Tag Archives: gigs


What Is Your Artistry Worth?

Freelancingby Michael Manley, AFM Director of Organizing and Education

Every musician, regardless of genre or instrument, studies to attain artistry and practices to achieve excellence. There is no shortage of learning opportunities for serious musicians, from conservatories and music schools to private teachers and YouTube videos. What is lacking is education on what artistry is worth in a professional commercial marketplace and in the nonprofit sector.

This knowledge gap is more than a shame, it is damaging to all musicians in the long run. We must commit to filling this void in musical education whenever we see the opportunity—with those we mentor and with our professional peers. Imagine if our conservatories and music schools taught emerging artists a course called “Knowing Your Worth and Demanding Respect.” What subjects would the syllabus for such a course cover? I propose the following, as a start:

Exploitation Is a Constant

Understand that the tendency of all employers is to persuade musicians to donate their services, or give them as little compensation as possible. Nonmonetary values will always be offered as a substitute—“experience” and “exposure” being the two most common. Commercial producers of live entertainment want to pay talent as little as possible to maximize profits. Nonprofit institutions, depending more on donors and grants than ticket sales to balance their budgets, necessarily want to keep their labor costs low.

While this tendency to engage musicians for the lowest pay is never going to change, we can change how we respond to it and how we educate our students and peers about it. Musicians can be compensated fairly for their work, even as producers make a profit and nonprofits thrive. Never subsidize others’ success at the cost of your own.

Exploitation Requires Consent

What is the best guarantee against being underpaid, or getting stiffed on meal per diem, or a plane ticket? In the case of a union contract, grievances may be filed forcing the employer to uphold the agreement. In the absence of a union contract, the only true guarantee is not taking the job in the first place. Never underestimate the value and power of saying “no.”

When It Comes to Fair Wages, Knowledge Is Power

What is the right compensation for your work? Are there occasions when it is OK to play for free, or for very low pay? To the second question I’d argue yes, there are times when it is fine to play for free or for little pay—but they are limited to the following conditions: 1) you are playing for pleasure, or to test out a new piece, skill, or ensemble; and 2) no one is profiting from your performance. Musicians love to perform, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But never play for the love of your art, if someone is exploiting it for their own gain.

And what should a job pay? A good source here is your local union—they can inform you of the proper minimum scale for your work, in a variety of genres and for a variety of venues. For orchestra, opera, and ballet work, the AFM Symphonic Services Division keeps detailed wage charts of many regional and large-city ensembles. This database can be accessed through the “For Members” tab on AFM.org.

Remember that compensation is more than just wages. If you are being asked to commute more than 50 miles for a gig or to stay overnight, then transportation, hotels, and meal per diem should be part of the mix. Arm yourself with knowledge before saying “yes.”

Fair Treatment Is a Matter of Respect and Responsibility

It is no secret that we work in an environment where supply outweighs demand, which makes it easier for exploitive employers to succeed in paying us less than we are worth. Because of this, it is crucial that we all stand together in demanding fair compensation for our work. But it doesn’t stop there—we must also alert colleagues to unfair gigs, and respectfully let them know that taking such jobs harms all of us. And as mentors, we must not only teach our students artistry and technique, we must also educate them on professional standards and fair treatment.

Spread the word! If you use Facebook, join the Group “Gigs from Hell,” where you can get alerts and warn others about unfair employment.

Gig Gloves

Gig Gloves

Gig GlovesNever worry about hurting your hands before or after the gig, while loading in and out, or setting up your rig. Gig Gloves are the only work glove designed specifically for gigging musicians, DJs, roadies, and production and live event professionals. They offer complete hand protection, access to the fingers, and touchscreen capable material to ensure that there’s no need to remove the gloves for any task. Meet the Gig Gloves family: Original Gig Gloves allow for safe visibility in low light environments; Gig Gloves ONYX are completely black for those who need to be invisible to the audience or prefer to be discreet; and THERMO Gig Gloves feature a soft internal layer of fleece are for outdoor and cold weather gigs.


