14 Tips on How to be Successful as a Musician in a Working Band
“I want to make more money!”
This is the predominant concern that I hear from most working musicians – and with good reason.
The rate of pay for bands that play in bars, clubs and pubs hasn’t changed much over the last 10, 20, even 30 years in some cases. In the meantime, the cost of living has continued to rise.
This has caused concern for many working musicians. Gas is expensive. A cracked cymbal will barely be able to be replaced by the take from one gig. Rehearsing, promoting, and putting together a stage outfit all cost money.
So what can we do about it?
We can’t demand more pay from venue owners, because they will simply find someone cheaper to get the job done.
We can, however, increase our own individual worth.
The article linked below is the first one I ever wrote to help guide musicians to getting more work and better paying gigs.
The tips are not what you would expect, and some might scoff and think “How will this help me or my band get paid more!?”
Before I wrote these tips down, I was contemplating why I get consistent work. Sure, I’m a good musician, but there are good musicians everywhere, so there has to be more to it.
I then assessed all of the “little” things that I do that keep me employed. Although I wrote this article several years ago, the same principals apply.
Make all of these tips a habit, and you WILL see a difference. It may not happen overnight, but over time you will increase your personal worth by sticking to these guidelines.
1. Treat it like a job
Playing music is fun. It really is. There are people that can play an instrument or sing, and then there’s everybody else that wishes they could. We are among an elite and selected group of the population. That’s a really cool thing. If you’re lucky enough to do something you enjoy AND get paid for it, you are living life the way everyone else wants to. And even though you’re not punching a clock or sequestered in a cubicle, it’s still a job…and it needs to be treated like one.
As with any service you render where you are provided compensation, you are under the scrutiny of your employer. Playing in a band is no exception – and it may be even more intensified than an office position. Whether you know it or not, club owners and managers are paying attention to your behavior much more than your level of skill.
Your band is hired for one primary reason – to draw customers into their establishment that will spend money on drinks. Running a club/bar/restaurant is a business just like any other. They are in it to make money. Your band has been hired in hopes that you will entertain people enough so that they stay and drink.
You’re an amazing guitar player? Fantastic. It doesn’t really matter. There are lots of great players of all instruments. Everywhere. All that matters to the person that hired you is what the numbers look like at the end of the night. It’s not personal. You may be a virtuoso with your instrument. That’s really cool, but the truth is that club owners and managers don’t care all that much. They want a group of musicians that are good at their job, are easy to work with and will keep people in the room spending money.
So have fun. That’s actually part of your job. The more fun you have, the more fun the crowd will have, and that gets them drinking. But always know that you are providing a service that an employer is trusting you enough with that he is willing to give you cash. It’s a job. Treat it like one.
2. Be on time
This should be a fundamental practice for any job, but it’s important to point out here. There are so many different things that can go wrong at a gig and you don’t want to add to the possibilities by being late. A lot of people are counting on you. Not just the band, but everyone working at the venue is following a schedule – especially in bigger clubs where breaks need to be given for the staff. If you’re late for the gig or late to the stage you will throw off the whole night for your employer, and that will reflect negatively on the entire band. A good practice is to be five or ten minutes early…especially to the stage. If the band goes on at 9:00, you should be on stage no later than 8:55 to make sure you’re in tune, or settled in your spot, and you’re ready to start playing at the proper time.
3. Learn (and remember) people's names
This is tough for a lot of people, but it goes a long way if you can make it a practice.
Anyone and everyone that is working in the venue while you’re playing is an equally important part of the machine that is running a business. Don’t think that you’re above the doorman, bartender or even the janitor. Everyone is there to do a job – just as you are. They will almost always appreciate when you extend an introduction and treat them with respect. These are also the only people that have to be there and are forced to listen to your band whether they want to or not. So in addition to being a good player, you want to be a cool person.
I know people have a difficult time remembering names. I used to be among that group until I simply made it a priority. My little trick is as soon as they tell me their name, I repeat it back. If I continue in the conversation for at least another minute, I’ll address them by their name again. When I leave the conversation, I’ll say something like “Nice meeting you” and repeat their name once more. That usually helps me to remember it for the rest of the night and beyond.
Everybody wants to be recognized and feel that they matter, so when you as a musician take the time and care enough to acknowledge someone by name, they feel respected by you and usually will respond in kind.
4. Be polite to everybody
This is another fundamental policy to follow throughout life, but especially important at your gig. Bartenders, shot girls, doormen, barbacks, security, management etc. all talk to each other. If they like your band but one member was impatient about getting a beer and took it out on the bartender, everyone will hear about it and your band probably won’t get booked at that venue anymore. You don’t want to be the person to screw things up for everyone else. Shake hands, smile, and be cool to everyone.
