November 16, 2011  

13 Things You Need to Know About Playing Music Live

Playing live eh? The most important aspect of your musical career. Your live show is your best opportunity to sell your wares, entertain people (which is what music is all about in the end) and network with other musicians. It’s invaluable, and it has to be done right. I returned to the stage for the first time in ages last week, so I thought I would share some of the wisdom I’ve accumulated over the years in two helpful lists. Every word is true and learned through painful and humiliating experience:

Five great habits for playing a great show:

1. Rehearse well. Nothing is more important than rehearsal. Prepare carefully so that you can play your role in the act perfectly. But perfectly doesn’t mean robotically, it means that you play with grace, fluidity, style, feeling and without mistakes. Once you’ve got that right, and that could take weeks, or even months, then you need to move on to your presentation. What are you going to wear? Are you going to move on stage? Are you going to speak? Is there any scope for improvisation? Does your gear do what you need it to do? Is it reliable? Do you know it well enough to troubleshoot it in a live scenario? Once you have all of these aspects of your show covered, then you can think about getting out onstage.

2. Short sets are a good idea. Make a big impression and leave before the audience tires of you: twenty to thirty minutes onstage is ideal for a new act.

3. Don’t rely on the venue’s PA to be good enough, loud enough or bassy enough for you to play your entire line-up through it. Amplification systems in 2011 are often very good, but in smaller venues, such as a pub, they’re set up for vocals. They might cope with a DJ set but you’re not likely to get any sub-bass or a real sense of dynamics or detail in your set. Consider hiring a PA that you know suits your music. Alternatively, think like a band would and bring separate amps to cope with the instruments in your set. Have you considered hiring a bass guitarist’s amp and speaker to beef up your basslines?

4. Reverb is for the studio. The purpose of reverb in a mix is to give an otherwise dead sound a sense of ‘space’. In a live environment nothing can be dry…you’re amplifying everything and chucking it out through massive speakers into a large room. You’ll probably find that there’s too much natural reverb going on and it’s messing up your mix. Try using delay instead. This will give your sound an extra ‘bounce’ and sense of depth but remain strong and focussed.

5. Concentrate on getting the bass, drums and vocal parts right. The human ear becomes increasingly less able to cope with detail as volume levels increase. This means that you should strip back your arrangements to their bare minimum. There’s not enough bandwidth in the human ears for loud highly complex music. Consider stripping back your massive library of sounds to a small handful of core sounds and get them sounding great.

Eight bad habits you should avoid:

1. Ignore the audience. You don’t have to speak to them, but nothing engages less than a bunch of guys shuffling around staring at their sneakers. Look at your crowd, smile (or pout, or scowl, or even stare…whatever suits you) and if appropriate, address them through the mic. But bare in mind that you shouldn’t…

2. Speak unless you have something to say. If you’re a new act, we don’t care what your songs are called. We don’t care about your in-jokes, we don’t care if ‘this is a new one’, nor do we care if ‘this is a cover’. But we might like to know who you are, so please don’t…

3. Forget to tell the crowd your name. In the 1960s the band’s drummer would have the band’s name stenciled into the kick drum skin. These days, you could have a banner, a projection or simply mention your name when you come on and leave the stage. If you’ve played a great show, don’t be shy, let us know where we can get more!

4. Pretend you’re doing something when you’re not. Can you think of anything worse than watching you standing behind a laptop or mixing desk pretending to make a huge adjustment to a mix, when really you’re doing nothing? This is not 1989, everyone knows you’re miming and it makes you look like a fraud. Instead, play! Or have something to do and actually do it. You’d be surprised how much an audience enjoys watching a performer do things with hardware…that’s why DJing with vinyl looks great while DJing with a laptop looks like nothing. NOTHING.

5. Rush your encore. If you get one, great! They love you, so take a lap of honour. But there’s a great temptation to ride a wave of applause by walking offstage and rushing straight back on, afraid that you’ll lose it. That looks weak. Instead, walk off stage and count to forty. If they’re still clapping, then you can decide if you’re going back on.

6. Criticise the other performers. Very unprofessional. Crticising people behind their back might make you feel big and strong but you are demonstrating that you are not trustworthy, even with the people who are joining in with your bitching. If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing.

7. Sell you CDs from the stage. This is probably the most uncool thing in the world. Your gig is a great opportunity to sell your wares, but constantly plugging your CD from the stage looks desperate which is never a good sales pitch. Instead, you could simply mention that you have some CDs/t-shirts for sale at the back and you’ll be over there too. That will probably do the trick, especially if you were good!

8. Get drunk. It’s not big, it’s definitely not clever and most importantly it’s not entertaining. Leave the beer until you come off stage, if at all.

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Need help getting gigs?

To play live you have to get gigs right? So we have found a great deal for Point Blank students to get started promoting your talents. The top entertainment services directory in the UK, LastMinuteMusicians.com are offering students an 75% discount to sign up to their site which has thousands of visitors per month looking for live musicians for their events. That’s just £15 for a yearly subscription that normally costs £90! Find out how to take advantage of their offer here.

Steve Hillier is a songwriter, DJ and record producer, who has worked with everyone from Keane to Gary Numan. Steve is also a journalist and music technology expert, writing for Future Music & BBC Worldwide. Steve teaches Music Business and Logic Music Production Online at Point Blank Music School.

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