5 Tips to Getting Your Price and More

5 Tips to Getting Your Price and More

You are a union musician, an AFM member. You don’t play for the door. You don’t “pay to play.” You’re a professional. You want to get scale and above. The problem that many musicians come up against is non-union indie musicians and groups who want to play for exposure, play for tips, or play so they can sell CDs and merch. How do you react when someone beats you into the ground over price? Here are some things you might want to consider when that club, theater, private party, or corporate event says: “You charge how much?” or “Can you do it for less?”

1) What is your “added value”? What sets you apart?

Try to differentiate your act from the others. Do you stand out in a particular niche? Do you have state-of-the-art equipment? Maybe you have a high tech sound system and light system. Or is there something else you can provide? Does your set list include numbers that really sync with the venue? Does your client know how much value you bring, beyond your performance? Make sure they’re aware.

2) Do you have a significant following?

Do you stay in touch with hundreds or thousands of fans, through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media? Do you post your gigs to an online calendar or send out an email blast to let fans know where you will be next? If you are booking a club date, let whoever is booking you know that you will help get the word out so you’ll have a good crowd. Make sure to emphasize what you can do for your client.

3) Do you have credible testimonials about similar gigs that you have played?

Can you provide success stories that can support what you charge, so you seem like a bargain for what you offer? Do you have testimonials in print and on your website you can instantly provide? Don’t hide your light under a bushel. It’s not bragging if it’s a fact.

4) Have you played other bigger venues with great success?

Does your client know your background? Tell them about any performances you’ve done on television or radio. Likewise, tell them about recordings you’ve made, other concerts, festivals, theaters, and major venues you’ve played. Make sure your website and press kit highlight how you stand out and that you are definitely worth what you charge. You are your own best PR specialist. Capitalize on that.

5) Is your talent and expertise known to prospective clients?

You’re a professional. Again, let people know. With you, playing music is a living not a hobby. People wouldn’t go to a discount heart surgeon or a cut-rate doctor. You wouldn’t want a part-time dentist who is also a trash hauler. Stand up for yourself in a way that shows you are worth your price.

Another tip: when someone tries to get you to play for less, let them talk. Find out their real objections. And here’s the kicker:  When you quote someone a price and they say, “Is that the best you can do?” There is only one answer: “Yes.” After you say, “yes,” just wait. Don’t immediately starting hacking your price just to get the gig. Many times your client will just say “okay.” You can always negotiate later.

You know your value. You’re not just starting out. You have experience. You have talent. You’re a union musician. You’re worth what you charge.

mobile djs

How Do You Compete with the Local Mobile DJs?

A while back I addressed the subject of competing with mobile DJs. They are not going away. We all know that they’re out there. They multiply like wire coat hangers in a closet. Nothing is worse than losing a wedding gig to a mobile DJ. You take music lessons, spend thousands of dollars, and practice for years to become a professional musician, and then someone right out of high school downloads music on a laptop computer, gets some sound equipment, and starts stealing jobs right out from underneath you.

It’s not just weddings, either. It’s corporate events, private parties, school dances, and on and on. Doing a Google search, you’ll find more DJs than you do bands and orchestras. They’re becoming more prevalent than pizza shops. They’re replacing live music with one person playing streaming recorded tunes, on discount store speaker systems, for less money.

At least that’s how it seems. The only trouble is that sometimes perception is not reality. I suggest that you go to a wedding where one of the better mobile DJs is working. You could be in for a jolt. You might find that this one-person streaming music show is charging more than a four-piece group would. And he or she probably has enough equipment to fill a good-size truck. Also, it might not be just one person. It could be a technician and an entertainer-host.

