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5 Keys to Proper Gig Etiquette

Over the course of my gigging career, I’ve seen my fair share of musician’s bad behavior while on the gig. I’m talking about the musician who shows up thirty minutes late to the gig (or not at all), leaving the band awkwardly waiting while the club owner works himself into a fit of rage. The drunken bassist nodding off against the wall, sluggishly plucking at his strings while the band fights against his deteriorating time. The guitarist who shows up to the fancy five-star restaurant to perform in a ratty t-shirt and jeans, or the vocalist who spits out colorful obscenities in the mic between tunes at a classy wine tasting event.

Some musicians fail to realize that they are a part of a business; a professional business in which they represent themselves and the others they are working with. Sometimes they forget that when they are on the gig they are working a job.

I had a rehearsal one afternoon that included a great bassist I really respect and felt honored to play with. After the rehearsal we were all hanging out in his living room having a drink, when he asked me a simple question: “Are you working tonight?” I don’t know why, but that really stuck out to me. Of course it’s nothing profound. Perhaps it was the way he said or the casual nature of his tone that made it so powerful. He didn’t say, “Are you playing tonight?” He said,“Are you working tonight?” This guy had respect for his occupation. It was a reminder for me that when I am up on the bandstand I am officially at work, like an office employee goes to work, or a chef. The word “work” in this case, doesn’t refer to something we “hate to do but have to do”. We chose music as a career because we love it. Work for the musician means: this is our job, our profession, we love it, and it’s a great privilege.

Now, before you disdainfully exit out of this article thinking that I am about to play “moral police” and tell you what not to do, let me say this: This is music. I understand it’s different from other jobs. My aim is not to “ruin all of the fun” but rather to offer some advice that will help you get hired again! The way you conduct yourself on the gig makes a huge impact on whether your fellow musicians or the club owner will hire you again. So if I still have you with me, check out these 5 keys to proper gig etiquette:

Define The Job.

Don’t walk into a gig not knowing what is expected of you. If you are the bandleader booking a gig at a venue, make sure you have worked out all of the details with them in advanced.

First make sure you are in agreement with the price of your services. I had a guy call me for a gig once, and when I asked him what it paid he told me:“I’m not sure, but I know they pay.” Makes it kind of hard to accept a gig with an answer like that, and in addition, if there was no agreement on payment who’s to say they have to pay at all? Make sure there is an agreement, and if necessary, get a contract signed especially if there is substantial money involved.      

Make sure you have defined the length of the gig, and how many breaks you will take to avoid any confusion. Also ask details like: What is the dress code? You don’t want to show up too casual or too overdressed. Are drinks and food part of the pay? I’ve done a lot of gigs as a sideman where I asked the bandleader if drinks were on the house. He would say, “Yeah, I mean, I’m sure that’s cool.” At the end of the gig the bartender would be chasing me down telling me I owe for two drinks, acting like I was trying to ditch my bill. Things like this make everybody look bad! There are plenty of other details you might want to work out ahead of time depending on the job. You can fill in the blanks, but the point is work out the details!

Why is this good etiquette? It creates a good line of communication between you and the venue or you and the bandleader. It helps avoid issues at the gig that could lead to unprofessional misunderstandings.

Don’t Abuse Your Breaks.

This is something that a lot of musicians are guilty of! As stated earlier, make sure you work out the break situation ahead of time, whether it be one big long one or a few shorter ones. However, as a general rule it is standard to take 15-20 minute breaks per hour-45 minute set.

At one of my recent weekly gigs, a few musicians the bassist knew came by to listen. We were hanging out with them on the break, and when I saw that we had taken a 16 minute break, I told the bass player it was time to get back up and play. As we walked back to the stage I overheard one of them say to the other: “Dang, that was a really short break. This guy runs a tight ship”, to which I smiled and thought to myself with shameless pride: “That’s right. I run a tight ship, and that’s why they keep me!”            

Be repectful of your employers money. Afterall, money is one of the most sensitive things. Be fair about your breaks and how much you play. Obviously we need breaks, but why would we avoid playing are instruments and having fun anyway?

Be Punctual.

One of the worst things you can do is not show up to a gig on time! It’s pretty much like saying to the bandleader or club owner “I am not reliable, this gig isn’t that important to me, and you really shouldn’t hire me ever again.” You could have every excuse in the world (and I’ve heard some good ones) but it still leaves you in the red zone.

Try to be at the gig at least 25-30 minutes early. Not only does it give you time to set up and get comfortable, it’s courtious to the other musicians you are playing with. No one wants to be worrying if you are going to show up 5 minutes before the gig starts.

Bass players tend to be the worst with this (no offense guys). For most casual gigs it only requires them to wheel in the instrument, take off the case and play, so it seems acceptable to show up just in time for downbeat. Wrong! Get there early. Show the bandleader you care about the gig, and don’t leave him/her nervous for your arrival. A number of times I’ve had club owners come up to me right before downbeat asking where one of the musicians was. These are the ones hiring you, so definitely don’t make them feel uncomfortable!

Handle Your Liquor.

     Go ahead and drink as much as you want. That’s right, even have a few before the gig. No judging here! Just be sure of one thing: that you can still do your job well and treat the music with respect. Why bring this up? Getting wasted on the gig and sacrificing musical quality is not a foreign concept among musicians.

There’s nothing wrong with having some drinks on the gig. I like to enjoy some beers while playing myself. However, everyone knows their limit. Most workspaces don’t allow you to drink on the job, but considering a musician’s workspace is often restaurants, bars, parties, and clubs, it has always been acceptable. Just drink responsibly and don’t allow your job to turn into your college frat party days! I even know some guys that have made a “no drinking on the gig rule” for themselves. To each his own. Be responsible. Your bandmates will notice and so will your employer.

Know Your Audience.

     This one is short and simple. Play to what the gig calls for. Be mindful of the space, and don’t over power. Do your best to avoid volume complaints when playing background music gigs. Choose repertoire that is appropriate for the occasion. Remember that you are playing for the enjoyment of others and not just for yourself. I guarantee that practicing good gig etiquette will help you enjoy yourself more and get more work in the future.

If you liked this article you might also enjoy:

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Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


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