I host open mics on Tuesdays at The Starry Plough in Berkeley, and starting March 27th I’ll be hosting the open mic at Oakland’s Octopus Literary Salon from 7-8PM, every Monday. As an open mic host, I see a wide variety of different types of performances and people, but the questions I get as a host who looks like she’s “in charge of things” are invariably the same. Here are the top 5.
What number are we on?
This one tops the list in terms of frequency. We’re on Number X, you’re on Number Y, and there are Z acts before you. It’s cool to ask, but repeatedly asking doesn’t help. Everyone is here to perform and will get their time, so I encourage you to be patient!
I got here late and missed signups. Can you sign me up?
Depends on two things: if the list is long, and if I specifically said that signups were closed. Sometimes open mics get crazy and signups reach the 40s (or if you’re at Hotel Utah, 60 is the norm). If I think there’s no way I could realistically give you a slot towards the end, I will say no. If the night looks chill and you’re not an asshole about it, I will probably say yes. Easiest way to avoid this situation? Get to signups on time!
Can I see the list?
Yes, you can see the signup list. It won’t make it get to your slot any faster, though. Neither will asking to see the list multiple times throughout the night. I’m guilty of this, however: I just want to see who signed up. 🙂
Can I borrow a capo/tuner/pick?
Alternatively for rappers, “Can I plug in my phone? / Hold on, I need to pull this up on YouTube”. Make sure you’re mostly set up before you get on stage. Otherwise there will almost certainly be an awkward silence, and the open mic host may have to fill up that time by telling unfunny jokes. There’s a reason I don’t do comedy.
Can I play another song?
If you’re new at a mic, it’s a good idea to ask the host how many songs or minutes are allowed, and respect the time that you’re given. If you’re allowed two songs, then you can go for it. If it’s a 5-minute/one song open mic, then you don’t get another song. But if the audience is screaming for an encore from you, I can’t say no!
Aside from performing, knowing open mic etiquette is one of the best ways for you as a performer to not only have fun, but also make good connections at venues. Next time you hit up an open mic, remember that your hosts are people too, and working hard to help everyone have a good time. Want a cool spot to play a song or interested in a potential feature set? Come hit me up at the Octopus and LEX talk music!
Mixing different types of performing arts can yield amazing results. For example, the wildly popular Hamilton flawlessly combines hip-hop, musical theater, and autobiography. Particularly, art forms that share similar attitudes and theses integrate well and frequently cross over. The most immediate example that comes to mind is spoken word and hip-hop: many modern rappers, such as Watsky and Rafael Casal, come from a slam poetry background. (It’s also why I can regularly crash CalSLAM open mics without seeming out of place.) But what happens when you mash up slam poetry, comedy, and rock ‘n’ roll?
You might just get The Wyatt Act. They’re a unique band with a distinct sound and character, electrifying performances, and interdisciplinary roots. To dig deeper into the origins and influences of the “high-energy, experimental slamrock band”, I interviewed frontwoman Guinevere Q (No Big Fucking Deal), who shared with me the secrets of the band’s very own hybrid genre.
SLAMROCK MANIFESTO: SlamRock is a philosophy, a lifestyle, an attitude, a swagger. SlamRock is a reaction to a society of detached, automatic, alienated, civilized play-acts. SlamRock values process over product and interaction over isolation.
3 Principles of SlamRock:
– Put on a fucking show!
You used to be a poet. What inspired you to become a musician? How do you think slam poetry influences your music?
I’m still guilty of being a poet. Haven’t found a cure for that yet, I’m afraid. We play Poetry Rock & Roll – SLAMROCK! When The Wyatt Act first started, I would perform poetry over music. We needed a bass player, so I learned bass. Since then, we’ve evolved our sound, but we still take a lyric-centric approach to songwriting.
In the line of combining slam poetry and rock, what other types of performing arts would you like to see mashed together?
Jason Young Sun and I both grew up in musical theater. We absolutely adore stories, characters, and theatrical elements on stage! Breakfast and Karissa met through playing together in the Brass Liberation Orchestra (San Francisco’s Protest Brass Band) and have always been dedicated to social justice and political causes. Together, we draw on our shared passion for musical theater, activism, and poetry combined with rock & roll!
The Wyatt Act repertoire spans such riveting titles as “20 Motherfuckers”, “Acid and Fapping”, and “What’s In Your Butt?”. What’s your creative process for writing these crazy songs, and where do you get your inspiration?
20 Motherfuckers is a response to the housing crisis in
the San Francisco Bay Area.
