are Tours the Right Choice for Your Band?

By NationWide Source - Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

There are people who argue that bands shouldn’t tour. They cite the wonderful internet, the high price of gas, and better uses of time; they argue that you can build a fan base on social media, distribute your music on any number of websites, spend your “free time” rehearsing, and be A-OK.

I get what they’re saying and where they’re coming from. I’ll even concede that these efforts—social media, distribution, rehearsing—benefit bands.

BUT, I disagree with their argument. There are times that touring is the best move your band can make. It’s simply a matter of understanding what type of tour is right for your band, and why touring is important to begin with. The internet cannot replace a live event, and live events do a great job of creating fans who will actually purchase your music.

Different Types of Tours, and When to Choose Each

Now, choosing the right type of tour for your band can make the difference between a successful tour and a frustrating, expensive headache. Consider tackling the following types of tours in the order they are presented.

The Local Tour

The first type of tour you should tackle is the local tour. This means:

  • reaching out and playing every relevant venue in your area (say, within an hour or so of your home base),
  • booking steady gigs (ideally, several nights a week),
  • packing the house,
  • selling your merch until everyone has it,
  • mastering your set list and performance skills, and
  • gaining the attention of local media (bloggers, papers, radio stations).

If your band is starting out, you should focus on this type of tour.

Once you’ve mastered the local tour, you might feel like your local market has had its fill of you, and staying with those same venues and same crowds becomes less exciting and less profitable (since no one’s buying merch anymore) and feels more like you’re treading water. At this point, you have two options. The first option is to refresh your act: focus on creating and releasing new material to reenergize your fan base. This can do wonders for your fan base and for your own frame of mind.

The Regional Tour

If that isn’t enough, your second option is to plan a regional tour. This has a couple different formats.

You can use your local momentum to branch out to surrounding areas, maybe expanding your reach to venues within five hours of your home base. This needs to be done strategically, to keep from wasting your hard-earned money by driving back and forth. Ideally, you’d do a set of shows in one local area, then move on to the next area and do another set of shows there, and so on. Be sure you maximize each area you stop in.

The other format for a regional tour is picking a large market further away from your home base and playing the heck out of it. For example, if you’re an indie folk artist based in Philadelphia, you might look at booking a month-long tour of Texas. Since you’re traveling all that way, it makes sense to schedule sets of shows, perhaps playing several nights in Houston one week, then Austin and San Antonio for a week and a half, then Dallas/Fort Worth for a week and a half. It’s worth noting that this format of regional tour becomes more difficult with larger groups of people group. It’s a lot easier (and less expensive) to make arrangements for one or two people than it is for six or ten.

Regional tours are great for pulling your band out of its “local band” status and pushing it to the next level. They can also help you catch the eye of bigger media—influential music bloggers, or bigger radio networks, or music magazines.

The Cross-Country Tour

The next type of tour is the cross-country tour, and it’s probably the type that comes to everyone’s mind when they think of a band hitting the road. It’s also likely the type of tour that people say bands shouldn’t take. To be honest, it can be expensive, especially with larger groups, and the risk of losing money is greater. If your band isn’t at the right stage of its career, or if the tour is poorly planned or poorly marketed, it could be a mistake.

So, how do you know if you’re ready? If your band:

  • has mastered the local and regional tour and performing live,
  • is gaining attention on a national level after regional tours,
  • has connections with artists, venues, and media across the country,
  • regularly performs multiple shows a week to sold-out (or nearly sold-out) venues,
  • has merch stockpiled and ready to sell,
  • has new music ready to release and perform, and
  • has a ready resource of booking agents working for you,

then it might be a good time to plan a cross-country tour.

Cross-country tours do require some intense planning and networking. You’ll either need to utilize the tour-planning skills you developed from your local and regional tours plus all of your industry connections and your fan base, or you’ll need to bring someone on board to help plan it, or both.

We’ll get more in-depth on how to plan a tour in a future article. Now that you know the types of tours available and when they apply, we’ll address why touring, on any level, is important.

Why Touring Matters To Your Fans

It might be tempting to throw a swanky music video up on your website, retweet a fan or two, and sit back to strum your guitar, but, if that’s the extent of your willingness to connect with fans and get your music out there, you probably won’t go far. Retweeting your fans might give them a momentary thrill, but that thrill pales in comparison to what a good live performance can give them.

