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 live performance, show promotion, tour booking, recording, licensing, distribution, design, publicity, manufacturing, and more.  

Music Business Underground has now covered how to start a musical project and how to get songs written.  This month we are discussing how to get your songs in front of a live audience.

Be the Audience

Go out and see live local music.  Find the venues, crowds, and bands that feel like home to you.

Here are some places to go see live local music in Central Illinois:

Harvest Cafe
The Exchange

Glory Days Corner Barber Shop

Apollo Theater
Art Garage (First Friday)
Broken Tree
Contemporary Art Center
Ear in the Envelope (First Friday)
Fox Pub
Kenny’s Westside Pub
Limelight Eventplex
Midnight Espresso
Peoria Brewing Company
Peoria Pizza Works
Rail II
Red Barn
Renaissance Park Community Garden (First Friday)
Rhythm Kitchen
Sky Harbor
Studios on Sheridan (First Friday)
Tartan Inn

Black Sheep Cafe
Radon Lounge

While you are out enjoying the local music scene, take note of whether the artists performing are local or touring, whether the songs are covers or originals, whether the sound is quiet or loud, and whether the music is gentle or aggressive.  Where do you find the artists performing that most line up with the style and sound of your project?

If you like a band that performed, tell them so once they leave the stage.  A simple “Great set” can start a valuable conversation or plant the seed for a future friendship.

Talk to the staff.  Take note of how they interact with you.  Do they strike you as people that you would like to work with?  Does the staff book the venue or is it booked by outside promoters (see Diplomatic Relations in Peoria – Chernobyl Events, S.A.W. Events, and NTL Productions in Bloomington-Normal)?

Reach out to those you strike up friendships with to see if you can collaborate on an event.  Chances are that established venues will not want to work with your new project until you have shown yourselves capable of both performing a quality set and drawing an audience.  That is, chances are that no one wants to promote your first gig.

Sarah Marie Dillard at Red Barn Open Stage - Photo by Don Lindell

Sarah Marie Dillard at Red Barn Open Stage – Photo by Don Lindell

Open Mic / Open Stage

There are a few ways to bypass this obstacle.  The easiest method is to perform at open stages around town.  These are unbilled performance nights at venues where anyone can walk in, sign up, and perform a few songs.  You do not get paid, but you do get to perform in front of a small crowd of musicians and the staff who run the venue.

Here are some venues that host open mic nights in Central Illinois:

Jazz Up Front (Thursday)
Lunkers (Thursday)
Six Strings Club (Wednesday)

Bentley’s (Monday)
Cowboy Monkey (Tuesday)
Rose Bowl (Monday)

Beanhive (some Mondays)

Buzzed Coffee Bar (Tuesday)
Kenny’s Westside Pub (Wednesday)
Limelight Eventplex (Wednesday)
Peoria Pizza Works (Thursday)
Red Barn (Tuesday and Friday)
Tartan Inn (Sunday)

Black Sheep Cafe (monthly)


Other Common First Gigs

Talent shows are another good way to get gigs early.  Perform at school.  Perform at camp.  Perform at church.  Get in front of people and play.  My first original music performance was at an after-hours talent show in my high school’s lunch room.

Another way to get started is to play house shows and parties.  Most colleges tend to have a house party/show scene built up around them.  If you have the friends and are in the know on who is promoting these events, this might be an easier way to start than a traditional venue.  Also, you will probably find that these house events will have much greater attendance for a band starting out.

Cold Grip performing at a Diplomatic Relations event at Rail II in Peoria, IL

Cold Grip performing at a Diplomatic Relations event at Rail II in Peoria, IL

Follow Through Once You Get Booked

Once you do get your project booked into a live gig, make sure you do not end your work there.  Promote the gig on social media.  Produce and distribute posters and hand bills around town.  Talk to your friends about your excitement for the performance.

Make sure you are bringing as many people to see your band at the gig as possible, because the promoter/venue is going to be paying attention to how much you draw into the room.  Your draw will significantly influence your future live performance opportunities.

Be well-rehearsed.  You want to hit the ground running, so have your music perfected to a point that people are going to leave your performance impressed and spreading word of your project around town.

