When working toward your music career goals, the big question I want to focus on is: “How do I know if a gig is worth playing?”
We’ve all been there… those soul-destroying gigs. You know, the ones you play to “get your foot in the door,” or maybe you take it to get some cash in your pocket but the painful performance experience makes it feel like a waste of your time. Maybe they’re unpaid “opportunities,” or maybe they’re in front of an audience who seems to be more interested in their drinks and conversations than your music.
These kinds of gigs are pitched by venue owners as “great opportunities,” but it can feel like they’re not actually getting you anywhere. You can’t get bigger and better opportunities unless you prove yourself, but you can’t prove yourself unless you’re given a chance.
Now, as a quick aside, I’m not hitting on venue owners here. Especially when you’re dealing with smaller venues that don’t have much other income flowing in, booking a newer or unknown band can be a risk. It’s nothing personal, it’s just business. They have employees to pay and if the band doesn’t draw a crowd they could walk away taking a loss.
What I want to do is help you think more strategically about your live business. As an indie artist, you have a pretty limited amount of time, so it makes sense to spend that valuable resource on things that will bring you the most benefit.
The big question I want to focus on right now is: “How do I know if a gig is worth playing?”
Sure, in hindsight it’s easy to tell if a gig was a success or a waste of your time, but you don’t have that luxury when you’re sitting there with a deal in front of you. So let’s go through a few things you need to think about and weigh against your unique goals.
Know your goals
Speaking of goals, if you want this system to work you need to know your goals. And I don’t mean the “I want to be a rich and famous musician” goal that everyone throws out there.
Spend a good deal of time thinking and decide specifically what you want your career to look like. Do you want to do music full time or do you see it mostly just being a side project for you? Do you want to tour the country or would you rather take gigs on the weekend? Do you see yourself establishing an audience of young kids or is your music more suited for an older fan base?
Once you really nail down some of your music career goals you’ll have a much clearer picture to weigh the pros and cons of gigs against. Remember, if a gig doesn’t take you closer to your goal in any way, it’s probably not worth your time.
Weighing the benefits
Now that you know where you’re going, take a closer look at the gig opportunities in front of you. There are plenty of factors that tie into what could be considered a successful or worthwhile gig. You have to understand these factors and weigh them against your goals before you make a decision.
1. Money. If you consider yourself a professional artist in any way, getting paid is extremely important! I always encourage musicians to value their artistry and secure some form of payment for your time and the work you put in.
If you value yourself, your music, and your time, others will follow suit. If people see you don’t value your time, they will take advantage of it. And remember, gigs are usually negotiable. If a venue asks you to play for free, you can always counter and tell them your rate. Now the ball is in their court. They might turn your offer down and you can move on to someplace else. But they might go for it! You never know unless you try.
When thinking about the money, it’s a good idea to have some stats on hand so you can do easy calculations. If you play in the area often, know how many people you can expect to buy tickets. Just keep track of your ticket sales for a few months and you’ll have a rough estimate. That way, if you’re getting a percentage of the door, you’ll have a better idea of what you can expect to make.
2. Growth potential. While money is important, it’s not the only factor you should consider when deciding which gigs to take. There are plenty of really high-paying gigs that won’t do anything for your career and lower paying gigs that can pay off in different ways.
For example, college gigs can be pretty lucrative, but sometimes you can find yourself playing in a campus auditorium during orientation week to a bunch of students who aren’t even listening to you. The money is there but what are the chances of you finding a significant amount of new fans? Pretty slim. Of course, many college gigs are great career-boosters. My point is: weigh the benefits.
What determines the growth potential of a gig? Number one is reach: how many new people will the gig put your music in front of? Ideally, you want to get in front of interested and relevant audiences, people who are predisposed to like your style of music and who are attentive and listening to you.
Number two is networking. Who in the industry might be at the gig? What kind of new connections could you potentially make? Are there bands or musicians you could connect with? Producers? Engineers? Industry people? Songwriters?
Number three is tied to money: how much merch can you potentially sell? Selling merch brings in cash, but it also turns people into walking billboards for your brand, helping to spread your awareness and reach.
Of course, actualizing the growth potential of a gig is very much dependent on you. You need to be actively engaging with the audience, putting on a killer show, telling them where they can find you online, handing out download cards for free music, and directing them to your merch booth.
3. Creative and personal fulfillment. It’s pretty easy to get caught up in the money and the business side of gigging, but it’s really important to remember that music is meant to be fun and enjoyable! Take that into account as you decide on gigs.
It’s perfectly OK to take a gig every now and then because you know it will be a blast. Maybe it’s in a venue you love and have been dying to play. Maybe it’s a chance to be on the same bill as some musicians you really look up to. Or maybe it’s a charity event for a cause you really believe in.
You can always turn these fun gigs into something that will build your career. Maybe you film a video series behind the scenes and during sound check sharing your excitement of playing this venue of your dreams. Plus, putting a great venue on your EPK looks great even if you didn’t get paid much. Maybe you make up some custom merch for the charity event cause and donate a portion of the revenue. It’s up to you to make the most of every opportunity.
If you want more guidance on setting your goals, I have a planning guide and worksheet that will guide you through the steps. Download it for free.
Dave Kusek is the founder of New Artist Model and Berklee Online. Over the years he’s worked with tens of thousands of musicians around the world across every genre imaginable and in many different markets. New Artist Model is an online music business school designed especially for indie musicians. Learn how to turn your music into a career, understand the business, and start thinking like a musical entrepreneur.
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