How to make sure your first gig is a big hit

It’s only natural to daydream about your first gig. Stadiums. Spotlights. Exotic strangers screaming for an encore. A champagne-shaking promoter handing over a suitcase of fifties. We hate to stick a pin in that thought bubble, but live debuts don’t always run so smooth. The good news is that with just a little preparation, you can avoid the empty venues, lost gear and withheld payment of legend. Don’t even think about stepping onstage until you’ve followed these 12 tips.

#1. First gigs start with friendship
If you want to be a participant in the local live scene, first get out there and experience it. Watch some gigs, befriend the rising local bands, shout a few Jägerbombs, ask their advice and fish for support slots. Work out which venue hosts the best upcoming bands in your genre, then ply the promoter with pints. Your bar tab won’t look pretty, but you’ll be paid back in contacts.

#2. Do a stakeout

When you’re offered your first gig, do some homework. Visit the venue in advance to watch a band and ask yourself some pertinent questions. How big is the stage? Does the soundman get a decent mix? Is the PA any good? How loud can you play? Is there parking outside? Will you be beaten to death by bikers with pool cues?

“Work out which venue hosts the best upcoming bands in your genre, then ply the promoter with pints…”

#3. Agree the fee

Forget about that suitcase of fifties we mentioned earlier, but do agree the payment terms upfront. Will you get a flat fee, a percentage of the door – or does the venue operate the dreaded pay-to-play policy with exposure in lieu of hard cash? If you need help negotiating terms, check out the Fair Play Guide available from the Musicians’ Union.

#4. Trim the fat

As an unknown quantity, your first gig will likely be propping up a bill of more established bands, so ask the venue how long you’ll be expected to play, then time your setlist with a stopwatch. If you overrun, strip it back to your best songs – and lose the drum solo.

#5. Cover yourself

Yeah, we know, insurance is pretty much the antithesis of rock ‘n’ roll’s outlaw spirit. But consider this: if you’re not covered by public liability insurance, you’ll be exposed to the cost of a claim if, for instance, you knock out an audience member’s teeth with your guitar headstock. Annual policies start as low as £50, and credible venues won’t let you perform without it.

#6. Play a ‘soft’ debut

Nobody expects you to be note-perfect out of the blocks, but if your first gig is a crash-and-burn disaster, your local reputation will take a pounding. Before you play for the bottle-throwing public, have a dry run at a friend’s house party, birthday or Bar Mitzvah. Yes, you’ll still suck, but at least it won’t go on your permanent record.

#7. Ask about backline

Venues that put on regular live music will usually have house equipment, typically a PA, drumkit (but not always cymbals) and guitar cabinets. Check in advance what you’ll need to bring along on the night, find out if you’ll be sharing with the other bands, and if you’re the fussy type, bear in mind that venue equipment has often been knocking around since the dark ages.

#8. Make a checklist

When it comes to packing for your first gig, make a checklist and tick off items as they go into the van. You’ll remember the obvious stuff, like your guitar, amp and pedalboard, but don’t overlook the make-or-break extras: batteries, leads, strings, picks, duct tape, toolkit, torch and the miracle spray that is WD-40. Oh, and be nice to the other bands on the bill, or they’ll leave you to swing when your amp spontaneously combusts.

#9. Prepare to plug

Remember, you’re not just playing a gig: this is also a perfect opportunity to trade your wares and get your name out there. Put your band logo on the kick drum, bring along merchandise to sell afterwards and remember a pen and clipboard to collect names for your mailing list.

“Make no mistake: the soundman is the one who dictates whether you sound like towering rock gods or muffled pipsqueaks…”

#10. Build the buzz

It’s not healthy for a band to rely on their mates to fill the venue, and you’ll need to pull in paying punters to avoid your first gig feeling like a ghost ship. If you don’t have a web presence, get one, and as the clock ticks down to your stage debut, build the buzz with regular posts, blogs, photos and teasers that make fans feel invested (eg. ask them to vote on which cover you’ll play).

#11. Spoil the soundman

Arrive in time to play a soundcheck, then befriend the soundman and let him know what you want from the mix. Make no mistake: this beardy man in the crumpled Dream Theater t-shirt is the one who dictates whether you sound like towering rock gods or muffled pipsqueaks – and a bridge-building pint and pack of pork scratchings goes a long way to get him onside.

#12. Record yourself

In the heat of the gig, it’s hard to be objective about what works and what bombs. Yes, it’s painful, but by recording your performance from the desk, you can objectively assess which songs cause a circle pit and which prompt a stampede to the bar. If you’re even braver, set up a video camera, too, and see whether the decision to perform in loincloths really was such a smart move.

Image photographed by Seabass Creatives