On the day of the performance, make sure you are at the venue for the correct load-in time, which should have been worked out with the promoter during the week prior.  Ask questions and follow directions so that you know you are fulfilling the needs of the promoter/venue.

Make sure that you are efficient when setting up on stage and tearing down off of stage.  A good touring band can set up and tear down in 5 minutes.  You should not take more than 15 minutes or you are cutting into the rest of the night’s musical acts.  Always set up drums off stage so that you can quickly move them onto stage fully constructed.  Similarly, always tear down drums off stage.  Quickly move the large constructed pieces off stage and then tear down once the stage is clear for the next act.  This way of thinking applies to the whole stage.  Do not waste everyone’s time assembling and taking apart a pedal board on stage.

Assuming that your first gig went well, make sure to follow up with the parties involved to see if there are more events that your project can be a part of.

Featured Artist: Sarah Marie Dillard

Sarah Marie Dillard - Photo by Eric Higus

Sarah Marie Dillard – Photo by Eric Higus

Sarah Marie Dillard is a singer/songwriter based out of Peoria, Illinois.  With multiple performances scheduled per week, she likely performs in the Peoria area more than any other musician.  Dillard recently performed her song “Bad Man” to an audience of 800 at Northwestern Law School in Chicago as part of a Q&A event regarding the cases of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey (see the Netflix docu-series “Making A Murderer”).

I chose to interview Sarah Marie Dillard for this month’s article because her style of booking multiple weekly local performances and often performing long sets in restaurants and bars differs greatly from my own personal DIY/punk/rock booking style that caters to an artist performing only monthly locally and with short live sets.

PEN: When and where was your first gig?  How did you get booked on that first gig?

Sarah Marie Dillard: My first paid gig was for Uncle Bob’s (of Uncle Bob’s Ice Cream) Annual Birthday Bash, and I’ve been playing that birthday party ever since! I befriended Bob at one of his favorite spots, Peoria Pizza Works Thursday Night Open Stage, so he was familiar with my music, and luckily I also had a great recommendation from our dear mutual friend, Kevin Keyes. My first business venue, however, was Kenny’s Westside Pub, and I’ve been a regular there ever since! Aaron Miller was kind enough to recommend me to Sean Kenny and tell me – there’s really no other way to say it – how to do live music business. These are just a few of the bright stars in Peoria that make up my nightlife sky, and I can’t thank them enough for the gifts they’ve given me and the wisdom they’ve shared.

PEN: How do you stay in touch with area promoters and venues?

SMD: The greatest piece of advice that I have to give regarding the live music business is this: show up. It may sound too simple, but it’s the truth. You want owners to remember you? Buy a meal at their bar, invest in their venue, meet their staff, and most importantly, SUPPORT THEIR LIVE MUSICIANS. You want people to remember your face? They have to see it first. You want them to crave your music? You may have to give them a free sample, maybe even a few. If you’re not out where live, local music is happening, you will have no idea what is happening in live, local music, and you will speedily lose all relevancy. The number one way to get people to invest in your business is to first invest in theirs. We are all in this together.

PEN: You perform locally multiple times per week.  How do you keep your performance as a valued commodity while performing in volume?

SMD: When you work as often as I do, one of the greatest obstacles you will face is capturing and holding interest. It is for this reason that I tend to tailor my repertoire to particular venues that offer live music as a gift to their customer base who has (hopefully) already come to expect an exceptional and unique experience from each visit to that venue. Venues that expect me to provide their customer base, well that’s a different story. However, I fight hard against this current. I would like to believe that most nights I hold the interest of my audience in spite of the fact that my music is a readily available product. This is all the more motivation for me to hold that note just a little longer, or to give that melody a little more support and soul, or to play that song that no one is expecting, or to put my whole personality into my stage presence so that the audience leaves considering me a friend. It is also a great motivation for me to create as many different kinds of listening experiences as possible not only so that I can keep the attention of live music consumers but also so that venues have a selection of “products” that they can request from me to suit a particular audience for a particular event. One evening you may catch me solo, the next you may catch me with an electric loop pedal artist, the next with a jazz trio. It can be done. It takes hard work and discipline.

