Running a live music event

So you have a venue, you like live music and you want to create live music events?

"Liked this a lot. Didn't have to think twice about including it. Great Chorus that could become a real anthem over the years!" - Guys from Gigride and the The Fair Gig Initiative

A live music event when done right will always be more memorable for an audience than a DJ, juke box or other background music. Having decided to put one on, here is what you need to do...

1/ Prepare the necessary fundamentals to ensure the event runs smoothly.

As a general rule, the venue should provide:

  • Licencing
  • Stage or performance area
  • PA
  • In House engineer
  • Backline
  • Ticketing
  • Marketing
  • Door person
  • Merch Table

Licensing sounds a bit scary but it really isn't.

It's just to make sure that songwriters are being paid for their efforts. If your venue is a licensed premises, the music finishes before 11pm and the audience is fewer than 200 people you don’t need to worry about a license for live music. The same goes if the music is acoustic only.

In other situations you may need to pay £9 for an easily obtained PRS (Performing Rights Society) music licence. Ideally have a look at the PRS website to be sure.

The band will need somewhere to play.

A raised stage with a stage lighting is ideal but a corner of the room can also be pressed into service to accommodate a band. Consider the acoustics of the room and the availability of power sockets as well.

An audience will soak up a lot of the sound made by a band so a band playing to an empty room will sound louder and more echoey than one playing to a large audience. Also consider putting thick fabric across the back of the stage. Not only does this look more like a proper stage, it also helps control the sound being made by the drums and other instruments making it easier for the audio engineer(s) to get a better sound.

As a general rule guitarists and keyboard players will need two power sockets each. Power will also be needed on or near the stage to run FOH and foldback amplifiers/speakers and any lighting powered from the stage area.

A PA (or 'Public Address') system is the sound system that will allow the band to be heard properly by the audience and also to hear themselves on stage.

As a bare minimum a PA should have vocal microphones, mic stands, DI boxes for keyboards and acoustic guitars, a mixing console, amplifiers and FOH (Front Of House) speakers for the audience. It should really include foldback (amplified speakers to enable the band to hear themselves). An ideal foldback system allows each band member to hear a mix of the band customized to themselves. Usually the band members have to make do with a choice of two or three tailored mixes coming from their own dedicated foldback wedge or speaker. Bands should provide a Tech Rider so that the venue knows what is ideally required for bands they have booked.

For anything larger than a very small venue, the PA should include enough microphones and a large enough mixing console to be able to mic up the guitar amplifiers and drum kit as well as vocals. When only some of the instruments are going through the PA, the levels have to be determined by the volume of the drum kit and other non-miced sounds coming from the stage. This means that guitar amplifiers need to have their volumes adjusted on stage to be at the right level to balance the drums and each other. This give very little leeway to the FOH engineer who can do little more than just try to make sure each individual instrument can be heard.

If however the drums and guitar amps are miced up, the engineer can craft the sound much better for the room and the audience, and also give band members much more choice regarding what they can individually hear on stage.

The In House Engineer is the person who mixes the sound for the bands. He or she should know the PA very well and be able to work out how to best accommodate the needs of each band regarding being heard properly on stage and by the audience. Some bands will want to use their own FOH engineer. In this case the band's engineer will usually want to work with the In House engineer to get the best out of the PA provided.
Back line is the on stage equipment that is generally universal for most bands and usually provided by venues.

Backline would usually include a drum kit, bass guitar amplifier and at least one guitar amplifier and perhaps a keyboard stand. Many bands do not bring their own amplifiers or drum kits to gigs, relying entirely on backline provided by venues. Often the drum kit will not include 'breakables', requiring the drummer to bring some or all of their own cymbals, snare drum, kick pedal and hi-hat clutch. Often the backline will be provided by one band to cover the needs of a number of bands for an event. These situations should be worked out in advance to ensure every band has what they need to perform.

If the event is a ticketed event, them the venue needs to organise the tickets.

Bands should be given the opportunity to sell tickets to the event with as much advance time as possible. Ideally people should be able to purchase tickets directly or online so make sure you have the systems in place to cater for both.

Marketing is one of the areas that bands and venues are always frustrated with each other about.

Bands want the venue to pour money into marketing the event to ensure they will be playing to lots of new potential fans while venues want the bands to be marketing the event to their existing legions of fans to ensure a packed out audience of people who will enjoy the event and spend lots of money at the bar.

The reality is that both the venue and the bands need to work hard to get the word out about the event and ensure they get the most amount of people there as possible, benefiting both bands and venue.

To help with this most bands will have a press pack including decent photos that can be used for marketing, and are usually more than happy to speak to local press about upcoming performances.

If it is a ticketed event or there is a door charge, then someone need to be employed to check tickets and take money from those paying on the door.

Sometimes a friend of one of the bands may be roped in to do this but ideally the venue need to take responsibility for ensuring that only valid ticket holders gain entry.

Many bands will want to sell merchandise like t-shirts and CDs at the gig and this means providing a 'merch table' for them.

Each band would normally take responsibility for providing someone to 'sell' the merchandise from the table but bands may also ask the door person if they can provide this additional service. It is up to the venue and their door person if they accede to this request!