So, before you decide that those DJs are stealing all the good gigs, find out how you can compete. To do that, you need to find out what you’re competing with. There are DJs and karaoke jocks (KJs) who sing along with the soundtracks, entertain, and get the audience involved. Many DJs and KJs provide constant entertainment, cater to the audience, and have sophisticated lighting equipment. They bring along fog machines and confetti guns, and they charge big bucks.

If you’re going to compete in the “big bucks” category, what can you bring to the party? What can you do that’s really exciting, different, and creative? The DJ thing isn’t as easy as you may think. Many DJs bring as much equipment as a band carting around two Hammond B-3s, a couple of drum sets, three big guitar amps, a complete PA system, not to mention lighting. It’s a lot of stuff. And they play nonstop. They get the audience pumped.

What about you? When you take a break, is anything going on? You could easily record your group as you play each set, then have it play through your sound system on the break. What about lights?

It’s not enough just to play well any more. You have to look spectacular. And, how up-to-date are you? If you don’t know what’s hot right now, you’d better learn quickly. Pick up one of the mobile DJ magazines on the newsstands. See what tunes they consider hot right now. Find out how they involve the audience and how they get their work. See what niches they go after. Find out where one of the better-known DJs is working and go see his or her schtick.

What about your promotional materials? Do you have a demo video that knocks people out? Do you have a drop-dead website with a demo video that makes people want to book you? Do you have a particular niche where you can excel as a band, an orchestra, or a single? Also, don’t think business cards have gone away. Have something unique with your contact number that you can hand out.

Most people would rather hear a live musician than a recording. That’s something in your favor right away. Promote yourself and your band in ways that DJs can’t. “Live music is best” is not just a slogan. It’s true. Many people think DJs are cheaper than a band. They’re not—at least not all of them. And even if they are cheaper, your talent and everything else you can bring to the party can run rings around the music streamers. Just make sure you can compete on the entertainment side, as well as the talent aspect. Then, your bookings might increase dramatically.

Get Their Attention

First, You Have to Get Their Attention

Years ago, if an indie musician wanted to try to book a club or concert venue, they probably started by calling whoever the decision maker was—the club owner, theater manager, etc.—and tried to get them to hear them play. Today it’s a little different. It’s more than a phone call or a press kit with a CD.

I wanted to find out what gets the attention of someone who books a lot of singles and music groups today. I started with Suzanne Morgan, manager of the Orange Blossom Opry in Wiersdale, Florida. She books many local and national groups and singles. Just this past week she had Ricky Skaggs of Local 257 (Nashville, TN), several local groups, a semi-known comic, and then on Sunday night the ’50s vocal group The Drifters. The previous week included The Gatlin Brothers of Local 257.

The place was packed every night. It’s a theater/concert venue and its promoted well. Wiersdale is not a major metro market. (The nearest town is Oklahawa, and I’m sure you haven’t heard of that either.) Morgan is a seasoned vocalist/performer herself. She knows what draws and what doesn’t. She says she is contacted by dozens, if not hundreds, of people who want her to be booked at the Orange Blossom Opry.

I asked her how she likes musicians to contact her. She says, “I like people who know enough to call the box office, get my e-mail address and cell phone number, and then send me an e-mail with a YouTube link so I can see and hear them.” Morgan says she responds to texts, and returns all calls left on her voice mail. The YouTube video weeds out a lot of people.

Just calling her and asking her to book you without knowing who you are, what you do, or what you sound like, doesn’t usually work. She uses a booking agency, but she books musicians on her own as well. Mogan likes talking to musicians and entertainers who already know her venue. She likes oldies, classic country groups, and tribute performers. She appreciates people who figure out what’s going to appeal to her audience. If you do a good job you will be a repeat performer, but first you have to get her attention. Mogan is a good person to know.

Next, I talked with Tom Greenwood who owns the Greenwood Winery in East Syracuse, New York. He books a lot of local musicians for his bar/bistro at the winery. He said he started with Joe Whiting of Local 78 (Syracuse, NY) and built from there. He says that AFM musicians are usually professionals he can count on.