What’s In Your Butt was composed as a group collaboration up in Lake County with our friend and visionary, Brian Ward, who organizes wild musical games with themes like “Sonic Liberation” and “Freak Power”.
Your shows are heavily themed. You inaugurated everyone on stage on January 20th, and you’re doing a House Meeting complete with roommate interviews on March 23d. What moves you to run shows this way?
I’ve been hosting Open Mics for a little over 10 years. I’ve always really enjoyed “theme nights” at Open Mics. It really draws in the community in fun and surprising ways! We started creating themed shows back in August of 2015 to involve the audience and throw a party. We self-produce events, not just shows. For example, we have prizes and games. We love games! Some of my favorites have included “Musical BattleDecks” – a wild improv show where members of the audience volunteer to deliver a PowerPoint presentation from projected slides that nobody’s ever seen before. We improvise music. People win prizes. It’s hilarious. Another was my birthday party, “Everybody’s a Stripper” where we played songs while audience members took turns stripping and spinning on the pole at the Condor Club. It was amazing.
What’s in store for The Wyatt Act this year? What tricks do you have up your sleeve moving forward?
We recently recorded some new songs. We will be releasing them as soon as they’re mixed and mastered and rubbed with lotion. We’re also excited to be raising money for the San Francisco Tenants Union at 8pm on March 23rd at PianoFight for our special “House Meeting” show with Roommate Interviews! We’re honored to share the stage with Van Goat and Northern Waste. We’ll also have a Housing Rights Lawyer providing actual advice, a chore wheel, and, of course, prizes and games! Starting this Spring, we’ll begin self-producing live-streamed shows with local comedians at Mutiny Radio. The first one will be “Mutual Masterdebates” on April 8th. The audience throws topics into a bucket. Comedians debate the topics. We play music. Of course, there will be prizes. It’s going to be hilarious! We love comedians, especially Pamatastic, former poet and current comedian/owner of Mutiny Radio. Pamtastic once said, “comedians are poets that people actually listen to.” That quote has always stuck with me. We hope to be poetry musicians people laugh with.
In the last month I’ve heard at least three stories of musicians getting majorly fucked over by venue bookers and promoters. The disrespect and unprofessionalism to artists are symptoms of a pervasive culture that dismisses the monetary value of musicians – despite the fact that when musicians play at venues, they’re bringing people, getting people to buy drinks, and otherwise providing monetary value to the venue.
But I’m not here to rail at capitalism’s effects on the value of art. I’m here to talk about how to recognize shitty gigs and avoid them like the plague. We’ve all played shitty gigs. I’ve played shitty gigs. I’ve been solicited by promoters offering me shitty gigs. I’ve seen craigslist postings advertising some reeeeallly shitty fucking gigs. And each time I come into contact with one of these scumbags, I think to myself: “Am I really worth that little?”
If you’ve ever had that thought, I want to encourage you to know your worth. If you know anything about marketing yourself and your music, you’re worth money. So I’d like to invite you to join my New Year’s resolution for 2017: to avoid bad gigs that devalue our worth.
And without further ado, the list that will help you achieve that goal: four red flags of a no good, very bad, godawful, exploitative shitty fucking gig.
1. Ticket-selling/pre-sale deals.
“Hey, here’s thirty tickets. Go sell them to your friends.” The catch? You have to pay for those tickets upfront, and then recoup your “investment” by selling them. Pre-sale deals are pay-to-play in disguise. Few promoters or venues do blatant pay-to-play anymore, but ticket-selling is a pretty good indicator of a gig that is not worth it.
As far as the exposure value for something like this, think of it this way: you’ll be selling these tickets to your friends, who already know you. You don’t know the other bands selling tickets to play this show, and you don’t know if they’ll be working as hard as you are. Even the exposure you’ll get here is a wildcard, and probably not one that’s in your favor.
In any case, fuck pay-to-play. Say it with me one more time to the people in the fucking back. FUCK PAY-TO-PLAY.
2. “Great exposure” and other non-monetary promises.
This is an obvious one, and a good lead-in from the last one. I realize it can be hard to turn down an opportunity that promises you more eyeballs. But per my previous example, a promise of great exposure is often empty. A friend told me about a promoter who asked her to bring 30 people to a show where “there will be 50 people. Great exposure!” Right. Also, taking unpaid gigs may also have the effect of undervaluing the product you sell.
