Izzy True (they/them pronouns) is a musician and artist living in Chicago, IL.
(Photo Credit: Andi Carbaugh)
In Idaho on tour this past spring, my bandmate was approached by a couple of young people — probably around 21 — who told them that our sparsely attended show that night was their first ever live concert. We were all excited, honored, and kind of amazed. Going to concerts was a formative experience for us as teenagers, and it was hard to imagine a youth spent without it.
Since the return of live music, I’ve heard similar stories from other musicians. COVID kept a lot of young people from experiencing shows as high schoolers, and now many people are coming out to clubs for the first time. I have to assume that lots of people are also playing their very first shows without much experience in bars, clubs, or DIY spaces. There is precious little guidance out there for musicians who are just starting to play live, and I have been thinking for years about writing a beginners guide to sound-checking and show etiquette — tricks of the trade that have taken me over a decade of touring to get confident with. Most of the terms used in this article were never defined for me; they were all things I learned from experience and context clues.
Things are not easy in the industry right now, and this info feels more crucial than ever. I put this out there in the hopes that it will spare you some stress and embarrassment, and help you leave a good impression on the people you are working with. Some of this advice is general etiquette around playing shows in small bars and clubs, some of it is around procedure, and some of it is for people who are looking to pursue music as a career. Regardless of what role music plays in your life, if you are playing shows regularly, you will most likely be encountering people for whom it is a part of their livelihood — this may be engineers, touring bands, etc. Whether or not you have designs on working in music yourself, these people will appreciate you respecting their time and will (barring the unavoidable jerks) respond to your consideration by helping you have a good show too.
WHAT SHOULD I BRING?
This will vary from show to show, so always be sure to ask the event organizer about a “backline.” “Backlining” is the industry term for sharing equipment. Sharing gear cuts down on change-over time between bands. Backlining is awesome because you don’t have to spend 20 minutes switching out full drum kits between sets, and potentially you’ll have less stuff to haul to the venue. Some venues have their own backline, but mostly you will be negotiating with the other bands about who brings what. The drawbacks of a backline is using unfamiliar and possibly shitty equipment.
Typically, it’s safe to assume you will need to bring amplifiers, cables, basses/guitars, and, at the very least, drum “breakables.” (This means cymbals, snare, hardware, and kick pedal.) Don’t be afraid to email about what you will need to bring a few weeks before the show! Venues should provide mics, stands, and a PA — i.e. the big sound system, (which I found out stands for Public Address speaker when I looked it up just now).
If you’re borrowing another musician’s equipment, keep a few things in mind:
- Note the settings when you get on stage, and return it to the way you found it when you are done playing.
- If you are going to be playing crazy loud or crazy hard, you need to disclose that before you share gear; people may not want to risk their stuff.
- Put amps on standby or turn them off before plugging in instruments or pedals.
- Don’t rest your drinks on other people’s stuff.
- Musical equipment is expensive and people are sensitive about it — be respectful, ask before making adjustments, and people will be grateful to you. There is nothing worse than lending a band your equipment and having it break.
Hopefully the venue will have sent you information about load-in, soundcheck, and set times. In my experience, as a smaller band you may have to bug them for this information, which is annoying. It depends on how organized the promoter is, and/or how much care they put into their job. A communicative promoter is a good sign that the show will be run smoothly. It’s a bonus if they ask you for a stage-plot or an input list in advance. This is either a graphic or a text description of who is in your band, what they are playing (are they using an amp? will they need a vocal mic?), and where they will be standing on stage. Google examples of these — they aren’t hard to make and you will be glad you did, and glad they cared enough to ask.
You may notice that the load in time is as many as five hours before the show begins. This is to allow ample time for soundchecks. When I was younger, I did not understand this and would often show up really late which stressed everyone out. Don’t be like me. Be punctual, and if you need to come late, be communicative. If other bands need your gear, be sure it’s there when they need it. The show happening in a timely fashion depends on everyone being where they have to be when they need to be. It’s not very punk rock, but it is the best for maintaining the sanity of all involved.