Greenwood says he likes to develop local talent and always responds to musicians calling the winery to find out who to contact and what they’re looking for. He’s got something going on every week.

If you fit the bill, the next thing he wants to find out about is your social media presence. How big is your following? Are you going to help get the word out that you’re performing at his venue? He doesn’t want “pay-to-play” musicians and he doesn’t want musicians who play for the door. He wants professionals who fit nicely into his bistro scene. Greenwood says you can email him a video and then leave him a voice mail. A little persistence helps. His manager also plays a part in who gets booked.

All in all, it takes a lot of things to keep your calendar full. It’s more than being a good indie musician. Today, you need to have some social media presence smarts, networking expertise, correct contact info, and be willing to put a little energy into finding work. But first, you need to get the attention of the person who might hire you. In today’s market, when your video clip is seen, your texts acknowledged, and emails read, you have a better shot of getting a positive response.

Live Sound Spotlight

Organization Is the Real Secret to Successful Shows

Just as you should work out all of the arrangements to your songs, you should also work out all the arrangements to your show. Most bands simply prepare for a show by promoting it and working on a set list; the rest will take care of itself, right? No! The logistics of getting everything to and from the gig, storing items properly between soundcheck and show time, and getting it all on and off stage can be very taxing. Even when these aspects are properly managed and accounted for, a good many bands fail to keep the business aspects of a band under control. The reality is that business is work. It’s each member’s responsibility to be individually organized. Gather the band and have each member go through this list and write down what he or she needs to do:

  • Band Inventory: Do you remember everything you brought to your last gig? What if something is missing? Do you have serial numbers to verify if missing gear is found?
  • Stage Plot/Input List: A picture is worth a thousand words. Having a stage plot makes your set changes faster. An input list helps your engineer set up quicker. Having these lists for a busy show can cut five minutes or more from your changeover.
  • Monitor/Instrument Cues: Even when you are okay with turning the engineer loose on the mix, you are still going to need the right blend in each of your stage monitors. This is a great way to speed things up. Instrument cues tell the engineer when to anticipate an instrument change.
  • Sound/Lighting Cues: You could literally run out of breath trying to describe everything you want in your show. Trying to do so just before you go on is ridiculous! Even if you could, who’d remember all that? Put it down on paper and you may stand a chance of it actually happening.
  • Show Plan: Showing up, setting up, and kicking butt doesn’t always work; if you’re not prepared, it may be your butt that gets kicked! Each new venue will have different circumstances that require advance planning, like transportation, addresses, soundcheck and show times, set lists, promoting your next show, merchandise booths, etc. Not every club does things the same way every time, or with the same accommodations.
  • Promotion: This is optional if you are not serious about being a professional; however, if you are serious, it is not optional! Phone numbers, addresses, e-mail, press clippings, promo packs, business cards, flyers, T-shirts, and CDs should all be available when you need them. In most cases, you can create an electronic press kit in PDF format that fits on a CD or DVD and can be e-mailed as well. That way, a smartphone can store your info and send it out anytime, anywhere.
  • Accounting/Business Records: You need to be able to keep up with the money coming in and going out. Money problems have broken up many bands. This will cover your rear end in both directions. Copyrights, publishing splits, and business licenses are also part of the equation. After all, it’s the money that will keep your band going

Some of these things are optional. One person doesn’t have to keep up with all of these. The responsibilities can be shared among band members. Each person in your band probably knows what they should be doing; to a large part, this information is for the benefit of the other people who become involved in your show.

—Adapted from Rockin’ Your Stage Sound: A Musician’s Guide to Professional Live Audio, by Rob Gainey (Hal Leonard Corporation, 2010).