If you’ve been to a great concert before, you know what I’m talking about here. Great concerts are experiences. They leave fans with the permanent memory of standing in a room with dozens (or hundreds, or thousands) of other fans watching a band perform, feeling the music vibrate through their body and the crowd, singing along to the chorus as the lead singer thrusts the mic out toward the audience, shaking hands with the band at the merch table, taking home a memento at the end of the night. A great concert is something you tell your friends and family about in the following days and weeks, something you relive with fellow attendees when you get together, something you tell your children about years down the line, something you close your eyes and relive anytime that band’s music comes on. Great live performances are something attendees carry with them for the rest of their lives.

For all their glory and convenience, the internet, distribution options (digital or physical), and social media can’t compete with great live performances. Since your fans can’t always travel to see you, it’s up to you to take the opportunity to them… whether that’s on a local tour at a venue 45 minutes away, or on a national tour to a city that’s a seven-hour flight away. Thus, the need for tours.

Why Touring Should Matter To You

Just like the internet, distribution options, and social media can’t live up to live performances for your fans, they can’t give you what live performances can. Yes, you might get a little rush from recording a song, releasing it to iTunes or SoundCloud, and watching the download or play count slowly tick up. Yes, it might be a source of income for you. Yes, you can interact with fans online. No, you shouldn’t abandon the internet, distribution, or social media altogether.

You also shouldn’t use these tools—that’s all they are, really—to replace actual interaction and performances.

First, rehearsing or recording in a studio—with multiple takes and all the mixing and mastering and scrubbing and perfecting—doesn’t give you the skills and experience that live performing does. There are no retakes in a live gig. You get it right or as close to perfect as you can on the first take. The crutch of being able to do something over again is gone; you either stand or fall. If your band is going to make it, this is one place where you prove that.

Live performances are also an ideal opportunity for your fans—the people on an adrenaline rush after a once-in-a-lifetime show—to buy your merch. If you wow them with your act, they’ll want something to remember it by, and they’ll be more than willing to support you (especially if you’re at the booth selling and signing merch). If you’re touring with new music (which you should be), there’s at least one product that they won’t already have. If they are new fans, odds are they won’t have much of your stuff at all. If you’re setting out on tour, regardless of the tour type, you should have merch with you; if you send people to your site, you lose that opportunity to make a sale. If you send them to third-party sites, you lose out on both opportunity and profits. In what universe does it make sense to tell eager supporters to wait or shop elsewhere?

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, touring gives you a connection to your fans. Live performances bring you face-to-face with fans. You meet the people who love and enjoy your music. You meet the people whose purchases put food on your table. You watch them from the stage, dozens (or hundreds, or thousands) of fans standing in a room, swaying to your music, singing along. You watch them from the merch table, as they come up to shake your hand and buy a little piece of you to take home and cherish. That’s something that the internet and social media can’t replicate.

That’s why it’s important that your band gets up and gets out there—across town, across your region, across the country. That’s why you should care about touring.

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Are Gigs Worth Doing?

By NationWide Source - 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!

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Six Steps for Getting Gigs at Bars, Festivals, and Other Venues

By NationWide Source - Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

There are easier career paths than that of the independent musician. In most cases, you—the artist or band—are the songwriter, manager, social media director, roadie, and, oh yeah, you play music. But, where do you play? And how do you break into those venues? We’re here to tell you.

First, know that the advice you find below won’t mean a thing if you’re not ready for the stage. To the serious performer, this means your songs are memorized, your instrumentation and vocals are tight, you have your transitions down, and—lest I forget the obvious—you’re comfortable in front of a crowd.

Having gotten those pre-requisites out of the way, let’s talk about getting gigs.


It’s all about who you know, so get out there and meet your fellow music makers. You might have thought I was going to say ‘get to know the venues’; that is also important, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. It may seem counter-intuitive, but getting to know and befriend other bands can pay big dividends. Besides the fact that collaborating with other artists will help you grow and make you a better musician, knowing people in the local scene is a great way to hear about gig leads. These people can help; they are not your competition (unless you actually are doing a competition, like Battle of the Bands).

