This a post in my new column, “Making Music Work,” where I take a look at the challenges facing local, indie musicians.
As a musician it’s hard to say no. But, should you always say yes?
There are a lot of positives to saying yes. More chances to play, which means more experience and more audience. Networking opportunities. A chance to pad your resume of shows. In the words of actress and singer Ashley Davidson Hughson, “work begets work; you never know who might be in the audience that night.”
Except, playing your music isn’t all about you. It’s about your music. It’s about your fans, both old and new. It’s about the person running the room making a profit. It’s about other acts on the bill getting exposed to a new audience.
With that in mind, when should you say no? I polled my network of professional and amateur performers, and we came up with these major reasons.
1. Never allow your music look or sound bad.
This was the basic theme repeated by everyone. My friend Megan, a singer and music teacher, said it succinctly:
I would never sing in a setting that would demean the music or cause me to look unprepared.
That covers a lot of bases. Say no if you can’t fill the time with well-rehearsed material or if your voice or instrument isn’t in good shape. Say no if you’re not going to have the chance to be taken seriously. Per Rob Baniewicz, half of improv comedy duo Meg & Rob:
You should say no if you feel like you aren’t going to do your best that night.
Turning no to yes: Be objective about the shape you’ll be in, and if you can do anything to improve it. Rehearsing regularly and taking care of your voice make a huge difference.
2. Make sure you fit the lineup and the room.
Whether it’s other acts or the room itself, fitting in can be the difference between yes and no. Don’t assume that a promoter spent a lot of time deciding you would be great with other acts on a bill – it’s your responsibility to vet them, too.
My colleague Eric Rossi, who is also the lead singer of The Fall of Man and one of the best rock vocalists in Philly, summarized:
Some shows are based on having an eclectic line-up, but if you are a singer/songwriter, you probably don’t want to play an all-age hardcore show. Chances are, this gig will do nothing to further your music career.
Operatic vocalist and actress Maryann Bucci put a different spin on it:
Some places still allow smoking. I avoid them like the plague because I know that for the next day or so, I’ll have a raspy voice and my asthma will become a problem.
Smoking isn’t the only possible problem. Some rooms might be too noisy, have bad equipment, or have acoustics that don’t fit your sound. If the room is new to you, try to visit before you say yes.
Turning no to yes: Don’t be afraid to suggest bills with other acts that your music complements (but avoid fishing for bills with bigger artist). See if you can make a small change to improve the room – like having a no-smoking show or bringing your own mics.
3a. Balance winning new fans with taxing old fans….
This is the trickiest one. You’re in good shape. The room and the bill are a perfect fit for you. So, why else would you say no?
Because love of your music is a limited resource, and it can be exhausted.
Singer-songwriter Brian Flanagan has headlined a string of packed shows in Philly this summer because he keeps that limit in mind:
If your favorite band played in town five times in the next three weeks, how many of those shows would you make? It gives people an excuse to miss one (and probably more). I’m a believer that you should play in town once every other month at most. Try to get out of the same area if you need to play more than that.
3b. … because you’re responsible for filling the room with music and people.
It might seem like it pays to artificially inflate your draw when trying to get booked, but it will cost you in the long run. Lindsay Wilhelmi, songwriter and executive director of the non-profit Lyndzapalooza, shared the promoter’s view:
For the perspective of a booker and event organizer, my feeling is that – in most cases – the artist is responsible for promoting and bringing (paying) fans to the gig.
Lindsay’s opinion is in-line with that of the people booking Philly’s best rooms. While you might get booked in a room for the first time just on quality, it’s the quantity that ensures your return – quantity of heads through the door, and the amount of money the room makes on food and drink while you’re playing.
Unless you are Billy Joel, the brunt of promoting for that falls to you, not to the venue.
Turning no to yes: If the only reason to say no is exhausted fans, be up front with your booker. They’ll always appreciate the honesty, and might be able to use you as an opener or on a night with lower expectations. I’ve booked some bands specifically for that reason.
Are there other reasons you ought to say “no” to a gig? Other ways to convert a “no” to a “yes”? What was your worst experience saying yes when you should have said no?
Share your stories in the comments; I’ll include the highlights in a follow-up post.