SOUNDCHECKS: KNOW THEM, LOVE THEM.
Soundchecks are exactly what they sound like: a test run of the equipment you will be using in the room. During the soundcheck the engineer will be ensuring that everything is working as it should, as well as balancing your sound. In my opinion, getting your on-stage sound balanced is the single most important thing you can do to ensure a good show. Playing a set where you can’t hear yourself or your bandmates can be demoralizing and occasionally disastrous.
Soundchecks usually happen in the reverse order of the show, so the headliner checks first, the opener checks last. Depending on the venue, they may only check the headliner and offer openers a “linecheck.” In a linecheck, the sound engineer will basically just be testing if all the mics and amps are working. They won’t be able to offer you much in the way of on-stage sound troubleshooting. If you show up on time and ready to go, sometimes you can squeak in a soundcheck in these situations. If you have the option, always push for it.
Many people find soundchecks intimidating, but they don’t have to be. While I cannot protect you from the occasional bitter old dude engineer who will arbitrarily hate you and make you feel stupid, I can let you know what you should be looking for and how to ask for it. The first step to a successful soundcheck is: get familiar with your equipment at home! If you are a guitarist or a bassist, spend time during practice and on your own familiarizing yourself with all those knobs on your amps, guitars, and pedals. If you play the drums, practice breaking them down and setting them up. Take a cursory look at the meaning of words like treble, bass, and gain, the difference between reverb and delay, etc. I promise you, it’s not as complicated as it might seem! Listen for what sounds good to you. Deeper research on your specific equipment is good here, but if that is intimidating to you, start by experimenting with your ears. Do I like my guitar better with the treble turned down on my amp? Do I like the distortion I am getting at higher volumes, or am I cranking it out of habit or necessity? Pay attention to which of your bandmates you need to hear to keep time and note it for your upcoming show. There are no right or wrong answers here, just tweak things and listen.
Your soundcheck is the time to make sure you can hear everything you need to hear. Ideally, on stage you will adjust what instruments you are hearing — your “mix” — through your monitor (sometimes called a wedge). That’s the big speaker on the floor that’s pointing at you. The sound person can usually run anything that is going into the sound board (the big thing with all the sliders) into your monitor. This will be stuff that has a microphone on it — yes, vocals, but also any mic’d amps or drums — or anything with a DI, or “direct input,” the signal from an instrument directly into the PA. Getting your monitor mix balanced is your mission here.
A typical soundcheck goes like this: The engineer will set up all the requisite mics and inputs, then they will ask for each musician to play in turn, usually starting with the drummer. Keep playing til they tell you to stop — they are adjusting the sound levels in the room. If you are using guitar pedals, TEST THEM NOW! Make sure there are no significant changes in volume with different effects. With distortion pedals or anything that changes volume in either direction, make sure the change isn’t so drastic it messes with your or your bandmates’ ability to hear each other (unless that’s part of the plan.) Don’t skip this step, you will thank me later.
Once every instrument and mic has been checked, you will be asked to run a song or two. Try to pick songs that have a wide dynamic range — you want the engineer to hear how soft and how loud you are going to get, as well as test out each instrument you will be using. Once again, test your pedals with the full band! After each run through, you can ask for the things you need. Having trouble hearing your voice? Ask for more vocals in your monitor. Too much bass? Ask for less in your wedge. Did the sound person drench your vocals in reverb without asking? Tell them to cut it out. If you make any adjustments to your amplifier, LET THE ENGINEER KNOW! This will affect every part of the mix. Don’t turn up your amp because you are too shy to ask the engineer to give you more — I believe in you, you deserve it in your wedge. Take your time, take your time, take your time. This is why it is so crucial to be punctual — you don’t want to feel pressure to rush through this step.
