I was recently in a dive bar in Arizona playing as part of a four-band bill on a weeknight.
This is a pretty ideal situation for touring artists because very few folks hit the bars by default on a Monday night. Friday and Saturday, it doesn’t matter where you play quite as much because most places that serve liquor will have their establishments filled. Sunday and Monday have perpetually been our roughest nights, but having three other bands on a bill with you is a great counter-attack to these doldrums. At least those kids’ friend will come see them and you can catch them incidentally with an opportunity for new converts.
So we’re on this bill and the first act is a singer-songwriter who sang from a digital piano. Now, I have zero intentions of discrediting him or her, or of being condescending in any regard – this blog won’t serve as an outlet for snark for snark’s sake. But in my observations of this artist, I collected some notes that demonstrate well what I believe to be three ways to NOT conduct yourself as an artist who aims to be taken seriously. So to commence,
1.) It isn’t okay to make mistakes.
As this meek singer set up his/her keyboard, I noticed an index card taped to the console that said, “It’s okay to make mistakes. Nobody’s perfect.” Herein lies one of the biggest misconceptions in the collective mind of the amateur music community. Professionalism is a broad concept, and it’s a lot to tackle, but I can’t understate how far how it will go in the industry. I have another blog planned to address the wider topic of professional conduct as a touring artist, but for this example, I’m only seeking to address professionalism on stage.
How many open mics have you cringed through where each performer seems to be working out their song for the first time? There is no charming/easy/skillful/acceptable way to recover when you forget a lyric in the middle of your song. It’s literally just not okay. Ever. If you expect to earn the respect of your audience, they deserve for you to have put forth the effort to have a fine-tuned presentation. I don’t mean to say that you have to be mechanic; I play for a folk band, so when my voice breaks and I yell a little, it’s human and it’s cool and that’s just fine. But if you’re ever on a stage where people are paying your their precious attention – even more, their precious money – don’t screw up the words or the chords.
This particular performer made a disclaimer that he or she had just learned this song this morning, so please be lenient. Nope. If you’re going to perform a song in public, know the doggone song. What made it worse is that after stumbling through half of the song, this artist gave up and said, “Oh well, I guess that one’s not ready.” WHAT?! There is no recovery from that. Their credibility as a respectable artist was totally blown. Know the songs you’ll play. Practice them until you’re sick of them. People might forgive you as a person, but their evaluation of you as a serious artist is effectively defenestrated.
2.) It isn’t okay to be aloof.
I was preparing our back-line, and I recognized the opener from the Facebook event. I said, “You must be Pat.” (That’s the most unisex name I can conjure.) The singer nodded at me and continued setting up the keyboard. Later, I intentionally approached him/her and positioned myself so that there was no choice but to engage me in conversation. The lesson here is simple. You’re not Prince. If you’re like us, or you’re like Pat, you’re working your fingers to the bone sending countless emails to paint-peeling dive bars. You can’t afford to not be the nicest person in the room.
No matter how talented you are, if you’re not approachable and sociable, you’re not going anywhere. My distant cousin Josh fronts a hair-metal kind-of band called The Protest. I’ve never listened to hard rock on purpose a day in my life, but I went to see these guys in Indiana a handful of times, and I could not help but to adore them. Why? They were professional, they didn’t mess up, and Josh Bramlett is literally the nicest person I have ever met. Kid you not. He’s like a young Bob Goff.
Pat, however, sat in the corner after the opening set with his/her partner and watched the other bands. There is major credit for that – if you don’t stay for the bands after you, you’re the worst kind of person. But this is a networking game, whether that’s a dirty word or not. Pat didn’t make any effort that I saw to speak to the bartender, the engineer, the other bands, or even the booker/owner. “Be nice” sounds like the simplest advice ever, but it’ll take you farther than you know. There was a bar in Texas where we played for about a dozen people and the manager paid us out way more than our percentage should have been. “Here’s for being nice,” he said.
3.) It isn’t okay to be dishonest.
I was carrying drums in the back door and I heard a snippet of conversation between “Pat” said something about “if they don’t know who they’re here to see.” I approached the girl who was working the door, knowing that our payout would be based on tallies from those who paid the cover. She informed me that Pat asked her to mark down anyone who didn’t know who they were there to see as tallies for herself. After being assured by the door girl that she would do no such thing, I had time to reflect on just how lowdown of a tactic Pat had just employed. How was I to trust him/her sincerity or goodwill for the remainder of the evening?
Integrity isn’t some glamorous William Wallace sort of paragon that’s going to make you stand out from all the other scenesters, but it will eventually shape your reputation. Whether it’s paying up from your pre-sales, sneaking in under-agers (I’ve been guilty of this), or whatever form of moral shadiness that might tempt you, my simple advice is to not be a jerk. The karmic twist of the night? Pat had no tallies and made no money.
I’m not talking down to you when I summarize this advice as: don’t mess up, don’t be rude, and don’t be underhanded. These are real tenets of efficacious operation in the music industry. Ours is a very small world and reputation goes a long way. So learn from Pat and the egregious way he/she put a bullet in his/her own foot. And don’t put index cards on your piano.