Music Business Underground is a monthly column attempting to put the business of being a musician in real, attainable, and actionable terms for the non-established musician.  Upcoming topics include show promotion, tour booking, recording, licensing, distribution, design, publicity, manufacturing, and more.  

Music Business Underground has now covered how to start a musical project, how to get songs written, and how to book a local performance.  This month we are discussing how to best present your songs to an audience.

The Pre-Game

A lot of the work of making a great live performance happens before the show. Not only do you need an entertaining live show, but you also need to keep everyone around you happy so that you might get more opportunities to perform.

Get the Word Out – Once you have been booked on a gig, make sure you are immediately letting people know about it.  Do your part to get the room filled.  Share the event online (on your pages, in groups, etc).  Invite friends to the event online.  Contact local press to see if you can get the event listed in calendars and to see if you can get a show preview.  Make paper flyers or posters to hang around town in shop windows.  Tell your friends about the event in person.  The promoter will notice you putting in the effort, and hopefully the show attendance and audience excitement will reflect your hard work.

Advance the Show – Call or message the show promoter a few days ahead of the show.  Make sure you have the correct venue address.  Make sure you know at what time you need to load in your gear for the performance.  Often smaller DIY and club shows will have load-in an hour before shows, while larger halls and clubs will have sound checks several hours before doors open.  Make sure you know how long your set is intended to be, and make sure you have a set that fits within the allotted time.

One of the most frustrating tour situations I was ever involved in was while opening for Against All Authority and Leftover Crack (if you are not familiar, you might guess correctly that these are punk bands).  It was our first tour having an outside booking agent, and we did not advance our Detroit show ourselves.  The show had been moved to a larger venue without our knowledge, and we did not know the proper load-in time.  We missed out on playing to 600 people that night because we were late.  Do not be like me.  Advance your shows.

Stage Layout

Another thing many larger venues will request from you before the day of performance is a stage plot.  However, whether or not the venue requests it, your band needs to know their stage layout.  A common simple stage plot is the 3-piece rock band, of which Green Day is an example.

And, here is what this performance looks like in a stage plot:


However, a band like this would have a much simpler stage plot in a smaller club.  Here is an example of what the same band would likely look like on a stage plot for a smaller venue:


Of course, your stage plot will become much more complicated with the addition of members and instruments.  In a ska band like Hepcat, each horn needs a microphone, while the keyboards need a direct input.

In a performance like Chance the Rapper gives below, he has a direct input to the DJ and one to each of his keyboardists.  He has a vocal mic, along with his DJ and one keyboardist, and there is full drum kit with microphones to the left of the stage.

And, as was stated in last month’s article, keep the changeover quick.  Have your drums built off-stage before the band before you finishes.  Have your guitars tuned.  Have your pedal boards constructed.  Set up should be only a few minutes long.  When you are finished, pull everything off stage first, and then tear down your equipment off stage.  Few things scream “amateur local band” like a band tearing down their gear piece-by-piece while still on stage.

Make It Count

Now that you have everything functioning, things are running smoothly, and you are keeping the staff happy, how are you making the show special for the audience?

Your act’s live presence should reflect the feel of the music.

Psychedelic bands like the Flaming Lips work hard to create a visually trippy experience with projected visuals, confetti, dancers, costumes, and more.

Shock rock acts like Slipknot, Ghost, and Marilyn Manson play with the visuals of horror movies.

Even the thrift store simplicity of bands like Nirvana and Weezer in the 1990s was a reaction against the glossy, glamorous look of hair metal from the 1980s.

Intimate lyric-driven songwriters like David Bazan have shifted their touring focus to “living room shows” to reflect the personal nature of their music.

Take the time to think about how your audience is currently experiencing your music in a live setting.  From there, adjust aspects of your presentation to accent your strengths and diminish your weaknesses.

An act with a unified image is tough to deny.  When the musicians walk in the room, they look like musicians.  Their merchandise display matches their attire and their live performance.  The audience feels that everything about the performance is a carefully created work of art.

Featured Artist: Denim Dragon

Denim Dragon at Peoria Pizza Works by Evan Stumpges

Denim Dragon at Peoria Pizza Works by Evan Stumpges

Denim Dragon is a three-piece freak folk band based out of Peoria, Illinois. They produce incredibly engaging performances around the region at venues that range from theaters to clubs to record stores.  The band features Clint Kehlert on vocals/guitar, Skyler Anderson on drums/sampler/backing vocals, and Houston Mckenzie on bass/keyboards/backing vocals.  Kehlert was kind enough to speak with us on this month’s topic.  

PEN: What do you feel is the most important aspect of delivering a great live show?

Clint Kehlert (Denim Dragon): The best thing you can do for a great live show is to cast a spell on the audience.  It’s like hypnotism. It doesn’t happen at every show, but you feel it in the room when it does happen.  It’s like nearly everyone is involved in what’s happening in that moment.  It’s difficult to keep a comfortable flow to maintain that spell though.

PEN: Denim Dragon have done a lot of fun things with shadow puppets and projections.  Why did you feel it was important to add these visuals to your live show?