The independent music community is a place where you can find rich resources. If you make a connection with other groups and artists, they may be willing to put in a good word for you with promoters or bookers. Or, if you’re a fit, you could become an opening act for them. If you want to know the best places to play or get an introduction, play nice with other local musicians. And, when you get a break, remember to pay it forward for other up-and-comers. You never know who will be the next big thing.

Do Your Homework

The contact information for local booking agents is generally just a Google search away. But before you reach out to these people, find out all you can: their name, their preferred genre, the information and materials required for an audition, etc. If you have a buddy who knows the person you’re contacting, at the very least make sure to mention your friend’s name in your correspondence. Even better? See if your friend will introduce you in person—another situation where networking comes in handy.

If you’re trying to play an event or festival, first make sure your genre fits the audience. Your death metal sound may not jive with the bluegrass festival-goers. Second, know that there may be several stages, each with their own booker. Find out who you need to talk to about the stage that best fits your sound.

If it’s a bar or a club you’re looking to play, go check out some shows there. Get to know the bartenders. Watch the crowds; find out what they respond to and what seems to bore them. Make a connection with bands that are already playing at the club; a good word from a currently-performing band will go a long way in securing your gig.

Look Smart

You’ve found the person you need to contact. You’ve done your research. Now, make sure your email or letter to them is thoughtfully written. If this is not your strong suit, enlist a friend to help you.  (I mentioned a letter intentionally. Lots of emails get lost in spam filters, are deleted without being read, or just don’t make it to the intended recipient; personal letters will at least get opened.)

I should also mention that persistence is a virtue when contacting a new venue. Don’t make the mistake of sending one letter and thinking all your work is done. It may take several attempts to get the attention of the person who makes booking decisions.

Whichever way you send it, make sure you have reviewed and edited your communication thoroughly. This includes spelling your contact’s name correctly. I had an opportunity to interview three different PR firms last month to help promote my band. I was surprised by the offer from one of the firms; they spelled my name three different ways in one letter! Needless to say, I did not use them.

Be Easy

No, not like that. I mean, make it easy for your potential promoter to listen to your audition. After going through all the trouble of researching your contacts, do everything in your power to ensure they listen to your awesomeness. For example, check (and double-check) that links to tracks and videos are working. Also, be sure to send a link or recording of a live performance—not a shiny studio recording. Your potential booking agent wants to know you’re capable of performing live.

In your communications, keep it brief (no life stories, please), but be informative. Include your contact information, genre, influences, and experience. If you have a considerable fan base and think you can pack the house, by all means, tell your contact that. (If not, don’t lie about it. You may get your foot in the door, but you will not be asked back.)

Think Cat-Like

As in reflexes. Be ready to respond quickly if a promoter contacts you back—the same day if at all possible. They could have a dozen other hungry musicians waiting to take your spot. If, for some reason, you can no longer take the gig, let them know, and communicate your disappointment in the schedule conflict. They may remember you for the future.

Allow for Small Beginnings

When you’re just starting out, you have to build a fan base. To do that, you have to get your music into the ears of potential fans. Unless you’re getting booked every night, take the gigs that come your way—no matter how “insignificant” you think they may be. You can be proactive in these matters, too. Find a cause to support and do a benefit concert. Or, play your neighborhood’s next block party. Just get your music out there. You never know who will show up and catch your amazing set. Then, capture your fans’ info and invite them to future shows. As mentioned earlier, a following will help you land future gigs.

If your material is up to snuff and you are stage-ready, these steps will be instrumental in helping you get your next gig.

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Don't Let Your Fans Get Burned Out--Two Ways to Keep Them Engaged

Don’t Let Your Fans Get Burned Out—Two Ways To Keep Them Engaged

By NationWide Source - Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Are you worried about fan burnout due to often-repeated gigs in the same venue? Are your fans tiring of you? While they seem like nice problems to have, they are legitimate concerns we’ve heard artists bring up. Read on for our take on this topic.

Dinner With Bob

I remember being out on a couples’ dinner date recently and watching with amusement as my friend Bob began to tell a funny story about his past. Bob is a great storyteller, truly gifted at communication. He has a knack for including just the right amount of detail in the story, and his timing with the punch line is excellent. Bob seems to have a million stories, and he enjoys sharing them.

