Saturday, March 27, 2010

Getting out of the garage

EVERYONE, it seems either is a writer or musician at heart. Or they think they are.

And, in fact, anyone can sit down with a computer and type a novel. And anyone can gather a few like-minded friends and form a band.

The question is how do you start making money at it? How do you go from idea to the real deal?

I can't take you from zero to Britney Spears, but I can take you from zero to gigging steadily and getting paid. At least, on paper. In real life, there are some minor details (like talent) that you have to deal with.

I hear that you have to have 3 things to make it in music: Time, Talent, and Money. You have to have all three, but not equally. In fact, you only have to have an abundance of ONE in order to make it. So keep that in mind as you read this next bit:

First, you have to have a good idea. If you're making a copycat of the other copycat coverband, you might have a hard time getting shows because entertainment buyers are going to be booking whoever has the biggest name in the area in their price range. So your idea has to be somewhat unique for your area, but not so unique that it's impossible to market. After all, you have to entice people to come to the shows if you want to keep doing them.

After you have an idea, you have to get a band together. The BEST way to get the best musicians is to be involved in other people's groups for a while and make like-minded friends. Who have friends. Barring that, you can try craigslist, but the best musicians are too busy working to wander around online forums. You also have to make lists of songs you want to perform. Or write songs you want to perform. It's easier to convince musicians to join up with you on a startup project if you have a "book" (sheet music for a whole show's worth of songs) or at least a set list (list of songs in the order you'll perform them). The musicians will bring their own ideas and own songs with them, which is where having a well-defined idea helps keep things focused. 

You can mix those first two steps together. Often you have a vague idea, collect some friends who want to play, and together you refine and define what you are collectively, and everyone contributes materials.

Rehearse a lot. You really won't go far if your product is crappy, no matter how good your idea and songwriting are.

So So SO many bands get together, polish up a list of covers, and then wonder why they don't get to be the next big thing nationally. Cover bands, you might notice if you think about it for a minute, don't get big nationally. They just don't. They can make a great living, work steadily, and have very satisfying musical lives. But they don't get famous nationally. Groups with really great original songs do sometimes get famous. You  just have to have realistic expectations and an understanding of the markets. So keep your eyes open and your ears open and your brain on, and you learn what you need to know.

Just like a company who produces a new product, you have to give out lots and lots of free samples before you really start getting paid for things. So you do free shows--for local fairs and festivals, for the library concert series, for the high school fundraiser. Find out who books the shows (ask the venue, like the library or coffee shop; ask the performers after they leave the stage; google the event or venue and search the website...the information is out there). One of the easiest and most important things you do is Open Mic Nights. These are easy to sign up for, you don't have to have materials, nobody blacklists you for a failed performance. Find local open mic nights that do your kind of music and go. Listen to the other bands and network with them (don't show up, play, and leave). Play. Hang out after you're done and talk. And then go back the next week. And the next. Do LOTS of these. Also, perform in every competition that is in your genre--battles of the bands, vocal competitions, whatever. Just do them. Also volunteer for benefit concerts. You can find shows and venues looking for musicians on sites like Craigslist's musician's forum and gigs section.

For a band or a cappella group, you can start with a decent recording o 2-3 songs (you don't have to pay a lot for this, and can actually do it yourself if you're half decent at recording; just don't do a really crappy recording and think you'll get shows). This is your demo. You need a website of some kind (facebook page or myspace page is fine, but you can do more if you can pay for it) that is uncluttered and easy to navigate. Don't (please!) put music that automatically plays on your website. It's a serious turn off.  DO put a player on the website that can be used voluntarily.  People come to your site to hear your music--just let them do it at their own pace.  So demo, website, a short biography (who you are, where you came from, how you got together--that kind of thing. Look at the "about us" on band websites to get an idea of what this should be),  and Pictures. You need pictures. Google "band promo pics" and click on "image results" for ideas of how to do this. You really can have someone you know take them with your digital camera. Eventually  you'll add quotes from people you don't know (don't put on quotes from people you know--it's embarrassing), and positive published reviews (like in the newspaper or online), and video of live performances. Eventually you'll need a promo DVD, but not for a good bit. ALWAYS include contact info--phone and email--on everything you produce. No matter how much they like you, if your contact information is hard to find, you won't get business. 

Start contacting everyone who presents music like you perform. You can find most of the booking information online. You can also walk into venues and ask for their booking person. You can call them and do the same. Email festivals and fairs "info" link on their contact us pages and ask how a group gets booked to perform in their event--they'll usually connect you with the right person.

Do EVERY show that comes up. Start asking local bands if you can open for them. If you can find a venue, do a public show for everyone you know and tell them to bring their friends. At some point, you will want to record a CD to sell at shows. This should be pretty good quality, so start saving the pennies you earn from the low-paying shows instead of splitting it up.

From there, if you're any good, it just kind of grows. People who buy entertainment for low-paying shows go to the events where bands play free, and they hire you for their low-paying show. And people who buy for moderately-paying shows go to those low-paying shows and hire people. So if you're good, word can spread fairly quickly, until you're making a decent wage at each gig. It's just as important to network with musicians as it is to do shows, so the open mics do double duty--you get to meet other bands, and you get exposure to fans and buyers.

It is possible for things to be going smoothly and growing and then for you to do one little thing that stops all progress. A few of the tripping points: 

Swearing--Groups that swear on stage don't go as far. Period. Just trust me on this one. 

Being hard to work with--groups that show up late, are demanding, leave messes, are rude, or uncommunicative don't go as far. In the "out of the garage" market, there are so so so many groups competing for business that entertainment buyers don't have to work with you if you're a Diva, charge a lot, are irresponsible, or are just hard to work with. They'll not only get someone else next time, word will spread and you won't work anymore.

Refusing to grow--if you get one set together and then never learn another new song ever again, you won't get as much work, and eventually won't work at all. Fans don't want to hear the same songs for 25 years. So you have to constantly be working on newer, better material (without throwing out the old favorites).

Just being bad musically--everyone has a bad show now and then. Everyone has days when the tech is horrible and makes you sound awful. If EVERY performance is bad, though, word will spread and you won't work much anymore.

I'm sure there's more, but this is long enough already!

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