To clarify, unpaid gigs aren’t always the devil – for example, when you’re just starting out, when you’re playing for a benefit, or when you know for sure Pharrell Williams is going to be at the gig and sign you on the spot as soon as he sees you play, it makes sense to do them. But make sure that you’re evaluating the decision to play for free in a business context, rather than treating it as a necessity. Consider:
3. It’s hard to get in contact with the booker/promoter.
This is a trickier one. It applies to both when you’re booking a show at a venue with a booker, and when you’re signing on to a bill being put together by a promoter. By no means should you freak out if you don’t hear from a booker in a week or two if you’ve sent them an email with a booking request. (Although you should probably follow up!) However, if it’s still difficult to get a hold of them after repeatedly following up through multiple channels, including phone, text, and/or Facebook message, beware: they may be disorganized, or they may just not care enough. Either way, they’ll be harder to establish a working relationship with, and getting a good show going may be more stress than it’s worth.
As for promoters, I can best explain the issue with an anecdote. A friend and his band worked through a promoter for a few shows. For each show, the promoter did a bare minimum amount of promotion – basically putting together an ad-hoc “bill” of random bands that had nothing to do with each other, and designing a really bad flyer – and when the friend attempted to reach out, he found that the promoter wasn’t even in the area. When your promoter is that out of the way, that’s not a good sign.
4. The venue has a bad reputation.
This can mean several things. It can mean that the venue has a bad business sense, a substandard client base (or none at all), disorganized logistics such as door or sound management, or is generally agreed to be not a great place to gig. I won’t name any names, and I’m personally not a fan of elitism in any form. But some venues are not as reputable as others. Of course, if you’re a great businessperson you can make even a subpar venue work for you, but it’ll be more work and more factors will be out of your control.
Or a bad reputation can mean that a venue has perfectly good management and doormen and sound people and fancy stage lighting and clientele dressed in suits and bow ties, but treats their musicians like shit. Horror stories I’ve heard include:
Venues moving dates and time slots around without telling the bands.
Venues that retract a show that has already been booked.
Venues that let multiple people in for the price of one person.
Venues that “waive” the cover charge for the sake of “bar sales”.
Yeah, not a good look. Of course, just because these guys have been assholes to other musicians, doesn’t mean they will be to you. You just run the risk of your show getting really screwed. You have been warned.
The four points listed are heuristic guidelines to help you determine if the show you’re booking, or being booked for, will be a positive, constructive, and financially worthwhile opportunity for you as a musician. All this said, you will always have the agency (figuratively OR literally) to decide whether to sell tickets, play a free show for exposure, book with a promoter living in Norway, or risk getting fucked by a problematic venue. The thing about the independent music industry is that it’s anarchy and there are no rules. Some opportunities are better than others, but there’s no surefire way to predict their quality or scope. Who knows? Maybe you’ll catch the attention of Pharrell sitting at a dive bar in the Mission. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Find these tips helpful? Follow Lex Talk Music for more actionable music marketing advice, interviews, thinkpieces and the occasional snarky mouth-off.
If you’re returning from last week, I hope you enjoyed the Lungs and Limbs concert! If you’re a newcomer, here’s a recap. This is the second and final part of a blog series about real, actionable touring advice for local bands. Because I’m sure we all need another eHow listicle advising you to “make a flyer” or “have a car”.
The goal of this series is to provide you with the strategies and tactics nobody tells you about planning and executing your local band’s first – or hundredth – tour. It’s also to introduce you to excellent bands that are worth seeing live and connecting with in the industry. To do this, I interviewed two Bay Area bands, Lungs and Limbs and Doctor Striker, to procure real-life insight and actionable advice from their most recent tours. This is Part 2, with Doctor Striker.
Doctor Striker: House Parties, Facebook Hacks, and Time
Doctor Strikeris a heavy pop band based in Oakland, CA, known for their “incisively optimistic” brand of music: an aggressive fusion of party time rock and roll, catchy electronic pop, shredding guitar solos, and nasty
industrial bite. They’re throwing a rager titled “Reign of Darkness” at The Knockout in SF on Saturday, December 10th, along with Unlikely Heroes and The Mud Lords.
Going to Doctor Striker shows has become something of a tradition for me. I’ve been told they’re rapidly gaining a reputation for themselves as a band that has to be seen live, and I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise. My first show was a 4th of July themed show titled “Party Time America”, and I’ve been to three more since then. Each one has been rad as fuck.
