The Business of Gigging
6 Rules for Creating the Best Show Possible
by Russ Miller
I was very impressed with the show. Of course, the playing was amazing, but what struck me the most was how much the trio gave back to the fans. I grew up in an era of amazing bands like Genesis, Yes, Styx, Rush, and Journey putting on incredible productions. But the Rush concert was over and above. They had an incredible video element to the show, epic lighting, great sound, and cool staging. They even changed gear to mimic what they used when the music was first released. It was all jaw dropping.
But Rush didn’t need to do any of that. They could have just shown up to the gig, and everyone would’ve been happy. Yet they chose to deliver an amazing experience for their fans. This is one of the key components to their success and it’s one of the reasons that they have legions of fans around the world. They are very serious about the business of gigging, so people always leave saying, “I’ll be back for the next show.”
On the flipside, there have been times when I’ve gone to see live shows by young pop artists that I recorded with and they fell completely short. I remember going to one show where the audience was nearly silent at the end of the set. And I’ve been to shows with seasoned artists who didn’t put out enough effort to give the audience the experience they wanted.
Reflecting on both the good and bad experiences, I’ve come up with six basic rules to gigging. Let’s go over them.
Rule #1: It takes a lot of effort to get any gig, so give it all you’ve got. Make sure that everyone in the audience walks away as a true fan of your work. Not every person at every gig comes in as a die-hard fan. They may like a few songs from your album, or they came as a guest of a friend. Draw them in, communicate with them, and make them come back! This applies to sideman gigs, as well. There might be musicians in the band you’ve never played with before, so make sure they leave ready to recommend you to other gigs. This is how your network builds over time.
Rule #2: Reinvest finances into the experience of the show. I know many bands that consume everything they make on a job. Make sure you’re reinvesting a percentage of your keep into making the next gig better than the last. This could involve buying better gear, getting more stage lights, increasing rehearsal time to tighten up the set, hiring a publicist, and so on. Rush’s R40 show is a great example. The band uses its money to front the production costs for rehearsals, equipment, and expenses. This allows them to put together an amazing show for the fans.
Rule #3: Make sure you and your band are adequately prepared before the performance. We discussed being prepared as a drummer in a previous article, but the same thing applies to your band. If you’re headlining a show, you shouldn’t be reading charts. Having a music stand on stage shows a lack of commitment to the job. Obviously there are exceptions, like when you’re subbing or coming to the gig with little time for preparation. There have been times I’ve hired guys for my gigs and had to deal with this lack of commitment. I sent them the records and charts months ahead of time, and they still had their heads buried in the book during the show. I feel that is disrespectful to the artist and to the audience.
Rule #4: Never underestimate the experience of doing a lot of gigs. I was playing on the Tonight Show with a young artist a few years back, and she was scared to death of the performance. A label rep came up to me backstage and asked, “Is she okay?” I remember saying, “There’s nothing like throwing her to the wolves, man. There are ten million people watching, and it’s only her second gig!”
It takes playing hundreds of gigs to learn how to pull off a performance effectively. You have to learn how to hold the crowd’s attention and take them from point A to point B. Also, the confidence that comes with knowing your show inside and out is crucial. You need to know what’s coming up and how the arc of the performance is designed.
Record your rehearsals, listen back, and take notes. You should also record videos of dress rehearsals in front of friends and family. Observe how the crowd reacts to specific moments in the show. But most importantly, get out and gig as much as possible. You’ll learn something from every show, even if it’s what not to do next time.
Rule #5: Push the boundaries of what’s possible. With my band Arrival, I’m constantly pushing the boundaries of what’s possible for the show at a given venue. Without trying to erect props like Spinal Tap, I’m usually driving the other guys in the band and crew crazy with video projection, audio recordings, samples, and so on. If you’ve seen our Arrival Live concert DVD, you know what I’m talking about. For that shoot, we stuffed a 1,500-seat theatre production into a 300-seat venue.
But pushing the limits of production is not all about lights and video screens. It also has to do with pushing the players to their highest potential. Make sure that there are moments in the set that are challenging for you and the band. If you stay safe and play beneath your abilities every night, your performance will become stale and uninspired. I like to approach gigs with the mentality of a professional athlete. I want to smoke the other bands on the bill, and I want everybody to know why we are the headliners. The crowd deserves to see you really give your all for them.
Rule #6: Engage your audience after the gig. This is done in a few ways. First, make sure people can take the experience home via merchandise, whether it’s CDs, download cards, shirts, show programs, and so on. Also make sure to have your website, social media pages, and fan club info available. And be sure to let the audience know about your upcoming shows. Getting return fans, as well as adding new ones, is the key to building a following.
The bottom line is that getting people to spend their hard-earned money to watch you play is a huge blessing. Don’t take it for granted. Not every gig will leave you floating home on a cloud. However, every gig contains something to be learned. Take that lesson, and use it for your benefit. Be conscious of what you’re asking the audience to listen to, and don’t go off into your own little world on stage. Keep the audience engaged in your performance. Make the best music possible, and then present it in a way that adds another dimension to the show.
Russ Miller has recorded and/or performed with Ray Charles, Cher, Nelly Furtado, and the Psychedelic Furs and has played on soundtracks for The Boondock Saints, Rugrats Go Wild, and Resident Evil: Apocalypse, among others. For more info, visit russmiller.com.