Playing for money - live, karaoke bar, solo gigs

The Gig as a Music Industry Job

Most musicians like life best when they are playing their instrument. In addition most prefer to play for money. When you put the two together you have a 'gig' - playing live music for money. It's also one of the most common music industry jobs and a great way to make money with music.

When you ask most people how a musician makes money, they will say playing a gig. Playing live gigs can be a great way to make money with music. It's also a great way to get that rush you can only get by being in front of a live audience. It's the perfect way to start off any music career - even the search for the elusive recording contract. But finding and getting gigs can be a tough matter if you are doing it yourself without a successful background.

Seeing as how playing live is such an important role with a good deal of money to be made, let's explore it further.

Gigging for Cash

For the musician who is looking to make money with music, gigging is a huge potential source of money. I say potential because when you start out there usually is little or no pay involved. I remember my first couple gigs where we went in the hole because we didn't get paid and we had to rent the gear to perform the show in a large venue.

Play without pay is a reality when you are starting out but it doesn't have to be for long. A gig or two max if you are good. If you can prove to a club owner that you have the skills and can pack the place (or at least entertain those in attendance), then you will be getting paid in no time. It's not enough just to have a demo tape. They want to know you are going to work the crowd into a frenzy and look good and sound good while doing it.

Don't be afraid to play for free for your first few gigs. Gigging has other benefits besides pay such as exposure. You have to look at it this way - you must build trust. If you do well on stage, they may hire you back. However, if you get hired on for a gig at a club and then go out putting up flyers on every street corner in town and the club manager sees this, then you are likely going to be playing there again.

I remember what should have been my first gig. We threw together a band real quick to enter a songwriting contest. We finished in the top 10 and won a spot for our song on their CD (sponsored by a radio station). The song got aired a couple times and we got recognition. During that time we were approached to be an opening act for a headliner at a local outdoor festival. Think about it. A daytime gig as an opening act, sound and production company hired for the event, comes with own gear and roadies, we just had to show up and play. Well, the band voted on it and decided to turn it down because there was no pay involved. How stupid was that? Needless to say that band never got a paying gig OR another opportunity to play for free despite being locally known. We just didn't know better at the time and thought we were being taken advantage of. In actuality, it was the event promoter who was taking a chance on us having never played together live before. I wonder what would have happened to that group had they just taken that gig?

After you've played a couple gigs and people know you then you'll probably want to expand and do more work. Having the attention of one club owner is great, but when you want to go to another club two towns over you may have to start again. In this case, you'll want to look at getting a manager, or a booking agent. Someone who can help book shows for you and has good relationships with the people you wish to do business with. The bottom line is that they know and trust each other.

After you've established your name you can pretty much write your own ticket. I have a friend who is considered as the top act in a niche musical sub-genre. He used to tour the US exclusively and frequently, but the last two years has generated enough interest in his music to spend a month in the summer touring Europe and another during the winter in the South Pacific. In the past he has played big shows with major celebrities, including a presidential inauguration. With some ingenuity he is now on the road only when he wants to and doing a good deal of his business through his Internet web site, email list and online store selling music for himself and others in his genre.

When it comes down to how to make money with music, playing live (gigging) is not only a great start, but a mainstay music industry job.

Going Solo

The best thing about solo gigs is that you can usually take them on in addition to other work. Solo gigs are wide ranging from cruise ships to studio session musicians. All musicians can participate and get work in solo gigs of different varieties, but in particular singer/songwriters and singers are making big money. Some solo gigs are more popular than others, and some in more demand in rural areas than in urban areas and vice versa. Scope out your local market. Keep your eyes open and don't be afraid to approach someone and say "This would be a great place for a soloist."

Piano Soloist

Looking for that "particular ambience", many restaurants will hire a single piano player to caress the 88 for their clientele. You've no doubt seen this. Many time these are located in fancy restaurants with the $100+ dinner being usual. If you know some jazz standards you are up for some good tip money in addition to your regular wage. Other places you'll see piano soloists are in hotel or convention center lobbies. Anywhere a posh atmosphere is desired and people have to wait or sit long periods. It's not uncommon for patrons to visit these areas frequently just for the music. Again, you can probably create your own solo gig by approaching a business owner and offering a 'test drive' for free.

