Written by Joe Michelini, singer and guitarist for River City Extension, an 8 piece touring band from Toms River, NJ. When not on tour he is guest blogging for BandsOnABudget.com.
I played by myself for a long time. I walked to the coffee house downtown, I played the open mic's, and I asked my Dad to drive me to Philadelphia every now and then, only to play in front of the bar staff and sometimes the other artists playing that night. Armed with only my guitar and the burned CD's in my case, I was out to take the world by storm… sort of.
Eventually I started a band, but it's a lot to get eight people around the country at all times, and I still end up doing gigs on my own from time to time. So even though it's not something any of us want to talk about, I know your pain. Getting on bills is a hassle because no one wants a simple acoustic act on a rock bill (or do they?), selling merch is a pain because you're doing everything on your own. Typically, at these types of places, you end up being the sound guy, tour manager, and merch man/woman. Here's some tips on getting by out in the great unknown:
-Don't be afraid to ask to get on rock n' roll (or any "louder") bills. If you're worth a few people, you can spin it like this: an acoustic or solo act is usually low maintenance, for one. The headliner and the venue will thank you for that. Also, no matter how good you are by yourself, you will likely underwhelm the headliner. The quieter the beginning of the show is, the heavier it hits later on.. or something. This isn't the mentality you want to go in with, but it's what some people are looking to hear. Keep it in mind, but remain confident that you will deliver regardless of the circumstances.
-Bring someone with you! Who isn't eager to get out on the road? Having someone around to set up merch, tweak levels from time to time, and play hardball when need be helps a lot. Also, having someone to trade driving shifts with keeps you healthy and rested. Depending on the situation this can be a friend, manager, or band member (if you're choosing to go out on your own for a run). Tell them to bring a camera! The benefits are endless. Document, document, document.
-Take yourself seriously. If you don't take yourself seriously because you're a solo musician and not in a band, you should probably stop now. Less is more sometimes, and a one person performance can certainly be EPIC if not more epic than a full band performance. People are used to seeing rock bands play, and they're use to seeing boring acoustic gigs as well. Make sure you take it up a notch. Play with heart, and deliver. This leads us to…
-Practice. Why do you need to practice? It's only you, right? Well, there's a million of you. No matter how good your songs are, it's going to take a little something extra to get people to really pay attention. Know your setlist front to back. Try not to wing it. Fluidity, professionalism, and a well tuned guitar are all going to make room for your personality onstage. If you're nervous and fumbling, it's going to be obvious almost immediately. Practice in the mirror if you have to. Close your eyes if you have to. Just get INTO IT. Believe what you are saying, and others will believe you as well.
-Sell merch. Don't spend a ton of money, but remember lots of people buy merch for lots of different reasons. The venue crowd is going to want to see an incredibly convicting, emotional gig to be convinced. The coffeehouse crowd is likely to support you just because you came out, and you're busting your ass on the road (hopefully they're buying it for the right reasons, but unfortunately there's no way for you to know so swallow your pride and stop caring about it, now). Merch will help you look professional and together. Since you're probably traveling with less, set it up in a suitcase or something compact and fun. It lets people know you showed up for a reason- to spread the word about your music.
-Don't be afraid to let people know you need money for gas because, well, you do. If you're cool with a tip jar, do it. Depending on the setting, it may or may not work. If you're on a legit stage, don't. Save this for more intimate performances. Making people aware that you HAVE merchandise that you NEED to sell isn't always a bad thing, just make sure you've gained the trust of the audience already… or, just make sure it's not the first thing you say when you get up onstage.
-Play open mic's. You're never above an open mic. No matter what, it throws you back into an awkward situation with strangers, and gives you a chance to showcase maybe 3 or 4 of your best songs. Sometimes, this is better than scoring a whole gig on your own. For most of us, it's a LOT better than headlining a solo performance. It keeps you on your toes! You're playing with someone else's gear in someone else's room. Things are bound to go wrong and it's going to be totally out of your control. Learn to cope with that now, not later. It still happens in the 'real world' of gigging, believe it or not.
Hope this helps. Remember, it's just you and whatever/whoever you choose to go out with you. A little creative planning, and you're good to hit the road. That's more than you can say with a full band. If solo is your thing, there's nothing stopping you. Go get 'em… tiger?