Everyone was having a good time listening to Bob. Well, almost everyone. Teri, his wife, was not quite as enthusiastic as the rest of us, and she rolled her eyes back as Bob began the story. Now, Bob and Teri have been together for years; they get along really well, are a very compatible couple, share common interests, and love being together.

So, why was Teri less enthusiastic than the rest of us? Well, Teri has heard all of Bob’s stories many times, and she considers them counterproductive for the group discussion. She thinks Bob is funny—it was one of the reasons she was attracted to him so many years ago—but his material needs updating. Bob does tend to repeat himself, and not just to Teri; the other couples with us had also heard many of his stories. Nonetheless, Bob enjoys performing, so the show goes on.

Like Teri, I can only hear the same thing so many times before it begins to wear on me. It might have been engaging, interesting, or funny when I first heard it, but after a while I yearn for something new. The excitement is gone. When we go to dinner with Bob and Teri now, we have to prepare ourselves to endure some of Bob’s repeat performances. I hate to admit it, but I’m starting to feel just like Teri.

Overexposure to music can have the same effect. A hit single is incredible the first time I hear it. It’s fun to listen to or share for a few weeks. But then, when I hear it on every radio station, on the evening news, and as I do my grocery shopping, it becomes downright annoying. After a while, I just want it to stop.

As an independent musician, you face the same challenge Bob faces. Great material helps win loyal fans, but performing that same material over and over, without adding new material, can help you lose those fans. Fans want more new music. Otherwise, repeating your limited library of hits will wear on them. Your success as an artist can be impacted negatively if you do not produce new music consistently.

New music creates new sales and keeps things exciting and fresh, for you and for your fans. When I get a notification from a favorite musician that they’re releasing a new single or album, the anticipation of hearing their new music for the first time gets me excited. Depending on the artist, I’m ready to purchase the album from the first mention of it, without waiting for reviews and previews. Your fans are the same way. Don’t frustrate them with outdated, stale material.

A Story About Ashley, One Of Our Musician Clients

Ashley and I were having a discussion recently about her career. She had been performing in our area for some time and had some concerns about fan enthusiasm at shows… mainly that it seemed to be waning.  She also felt that her connection with the audience was less than what it used to be.

Ashley had a revelation. “You cannot be a prophet in your home town,” she told me. Ashley felt that the local fans were too familiar with her and her music. They no longer recognized her talent the way they used to. They were not engaging with her. In addition to her revelation, Ashley had a plan. The plan was to move into new markets where people did not know her, book new venues, start a new promotional campaign… you know, change things up a bit. She would be fresh and new; the old buzz would be back.

Sounds great!

Well, maybe not just yet. Let’s back up just a little.

Ashley is a good songwriter and quite a talented performer. But the new digital age of music, with all of its opportunities and overhead, was overwhelming her. She was doing everything. Shooting high-quality music videos, expanding her merch line, updating her websites, tweeting regularly, signing up for social media accounts left and right, and posting her music on every possible digital download store and streaming service. She even traveled to SXSW to hear what the ‘next big thing’ would be. Ashley spent 30 to 35 hours per week on the ‘business side’ of her music and the rest of her time traveling to and performing at her gigs. In short, she was doing everything she could think of to feel and look like a successful performer, hoping that it would make her one and bring hordes of fans in to purchase her music.

The reality was different. Most of her fans didn’t visit her website, since there was no new music, and her social media posts vanished into fans’ feeds as soon as they were typed. Her video, which looked great but cost thousands produce, only had 220 views on YouTube. And, instead of buying her music, most of her fans were streaming it online for free. Ashley was dedicating way too much time and energy to things that didn’t really matter—or, worse yet, hurt her. Ashley looked great and was busy doing stuff, but nobody noticed.

Does this sound like you? Doing everything you know how to do and implementing a strong plan but coming up short? Have you figured out why? We have. Ashley was so busy doing the ‘business of music’ that she forgot about the music itself.

