ARTIST INSIGHT | Protecting Your Creative Rights
Jonny Bunce a.k.a. Jonny Dovercourt, Founding Director of Wavelength Music discusses being a promoter in the live independent music community and his take on “protecting your creative rights”
TOP 5 TIPS | Protecting Your Creative Rights: The Live Music Perspective
1. Put on a good show!
If you’re just starting out, find people to play with whom you click with personally as much as musically. Work on writing great songs and coming up with strong material and practice, practice, practice. Once you’ve mastered the material, start thinking about presentation. This doesn’t necessarily mean having “moves” — though if you’ve got them, flaunt them — but it’s important to think about visual presentation, whether it’s projections (everyone has a friend in school for video & media arts nowadays) or apparel (again, everyone has a friend in school for fashion design) or some other element to keep people from getting bored if — and let’s face it — your stage show consists of you staring at your instrument so you don’t screw up. Or, if you’re a folk singer, think about how you want to introduce your songs and tell a story to engage the audience. Don’t play your first show too soon – you don’t want to leave the basement unready, as your first show may be your best attended (for the first stretch, until you start getting bigger shows), as all your friends and family will come out to support you… but they won’t keep coming back if what you’re doing “needs work.”
Then again, don’t wait too long to get out there — you can rehearse a song to death, and a little sloppiness and spontaneity can add a lot of energy to a show. Your live show will improve by leaps and bounds once you start playing live — as Dallas Good from The Sadies once told me, “playing one show is worth 10 practices.” Four to six months is the ideal incubation time for a new band. Lastly, loosen up: Have fun on stage, and the audience will have fun too.
2. Learn to tell the good gigs from the bad.
One thing all bands discover when they first start trying to leave the basement is that it’s hard to get gigs. Even though we live in a city with dozens of dedicated live venues, there are thousands of bands out there vying for gigs, and so there is enormous competition for a limited number of slots. Club bookers are overloaded with requests and may not get back to you — you may start to feel like a stalker trying to track one of them down. As such, you may start to feel desperate… But avoid anything that sounds too good to be true; it probably is. Many events that promise “exposure” in the music industry are designed to make money off you and your dreams of stardom through application fees, while your band ends up playing at 7:00PM in the front window of a Pita Pit. Avoid Battle of the Bands-type events and target venues and nights with a reputation for catering to your style of music — if you’re a world music group, you’re more likely to get booked at Lula Lounge than the Horseshoe Tavern. Research the kind of gigs you want to play, and especially seek out “new band nights,” like the long-running Nu Music Tuesdays at the Horseshoe, Elvis Mondays at the Drake… and of course, (shameless self-promotion alert) Wavelength!
3. Be realistic.
Understand you’re working in a competitive field where even the “successful” aren’t making much money. Read the infamous “Grizzly Bear article” and prepare to be depressed. Making music involves many costs, such as rehearsal space, equipment, and (the killer!) transportation, and it can quickly become an expensive hobby. But don’t lose heart — keep your expectations modest, be prepared to live frugally and sleep on floors, and you may soon live the dream of being a touring musician. It also helps to move back in with your parents and/or find a flexible, music-loving employer.
4. Be nice.
As a promoter, I’d rather work with nice people than jerks any day. Luckily, the number of professional, respectful people greatly outnumbers the number of entitled, self-centred divas. The best bands are ones that treat the promoter as a partner, rather than a service provider — they’ll work equally hard to get a crowd out, rather than just show up to play and expect me to do all the work. The best bands express their gratitude and thank everyone who helped them from the stage. They also tend to show up on time.
5. Ask questions.
Don’t be shy or afraid to ask how payment works, if the bands get a guarantee or a split of the door, what promotion expenses will be subtracted, how many guest list spots or drink tickets to expect, if the promoter is taking a cut (hey, we need to make a living too!). Some promoters may bristle at this, but if you frame these questions in a way that shows you trust them as a partner, and are only looking for clarity, then no one will have any reason to get their back up. The stereotype of the “sleazy promoter” has led to some strained relations between artists and promoters, so please don’t treat the promoter like they are always trying to rip you off. If anything seems unfair to you, pick up the phone and ask for clarification before writing a crazy email screed — the most surefire way to never get booked again. Don’t have someone’s phone number? It’s likely in their email signature.
Like Che Kothari before me, I had to cheat and add a #6!
6. Get involved.
This is my favourite piece of advice to new bands: Be a “community band,” not a “job application band.” Getting gigs is much like looking for a job — and the best jobs are found by proactively networking and talking to people, rather than reactively applying to job postings. So you could just sit in front of your computer and apply to play festivals, and end up going out of pocket to fly your whole band to Winnipeg to play for $100 and a round of beer at Joe’s Pub where you have to wrap up your set in time for karaoke night…. Or, you could get out there, go to shows, make friends with other bands, and start setting up your own shows. This is the essence of “DIY” — don’t wait for someone else to tell you you’re ready, get out there and start something yourself. Find a local bar with a P.A. and a dark night of the week — Wednesdays are good. Organize a gig in the gallery around the corner between art shows. Take over your neighbour’s garage. Invite all your friends. Make your own scene, and you’ll become a magnetic attractor in the community — other bands will want to start playing gigs with you, and next thing you know, bigger things will start coming your way…