When I was a young whippersnapper just starting out in punk bands, I had truly no idea how to be in a band. Oh sure, I knew enough guitar to play punk, and I could sing reasonably on key, but I had no idea the social complexities that were involved in being in a band. These 13 or 14 tips are designed to help those just starting out, but jaded dinosaurs like myself might also find some remedial usefulness as well.
1. Know your role. In any band there are usually one or two people who are in charge of everything. These people handle all of the mundane business/booking/promotion/non-music tasks that need to be handled to keep a band running smoothly. They are indispensable. If this is your role in the band: congratulations. You have accepted a difficult, time consuming and thankless job, and it may well spoil your love of music.
If this isn’t you: the best way to help most of the time is to keep your mouth shut and chip in when the money is needed. If you aren’t helping to book the shows or get the merch printed, the van serviced, and studio time booked, then you have forfeited your right to complain about any of these things. If you don’t like the way it’s being done, pitch in and do it yourself. If you committed to playing a show, then you just need to suck it up and play the show, even if you are on the morning shift at Starbucks the next day. Having to get up early the next day is not a valid excuse to bail at the last minute. Nut up, play the show, drink too much, and be tired and hungover for one lousy day out of your life.
2. Never cancel at the last minute. Sometimes having to cancel a show is unavoidable, but truly unavoidable reasons are usually known well in advance. Sickness and injury are generally not valid last minute reasons to cancel. I’ve seen Fat Mike play a whole set laying down on a couch (threw out his back), and I’ve seen Thrice play Warped acoustically because their drummer threw out his back. (What is it with backs?) They could have canceled the shows and no one would have held it against them, but they didn’t, because they know the rules.
Cancelling shows at the last minute is poison for a smaller, newer band. The calculus works like this: each time the band cancels a show at the last minute, that’s one less promoter who will work with them. Eventually you run out of promoters who will take the chance of booking your band. In my experience it’s the same guy who always bails out on shows that always complains “we never play shows anymore”. Don’t be that guy.
3. Promote Promote Promote. If you are one of the local bands on the bill, YOU are responsible for getting people out to the show. Do yourself and all the other bands a favor and promote the hell out of the show. You can cash in the accumulated karma the next time you are on the road.
4. Thou shalt not “pay-to-play”. Ever. “Pay to play” (or “ticket sales deal”, as it’s euphemistically called), is a policy most prevalent in the Los Angeles area. This is when the venue requires you to sell a set number of tickets for a certain price in order to play the gig. Usually the money is required to be paid before you are allowed to take the stage. I shouldn’t need to explain why this business model is garbage. Your band already spends enough time and money writing and recording music, touring, rehearsing, and promoting. You shouldn’t also be responsible for keeping venues in business. Any reputable promoter or venue will never ask you to pay-to-play. Don’t worry about the bigger shows for now. Just keep plugging away at the house shows and smaller bars, and eventually you will be asked to support a legitimate larger show at a bigger venue.
You don’t need any gig, and especially not the ones you have to pay for. You aren’t going to get “discovered” by playing that Unwritten Law show that they want you to sell sixty tickets for ten bucks apiece to play. You are in a punk band. Nobody signs punk bands that aren’t already well-known and touring on their own.
5. Show up on time. I admittedly have a tough time with this, but I try to at least be “musician punctual” – within ten minutes of a scheduled time. For rehearsals, punctuality is often overlooked but it is critically important. Nothing breeds resentment like three or four guys who have made the time to rehearse and showed up on time, waiting around for the singer to show up.
Always show up on time to gigs. If load-in is at seven, be there at seven, even if you end up waiting around until eight. NOBODY likes the band that shows up at 9:45pm for their 10pm slot and loads in through the crowd. For that matter, it is also your responsibility, if you don’t have a damned good reason not to, to stay for THE ENTIRE SHOW. You usually won’t get paid if you don’t, and it’s just common courtesy.
6. Get your shit up on stage and off the stage efficiently. Nothing says “oblivious n00b” like setting up or breaking down the drums on stage. Don’t stand on stage after your set and have a five minute conversation with your friends. Grab a piece of gear and move it off. Be a mensch and grab a piece of the next band’s gear to bring up on stage on your way back. You can cool down / shoot the shit / have that shot after your band’s stuff is stowed backstage. The bar isn’t going to run out of booze.
7. Always leave them wanting more. Keep your set short and to the point. You aren’t the headliner. No one is going to like you more if you play those three extra songs they’ve never heard before and don’t give two shits about. If you haven’t won them over in the first twenty minutes, you aren’t going to in fifty minutes. This is punk rock. Thirty five minutes is more than enough.
7a. NEVER EVER EVER NEVER take an encore if you aren’t the headliner. This is the very apex of douchebaggery. It causes the whole show to run behind and pisses off the other bands, the promoter, and even the bartender. Never piss off the bartender.
8. Never piss off the bartender. If you piss off the bartender, you aren’t playing that venue again, no matter how many heads you brought in. So don’t do it.
9. Everyone is responsible for moving all the gear. Oh, you’re a singer? Great, you are now also the drum roadie. You’re a guitar player? Now you also get to haul the 4-ton SVTII bass head and 8×10 ampeg cab sometimes. Everyone pitches in. There’s no I in TEAM.
10. Watch at least a few songs of the other bands, and try to remember their names so you can thank them. Especially at less-well attended shows. You will appreciate the courtesy being returned.
11. Tip your bartender. Yes, even if you paid for the drinks with drink tickets. This is America. We tip here. This is also especially important if you ever want to play that venue again.
12. Do an idiot check at the end of the night. Preferably two. The driver/reasonably sober person should do a thorough check to make sure nothing was forgotten. It really sucks to get to Salt Lake City and realize the kick pedal was left at the gig last night in Denver. While everyone should be on the lookout for forgotten gear, each member is ultimately responsible for making sure all his gear made it into the van. So even though the drummer got WASTED and didn’t even help load the van because he was passed out in it, it’s his responsibility to go to the Salt Lake City Guitar Center and buy a new pedal.
13. Touring bands get paid first. They drove the farthest, they spent the most money on gas, and they aren’t sleeping in their own beds tonight. They get paid firstest and mostest, always.
You probably won’t ever make any money with your punk band, but by following these common-sense guidelines, you can at least be a well-respected band that gets asked to play lots of good shows. At the end of the day, that’s what this whole thing is about.