I’ve been playing in rock bands since I was a teenager, and while the realities of being a gigging musician have taken loads of wild turns over that time, one truism has held throughout: When you’re a young musician, you hear a lot of advice on how to be successful in the music business from people who are not successful in the music business.
Sometimes it’s well-intentioned. Sometimes that advice springs from the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Sometimes that advice had produced real results, but in a radically different landscape than later generations of musicians have lived in. And sometimes there’s a darker subtext — a hint of bitterness, sometimes directed outwardly, sometimes inwardly. Sometimes a person’s takeaway from years of trying to hit it big is that anyone who did hit it big had an unfair advantage. Sometimes the takeaway is more self-flagellating: That the speaker’s apparent lack of success was ultimately their own fault for simply not pushing hard enough, for not sacrificing and suffering a little more or a little longer. No matter what part of a person’s psychology misguided music career advice comes from, a musician trying to pay their dues finds that it comes often, and it often comes loudly.
I don’t have very many regrets about the decisions I’ve made through my own musical life. I’ve definitely made a bunch of decisions that proved wrong for the scenario at hand. At the same time, I’ve had a lot of instances where I chose not to make the same decision that many of my peers believed to be the undeniably correct decision, and my choice spared me from rolling straight off a cliff. The number one regret I have is that I internalized and acted upon a lot of bad advice when I was younger.
That’s why I decided to launch this series, Bad Advice Musicians Hear. In each post, we’ll consider one common piece of advice you hear as a musician (especially as a younger musician), and try to unpack a little about why it might seem sensible, but where it falls down in practice. But like, not in a heavy way. If you can’t have fun talking about this stuff, the life of a gigging musician might not really be the best move for you.
Before we get into it, I need to underline something important: I’m not actually successful in the music business, not in a material way. I’ve been at it for a long time, but playing music is a negligible source of income for me. I’ve never paid my rent off of music, not even for a single month. I’ve seen a lot of the music world, from a number of angles. I’ve gigged or recorded with approximately 13 bands, as a frontperson or a sideperson. I’ve released music through a few genre-specific labels, and self-released more beyond that. I was a music journalist for years — a small-timer, but that was a full-time job. I launched and then folded two music blogs and, later, a music PR agency. I managed a DIY performance space for a few years, following an earlier, failed attempt to create one.
That’s about it for my own cred, in this particular area. But I’ve also had friends and acquaintances who have been in internet buzz bands, who have released music internationally, who have made their way into the summer festival circuit. I’ve had friends and acquaintances who have flamed out — some gloriously, some tragically. I have friends who have made careers out of more behind-the-scenes work composing, producing, soundtracking, or teaching. What “success” looks like to me today is so much deeper, broader, more nuanced, and frankly more exciting than it did when I was 20.
So let’s start with my absolute most favorite piece of bad advice to argue against:
If you’re going to make it, you need to play everywhere to make your name, in every club and dive bar and basement and coffee shop and…
This is a strategy that benefits no one, except for music venue owners.
Perhaps the most glaring fallacy in the “you need to play everywhere” principle is the assumption that if you play everywhere, anyone’s going to notice your name everywhere. Not everyone gets the newsletter. Not everyone is focused on the local/regional music landscape beyond their preferred neighborhood spots. Not everyone who has a more comprehensive view has the power to do anything with that will benefit you.
When you play at every hole in the wall, you end up playing to a lot of people who don’t care about your music and who won’t be automatically won over. You end up playing with a lot of acts who aren’t aligned with what you’re doing.
And you end up playing to a lot of empty rooms, because a lot of venues that host live music have no built-in audience. Those venue owners are counting on musicians to bring heads through the door so the bar can make money. Your choice, if you have a good reason to help bring business to a venue on a slow night. But it’s a pretty big favor.
From my observations, it seems like a lot of people get the idea that playing every small venue moves a band up some sort of ladder, toward bigger and bigger rooms. That the primo music clubs in town want to see that anyone they’re booking is extremely active and in demand. In reality, bigger clubs know what goes on at other venues in the area. They recognize low-rent clubs that’ll book anyone with a pulse, and they won’t be particularly impressed that you’ve played there. Not that they’ll hold it against you, personally. It’s just that quality clubs often don’t operate on a punch-card system. Playing shitty venues constantly does not equate to “paying dues,” thus entitling you to finally play a good gig.
Say you’re a solid local punk band in a midsized city. Of course you’re going to be limited in the number of venues you can play locally. But does that mean your best move is to push into every other venue in the area to expand your audience? You might have an easy time getting a gig in a bar on the bar-band circuit out on the turnpike in the suburbs. But will you be able to form mutually beneficial relationships with their other regular bands? Will their audience know what to do with you? You might be able to get a gig at a shoreline bar that usually has jam bands, and it might pay well, but will the audience hang with you in the long run? You might be able to strip down your act to play in a coffee house. But again — like, who’s that gig for?
A little highly subjective observation here: I used to compile the events listings for an alternative weekly paper in a college town, and I also used to book a DIY spot in a large city. When I got an email from a band with a bunch of rinky-dink, random-ass clubs on their schedules, I might get the impression that they had settled into a comfortable local circuit and had no designs on moving beyond it. But it usually make me think they were brand new, or they otherwise hadn’t built up a local audience. Bands that are actually good at building their audiences and reputations, on the whole, are more targeted in where and when they play.
So, better advice: Be targeted. Know who your audience is. Know where they are. Know what other bands are playing to audiences you want to get in front of. Be genuine, be cool, be supportive of other bands you really love in your area. Run the cost/benefit analysis for every gig you consider. Don’t wear yourself out. Definitely don’t wear out your audience. Try to think objectively about what it would take to rally your audience to come out to a show where you don’t expect there will be much of an audience otherwise. You want each of your shows to feel special, in its own way — something the audience would regret missing. You don’t want to create the impression that if your fans miss this week’s show, they’ll be able to catch you just as easily next week, maybe even somewhere closer.
And always consider the audience experience. Think less about your audience coming out to see you. Think more about creating experiences you can give your audience. Because they’re coming out to shows for their own benefit, not yours. Focus on booking shows where the audience can feel comfortable, where they won’t get shafted at the door or the bar, on nights that should work for their own day-to-day schedules.
When you boil it down, venue owners and talent buyers aren’t necessarily the gatekeepers you think they are. Not to diminish the work of talent buyers who get hands-on and truly champion the acts they book. When you find one of those people, keep ’em close, because they’re rare. But in the 21st century, a lot of the breaks you can get come from going under or above or around the gate. And often, you get pulled inside by other bands that are already in there. You’re not gonna get in just by playing every random dive, tagging every wall, or showing a punch card.