5 Tips for Your First Professional Gig

Whether you’re looking to get into the world of professional gigging, or have been at it for a while, there are some things every player needs to know. Some of us will inevitably learn these lessons the hard way. But for those who are just starting out, here are five tips to make sure your first outing is a smashing success.

1. There’s No Such Thing as Over-Prepared

It goes without saying, if you’re being paid to play a certain list of tunes, know the tunes. Don’t show up with charts and sight read in front of an audience, even if you are that good of a reader. Get to the venue early. We all want to be rock and rollers and show up two seconds before a gig, but that's not how pro musicians work. Plan your route and check out the space beforehand. Nothing on earth will shake you like showing up to play on a “stage” that's completely different from what you expected. If you don’t really know how to get to the venue you're playing at, do a practice run. This is especially important to us city musicians who rely on public transport. Put every gig on your calendar with directions and specific instructions in the notes.

2. Have the Right Gear

Getting guitarists excited about gear is as easy as getting kids excited about candy. Or iPhone games, or candy-themed iPhone games.

Getting guitarists excited about gear is as easy as getting kids excited about candy. Or iPhone games, or candy-themed iPhone games. Having the right axe is important. Of course, you don’t want to show up with a Flying V to a '20s swing band gig, but most of the time it’s the simple gear that's the problem for working guitarists. The amount of times I have had to let people borrow extra patch cables would astonish you. Have a checklist for every gig you have, and include extras of everything that may break or fail. A bride at her wedding doesn’t want to hear that your 9-volt battery died or get an explanation of how uncommon that is. Strings break. I’ve never broken a string at a gig, but if I did, I’ve always got extra sets of strings in the case (and a string winder). Always run down your checklist and make sure it’s replenished when you use something in it. If you’ve got a piece of gear that is finicky or falling apart, replace it. When I see someone show up with a vintage P-bass in a half destroyed a cheap gig bag that's seen too many winters, it makes me nervous. Your gear will say things about you that you don’t intend. Never let it say, “I don’t care about this gig.”

3. Be professional: You’re ALWAYS On

Ever have a bad commute to work? You show up in a bad mood, start telling everyone all about the people who annoyed you along the way. That can be bad at any job, but as a performing musician it’s like Kryptonite to success. In a fair world, you would only be judged based on your musical skills and performance, but that’s not how it works. Sometimes, it’s all about first impressions. Showing up to a one-off gig in a bad mood, will make the other musicians (and more importantly the audience) think of you as a negative person. Living in NYC and commuting on public transit means that a rainy evening is a tremendous inconvenience. You’d be shocked how many times I’ve seen musicians enter venues complaining about the rain or traffic. Remember the audience not only has to deal with the same issues, but they are also dealing with them all just to come and see you.

Even on nights when the venue is empty, play your heart out. Do you really want someone walking in and watching you sulk that there aren’t more people out? As a gigging musician you are in the public eye during your set. But remember, just because the gig is over doesn’t mean your work is done. After every gig, there’s always a guitarist in the crowd who wants to come drive you crazy. They have questions about your guitar, amp, pedal rig and playing. Sometimes the night has been long, and all you want to do is get out of there. But remember, you’re still at work. And you never know where that connection will lead to.

4. Have Your Info Ready

Whether you’re commuting to the gig, playing on stage or just browsing through a guitar shop, you will be surrounded by other musicians and music enthusiasts. Sometimes, you can meet people who want to hear you at your next gig, but if you’re really lucky you may meet someone who wants to hire you for another gig. There is nothing worse than someone telling you to “find them on facebook,” or that “they’re not really into social media.” The most professional part of your arsenal has to be the way people can contact you. Get a business card, link it to a website and have some photos and recordings on it. Not having a way for other musicians or even fans to contact you means that they won’t be able to find you. The internet and social media is not a fad, it's a simple way to connect to other artists and music lovers. Make sure people know how to find you. And when they do, respond to everything. An email from someone saying they loved your set, needs a “Thank you for coming” response. Most importantly, respond quickly to gig offers, with a yes or a no. If you can’t make it, ignoring the email won’t make them think of you as more professional. Be clear, be awesome, and make sure they know how to find you.

5. This is Your Job, Treat it As Such

When you start getting paying gigs, it’s easy to think “I’m lucky to be getting paid for this.” This is as true a statement as any. The first gig I played was when I was in middle school. I made $10 playing a kids birthday party. Looking back, I can confidently say that was an appropriate price for the services rendered. However looking at my career and my playing now, that's not what I expect to be paid for a gig. The most important thing is knowing the value of your work. There are some musical styles that I am known for. Those are the gigs I love, because it’s easy to say what you’re worth. Secondly, remember the time commitment for each gig. Two hours of playing represents far more than the time you are sitting at the venue. You need to rehearse, prepare and practice, and this should all be built into your value. Lastly, know the scene. I’ve known a lot of musicians who have made a lot of enemies asking venues what they pay a band, and undercutting it. All this does is de-value the work of a musician. Ask around about great ways to get into whatever scene you’re interested in. It may take some time to get that first one, but getting your first gig the right way will help you build a large network of connections along the way.

And remember… be patient. No guitarist’s first gig was the one that made them great. Every gig you get is practice for the next great one. Even on bad nights, if you learned something and got a little bit better, it’s a win!

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