When Ashley was first starting her music career, she spent 90% of her time working on her music and developing material. Now the tables have turned. Ashley has not released a new album in over three years. She wasn’t developing new material with any regularity because her schedule was too busy. I remember a recent four-day period where she performed seven times in five different cities and spent 16 hours on the road for travel between gigs. I don’t know how she had any energy left to perform! The point is, she now spends 90% of her time either performing or engaged in the ‘business of music’… and she hasn’t even noticed the change.

This happens quite often with talented, creative people who also have to run their own business. They get into music because they have talent and love writing, playing, and performing. But before long, their focus has shifted to building their career, and they end up doing everything but creating new music.

The result? Your music and your career suffer.

Two Changes Ashley (And You) Must Make

Number One: Ashley is full of creative ideas but has allowed her schedule to rob her of time to work on them. This MUST change.

Think of the fan response to Ashley if she had released 3 new albums over the last three years along with several singles, EPs, release parties, and some promotional products. She would have done much better with her fans! Fan excitement and engagement would have been much higher, let alone the income generated.

Ashley needs to spend more time on the creative development of her music. We’d recommend at least 1/3 of her time to developing new material, which means her schedule should look something like this:

Ashley’s Schedule (45 – 60 hours per week)

  • 1/3 of time spent on business/marketing matters
  • 1/3 of time spent on developing new material
  • 1/3 of time spent on performance and travel

Of course, we know that life is not that clean-cut. If one week or day demands more time for gigs, she should balance things out when she can. Maintaining a balance is key.

It would also be helpful for Ashley to set a minimum goal for creating new music. One new single to release every 6-8 weeks and one new album each year would be a good place to start.

Number Two: Ashley needs to look at her current venues and determine what is or isn’t working.

Let’s look at that four-day tour. Her income on one of those gigs was just $250, and she had to travel two hours each way to make it. As it stands, it’s really not worth the trip. Her other out-of-town gigs were further away but paid significantly more, making them worth her time. And her gigs in town paid well.

Once Ashley has determined which venues aren’t working, she can decide if they need to be cut altogether, or if they just need to be booked differently. The low-paying out-of-town venue on her four-day tour needs to go, or she needs to book additional venues in the same area to make the trip worth her time.

If Ashley cuts venues from her list, she can think about replacing them with new venues, as long as they pay well and expose her to a receptive audience. Touring is another option, but she’ll need to be strategic and selective about where she plays.

This might be a good time for her to hire a professional booking agent. If they can open doors to the right venues and help her organize her performance schedule, a good agent is well worth the money. She should try to negotiate an agreement that keeps her involved in the relationship with the venues, allowing her to personally handle the relationship after an agreed-upon period of time.

In the end, Ashley was partially right. She did need to change things up by expanding her venue options and purging those that don’t work for her. However, she was also missing something that was even more important: the need to make creating new material a priority. Ashley needs to dedicate a significant portion of her time to creative development.

Going on tour with old material will not solve her problem, at least not long term. Getting back to her creative roots will.

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You Need Professional Help

You Need Professional Help

By NationWide Source - Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

… getting gigs, that is.

There are two ways you can take this—the way your wife says it when she thinks you’ve lost your mind, or the way a well-intentioned friend offers you some career or relationship advice. The truth is, neither way is particularly favorable.

Most people in the music world would assume that this headline (and the subsequent article) is related to using the professional services of a record label or booking agent. It’s not. A record label might be a necessary part of furthering your music career, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

So what are we saying? Maybe re-phrasing it would help:

You need help from professional friends

Let’s back up a little here.

Early last year, a talented young musician came by our office. She told us what she was doing to make it as a performing musician; she was full of creative ideas (so much so that we had some trouble keeping up), and it was an informative discussion. She plays gigs often, and she’s recorded quite a bit. She has a website, a product manager, music videos, CDs, and merchandise. She has a street team of dedicated fans that help out. She has profiles and content on all the right social networks: YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Instagram, LinkedIn, Google+. She has her music for sale on iTunes, and it is also available on Pandora, Spotify, and And then there’s…well you  get the idea.

It didn’t take long to figure out that she has a lot going on. Maybe a little too much.