A last note about checking: many people end up in an accidental volume arms race with their bandmates. If you are getting to a place where your vocals or guitar are feeding back because you need so much in the monitor, you may just need to bring the overall stage volume down. Sometimes the solution isn’t you turning up, but someone else turning down. Take deep breaths and listen carefully. You don’t need to be professional audio engineer to understand what you need, you’re not stupid for asking questions, and you’re not a pain in the ass for asking for what you need.
GREEN ROOMS IN THE TIME OF COVID
Access to performers-only areas, known as green rooms, can be very exciting when you first start playing shows. It feels nice to be able to take your friends back there. In small clubs, if there is one at all, it is usually a grubby room with no windows and mini fridge with graffiti all over the walls. A private area is a nice perk of playing shows and I think you should be allowed to enjoy it, even if I’m jaded and can’t anymore. However — if you are playing with touring musicians, the etiquette around the green rooms is a little different, especially in the time of COVID.
If there is one shared green room and you are playing with a traveling band, you should be aware that most likely the people in the band will be tired. The green room will probably be the first place they have been able to chill out after a day of driving and running around. Depending on the set up, they may be napping, pooping, getting dressed, and showering in this room. When I first started playing shows I was sometimes struck at how cold the touring bands could be. In retrospect, most of them were probably just exhausted. No one has a right to be rude to you, but keep in mind that if they aren’t excited to hang, it’s most likely not personal. Respecting people’s space in this situation will earn you an exhausted band’s gratitude.
Touring bands may also really be trying to avoid contact with other people because of COVID. A positive COVID case will at best lead to canceled dates and significant loss of income, and at worst end in a debilitating illness. Many musicians who are immunocompromised are not taking the risk of touring now at all, because of the current lack of COVID precautions in most bars and clubs, and that is a great loss to performers and audiences. It is indicative of a failure across the musical community to maintain spaces that are safe and accessible to everyone. I know many people have more or less given up on masking these days but please, mask when sharing space with touring musicians.
SET TIMES, SET LENGTH, KEEPING THE SHOW GOING
When preparing for a show, time your set. Ask the promoter what they expect your set length to be. For an opener, this is typically half an hour — and stick to it. A little under is fine, but there is nothing that is guaranteed to irritate the people playing and working the show more than playing too long. When in doubt, leave the audience wanting more.
When you are done playing, load your stuff off stage immediately. Often people will come up and congratulate you when you are done playing, which can be distracting, but remember the next band has to set up! People will appreciate your promptness and professionalism.
PAYOUT (YOU’RE WORTH IT)
The music industry is a terrible place for artists. Various middlemen are constantly skimming off the top, winnowing away at what little you can expect to earn from live music and recordings. After years of grinding and being taken advantage of, many musicians turn around and do the same shitty things to bands starting out that they endured once they’ve reached a certain level of success. One of the ways new musicians are screwed over is by being left out of discussions about compensation. It’s not just beginners either — I get the impression that many artists, unless they tour a lot, don’t have a very good understanding of show payouts. Let’s change that!
Despite a lack of experience, bills need openers. You may be intimidated by a touring band with hundreds of thousands of Spotify plays, but the reality is, they probably cannot draw for shit in your hometown. Even if your music totally sucks (and I’m sure that it does not!), you are still doing the work of practicing, schlepping gear, and getting your mom and her coworkers out to Stinky’s on a Tuesday night. You’re worth something in this equation. So, the first rule is never — never never — NEVER pay to play a show. Never play a show where the venue pressures you to sell tickets, and never play a show where they expect you to cover the venue fee out of pocket if people don’t show up. It is not worth it for “the experience.” Play a show in a friend’s backyard instead; I guarantee you it will be a better time.
The first thing you should do when you are put on a bill or putting one together is to ask for a break-down of the show deal. Shows typically work in one of two ways: You will either be offered a guarantee or a cut of the door (ticket sales) after a certain amount. A guarantee is a predetermined, guaranteed amount of money which will be given to a performer regardless of how much money the show does or does not make. Ideally, the guarantee is the baseline and you will make more money if the show is a success. Still, it’s probably not something you will be offered for your first shows, unless it is a bill with a larger band which has factored in a budget for support (that’s you!).