Memorable Gigs

Show Me The Money: More Examples of Memorable Gigs

We’ve been talking about memorable gigs recently and I received an e-mail from Bill Yeager of Local 174-496 (New Orleans, LA) in response to my column on interesting gigs. I thought I’d pass it along as a lesson to be learned about making sure you get paid. Sure you have a contract, and possibly an advance or deposit, but what happens when you play overtime? Do you put in an extra hour or two and just hope to get the extra revenue? Can you be sure the money will follow? Here’s what Yeager writes:

Years ago I was playing a gig with a 12-piece variety band at a big motel in Albuquerque for a veterinarians’ convention. Everyone had a great time; it was a good gig. But as we packed up to leave, one of the attendees who seemed to be a bit tipsy, started hollering about what a great band we were and urging everyone to put some money into a hat he was passing around to keep us there for another hour. He held $50 aloft and said he’d start it off right. He insisted everybody kick in and, if anyone was reluctant, he seemed tipsy enough to be excused for hassling the others and demanding big bills. It looked like that hat was going to have more money in it than what we were originally paid for the whole night! We began putting our stands back and getting our instruments out. 

At some point, we lost track of the guy collecting the money. Where’d he go?! Some of the musicians and a few of the conventioneers who’d noticed his absence began a search. But, too late! He was gone and so was the money! And that wasn’t the only problem. We had a room full of people who had contributed a lot of money to hear more music and they were getting mad because we hadn’t started playing. The smarter guys in the band, who figured out what would happen next, were already headed out the door—probably the same door the con man had disappeared through!

Maybe this is an isolated incident. Maybe not. But it is definitely something to be aware of.

Yeager also wrote about one of the weirder gigs he’s played. It didn’t involve overtime and he did get paid in full, but it was definitely strange. Yeager reports playing for a surgeons’ convention in a big room in one of the major hotels in New Orleans. He writes:

Our little traditional jazz band was set up in one corner of the large room. The other corners had either a bar or coffee service. The middle of the room was filled by a huge multi-level table of hors d’oeuvres, cheeses, fruits, and veggies, as well as ham, beef, turkey, etc. All the surgeons and their wives were milling about the room with a drink in one hand and food in the other. So far, standard convention fare, right? But here’s where it gets weird. They had combined their get-acquainted cocktail party with a demonstration of surgical equipment. And it included two actual operations! 

There was one on each side of the room with a doctor in a white smock at a surgical table. On each table, there was a heart and a pair of lungs! The heart was beating and the lungs were breathing! No, they weren’t human. They belonged to two pigs, but the pigs were not present. They were dead and gone—probably already on their way to someone’s breakfast table. But their hearts and lungs lived on—right there in the middle of the cocktail party! And the doctors operated on them! They were demonstrating how their equipment would keep the heart and lungs of a human patient functioning during an operation. 

The doc would make a few deft slashes with his scalpel, blood would squirt, and the heart or lungs would be taken out of the little circle of life that was the dead pigs’ organs. Meanwhile, machines would send oxygen flowing to the lungs, blood would circulate through clear plastic tubes. TV cameras mounted overhead projected all this onto big screens above the party. And the surgeons ate their food and drank their drinks, chatted with one another, and watched the operation, either live or on the screens, oblivious to how bizarre and surreal it seemed to us non-surgeons! And the band? We just did what we hired to do—we played happy little Dixieland tunes and tried not to look at the screens! 

Thanks Bill. Not all gigs are easy. You’re perfect proof!

Hanging Out with Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers

There’s a little theater/showroom off the beaten path in Weirsdale, Florida, called the Orange Blossom Opry. It’s a small venue that hires a lot of union musicians, including many classic country artists who have had strings of hits throughout the years. Just recently Larry Gatlin and the Gatlin Brothers, members of Local 257 (Nashville, TN) were on the bill. Theater manager Suzanne Morgan arranged for me to get together with Larry before the Saturday matinee show.