Part of our discussion covered how she gets gigs. Now, she stays busy, performing three to five times per week (on average), and her music is her only source of income. She knows gigs are important, she makes most of her income from gigging and selling CDs and other products from her merch table.  Her challenge was finding venues that worked—meaning, the money was good, she connected with the audience, the venue fit her style and skill level, and the venue was happy with the night. When these gigs turned into regular repeat dates she was able fill out her schedule with rewarding performances. When all these stars aligned, she felt like she’d hit a home run.

Earlier in her career, she had worked with promoters and managers who had booked gigs for her. However, she hated that they monopolized the relationship with the venue, so she made an effort to start networking directly with the venue owners. As she dropped the managers and promoters, she worked her existing venue relationships to keep booking her regular gigs. To this day she still believes this was a good move for her career. She is in complete control of the booking process and it has paid good dividends.

The drawback to this method is that, when her go-to venues were booked up and she needed to connect with new ones, the new venues didn’t know her, and they didn’t know if booking her would work out for them. Remember, she no longer had access to a promoter or agent to introduce her to new venues. These professionals spent many years building a reputation for providing the talented artists that a venue needed to survive. If the manager or promoter vouched for the musician they were putting their reputation on the line. A trust relationship with the venue is very important.

Since she no longer had someone to vouch for her, our artist would quite often spend hours making cold calls trying to book a gig, and nine times out of ten the answer she heard was “no”. This soured our artist with this method of finding gigs. (We can’t really blame her; we have past experience with cold-calls in the business world, and it’s absolutely no fun to hear a dozen or more rejections before someone finally says yes.)

To make things even more challenging—when she got a “yes” it was really a “maybe,” and that was just the beginning. She had to send over a press kit that included a complete workup showcasing her talent. Once she passed this initial review (sometimes it would take weeks to get a response), she might be invited to audition in person—another hurdle. Sometimes she got no response at all. Now her success changed from one-in-ten to one-in-twenty. It wears us out just to think about the process.

With everything this girl had going on—all her talent, all her drive, all her gigs, all her outlets and channels and efforts—she still had trouble with getting by. She knew she needed to find a better way to get gigs, and that she needed better gigs.

Time out.

Can you relate to her situation? Are you, despite your talent and hard work and creative ideas, still struggling to get by as a musician? Do you need a more-effective long term method for finding gigs? We see artists like you every day. We hear your struggles. We want to help.

Now, back to the story.

We shared a story about another musician with her.

When he was starting out, he was full of promise and talent but had little money or name-recognition. He had not played professionally as often as he would have liked, and he was not making enough money. He was contemplating giving up on his dream. His part time job had became more than a distraction – it was not fulfilling, it paid very little, and got in the way of focusing on his music. Part time work was supposed to help bridge the income gap while he pursued his music career in the off hours. It was not working.

Going out on a limb, he bid for a job at a music festival several states away from where he lived. Time was running out, he had to make something work quickly or give up. As luck would have it, he got the gig. Well, not so much luck as his willingness to work for nothing, plus the fact that the festival was short on his musical style or genre and needed him to play. With only $50 in his pocket, he drove 630 miles to the festival, hoping for the best.

He went, and he played. After the performance, he had the opportunity to visit with some other musicians backstage. They liked his sound. A professional friendship was formed, and the other musicians invited him to sit in on one of their performances. He agreed (again, playing for no money). The relationship flourished. After the festival, they introduced him to several of the local venues where they would be performing in the near future and again asked him to sit in. They also took an interest in his career and gave him the input and support he needed to improve his game. Even though they were not much older than he was the results were significant.

Because his new professional friends vouched for him, he was able to book gigs at those venues as well. He ended up staying in the area for several weeks, padding his pockets with good gig money and helping further his confidence and music career. Over time he was able to expand his circle and meet even more musicians. He continued to work with these relationships and created a good reputation of his own with the venues and other artists in the area. Almost overnight his career began to turn around. What had happened?

Now, his success didn’t come from luck. It didn’t come from hiring a booking agent, making cold calls, or signing with a label. His success came from being open to opportunity and from his focus on relationships. That professional friendship with the other musicians is what got him the good gigs, which made him the money he needed. He leveraged up—perhaps unintentionally and without knowing it, but still.

