After reading Sid Lewis’ column yesterday, I got the idea to write about bad gigs. If performing musicians have to suffer through some bad day jobs to pursue their dreams, they also have to endure some awful gigs along the way.
But when I thought back, even the worst gigs, for the most part, form some treasures memories – they sure make good stories. So, even I describe some of the worst gigs I’ve ever played, they occupy a fond place in my memory. I tried to learn from the bad points, and this makes even the bad gigs valuable ones.
They fall into some distinct categories.
Gigs for “Exposure”
No phrase strikes fear in the heart of a performing musician like ones where the only pay is tips and “exposure”. It’s often offered with the best of intentions, but justas often the person offering such gigs has a budget for food, lighting, catering and other things and simply decided that music is so fun to play, there’s no reason to even offer the pay the musicians.
Sadly, there never seems to be a shortage of musicians lining up to take such gigs. And if the gig is literally a block or two from your home, it can be hard to refuse. To be fair, sometimes these gigs DO lead to other paying gigs. But more often, they form a vicious circle, because once the word gets out you’ll play for free, nobody wants to line up to the be the first sucker to pay you. Worse, the word in the community spreads that live music can be had for free, and it hurts every single musician’s chance of being paid.
Luckily, these freebies often are so ludicrous you just have to laugh. And learn.
Gigs in Inappropriate Venues
If people sometimes think that musicians like playing for free, they often also think that musicians don’t actually take up any space in the universe.
If I had a nickel for every time I was directed to a postage-stamp corner that is supposed to the stage for a 5 piece band, I could retire. What even weirder is, many of these times, the space was for a 5 piece band with a drummer – and it’s the size of a shower stall.
I played a wedding in the mountains where they set up a stage AND a dance floor, and both were roomy enough, but dancers and musicians alike kept stepping right through the 1/8” plywood platforms. It’s a miracle no one had to call a rescue MediVac helicopter that day!
Gigs With the Completely Wrong Music
This happens fairly often, but it’s probably not fair to consider them bad gigs, because more often than not, a good band will transcend the genre and everyone will have a good time, even if it isn’t the music they expected.
I played a wedding for a young couple, and as the date approached and I got to know the couple more, it seemed like they were making a terrible choice. The couple were clearly “heavy metal” fans – he was even in a heavy metal group. “You DO understand, we play BLUEGRASS, right?”, I kept asking.
“Sure, we get that”, they said. I wasn’t so sure.
The event came, and the wedding party and guests looked at us like we were from Mars. But they were paying well, and we gave it the old school try, and what do you know? Even though we didn’t know any of their requests (It’s hard to grass up Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man”), they really appreciated the musicianship, and the fact that some pretty exciting music could be played completely acoustic in a forest amazed and delighted them. We were proud to be a part of their special day.
Gigs with Injuries
Play enough years, and you will collect these stories. I broke a nose at a gig once, but played through it. Our bass player got stung on the thumb by a wasp at another gig, but the show went on. I’m a clumsy oaf – I have strained and sprained and skinned myself at gigs, but never bad enough to halt the proceedings…
Maybe I misnamed this column. Maybe any gig you can walk (or crawl) away from is a good gig…