5. Tip your bartenders
This is a valuable practice that will earn you and your band major points with the staff. The bartender has the most important job in the venue. They are the people that are at the center of the cash flow. And guess what? They don’t usually make much of an hourly wage…if any at all. They rely heavily on tips to bring home a decent night’s pay. Quite often, the tips are not only split between all of the bartenders, but they also have to cut in the doormen and/or other members of the staff. So that paltry 50 cents that you gave as a tip for your beer has to be split among several people.
If you like to drink at your gig, chances are you will make several trips to the bar since you’ll be there the whole night. I make it a habit to always give more than just the standard buck each time I order something – regardless of whether my beer cost $2.50 or $6.75. Not only does this help ensure that the staff makes some money, but it also benefits me the next time I want a drink.
When you walk up to the bar, even if they don’t look directly at you, the bartender sees you and knows why you’re there. If you’ve previously given a good tip, 9 times out of 10 the bartender will make it a priority to serve you. They know that you are doing a job too, and they want to work with you.
This is especially advantageous when the bar is really busy. You’ll get bumped to the head of the line if you consistently tip well. Even if you don’t get served right away, don’t ever get visibly annoyed. You want the bar to be busy. That’s money that is eventually going in your pocket.
It also doesn’t hurt to buy the bartender a drink once in a while. If you like to do shots, buy one for yourself and one for your server. Bartenders and musicians are probably the only two jobs in which you’re not only allowed to drink, but you’re encouraged to drink. You can establish a priceless rapport with the staff when you make the effort to be generous. The reward will far outweigh the cost of the drink.
6. Drink responsibly
As mentioned above, being a musician is one of the very few professions in which you’re allowed to drink alcohol at work. It’s easy to understand how one could get carried away with this privilege…and often times, people do. If you want to continue to get hired as a working musician, it’s essential to drink in moderation.
This isn’t to say that you can’t get a healthy buzz and have fun. But if you’re playing or singing is compromised by downing too many shots, if you get sloppy on stage, become rude to staff or patrons, or get so hammered that you get sick, then you will quickly get a reputation as someone who is unreliable.
So the best approach is to know yourself, your body and level of tolerance. If you can, eat a decent meal before your gig, and pace yourself properly throughout the night. When the gig is over, it’s okay to pound a couple down if you want to, but just realize that even though you’re done playing, you’re still “at work” and you can still do damage to your reputation by going overboard.
7. Realize that you are on stage and people are watching your every move
All too often I’ll either be playing in a band or watching a group on stage and someone in the band is texting on their phone, or turning their back to the crowd, or just looking generally miserable.
People go out to a club because they want to have a good time, to get away from the “real” world, to hang with their friends and to appreciate live music played by talented artists. They look up to those on stage, and don’t consider musicians to just be average people. Remember – people can either play music, or they wish they could.
Every single move you make on stage is being watched by somebody and people will talk about what you’re doing. You have a responsibility as a performer to be somewhat bigger than life and provide an escape for those that come to see you play. So dress well, smile once in a while, and save the mundane activities like checking your phone for when you are off stage.
8. Respect your bandmates
Disagreements will happen in the middle of a gig. Someone will mess up a part or forget a lyric. It’s extremely rare that things go off without a hitch at a show. It’s easy to get frustrated at another member of the band while in the middle of a song, especially if you still have a long night ahead. But it’s very important for longevity in your music career to “keep it off the field” as they say in sports.
As a band member, you are a part of a team that is working together for the same purpose. Continuing with the sports analogy, if a baseball player struck out, a running back fumbled twice in a row, or if a star forward fouled-out, and another player got down on the offender, it would upset the morale of the entire team.
You may be the best player in your band, or the worst, or somewhere in the middle, but it doesn’t matter in the big picture. You and your mates are all in it together. Keep it positive on stage. If there is an issue that needs to be addressed, wait until a break or after the gig to talk about it and come to a resolution. Winning teams are successful because they learn that the importance of achieving the goal trumps any temporary and ultimately meaningless issues.
9. Take requests
It’s an unavoidable consequence of playing in a band that people will ask you to play a song. It doesn’t matter what your role is – if you’re in the band then people think they can talk to you about playing the song that they want to hear. Even if the song is something that your band would never, ever play – you should still take the request.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to play it, or even tell the rest of your band that this fan wants to hear this particular tune, but you should still take the request with a smile and gratitude. You can say things like “we’ll see what we can do” or “I’ll check and see if everybody knows it” or any other vague affirming variation.
Even if the patron thinks there’s the slightest chance that you’ll play the song that they asked for, they’re much more likely to stick around, tell their friends and continue to spend money. Plus, they’ll think you’re cool for even considering it.
