Your First Gig
how to survive your first gig and maybe even enjoy it!
& a unique survival kit for those first few minutes of glory
No matter how great you think you sound in rehearsal, playing live will be the most traumatic experience in your life. Follow a few simple rules, and you'll avert disaster.
SO THIS IS IT. After countless hours thrashing away in a cold rehearsal room, playing to an audience of a Walkman and a stray labrador, you've finally arranged your first gig. Besides being the first chance for a "real" audience to check out some potential and hopeful new stars, it's also the best way for your act to improve. Because no matter how good you're sounding during practice, a gig is a whole new ball game. Having to get it right first time in front of expectant punters can turn the coolest, meanest of poseurs into a simpering nervous wreck.
Almost inevitably, the first problem you'll have to sort out will be nerves. They may set in as soon as you've confirmed the gig with the promoter and put the phone back on its hook. Or they may not appear until that dreadful, sickening moment when you turn up at the venue to find that it's not a chic new nightspot at all - just the back room at the Three Ferrets. Whenever they arrive, nerves have to be dealt with. Trouble is, the only sure way of overcoming nerves is to gain experience of gigs. And not just good gigs, either.
Sod's Law applies to gigging as much as to anything else in life: if something can go wrong, it probably will. So accept that likelihood before you start, and give yourself an outside chance of relaxing.
In addition, you can take steps to eliminate some problems, and minimise the risk of others. Much of this risk-reduction comes down to common sense, but this is a commodity in short supply when caught up in the excitement of your first gig. Assuming (and I'll admit this is a big assumption) that you've got the purely musical side sorted out, a bit of thought and preparation regarding logistics should get things running fairly smoothly.
Some of these logistical things can be sorted out in advance. Like the PA. Sometimes the PA system is provided by the promoter or the venue. This is usually a good arrangement, because it leaves the band with one less thing to worry about.
If the venue has a permanent PA, then this is what you'll use. Find out exactly what it consists of. It's no good turning up with three singers and finding there are only two microphones. Ask the venue what there is in terms of mikes, stands, foldback facilities, and so on.
If the promoter is arranging a PA, be clear and precise about what you need. Small-scale promoters often don't understand the sound requirements of bands, and are always trying to keep their costs to a minimum. Make sure the PA will be loud enough for the venue, but not so big that it takes up the whole stage area. It's a good idea to have a written list of your requirements to give to promoters. There's not much chance of it being followed, but at least it's a starting point for discussion. If it's all arranged over the phone, get a promoter to repeat what you've asked for, and if possible to confirm in writing what will be provided. What you don't ask for, you almost certainly won't get.
But as often as not, especially early on in your band's career, you'll have to provide your own PA. This must be paid for out of the already ludicrously low performance fee, so you'll feel pressure to cut costs. But beware the false economy of skimping on PA hire. You may save £15-20, but you'll sound so awful you won't do yourselves justice, and nobody will want to book you again. If these are early days, you're best advised to invest any available money in getting your musical message across as clearly as possible, in the hope of attracting future interest. Speculate to accumulate, as they say. Oh, and however much you spend, don't leave booking the PA until the last possible minute - sort out hire and delivery well in advance.
So the PA will be there on the night. Will you? Bands need transport. And again, it needs to be arranged in plenty of time.
There's a host of other simple things that can be sorted out before the big day, but which have a habit of being overlooked. Guitarists, make sure you have spare strings; drummers, spare sticks. If a guitar or bass is to have new strings, give them at least 48 hours to stretch in. The sound of old strings is improved considerably by wiping them down. Make sure all leads are in good repair: there's nowt worse, for player or punter, than crackle, crackle, pop, silence as a dodgily soldered joint gives up the ghost after a prolonged and noisy struggle during a particularly poignant love song.