Larry and his brothers, Steve and Rudy, have had a string of hits over the years, including “All the Gold in California,” “Houston (Means I’m One Day Closer to You),” “Broken Lady,” and many others. More than 50 years ago, the Gatlins started singing in their small hometown of Abilene, Texas, and they went on to have successful country music careers. Over the course of four-decades, the Gatlin Brothers have gone from dirty, dusty Texas stages to White House performances, from Broadway to the Grammy Awards and to the top of the country charts. When I asked Larry some questions about his career, I got some interesting answers.

I asked about some of their worst gigs. He says that playing the Jamboree in the Hills in Staunton, Virginia, when the temperature reached 148 degrees, was no picnic. A gig at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary (as a performer, not an inmate) scared the hell out of him. As a young lad, he played a tent revival in Fort Worth, and was told he could have whatever was collected in an offering. The “love offering” amounted to $3.

The Gatlins were raised on gospel music, and began entertaining audiences in churches. They had guest appearances on radio and TV shows, when they were two, four, and six years old. Larry says their history as “gospel music junkies” came from those early roots.

A backstage chat with the Gatlin Brothers: (L to R) Rudy, Bob Popyk, Larry, and Steve, members of Local 257 (Nashville, TN).

A backstage chat with the Gatlin Brothers: (L to R) Rudy, Bob Popyk, Larry, and Steve, members of Local 257 (Nashville, TN).

“My folks took us to those old-fashioned Southern style quartet concerts, and it was love at first sound! My first hero was James Blackwood of the Blackwood Brothers Quartet. I just knew somehow, from that moment, that I wanted to be a singer for the rest of my life,” he says. The early ’70s found Steve and Rudy in college, while Larry moved to Nashville to write songs that were recorded by artists like Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson of Local 257, Barbra Streisand, Tom Jones, and Elvis Presley.

Larry and his brothers have played for five of the last seven presidents. Larry has stayed overnight at the White House in the Lincoln Bedroom. He recalls that he and his wife retired early there one night. They were in bed, with their clothes off, when George Bush came knocking at the door, wanting to show them some artifacts in the historic room. (Larry said that it wasn’t an opportune time, but he let the President in anyway.)

Gatlin is proud to be an AFM member. He says “at this stage of his life” he gets a check every month. Being a union member, he “knows he doesn’t have to play with crappy musicians.”

In Nashville, he became friends with former Local 257 President Harold Bradley. As Larry puts it, Bradley is “a true Southern gentleman, a consummate musician, and a great guitar player, who can read charts like crazy.” He credits Bradley for helping him turn his life around when things weren’t going quite so well. To this day, Larry says he has the utmost appreciation and deepest respect for Harold.

At this stage in their careers, the Gatlin’s have the best of both worlds, families and fans, and plenty of work both as individuals and together. You can tell they love to sing together. I think there’s no harmony quite as pure as family harmony.

I enjoyed meeting Larry, and his brothers. I stayed for the Gatlin Brothers show. Their music certainly screams of love and a lot of living. It’s Americana at its best and their fans love it. They represent the true spirit of the AFM.

Crazy Gigs Can Be Learning Experiences

Thanks for all the e-mails about the memorable, out-of-the-ordinary, and crazy gigs. Many of these events become learning experiences for the musicians involved. Rich Mansfield, member of Local 60-471 (Pittsburgh, PA) realized after playing a nudist camp gig, that“some people should never take their clothes off.”

There were a lot of funny wedding gig scenarios. Ed Weis, member of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA), played an outdoor beach wedding in Malibu. He wrote: “when during the ceremony the person presiding said ‘… and if anyone feels that this union should not take place, let them speak now or forever hold their peace …’ the cellphone in a musician’s gigbag started ringing. It was the old “Ma Bell” ringtone. They couldn’t find it right away, and it kept ringing. It took what seemed like an eternity to find it and to shut it off. The lesson of the story: set your phones on vibrate or turn them off when playing.