What I really appreciate about Doctor Striker shows is the commitment to making each one – and indeed, the entire concept of “live music” – a visceral and engaging experience. You’re not just going to a bar to hang out with friends, and kind of listening to the band playing off in the corner. When you go, you become part of the show – and the bands make damn sure of it. Each show has a theme to tie it together. There are weird performance art pieces. (I was promised candy for one and willingly ended up biting it off a candy bra.) No show is the same. It reminds me of what makes live theater great, and that’s probably why I like it.
So what does the Doctor himself have to say about taking this experience on the road? I talked to frontman Paul Striker about his most recent Northern California tour, and his overall strategies for booking packed shows, and he gave me the prescription.
Location: 6 cities in Northern California
Length: 8 days
Purpose: To expand from being a local to a regional band
Describe Your Tour in 3 Words: “Fun, formative, educational.”
#1 Secret to a Successful Tour?: “The Facebook graph search. There’s a very specific way to look up friends you have on Facebook who live in specific cities. And then you can personally message them and get a few people to come to each out-of-town show.”
Author’s note: From a quick Google search, it seems like Facebook has made the graph search functionalities more hidden. It’s still doable, though.
Paul: “I’ve done 5 tours in my life, some as a solo act and some as a band. If you can get someone to let you perform at their house party, that’s the best way to play for packed crowds when you’re out of town. House parties have built-in crowds, so you don’t have to worry about drawing on your own. They’re always a lot of fun, and sometimes you even get paid. But they’re also hard to find; you basically have to have friends in the areas you’re trying to tour. (Author’s note: who also happen to be hosting house parties.)
There are downsides to house parties. One problem is the free barrier: people who see you will remember you for playing for free, which may reduce your leverage going forward. People who attend house parties may also not necessarily be the type of people who go to venues, so it can be hard to translate. And the biggest barrier to entry is knowing the right people in those cities who will let you play their parties. But if you can do it, do it.”
Give yourself a lot of time.
Paul: “The show in SF I did by myself, the way I do everything else locally. Out of town, I did the most work in San Jose, where I did the local show process as well as some networking: finding a venue, talking to the Balanced Breakfast group in San Jose, finding a band off Craigslist, forming a show, and inviting a whole bunch of people. I had to drive down to San Jose a lot.
Time is key. You need to give yourself a lot of time to be able to do all these things. Even if you yourself can do things in a specific amount of time, you will need significantly more time to get everyone on board, and time to convince all the different people involved that it’s a good idea. These people include other bands, venues, potential tour partners, and people in these external networks.
The more time you give yourself, the more organized it will look to your potential audience. If the show seems chaotic, people will care less about it.”
Be prepared for everything to go wrong.
Paul: “Anything that can go wrong with a show locally can go wrong with a show abroad. You’re making all the effort that you make locally, only now you have to do it out of town, and you aren’t physically there. It’s really hard to organize with people who are over 100 miles away from you, who have no relationships with you.
If it’s close enough, like San Jose, you can make the trip. Otherwise, try getting a tour partner for the more distant venues. My tour partner Buck Stallion helped me book shows in the Central Valley.
Some examples of unexpected happenings: sometimes the other bands will fall apart, and you have to find someone really quick to fill the spot. A band might quit the show. Or a member might get seriously injured. Give yourself enough time to plan ahead.”
If you want to learn the ins and outs of effective promoting, connect with Paul at “Reign of Darkness”. He’s one of the best people to talk to. This is a tour-focused post and I’ve left out a lot of details, but as far as booking the perfect local show, he shared with me the secret formula. Who knows – it might even be a future blog topic.
Got an idea for a blog post that would help your career? Want me to promote your band or show? Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and Lex Talk Music.
Going on your first tour is an awesome idea in theory, but anyone who’s done it can tell you that there’s plenty of logistics involved that most people don’t think of. As a local artist or band, it’s probably not part of your regular routine – yet. And no one’s begging you to do it – yet. You do want to check off those boxes, however, so at some point, you’re going to have to pull the trigger and go on that first tour.
So how do you make sure that said tour isn’t a complete fucking disaster? Sure, you could Google “how to go on tour” and read twenty Wikihow articles that tell you to bring food, save money, and/or remember to bring your guitar. But if you don’t want general advice and are instead looking for actionable tactics from actual local bands that you can actually use, then I congratulate you for finding this. You’re in the right place.
Full disclosure: I’ve never gone on tour. But don’t worry, you won’t be reading my advice. For this two-parter blog post, I interviewed Bay Area bands Lungs and Limbs and Doctor Striker about their most recent tours in the Bay Area and beyond. From them I learned everything that nobody tells you about local band touring, and I’m here to share their insights with you. This is Part 1 with Lungs and Limbs.