This is what we mean when we say “professional help”: creating genuine relationships with other musicians as often as you can. We offer you the same advice we gave that talented, hard-working, struggling artist: work hard to create as many professional fans backstage as you do in the audience. Look around you for musicians who are more experienced and try to learn from them. Ask for advice and help. Use these relationships to leverage your career, and be willing to offer the same help to others.

There is no reason go it alone.

This is one of the things that we truly love about the independent music business. Unlike the business world, where companies constantly compete directly against other companies selling similar products, one musician does not compete with another musician. Music is not an “or” commodity, which can only be consumed in exclusion to the alternatives. Instead, it’s an “and” commodity.* A fan’s affinity for one band doesn’t mean he can’t also like your band. Fans don’t go to concerts hoping one act is great and the other two suck. The better each act is, the happier the fan is. The better the music available, the happier the fan.

The next step for you is to look into opportunities to perform where your exposure to other musicians will be the greatest, like the music festival our artist went to or an open mic night in your area. Visit a venue where you want to perform and see if you can connect with musicians that are already performing there. Don’t be overly concerned if you have to play for free or less money than you’d prefer,** since building these relationships is a long-term investment in your career. Remain open-minded and reach out to other musicians to create connections. Leverage up.

* We know this is a generalization, and that there are instances where you compete against other bands for a fan’s time and money. We still feel it’s a different type of competition.

** To keep the bills paid, try working these low-paying, opportunity-laden gigs into your schedule among the paying gigs.

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Pay to Play: Good or Bad for Musicians?

Pay to Play: Good or Bad for Musicians?

By NationWide Source - Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

When they actually stop and think about it, most people realize that, aside from the big-name artists, musicians don’t get paid much. What they might not realize is just how often artists pay to play gigs.

The concept might sound counter-intuitive and like a bad business plan, but it’s nothing new, and it’s not limited to music. In the business world, the concepts of investing to make a return or spending money to make money are fairly familiar. But is paying to play something artists should do?

Types of Pay to Play

First, you should understand the different types of pay to play. Venues are concerned with their overhead, which they can’t do if your unknown band doesn’t draw many fans. To remedy this, they make opening bands purchase tickets (often at a discounted price) in advance; the bands then sell these tickets at whatever price they want. If they band doesn’t sell enough tickets, the band is the one short the money, meaning they’re paying to play.

Another way smaller bands might pay to play is to “buy on” as an opening act for well-known bands on tours or at festivals. Larger acts require bigger venues, and festivals spread out over several days can be a big investment to put on. To offset the cost of large shows, the venue or festival might ask small or local bands to pay for a slot; the closer to the end of the night (and to the main act), the more that slot costs.

Unlike their standard Friday night bar gig, the band might have to pay to play these large shows or festivals, but the exposure to thousands of new fans and the potential merchandise sales make these pay to play gigs pretty tempting.

Even playing gigs for free isn’t truly free when you consider the time that could’ve been spent at other (paying) gigs and the gas to get there.

The pay to play concept goes further than live shows. Artists might pay to be listed on streaming services, to bid on gigs (especially with online gig-finding sites), to have their music considered by a label, or to enter a contest. As a marketing effort, musicians might also agree to give away product (such as a free download) on their website or through third parties (like the download cards in most Starbucks stores) in hopes of increased exposure and converting those free takers into long-term fans and buyers of other merchandise.

What Should Artists Do?

As nice as it getting paid to make music is, there are times when paying to get gigs might be the right choice. If a gig will truly help you break into a new market or significantly expand your fan base, but requires forking over $50, it might be worth it.

In the end, you should treat your music career like a business. Yes, it will require some investment (in equipment, travel, time, and marketing) and a lot of hard work. Yes, it might take some time to receive a return on that investment. But, if you’re always working for free or paying to play, something needs to change.

We know many artists who argue that they’re musicians because they love it, not because it’s the highest paying job. That’s fine, even admirable, but it doesn’t mean they (or you) have to go broke. There should be a happy medium between starving artist and money-hungry mogul. Part of reaching that happy medium is knowing when to pay to play, and knowing when to say no.

Have you paid to play a gig? What type of gig was it? Did it help or hurt you? Would you do it again or recommend it to other artists?

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