Most likely, when starting out you will be offered a door deal. This is an arrangement whereby bands get a certain percentage of the ticket sales after the cost of the show for the venue is made back.
Show costs in small venues usually come from paying the sound person, hospitality, and occasionally promotion. A venue should be able to provide you with a sheet that breaks down these costs. Hospitality is the cost of those “free” beers you’ve been drinking. Promotion is usually the cost of paying someone to make and print flyers. If it seems high and they don’t really appear to have done anything, feel free to ask questions about where that money actually went.
Typically, the headliner negotiates the “split” with the promoter. The split is the way in which the money bands are allotted after ticket sales is divied up. Ask the promoter about this in advance of the show. Even if you don’t yet feel confident negotiating for a bigger piece of the pie, transparency will keep everyone more honest and probably get you a better deal.
For an all-local show, I think an even split between bands makes sense, unless you have a solo act on the bill — then payment in proportion to band members might be more fair. It makes sense to give touring bands the largest piece of the pie, because they are traveling and throwing money down a big terrible hole. For years in the DIY scene as a local, I would give all of my money to the touring band, and while that is very nice and generates goodwill, these days I think it’s better to make sure that if there is money to go around, everyone gets paid.
It’s important to consider historical systems of inequality such as racism, sexism, and homophobia when you are negotiating a split. Who has historically been paid less, and are they being paid less now? Why? I think moving towards even payouts across the board is a good way to combat the many predatory practices we deal with in the industry. The more we can focus on nurturing a community of artists instead of buying into systems where clout and seniority are rewarded, the better the outlook for artists in the long run.
I worked at a popular small venue in Chicago for years doing the door. Our venue fee would range from $150-$180 for a smaller show, then the artists would make 80% of ticket sales after that. Typically, the promoter would pay bands a little something out of pocket on a night we didn’t make cost, which was very nice but sadly not the industry standard. This is a pretty good deal for a small room in my experience. A hundred percent of door sales would be better. Be suspicious of small venues asking for much more than this. Do not work with venues who ask to take a cut of your merch sales. It may be that the only venues in your town have really terrible deals — this is why DIY venues exist (though a DIY venue may employ similarly exploitative practices).
My last bit of payout advice is ALWAYS GET PAID THE NIGHT OF THE SHOW. Unless you are playing a college show through a student union with a bureaucratic nightmare to wade through before payment happens, there is no reason why you should not be paid the night of. (Honestly, the colleges don’t have a real reason not to either, but it seems to be unavoidable.) When you first get to the show, find out who will be paying you at the end of the night — it will probably be the door person or the promoter. Ask them what the payout procedure is. This will let them know you are paying attention. You will most likely have to stay until the end of the night to get paid. This is the best option, even though it’s annoying. If you and everyone in your band must leave early, inform the person doing payout or the booker and ask a trusted member of one of the other bands to get your money for you. This is when it really pays to have worked out the split in advance.
Remember, after all that hard work fighting to get paid fairly: pay your band members fairly too. Discuss early on whether you will be pooling show money for band expenses or splitting it. I always recommend an even split once out of pocket costs are covered. Everyone’s time is equally valuable, even if you are the star. Be transparent about how much money is being made and spent. It might seem silly or unnecessary early on, but it is a good habit and it’s the right thing to do.
Some of this advice may seem pretty combative; the truth is most people are not willfully screwing others over (at least at the entry level). There is often just a lot of bumbling and lack of communication, which can lead to larger problems. The best way to protect yourself is to stay informed and to advocate for you and your bandmates. Being firm and asking questions may rub some people the wrong way, but it’s worth ruffling a few feathers to ensure you are being treated fairly.
Your time as a musician is valuable, no matter your experience level. The industry is undergoing some massive changes at the moment, and I think our only hope to make the music industry a good place for musicians is to fight for each other, not over the scraps. This means sharing information and resources.
I hope this info proves useful to you, and good luck out there!
(Photo Credit: Audiotree)