Lungs and Limbs: Research, Show Trades, and Getting Creative
Lungs and Limbs is a San Francisco-based alt pop band,known for their thick, hip-hop-and-80’s-inspired beats, cowboy guitar licks and hook-laden vocals. Their self-released debut EP Lifelike (2015) received positive press from critics in the Bay Area, Boston, LA, Germany and beyond. On December 2nd, 2016, Lungs and Limbs will release their second EP, Big Bang, at their show at SF’s Neck of the Woods. You can listen to the premiere of the EP right now exclusively on Myspace.
I first saw Lungs and Limbs at Slim’s in SF, along with Dangermaker and Survival Guide, back in September. I was a big fan of their futuristic, expansive sound, and an even bigger fan of the band sticker they gave me: a bunch of whales being abducted by UFOs. Dope.
Karina Rousseau, frontman of Lungs and Limbs, graciously shared her takeaways, best practices, and experiences from their fall Northwest tour with Survival Guide.
Location: 7 cities in Oregon and Washington
Length: 10 days
Purpose: To do their first joint tour with another project (Survival Guide)
Describe Your Tour in 3 Words: “Super. Duper. Fun.”
#1 Secret to a Successful Tour?: “Having a good time. If you’re going into it to really have as full of an experience as you can, you can’t really go wrong. You’re gonna play better, you’re gonna feel better. Prioritize making the most out of the experience.”
1. Get a friend who likes your music to help you with the bill.
Karina: “It’s ideal if you can find a friend who’s excited about your project and can help you do research about locations and bands to play with. Lungs and Limbs did most of the booking ourselves, but we had a friend help us surf SoundCloud for bands with similar sounds to ours, make some connections, and message people in different cities.”
2. Give bands a reason to play a show with you in their town.
Karina: “When building a bill, it can be hard to find bands who are willing to take a band from out-of-town. On how to sell yourself to a band when you’re not from the area? It’s different with everyone, but some reasons include:
If you have a sound they actually like.
If those bands are trying to tour in your area.
If it’s the latter, you can offer to do a show trade in your area. Show trades are usually a good way to get in, but it’s not always possible, so it’s good to think about other things you can do to hit someone back. For example, if you can’t offer a band a show trade, you can give them a list of other people they can hit up in the area.”
Author’s note: This advice is very much in line with the universal marketing principle of “offering value”. What can you offer a band that will make it worthwhile for them? Always offer value.
3. Always be ready to sell.
Karina: “Don’t worry if you don’t make a profit. If you can earn back your gas money and break even on tour, you’re doing a great job. Be on top of your merch sales. Even if it’s one CD or T-shirt, be ready to sell it at a moment’s notice. Selling five shirts can pay your gas for the day and make all the difference.”
4. Get creative with venues and lodging.
Karina: “When choosing venues, we connected with our friends and other bands who would recommend their favorite venues. We also got creative. We connected with the city of Seattle to organize a show in a public park. Those are cool because you don’t need to draw an audience – there’s a built-in crowd. We played at a bowling alley, and an acoustic set in a used collectible bookstore. Think outside the typical bar and club venues.”
On venues: “We had a friend who gave us access to a Crossfit gym as a place to stay. They had a parking lot, showers, and a big open warehouse gym space all night long to use for practice space.”
5. Cover your bases.
Karina: “Small things can go wrong. After we drove to Oregon, we realized that two of us had expired driver’s licenses. No one thinks of this, but if you’re playing at bars, your IDs should be up to date. We almost couldn’t play at some venues. Make sure you cover your bases, check the venue sound system, and leave for shows on time.”
Got more tour questions for Karina? Lungs and Limbs is having their EP release show along with Vast Wild and their tour partner, Survival Guide, this Friday December 2nd at Neck of the Woods. I recommend hitting up both Karina and Emily Whitehurst (of Survival Guide) for more actionable advice on organizing and running a tour. Tell them I sent you!
Stay tuned for Part 2 of “The Local Band Tour Advice No One Gave You” with Paul Striker, frontman of Doctor Striker. Paul and I discuss house parties, internet promotion hacks, and how to organize and play packed shows out of town. Trust me: you will want to read this one.
Have valuable insight into music marketing? Want me to promote your show, venue, or open mic? Interested in writing a guest blog post? Shoot me an email at email@example.com and Lex Talk Music.