2/ Decide if you want covers band(s) or originals or a mixture of both.

At one end of the spectrum there are function, tribute and cover bands; at the other end there are originals bands who only perform their own material. Each will attract a different audience.

More people will come to see a covers or tribute band than an originals band. But good originals bands will attract a group of people that covers won't. These will be people who care passionately about music, who want to keep up with and be part of the scene and will have a higher proportion of opinion formers.

Many members of the public just want to hear familiar music and will be quite happy seeing a band playing songs they know from the radio already. This is why tribute and cover bands are usually much more successful than originals bands (and a much more viable financial option for musicians to be part of). Tribute and cover bands with a good reputation may even bring a sizable audience with them.

However a musician who only plays covers will never experience the joy of having his or her own work appreciated by an audience and in the same way a venue that only puts on cover bands will never experience the satisfaction of gaining a reputation for introducing an audience to the next big thing.

People who like original music will be grateful to be introduced to something new they really like. And a venue that regularly promotes this will gain a reputation and a loyalty that other venues will never realise. The other advantage for venues is that originals bands usually cost much less to book than cover bands.

3/ Research and book your band(s).

You need to decide first how many bands you want. A function band will be able to play for several hours. With tribute or cover bands you may want one band to do the whole night or you may want a support band as well. Many bands will also be able to fill an hour or two but you may also want some variety in your event, especially if you have originals bands.

There is a balance to be struck between putting on more bands to try to get more people through the door, and giving each band a decent enough time to play a proper set. Venues often think if each band brings 'X number of punters' then the more bands, the more punters. However this needs to be balance against the fact that a band's fans would rather see them perform a full set than just 4-5 songs which is often all a band get to play if there are too many bands booked. A quality event with 3 or 4 bands playing 45 minutes to an hour each is going to be a better overall event that 6 bands playing for 25 minutes each. It will give each band a proper chance to shine and play the material that their fans would like to hear. It will also improve the reputation of the venue as one which likes to feature good original music rather than just provide samples of it.

To choose your band(s), you may want to listen to recent released recordings but ideally look at some live videos so you can see a live performance. Many problems with a live performance can be fixed in the studio so recordings will give you an idea of the band's style of music but not necessarily how good they look and sound live on stage. Band's like Denzeity have a dedicated videos page on their website to allow potential bookers to see for themselves what their live performance will be like.

Ideally you want a crowd of people who will come to see the first band and stay through to see the last one. That will only happen if they are enjoying the music. So check out each band before hand to make sure the quality of their performance and material is good.

In many cases an audience member will only know of one of the bands playing so ideally choose bands that would likely be liked by the same sort of people. That doesn't mean they have to sound the same but boy band style pop probably won't be appreciated by fans of prog metal and vice-versa.

4/ Payment

Every musician deserves and would like to be paid properly for their work, just as a plumber or any other person doing a job should be. However most musicians also understand that the money a venue makes from any particular event has to cover numerous things including paying bar staff, buying drinks wholesale, rent on the premises, advertising the event etc. Entertainment costs should be a part of that budget but if the venue is paying out more money than comes in, they will soon go out of business and there will no longer be a venue to play at all. And that means one thing - a decent size audience or little in the way of payment.

As expected, the bands most likely to attract the largest audience will also expect the largest payment. Tribute and cover bands, especially prominent ones will expect a large fee. A band that regularly brings 30 people to see them play should expect more than a band that only brings 10 people however it should also be remembered that musicians have spent hours learning and honing their craft, often spending several hours every day from early childhood learning and practicing songs. Bringing these skills to a stage to entertain an audience shouldn't be undervalued.

Ideally band members should be paid at least Musician union rates. At the end of the day the band and venue will agree on payment terms that both accept. This could be a set fee or based on ticket sales, bar takings or anything else.

It is worthwhile considering offering band members a free drink and a meal if you serve food. It will make them more likely to stay around for longer and encourage their friends do the same. And it will cost you much less than the perceived value.

5/ Final Checks

Make sure everyone can find the venue easily and know where they can park or where local public transport is. Bands who haven't been there before won't know the little idiosyncrasies of your venue's area like you do.

For starters make sure everyone involved know what's going on including a running order with timings and has contact details for everyone else. Give each band at least 15 minutes sound check if possible. This will also give the FOH engineer a chance to see and hear what he or she is working with. If not, then at least a line check to make sure everything will be working when they start playing.

As with most things, anything that can go wrong will go wrong so it's worth being over prepared for any eventuality. It is worthwhile have plenty of gaffa tape (duct tape), pins, paper, pens (felt tipped and normal), extension leads, powerboards and extra XLR leads and intrument leads. Bands ought to make sure they have all they need with regard to many of these things but being over prepared could make the difference between a event that runs smoothly and one where a band (and you) have to apologise to an audience because some equipment is missing. By that time it doesn't mater who's 'fault' it is, it's just a bad situation for everyone and better to avoid if possible.

Most bands will be as flexible as possibly but that doesn't mean you can take them for granted if your side of things is not organised properly.

Lastly, enjoy the event. If everything has been organised as well as possible the band(s) will feel comfortable performing and give a good performance in return. And hopefully you'll gain a reputation as a great place to go to see quality live music!