There were also quite a few “fight” stories. Ellen LaFurn, member of Local 16-248 (Newark-Paterson, NJ), talked about her bar gig on South Orange Avenue in Newark. She wrote: “I was the female singer with an organ, guitar, drums trio. As we were playing on a stage behind the bar, people started slowly leaving the club. By the time we finished the set, there was no one in the place except two men at the bar, the bartender, and us. All of a sudden one guy pulls out a gun and cocks it while arguing with the other guy. Now we knew why the place emptied out. We hit the floor—cowering behind the bar. In a flash, the two guys took off, and the bartender locked the door. We got up and sat at the bar. The guitar player turns to me and says, “Aren’t we taking kind of a long break?”

Then there was this letter from Bo Ayars, a Local 802 (New York City)  musician now living in Portland, Oregon: “Years ago, I was working in a country-western piano bar on North Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood. It was right next to another famous country-western establishment, the Palomino Club, and just down the street from a large long-haul trucking firm. The place was always packed with truck drivers. The piano, a small spinet, was positioned behind a piece of furniture made to look like the top of a grand piano. During my first time there, to make friends with the local patrons, I accepted their drink offers. My favorite off-hours exotic drink at the time was Amaretto, straight, on the rocks. I ended up with six shots lined up on my piano bar. At closing, I explained to the bartender that I really wasn’t a drinker, but didn’t want to do or say anything that would hurt his bar business. He told me not to worry and for me to keep asking for shots of Amaretto.

“For the next several nights, that’s what I did. Toward the end of the evening, there were six or seven shots sitting on my piano bar. When I did take a sip now and then, I noticed each one was very weak with just a hint of liquor. Obviously, the bartender was watering my drinks, but that was his department, not mine, so I kept ordering Amarettos.

“Then, about the sixth evening, an older trucker, after buying me a drink, frowned as he noticed all the shots lined up on the piano. ‘Hey,’ he said, ‘you can’t be drinkin’ all of those by yourself. You’d be pie-eyed, that’s for sure.’ ‘Well,” I began, ‘I kind of space them out over the evening and …’

“‘Here, let me help you,’ he said, taking one of the shots and downing it. The next few moments are still a blur. It started with his yelling something unprintable to the bartender. He kept yelling and cursing about watered-down drinks, picked up one of the shot glasses and threw it on the floor. He then turned and stomped full steam straight towards the bartender, bumping into people, chairs, and tables as he went. He was really angry, and this mood transferred to some of the other truckers sitting at the piano bar. They, too, started grabbing shot glasses and tasting them. When they realized how the drinks had been poured, they joined trucker number one and headed for the bar, yelling and cursing.

“Arriving at the bar, the first trucker continued yelling about how he’d been robbed, having to pay full price for a watered-down drink, and what kind of place was this, anyway. He was egged on by those sitting at the bar and the other piano bar truckers who had now joined him. The noise intensified until the bartender pulled a handgun from under the bar and fired it once into the ceiling. It was a .45 and made a hell of a racket. That really got everyone’s attention, and it suddenly became very quiet. Looking at the ceiling, I noticed there were several holes; I guess reminders of past disturbances. I can’t remember what the bartender said, but several customers and truckers left, still upset.

“So, what was I doing prior to the gunshot? When the first trucker threw the shot glass on the floor, I instantly stopped playing, ducked down behind the piano, and kept my head low. Then, as the other truckers angrily followed the first trucker, I slowly peeked over the piano’s music rack. All the commotion around the bar reminded me of an old Keystone Cops movie. Without even thinking, I started playing in that genre—the sound of a honky tonk piano playing as the cops all pile into a small car and chase the bad guys. Everything ended all right; no one was hurt, but that was my last night playing that club.”

I know not all gigs are easy. If you got through it, got paid, and learned something from it, that in itself is a plus. You’re a professional. Just go on from there.

How to Lead the Audience

Excerpted from How to Play Madison Square Garden: A Guide to Stage Performance, (Not More Saxophone Music Inc., 2011) by Mindi Abair, member of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA), Lance Abair, and Ross Cooper.