Wedding Singer

Solo gigging has another mainstay, the wedding singer. Although popularized through the movie, "The Wedding Singer", the character in that story doesn't follow the traditional pattern. In most small towns that I am familiar with, wedding receptions and dances are performed by groups (of which I guess he was a part). The actual 'Wedding Singer' that I am familiar with is the one who performs at the ceremony. Usually they will perform some song chosen by the couple, sometimes in lieu of 'The Wedding March'. It is usually designed to make everyone in the building cry, thus making it worth the money they spent on this character! This can be a very lucrative position considering how much is spent on the average wedding. All you have to do is learn the chosen song, show up for the rehearsal and the ceremony, collect your check from the father of the bride and go home. You can tip the scales if you can convince them your group should perform the dance too. Acceptance into this realm is usually through previous work, word of mouth, and a little bit of ingenious footwork. Get well acquainted with any wedding stores, wedding photographers, tuxedo rental and other businesses near where you live and try and make sure they know who you are. If you can get recommendations from any of these people you are a shoe in. It's not uncommon for a bride in a wedding store to ask "Do you know a good singer for the ceremony?"

Karaoke Bar Host

This one may be a bit dated but was once very popular, and still is in some areas. The Karaoke Bar Host used to be the paid mainstay at most karaoke bars and would fill time until a bar patron would have a couple drinks, loosen up and then come up to sing 'born to be wild.' This was a great position (and may still be) because you get an opportunity to work in a smaller crowd of people. Many of these singers also perform in full bands, bring their own friends with them, or have a local following. They usually have their friends or band mates come in while they are working and while there they all have a couple drinks and come up to sing a karaoke song or two, and makes the owner some money. When the crowd is pumping and everyone else is doing the singing then you get to just sit back, press the 'start' button and then laugh with the rest of the crowd. It really can be a fun job and an easy way to manage your practice time with making some money.

The Real Reason to Gig - Moving Merchandise

Of course everyone tells you that nothing beats the rush of playing in front of a screaming live crowd and feeding off the audience. Our focus here is on how to make money with music and unless that audience is stuffing bills in your g-string you probably aren't getting much more than a percentage of the action!

Once you get past playing for free, there are various methods of negotiating fees with your agent or the promoter or owner of the club or event you are playing at. No doubt the band or manager will arrange a cut for each person in the group based on their contribution - and seeing as how you all contribute to the music it should be a fair split unless agreements are made ahead of time. If you are hired as a musician to play for a well known act, or if you are a dancer or other talent then your fees will likely be different.

However, one of the real reasons to gig as far as money is concerned is to move merchandise! Make sure you negotiate a way to sell your products at the gig. Whether you setup a table or make other arrangements (like leaving merchandise behind on consignment), do your best to get some sales. Do not ignore this step! This can be one of your greatest money makers. You are creating a buzz at the show and standing in the midst of a bunch of people who are excited by your performance. Don't miss this opportunity! If you are an independent artist you'll have a CD, but everyone should have autographed posters, t-shirts, coffee mugs, bumper stickers, etc. Anything that you can carry with you easily that has your name on it. This can easily bring in as much or more money than you are getting paid for the gig, depending on how large an audience, how good a show you put on, and how big a following you have there. Actually, if you approach it right, all you need is a great stage presence and adequate music along with a salesman attitude. If you are smart and use the Internet to help create a buzz and a place where people can find out about you before and after a show then you will increase your earning power even further.

Separating the music from the performance is important for a songwriter, but most of the time people at a gig will buy your merchandise because they enjoyed your performance, whether they understand that or not. Don't send them home with a CD that sounds like you sang it into an answering machine. Make sure they feel they got their money worth and they will become life-long customers and buy again and again. You must print your website address prominently on all materials and find a way to have them sign up for your email list at the show. Even a pen and paper is great to get email addresses.

If you have a CD or are an independent artist this is one of the best places to sell your music. No distribution channel to suck fees away from you. You keep what you make. It is also a great opportunity to gain some 'brand recognition' as people are seen with your merchandise in public - wearing your t-shirts or having your CD on the dash of their pickup truck.

The Final Gig

When it comes to cash only, there are two reasons to gig. Money from the event and money from merchandise sales. Gigging itself has many other benefits (such as networking and having a good time) that we won't discuss here. If you are a musician and like being in front of a crowd, do yourself a favor and join or start a gigging band and/or pursue those solo gigs. Performance acts are wide ranging and play everything from clubs to weddings and work anywhere from 7 nights a week to just doing casual work. Working bands compose everything from kids in garage bands to string quartets or even 60-something polka kings.

Gigging is definitely one of the good money grabs and there are lots of musician referral and musician forums on the net to help you find a band or gigs. Remember, gigging is as much about what you can do for the people hiring you as it is for you. Make sure you understand that. You should also pick up some books to help you learn how to get more gigs, and improve your stage presence. As with anything else, the more you know the farther you go.

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