There is no harm in giving a person some hope, even if it’s false hope. Your goal, and your job, is to keep people in the room drinking. There’s no good reason to shoot down anyone’s request and act like their wishes are unimportant.
10. Play for the song
This applies exclusively to the musicians and bands that play cover tunes. Most people in the crowd are not musicians, and many are just casual music fans. If there is a song that your band is playing that they know, they want to hear it the way they know it.
You may be able to shred like Yngwie Malmsteen on any song you play. You may be a drummer that can squeeze 16th note triplets using every drum in your kit into every other barre. Guess what? Nobody cares. Your job is not to show off how good of a musician you are. Your job is to play the song the way it was originally recorded.
Of course there is always room for some latitude and improvisation where you don’t compromise the integrity of the song. But for the most part, you want to stick to the correct parts. There is a reason that these songs have been so successful and continue to work in the cover circuit (check this list of the most popular cover songs in a nightclub). These are some of the most iconic solos, lyrics, melodies and songs of the last century, and they deserve to be played with respect for the original artist and songwriter.
Again, people want to hear songs they know the way they know them. If someone is trying to sing along, yet the drummer is stepping all over the vocals with self-indulgent overplaying, it reduces the impact of what the band as a whole is trying to achieve.
A true professional knows when to play, and more importantly, when not to play. A seasoned musician has the utmost respect for space and silence. Even in sheet music, among all of the notes, there is a symbol that indicates a rest. So if you want to endure as a working musician, learn the song the correct way, and play it right every time.
11. Pay attention
It’s easy to get caught up in the music or your own playing while you’re on stage. The darkness and chaotic nature of a club or bar lends itself well to removing yourself from the madness and just digging into your own jamming. But because of the unpredictable nature of the job, it’s imperative to pay attention to your surroundings.
I’ve seen guitar players that will play an entire song with either their head down or staring at the guitar neck. I’ve seen drummers that keep their eyes closed for most of a tune. Quite often, band members need to communicate on stage, and since it’s so loud in the club, they have to rely on hand signals or visual cues. It’s a good practice to always know what’s happening with the rest of your band on stage. Sometimes a guitarist will break a string, and if you’re playing keyboard you might need to fill in the missing part. Or a singer has forgotten a lyric, and you need to jump on the mic and cover the line, or any of hundreds of other things that can go wrong.
Things are constantly moving around in the venue as well, and it’s important to keep an eye open to what’s going on. It’s a challenge at times to juggle your own responsibilities while still watching out for everyone else, but it’s a vital part of working with a band in harmony at a gig.
12. Break down quickly
This isn’t something you always need to do, but it’s a good habit to get into. Sometimes when your show has ended, another band is waiting in the wings to take the stage. Nothing is more frustrating for a musician than waiting to set up and get ready for their set while someone in the band that just played has left their gear on stage to go get a drink, or talk to the crowd, or is just lazily and slowly breaking down.
If you want to be appreciated and respected by your fellow musicians, when your time is done, immediately get your things out of the way and get off of the stage. Of course, this doesn’t apply if you’re the last (or only) band of the night. But if there is a band that follows you, break down quickly. You’re peers will appreciate it, and you’ll have the added bonus of getting the work out of the way so that you can spend the rest of the night relaxing, or meeting fans, or enjoying a well-deserved cocktail.
13. Clean up after yourself
Even if no band follows you, it’s a good idea to clean up your mess. Any empty beer bottles, bottle caps, cans, food wrappers, cigarette butts etc. that you were responsible for bringing to your spot on the stage should be removed by you when your set is done.
This not only will be appreciated by the band after you (if there is one), but it will be recognized by members of the staff. If there is a mess, someone has to clean it up. If you’ve ever been in a nightclub after the doors have closed for the night, you know that the floors get swept and mopped, all of the garbage is removed, and nobody leaves until the place is ready to open for business the following day. Why not do your part and clean up your own mess? It’s just another small step you can easily take to ingratiate yourself to those that pay you.
14. Thank everyone
If you have the desire to play in a particular venue again, you definitely want to go home leaving a good impression. If you’ve followed all of the steps above, you’ll be in really good shape. The last step to take is to simply thank everyone involved. Even if you didn’t have any interaction with certain members of the staff, on your way out a quick “Thank You” goes a long way. It takes very little effort on your part and people remember and appreciate the gesture.
Shake hands with the manager and thank him (or her). Thank the bartenders, doormen, and especially the people that came to see your band and stuck it out until the end of your set (or the night). They will remember it…and you. It will also increase the likelihood that they’ll come see you again the next time you play. Even if you have to force yourself, thank everyone. In the long run, you’ll be happy that you did.
Thanks for reading.