TIPS FOR UNSIGNED BANDS 101
In addition to the stuff we get in the mail and in our inboxes from record labels and publicists, we’re constantly inundated with request from unsigned band to check out their band and review their material on the site. Nothing wrong with this — personally I love sorting through them to find that one diamond in the rough. But I have to say, these bands’ pitches range from perfectly respectful to downright idiotic.
Several weeks ago “Mike” emailed us asking advice for how his friend’s metal band, talented but discouraged due to lack of recognition, could get themselves on the track to success. It’s a question we get frequently. Inspired by perhaps a bit too much coffee, I responded with a lengthy missive about what unsigned bands should and shouldn’t do, covering everything from recording to shows to press to everything in between. Below I’ve reprinted the email I sent Mike with a few minor edits. My hope is that bands can use this as some sort of a guide to get themselves on the right track. With lots of hard work, you will be noticed! And if not, well, time to perhaps consider that career in burger-flipping.
the short answer is “lots and lots of hard work.” that comes both on the songwriting / music side and the business side, as you’re hinting at. once the music is together, practice practice practice. 2 or 3 nights a week, minimum. get that shit tight as a motherfucker. play songs over and over instead of just jamming and writing. simulate the live setting and play a full set. do this every time you practice. then it’s time to get out and play live.
put together a promo pack — which needn’t be much more than 1 page with a short (key word SHORT — one or two paragraphs, tops) band biography and some quick facts about the band (where they’ve played, who
they’ve played with). no one wants to read your whole fucking life story about how you met in high school, played the talent show, blah blah blah. Make it quick — describe what you sound like in as few words as possible (yes, we know, you sound unique and like nothing else. you likely “blend band X and band Y for a new completely unique and fresh sound!” get over it. you probably aren’t that unique. just describe your sound and be done with it). Add a photo, preferably one that looks somewhat professional, and some music, even if it’s just a burned CD. these days lots of venues book by email, so that’s probably the best route. write a few sentences about the band and the music, what dates you’re looking to book, and include a link to where the booker can listen to music. end of story.
hometown shows are easy because your friends and family will populate the room, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ll be this popular elsewhere. but if you’re going to get anywhere, you’ve got to to take the show out on the road, but the road isn’t easy. maybe your town isn’t receptive to that kind of music. use google and myspace to compile a list of every club within driving distance, and put together an excel spreadsheet or word doc with the name of venue, city, and booking contact info. any city within 2 or 3 hours drive (or more) should be added. follow the instructions for booking on the venue sites closely — otherwise you will probably be ignored. be diligent about keeping track of who you’ve contacted already and what the status of the potential booking is.
if the music is up to snuff and the venue is appropriate (keep in mind a lot of venues won’t book metal), they’ll get back to you. work out dates that are good for everyone. always make sure there are similar bands on the bill. you don’t want a metal band next to a folk band next to a country singer. of course, starting out you can only do shows on weekends. bands make this mistake all the time — you can not quit your jobs right away – in fact, not for a long time. dudes that i know in very successful bands still have to get jobs when they come home from touring. so put together a weekend that has 2 or 3 shows within driving distance of each other. do this every weekend — book 2 or 3 shows — hit the road after work/school on friday, come back late sunday night or early monday morning. it’s grueling as fuck, but the only way! make sure you promote the hell out of every show via the internet, other bands on the bill, going to the town and posting up fliers, any method possible. bottom line: if you don’t promote, no one will show up and you won’t be asked to play there again – it’s very simple, regardless of how good you are. there is no such thing as a “built in crowd” (this is a common misconception). sometimes you can get that lucky spot opening for a popular opening band, but don’t count on it. since most bands can’t afford hotels, try and hook up with other bands on the bill in advance, or friends in that city, and see if you can crash on their floor. most bands are pretty open and friendly about this kind of thing. if the venues and bands are impressed, you’ll be asked back. if you can hit these same cities once every 2 or 3 months, you’ll be in great shape, but no more frequently than that because you’ll spread your audience thin. keep doing this, and you’ll build your audience each time… it’s a long grind, but it works
be selective about which shows you take. don’t take a show at a hole in the wall bar just for the sake of playing a show. make sure it’s a good show at a good place with good bands, or else there better be
some other really good reason for doing that show (there are exceptions). don’t play in your hometown more than once every month or two — you’ll spread your audience thin and hurt your draw. if someone can see you any time, why should they come out THIS time? make it a special event. promote the fuck out of it by fliering everywhere. make your name ubiquitous.
another good method of setting up shows is trading shows with bands, or having other bands hook you up. this guarantees some audience usually, but of course the catch is that you have to return the favor in your hometown, and that band isn’t going to draw a sole in your hometown at all.
burn sampler CDs, put them in paper sleeves and give them away for free at shows. if you have nicely printed CDs and t-shirts definitely sell those, but at the beginning level it’s hard to make much money on merch most of the time. but it’s always good to have stuff to sell. bottom line: give away your music as much as possible. fuck trying to get paid for it at this level; it’s more important that people actually hear you, and the rewards will come later.
practice setting up your gear beforehand. nothing is worse than a band who takes fucking forever to set their shit up at a show. be ready when the band before you finishes… be respectful, wait for them to load off and offer to help if they need assistance carrying gear. get your shit on stage and set it up fast. 10 minutes is the most it should take. don’t fuck around on your instruments endlessly. dial in your setting BEFORE the show so you don’t need to waste time tweaking them on stage. when bands do this it looks SO unprofessional. plug in (or set up if you’re the drummer), make sure your shit works and is tuned up, put the instrument down and go wait for stage time. no fucking around or noodling. god, it is so annoying when bands wank on stage to show off their chops before playing.
make your website and/or myspace look professional. everyone knows someone who can do this… ask a friend to help.
through really, really, really hard work, the great bands rise to the top. people will take notice when you start to build a following. word catches, and it goes on from there. but it is a long grind — musical ability is rarely enough. be smart about your business as well. keep a spreadsheet or notebook in which you track your expenses and income as a band.