CK: We really wish we could do more concerning visual elements, but it’s always difficult to find the time and the means to incorporate something new and interesting for every performance.  We don’t want to turn our set into a circus, but we do enjoy visuals for the audience’s entertainment and our own.  Even if it’s something small and trivial, it’s still remembered and something a little different than the expected.

Do you remember that Forecast show where Ultimate Fakebook played, and they had that light box that they took turns standing on?  It was simultaneously goofy and badass.  Plus I still remember it!  And that right there is why visuals are important.  Oh man, Ultimate Fakebook…

PEN: Can you tell us about your process of developing these types of lighting presentations?  In what ways were they collaborations (example: Maria Ford’s projections)?

CK: A lot of the presentations arise from a spontaneous concept, and then limited by time constraints and our budget!  One of us usually has some imagery in mind, and we expand from there based on what’s practical.  It’s also very much driven from what we would like to see happen at a show.  Think about lying awake at night as a kid, where the lights and shadows of your room were disturbing, but also intriguing.  I would dwell on that stuff for hours, but it was fun being captivated by the thoughts that would follow.  We think about creating that kind of atmosphere at shows.

I’ve always really liked the simple aesthetic of Japanese shadow plays, so some of the inspiration is drawn from that.  I also find myself inspired by the sets in silent films.  The sets and effects in Faust are beyond brilliant, even 90 years later.  We’d love to see Faust magnitude at a show, but we’re happy with just simple shadow figures and colored lights.  It’s all in the name of setting a mood or creating a special place.  Like when you walk into the recreated Triassic Period at a museum.

There’s no way we could pull off a lot of that stuff while delivering songs though.  So that’s where it’s nice to have external sources for visuals, like Maria.  We’d like to do more of that, collaborations I mean, like maybe having some kind of organized moving scenery, or live people creating silhouettes.  But like I said, we like to keep the visuals very simple and limited so they’re not a nightmare to execute.

PEN: What do you feel is important to remember in the execution of these ideas?

CK: It’s easy to snowball your idea into an avalanche of a production — in any instance, not just a music performance.  So, it’s important to remember that simplicity is best and usually most effective.  At the same time, I think it’s also important to challenge your ideas.  Kind of like, “We could project footage of a volcano on top of the band, but what else can we do?”  I like to think about what would move me as an audience member.  What would make me think or feel something?

Oh, a big point I should make, is it doesn’t even have to involve visuals.  There are endless creative ideas and concepts to incorporate into a show.  I know some people worry this makes you an “art band” or whatever, but it’s really just creating an atmosphere that engages the people that come to see you.  Some performers can engage you with just their stage personality alone.  I’m not that charismatic!

PEN: What does your stage plot look like?  Functionally, why do you all set up the way you do?

CK: Being connected musically and somewhat visually helps us play off each other.  I think we really wish we could play in a small circle, but that kind of excludes the audience.  It would look awkward, like if newscasters sat in a circle on TV.  The spell would be broken. So we try to do it in straight-line formation, where we still sort of have that connection.  It works out great cause I inherently hate being the main focus, plus I feel like Houston and Skyler carry equal parts in a song’s delivery as I do.  Skyler is always doing something fun to watch too, so it’s nice having him more up front.

PEN: Do you have any advice for bands on how to handle load-in and changeovers?

CK: It definitely varies per venue. Sometimes you cram your equipment into awkward off-stage spaces amongst everyone else’s gear, which can slow down set up time for sure. Sometimes you get the opportunity to pre-stage your gear – sort of set it up in waiting – which makes for a more fluid transition between acts. It’s like live radio. You don’t want much “dead air”, where people lose interest and change the channel or think your show is unprofessional. So it’s good to come up with a method or a strategy for setting up. We’ve gotten way more efficient at setting up in the past year, so I think a large part comes from experience.

It’d be really funny if we ran drills, like that military guy in the movie putting his rifle together. “This is my Juno-60. Without it, I am useless. Without me, it is useless.” But really we just think about what we can improve every time, like what issues we ran into when setting up. You also get the added bonus of eliminating stress from your setup before you play. Anxious times will break me out of my musical headspace for sure.

PEN: Do you feel that merchandise presentation ties into a band’s live presentation?

CK: This revisits the idea earlier of being noted and remembered. Merchandise sales definitely help a band out with funds, especially when they’re touring and usually broke. But above that, it’s a nice thought that your band would be remembered.  So many bands are criss-crossing the interstates and the internet, it’s easy to get completely lost and forgotten. Merchandise is a good tangible reminder of a band’s existence, especially if it’s something creative and a little different. What if there was a Denim Dragon board game? I hope not. But in the same manner that I feel a live show should stand out, maybe merchandise should too.

PEN: What can we look forward to from Denim Dragon in the coming months?  What performances do you have planned around central Illinois?  Are there more recordings in the works?

CK: The soonest thing to look forward to is catching us at Limelight Eventplex, June 14th with The Record Company. We’re moving right along with more recordings, even if slower than I intend. Sometime before this summer’s end, we’re going to have an album release show; with the new addition of merchandise. And finally too! I’ve been wanting a Denim Dragon t-shirt for like 3 years now.

Denim Dragon “Emperor Salamander Takes Another Wife” from Untitled

Denim Dragon “The Dandy” from Untitled

Denim Dragon - Untitled