The first 10 seconds are the most crucial to winning over an audience. How you walk onto the stage is important. It gives the audience an idea of who and what is important. If you walk onto the stage initially looking at the other band members and their equipment, it appears that 1) you think you are more important than the audience or 2) you are ignoring the audience. If you walk onto the stage immediately looking out into the audience to see everyone, you convey the impression that you can’t wait to become friends with everyone. This immediately gives the audience a feeling of importance, and ultimately causes them to like you from the very beginning.

The best way to prepare for walking onto the stage is to have all of your equipment, microphones, guitars, drumsticks, etc. ready so that you can pick them up and/or put them on without even thinking about it. This enables you to be free to check out the audience from the first step you take on stage, and this starts the show off in the most personal and effective way possible. You’re confident, ready to give as a performer, and this is your time. Look them straight in the eyes, and then rock them!

Nothing Succeeds Like Success

Walk on stage as if you own it and you belong there. Exude confidence and success. Don’t confuse the terms confidence and success with cockiness. Cocky people are generally not well liked. On the other hand, people don’t want to follow someone who appears to be unsure of themselves or worse, a loser. They will follow a winner anywhere. A great smile will do wonders. It imparts the feeling that, “I know what I’m doing. I’ve done it a million times before. Come along with me. This is going to be great!”

Be You

One of the difficulties in explaining the best way to meet the audience is that performance styles can be so wildly different. For example, the high energy rock group KISS comes out blasting and uses a lot of intricate lighting and pyrotechnics. On the other end of the spectrum, jazz singer Norah Jones comes out performing a more low-key, sensitive marriage of music and lyrics. These two approaches are completely different, but they are completely correct for each act. The higher-power rock group needs to establish themselves as such. The warm and smooth singer-songwriter needs to likewise establish the environment and level of intimacy that facilitates the best possible presentation of his or her material.

The important thing to consider is how you and your group intend to meet the audience. Do your best to make a statement regarding who you are. Establish your character very early, and you will be able to take the audience on a journey from there.

Many years ago a famous R&B singer-songwriter, who had a number one hit song on the Billboard charts, was performing a live concert. After the house lights were dimmed and the singer took the stage, the audience went wild. They were anxious to hear some of the most brilliantly executed R&B music of the day. Instead of playing R&B, this artist started playing old standard songs, as if he were the piano player in a nightclub lounge. The crowd was forgiving, however, they were a bit disappointed. The expectation that a certain character would emerge from the stage at the outset didn’t happen. Once again, establish your true character early so you can move to take the crowd on a journey. Don’t start off on a tangent. You can journey toward this, but a tangent should never start or end a show.

After you have played your opening musical segment, the audience will applaud. Respond to the audience’s applause by thanking them and by making a statement that will help to establish the tone of the show for the night.

You Control the Show

Control of the show is a simple concept that can either make you or break you. Part of any successful relationship is knowing who’s in charge. You are in charge. There are no exceptions to this hard and fast rule. You should be in control of a number of things, including the overall feel of the show, the content, the amount and quality of interaction with the audience, and even the pacing of the show. You should always go in with these things in mind. Even though it is the audience who is buying the tickets, you should realize that they are paying you to be in charge.

Actors are always taught to never break character and to never allow hecklers or interruptive elements of any type to break their concentration and performance. As musical performers, somehow that’s never taught to us! But the concept works for any type of performer. Is there someone in the audience who is yelling out a request for a song continually? Is it distracting people from what you’re doing on stage? Is it distracting you from what you are doing? Move the show along. Don’t lose sight of what you’re on stage to do.

Apply and maintain pressure on the audience. Audience pressure is created when the performer’s actions on stage compel the audience to become interested and involved. The opposite of pressure, “dead air,” where the audience loses interest with what’s happening on stage, should be avoided at all cost.