5 Things I Learned from Gigging in NYC

Welcome back!

From the mid-nineties to the mid-aughts (or the “naughties”, as my co-worker Gil called the double-o decade), I played a lot of gigs in NYC.  I also played a few shows out of town– not many, but enough to know that the New York music scene was pretty unique.  It seemed as though whereas elsewhere clubs and people were happy to have bands come play, in the City local bands were made to feel as though they were fortunate just to be booked.  This was probably true, as there were (and still are) a limited number of venues available and every college student owned at least one guitar (note: guitar ownership may be a requirement for liberal arts college admission).

As I got into more video production at work, I noticed parallels between shoots and gigs.  Here are five lessons I learned from gigging and how I applied them to my work.

Get quick.


When you’re given a time slot, the amount of time allotted also includes your setup and breakdown.  Taking too long to set up hurts you twofold.  First, you run the risk of losing your audience as they wait for you to begin.  More importantly, though, each minute spent cabling your gear and tuning your instrument is another minute you’re not performing.  And remember, you also need to save time to break down the gear and pack everything up, because another band is waiting to go on right after you.

The parallels here seem pretty easy to draw, but let me lay them out anyway. On a video shoot, the “audience” is both the client who hired you and the talent that you’ll be filming. As you take longer to get ready, your client starts to wonder what they’re paying for, and the talent starts to wonder what kind of rinky-dink operation this really is. Nobody’s happy. And at the end of the day, remember that nobody wants to pay for overtime, and people want to go home to their families/hotels/extracurricular activities.

So what to do? You already warned the client during contract negotiations that cutting the prep day may result in delays, and they said it’s a standard shoot and you should know how to use your own equipment. You just have to get quick. Note that “quick” does not imply “sloppy.” For gigs, we would pre-cable our gear as much as possible. More importantly, we streamlined our setup, establishing efficient routines and equipment load-outs. For shoots, we would test whatever equipment we could in advance at the office, and we instituted standard methodologies and packing lists.

In general, it’s a matter of being prepared, working efficiently, staying focused, and remembering always that promptness makes you look good and benefits everyone.

Make it happen

It happens. You planned, you tested, you checklisted, and now you’re three hundred miles from home base without the right adapter. It’s not your fault; you were given improper information about what’s on site, or something got held up in shipping, or they told you they fixed it/you trusted them to fix it, or whatever. So what do you do, hotshot?

If you’re a gigging band, your only goal is to entertain the audience. When I was in college, a skapunk band called Jack Knife came from Tokyo and played a bunch of free shows in Washington Square Park. On one occasion they didn’t have electricity, so they ditched the guitars and just played a straight-up horn set. They didn’t gain anything by not playing, and the fact that they made it happen caused me to still remember them years later. I’ve had my share of equipment difficulties and other issues, but we always found a way to do the gig.

In business, though, it’s not that simple. I still advocate making it happen; that’s just my work ethic. But unless you have sole responsibility for the project and the problem, the solution requires not just ingenuity but also a healthy dose of people-reading. The goal is to make the shoot/project complete successfully. The obstacles include ego, chain-of-command, working relationships…. If it’s somebody else’s responsibility to fix the problem and they’re working on it, let them do it. If they can’t handle it but you can, I say work with them, albeit discretely. And if it’s anybody’s ball to pick up, grab it and run with it.

If I get in trouble for anything in this post, it will be the preceding paragraph.  Obviously the issue of “do I go beyond my own position to clean up someone else’s mess” should be taken on a case-by-case basis.  But in general, I’m always going to try to make sure the project finishes successfully and avoid stepping on anybody while doing it.

Don’t make enemies

Some bands are really awful. As musicians, as performers, as human beings…. They just present themselves in a very unflattering manner. Promoters too. And club owners. Sometimes it’s really easy to get caught up in how horrible they are, especially if you feel they’re screwing you somehow. It’s important to remember, though, that the first thought in their head is probably not to screw you, but rather just to look out for themselves. You’re simply collateral damage.

The same thing happens in shooting, and business in general, and the world, basically. I know it, you know it, Moltar know it…. But this is a site that promotes and alternate work ethic. If you feel like they’re screwing you, and you react by trying to screw them, it seems pretty likely that they’ll have the same reaction, and congratulations, you just screwed yourself. It never pays to lash out at the guy who pays you, or who might book you, or who might do a gig with you. Just stay professional.

You’re booked by the audience and paid by the promoter

If you’ve never played a show before, you get the 8pm slot. That’s just the way it is. Keep in mind, in NYC nobody even starts getting ready to go out until 10pm or so. If you want the better slot, you have to draw some bodies. If you can’t draw, you don’t get booked again. So more important than your relationship with the promoter is your relationship with your audience. That being said, if you tick off the promoter (or if they’re a shyster), you’re not going to get properly paid for those heads you’ve so lovingly collected anyway. What to do?

This is more an issue of just recognizing that’s how it is. Your goal is always to reach the audience, and you do that by making the best possible product. Commit to your craft, produce something awesome, get eyes (or ears) on your work. If you produce something good, people will want to work with you again. If they’re reputable, or they really want to keep you, they’ll pay you for it. Sometimes they won’t want to, but if you’ve been professional the whole time, they’ll have a lot fewer talking points when they’re trying to whittle the price down.

Ugh, I make it sound so horrible. Hopefully this won’t happen to you. That’s why I want everyone to be awesome and work together.

Have fun with it

So after yammering on about being professional and efficient and whatever else, now I’m saying have fun? Well here’s the thing… I don’t believe that having fun has to be diametrically opposed to doing the right thing and doing it well. I can set up fast, troubleshoot problems, manage personalities, and keep the client in mind, and still I’ll enjoy what I’m doing. I’ll find things to enjoy. I might be in Freezebutt, Montana with a low level electric current running through my chest when I touch the computer housing, but there will still be something about the experience I’ll enjoy. And after the fact, there’ll be the story.

When I was on stage, it didn’t matter if the travel and setup were the stupidest, most aggravating thing. I came to play a show, and now that I get to play a show, I’m going to have fun doing it. When I’m DITing on a shoot or organizing data or staying up late to finish some graphics or keeping track of the entire project, I’m still enjoying myself, because I’m in the thick of the creation process.

Man, now I really want to start playing gigs again.

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