Eleven Useful Tips for Local/Unsigned Bands
“Ten Things Local/Unsigned Bands Should Never Do,” which I published in this space last month, caught quite a bit of flack. So did the always-popular “39 Annoying Things That Local Bands Do” post from way back when. “Why so negative, Vince?” Because I’ve seen literally hundreds of bands make the same mistakes over the years, and it’s my sincere hope that you and your band don’t.
But in the spirit of positivity, today we’ll focus on things you and your unsigned band SHOULD do. Assuming your goal is to get signed and conquer the world.
1. Make sure your social network profiles and band sites are on point
You should be everywhere: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Bandcamp, Spotify, Soundcloud, ReverbNation. Make sure all of your profiles are always populated with current info: a good band photo, your newest and best songs and videos, upcoming live shows, etc. Nothing says “I don’t take this seriously” more than horrendously out-of-date info.
2. Make your music readily available, and cheap
Sure, make CDs (and vinyl, if you want) available for purchase through your band sites for those that want them. But don’t be precious about giving away streams for free; your goal at this point is to be heard, not to make money. Make sure potential fans can stream as much of your music as possible very easily.
3. Act professionally on the Internet
This extends from the obvious, such as “be respectful and courteous to fans and other bands” to things that might not seem like they matter, such as making sure your spelling, punctuation and grammar are [mostly] correct. Trust me, that stuff matters. If you want to be taken seriously, act like it; an email sent to someone at a record label or media outlet full of spelling mistakes that’s just one big, long, rambling sentence is not going to be met well because it suggests you don’t care enough to put in the time and effort to make it right… so what does that say about the time and effort you put into your music and the business of your band?
4. Be cool to other bands
More than local promoters or Internet buddies, bands in other cities are going to be your pathway to good shows. So be cool! If they put you on first of six on a bill, graciously accept and don’t raise a stink. That good karma will end up coming back eventually.
5. Leave your hometown
It’s always fun to play to a hometown crowd, but eventually your friends and family will tire of supporting you every time. Venture out and see what the world has to offer, although you don’t need to go too far. Once every two or three months is a good frequency for an unsigned band to play their hometown.
6. Play shows regionally
Don’t worry about going on a nationwide tour; while going out on the road is fun, it’s a lot more worth your while to play cities within striking distance of your home repeatedly so you can build a fanbase in each place. It’d be great to get all the way to California (or New York), but there’s really no need. The old “Weekend Warriors” tag is cliche, but it’s true: book 2-3 shows for a weekend, go out, come home, and do it again next week. No need to quit your jobs for a glorified vacation.
7. Keep track of your finances
Create a simple Excel spreadsheet, or even a hand-written chart, to keep track of all the money that comes into and flows out of your band. Carefully track what you spend money on — gas, van repairs, merch printing, gear, beer — and keep detailed records of what comes in (merch, guarantees) at each show you play. Not only will this practice help you make better financial decisions, but it’ll allow you to figure out where your band does the best beyond just “yeah, it seemed like there were a lot of people there!”
Letting band money flow through one of the member’s personal accounts can be messy, even when there isn’t much money at stake. Starting a corporation for your band is a very simple process and it’s cheap — it only costs a couple hundred bucks, give or take, in most states — and will not only keep everything cleaner now but will position you well for when more money is in play down the road.
9. Keep your gear setup simple
Using the right gear doesn’t mean buying expensive gear. Know the venues you’re playing and what’s appropriate, and don’t feel the need to bring in racks of gear just to get that EXACT sound you’re looking for; you can probably produce the same show with a lot less, and all the other bands on the bill and the sound guy will appreciate you that much more for it (see also: #4 above).
10. Make sure your recordings are high-quality
This could mean recording in the basement of your buddy’s house who happens to be exceptionally talented at recording bands, or it could mean shelling out for someone with a big name and reputation. Whatever the case, make sure your shit sounds good, because whether it’s potential fans or someone at a record label stumbling upon your music, you’re usually only gonna get one shot. If the recording isn’t up to par, don’t put it out.
11. Do it for the love of it
SO cheesy, I know. But the overwhelming chances are that your band won’t break through to the big time, and this is ESPECIALLY true in metal, where even bands that headline 500-capacity rooms — bands that are considered “big” in our scene — have to work day jobs when they’re not on tour. So you better be damn sure you’re doing it because you fucking love it, otherwise there’s no point. The rest is gravy.