It's all too easy to forget things when packing up to go and play a gig - especially your first one. If there is a suitcase for the drummer's metalware, stick a checklist inside the lid. It never ceases to amaze me that guitarists can turn up to perform without a plectrum. An essential item for young gigsters is a long mains extension lead and adaptor. Many pubs have a stage the size of a shoe box with only a single mains point in the corner assigned to the drummer, who has no need of it. And a roll of gaffa tape helps to keep a writhing mass of leads under control. These are easily pulled out and stood on if lying loose around the stage, and there's nothing quite so uncool as tripping over an unfortunately placed lead.
Once you're at the venue (heart pounding, mind aching), give some thought to how you're going to position yourselves on stage. If the drummer and bassist rely on visual contact to pull off some super-slick fills and changes, it's no good them being on opposite sides of the stage, with a brass section, singer and two guitars in between.
The soundcheck is all-important. If there's one single thing which can ruin the effect of a good band, it's dodgy sound out front. Who will be responsible for this? If a mixer person is supplied with the PA - great. Don't behave like prima donnas, and antagonise them with excessive demands. They've probably been at it a lot longer than you, and generally know what they're doing. That said, it may be a good idea to have a friend with knowledge of (and an ear for) your music to advise the mixer person on the subtleties of the desired sound.
If you have to provide your own sound operative, for pete's sake get someone with a vague idea of what they're doing. You may be playing like heroes up there, but if the person at the desk doesn't know their pans from their gains, you're in trouble.
There may not even be a mixing desk off-stage - just a four or six input amp controlled from the stage. In this case, you should have someone in the audience to give some indication of the balance - what needs to go up and what needs to come down.
Resist all temptation and get the soundcheck over with as quickly as possible. One promoter said to our band: "C'mon, get off the stage - is this a soundcheck or a rehearsal?" and he had a point. We'd been up there over an hour and the punters were starting to come in. But we weren't happy with our sound on-stage, and the mixerman was less than delighted with our sound out-front. What to do? Compromise. There's no point winding up the person who's going to give you money at the end of the night, nor the sound person, nor giving the game away to an audience that's just filtering into the venue and is anxious for a good night out. Trying for that perfect sound can easily make things worse, and it's all too easy to panic yourself into a frenzy.
The sworn enemy of all new bands lurks deep within the PA system, and usually rears its ugly head when it is least wanted. Yes, feedback.
If you don't yet know the story, you soon will. After the soundcheck, everything seems cool and groovy. The sound is good and you're all wound up to go out there and blow 'em away. You stride confidently on-stage, plug in, 1-2-3-4, yeah, great... feels good... Neeep! Oh no! Where's that feedback coming from?
Why is it that feedback strikes during the gig after a perfect soundcheck? There are several reasons. One is that the levels set during soundcheck and those needed to project the sound in a room full of people chatting are radically different. An experienced operator can compensate for this during the check, and sometimes just putting up the master volume will make everything OK.
But often the musicians themselves play differently from soundcheck to gig. Drummers and singers are the worst offenders. A sticksman will tap his snare to set initial levels, then hammer it into submission during the performance. A guitarist may not reset levels the same, a singer may have a warmer, fuller, and louder voice at ten in the evening than they had at seven. In trying to compensate for all this as quickly as possible, the inexperienced mix operator is going to hit a "feedback button" at some stage. Neeep!
Finally, stage presence. If you've got the gift of the gab and are spontaneously confident on-stage - great. But you're one of a rare breed. Most people are well advised to think before the gig about linking pieces and what to do/say when a string is being changed. There's nothing like an extended, awkward silence to bring a warm, hip atmosphere crashing to the ground. So practise going from song to song during rehearsal. And make sure the instruments are tuned before you take the stage, bearing in mind the effects of temperature on tunings - especially on brass and skinned percussion instruments. Audiences don't like out-of-tune bands, and neither do they like listening to ten minutes of "give us an A", twang, pluck, twang.
Very few musicians have satisfactory first gigs. Not even exceptionally gifted musicians. There's more to being a good band than just getting the music together. But if you keep a cool, clear head and remember what the point of a live performance is (ie. pleasing the punter), then you can reduce the trauma and start enjoying gigs much more quickly.
So get out there and knock 'em dead.
Feature by Juris Jostins
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