PEN: You sometimes host the Open Mic Night at Red Barn.  How did that gig come about?

SMD: The Red Barn is probably the second bar stage I ever played. I began attending open stage pretty shortly after I turned 21 and befriended many of the hosts and staff. There was an evening when one of the hosts had to cancel last minute, and for some reason they thought of me. Once they saw I could take care of the open stage, I began hosting more regularly and ended up taking over the First Friday RBOS. Several years later, I now host every Tuesday evening. Signup is at 8:45PM; music from 9:00PM until midnight. You never know who will show!

PEN: You currently perform solo, with Dillard & Hilliard, and with SMD & the Underground.  Can you tell us how these projects are similar and how they differ?  Who is involved in each project?  What do they play?  How does the music differ?

SMD: These projects are similar in many ways but serve different purposes for my business and also provide my audiences with very different experiences. I’ve been performing solo for just about my entire musical career, but with the beginning of new endeavors, this area of my business could be much more considered part of my “day job” along with teaching. Dinner gigs are enjoyable and pay the bills, but singing for people who came to eat is never going to feel the same way as singing for people who came to hear you sing.

Dillard&Hilliard is a side project of mine; here, I team up with one of my favorite “partners in rhyme,” Mr. Drake Hilliard. Drake is a rare treat – a live electric loop pedal artist. In combination with my particular solo style, we make a very unique duo. We perform a large amount of original music with a few covers, and we alternate leads, so sometimes you’ll hear my music with Drake playing guitar or looping over top, and sometimes you’ll hear Drake’s music with added vocals from me. Basically, it’s a way for people who enjoy our individual music and styles to catch us at the same venue on the same night, and it’s a great excuse for me and Drake to jam whenever we get the notion.

SMD & the Underground has stolen my heart and is what I spend most of my time thinking about and working on these days. In this group, I am honored to feature the musical abilities of Mr. Brandon Mooberry on upright bass and Bob Kelly on percussion. We are a SoulFolk trio with a twist of modern jazz; we enjoy performing my original music with a never-before-heard gusto and sprinkling a few fresh arrangements of jazz standards and classic hits on top. I’ve been performing solo for years, but the truth is that what you hear me sing and play isn’t necessarily anywhere close to what I’m hearing in my head. With the expert musical touch and unique personalities of my boys, I’m finally able to bring to the stage the music I’ve been hearing in my head for years. I met Brandon and Bob at a time when I considered the thought of fronting a band one of the most unlikely plans for my musical career. I am so happy that I was wrong. It is a privilege to grow with these upstanding young musicians.

PEN: You perform a lot of cover songs but also have some incredible original material.  When can we expect an album of your original music?

SMD: I would love to announce an official release date for my full-length original album, but unfortunately I cannot yet. There are plans in place, however, that will result in at least a sample of that full-length album being available for immediate listening in the next couple months. It is difficult for me to answer this question without divulging all my SUPER SECRET PLANS – just kidding – but I can tell you that what I’m cooking up is not your typical studio recording or album release. I thrive when I sing live; I am dedicating extra time to the planning stages of this execution so that that same passion can come across in a polished, studio recording. Probably the most exciting announcement I have regarding my album release right now is that it will feature several brand new tunes and will be supported in full-length by the Underground, so if you’re imagining a summary album of the last five years of my life, I’m happy to tell you that that is not what you’re going to get. Stay tuned!

PEN: Where and when can we catch you performing this month?

SMD: Thanks for that question! Our next Underground performance is at Kenny’s Westside Pub on Saturday, May 7th (10PM-2AM). I will also be hosting Red Barn Open Stage every Tuesday evening, per the usual, and will be performing live with Dillard&Hilliard at the Hideout in Mason City on Saturday, April 30th (8PM-12AM). We would love to see some new faces at any or all of these events. Thanks for supporting live, local music this season!

Now get out there and get yourself a gig!  That’s all for Column #3 of Music Business Underground for PEN.  Please tune in next month for #4.  Thank you to Sarah Marie Dillard for contributing to this month’s column.  Until next time, take care of each other and keep practicing.