The following guest post comes from Chris Daniels, Assistant Professor at the College of Arts & Media, University of Colorado Denver. Daniels has extensive and active experience touring, currently with Chris Daniels & the Kings.
I’ve managed my own band for years and I teach music business in Denver. Despite the revolution in digital technology, success for young artists is still built around some tried and true elements including a great live show. It takes great music and performance skills, really hard work and timing to develop your live chops.
The other key element is being informed… using sites like Digital Music News to stay on top of the market. Whether it’s cyber marketing for your shows or going beyond the current street team tricks of the trade to do something truly groundbreaking, young artists HAVE to deliver live — your competition is global, not local or regional. Some of what I teach is very practical training to get the most out of your gigs.
While it’s no secret that big box music stores like Guitar Center exploit the hopes and dreams of artists with viability — as well as the ‘hobbyists’ who spend lots of money to little or no avail – some simple upgrades to your rig from any of these kinds of stores, or online outlets, can help working musicians free themselves from dumb mistakes.
In simple terms, if you or your band or your DJ work includes equipment that is difficult or time consuming to set up, finicky or problematic — or that is just too damn big — you are in for a world of hurt when it comes to the set-up /play / break-it-down / head-to-the-next-gig life.
Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing more important then getting the tones and sounds you want or need for the music you perform — but here’s the deal, if the equipment that you need becomes a pain in the ass for you (or the sound techs you work with) you’ve got to deal with it.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen artist tech problems kill the show — and I’ve seen it both as a teacher working with young bands and as a professional playing festivals and gigs all over the world. Last month at a student run festival on the CU Denver campus I saw a well-known ‘headliner’ with tons of national experience blow the set up and tear down. Their tech rider was vague and did not specify essential parts of their equipment needs… and these were pros! It hurt their show – and it should have been great. So a few “rules” you should learn… or guidelines as Jack Sparrow might call them.
1) Fix your shit BEFORE you take it on the road.
I don’t mean just fix any ‘iffy’ cords or problematic power sources, I mean make it simple and fast to set up and take down, and easy to control in any environment.
EXAMPLE: It’s summer and that means a lot of playing on outdoor festival-stages of all sizes. If your equipment has a problem with heat, not easily readable setting windows in direct sunlight, or if you are used to it sounding perfect at 70 degrees in your home studio, when you take it on the road YOU WILL HAVE A PROBLEM. You have to deal with it!
Every single stage you play sounds different. If it sounded great in the rehearsal hall and you can’t make it sound just as good on the Van’s Warp Tour stages … simplify and get so you can get the sounds you need in almost any circumstances … I can promise you that difficult conditions can and will always happen.
2) Become adaptable in space and the size of your rig.
This is especially true of drummers. If you can’t share a drum kit with another band because you have to have a 2-kick set up and 4 floor toms — you are not a pro — you are a baby. Snap out of it!
Clyde Stubblefield, James Brown’s famous ‘funky drummer,’ sat in with my band on our drummer’s kit for a set and blew our minds! This is the most ‘sampled’ drummer in history – whose grooves have been used for so many famous hip hop/rap albums it’s insane. If he can sit down and play on a simple 5-piece kit using somebody else’s throne and kick-peddle so can you!
It is even more important if you are opening (support act) with out much power to get what you want. Learn how to use a very small kit because it’s more than likely you’ll get little set up room and no sound check.
Deal with it! Become a pro.
3) Get your gear on and off stage FAST!
You want to piss off a festival stage manager or a venue stage manager or the headline act’s road crew? Play your set and then go talk to your fans right away – and leave your crap on the stage. I guarantee you will either get a serious beat down by the stage manager or worse, you will not get asked back to work with that festival, headliner or venue.
Part of being adaptable is knowing how to structure your gear so that it can get moved on stage — plugged in (carry extension cords) — get sounds fast — and taken off the stage after your set with as little drama as possible.
4) If it’s important carry 2 of them.
In my band we tour all over the world and we do not use keys. That means that the two guitar parts that create the bed for horns and vocals really are interdependent — we work on them and develop them like the Beatles did. And if one drops out — the whole house of cards comes down.
So, I carry 2 guitars — my favorite ax and a cheap but very playable knock-off of the same guitar that sounds great — just in case something goes wrong in 98 degree heat — I can switch to the back up. Our show does not have stand around time — we burn. That means that the songs choreograph into one another via stories and music segues that never stop. It’s the same for a short opening slot for the Doobie Brothers or a two-hour headlining slot in Holland. I can’t just say — “oops sorry folks I have to change a string” or wait for a sound tech to bring me a guitar.
I’ve seen bad equipment wreck a good show. At the same student-run festival I mentioned earlier a different band with a moog-dependent sound – busted a plastic key on that moog. They had no backup. The bandleader spent the next 20 minutes of an opening set complaining about the problem. They lost their audience. If he’d had a back up keyboard it would not have been an issue.
This may not be an easy thing for young artists to do. It takes time, experimentation and persistence to get it down to a science. But once you get there — once your equipment isn’t a distraction but a tool to take your audience along with you for the journey — then you are set free to transcend the ‘technical’ side and let that “serve” the performance and enhance the audience experience. There is nothing worse for an audience to have paid hard earned money while you sit there screwing around with your gear and making lame-oh excuses about why your crap doesn’t work. It sucks for them… Facebook and Twitter posts will haunt you for the next two weeks and your mother will know about it via email.
So get your poop in a group. It really will set you free.
Assistant Professor C/T
University of Colorado Denver