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Inspired by the CMJ Music Marathon? DNAinfo Has Tips on How to Start a Band

By Heidi Patalano | October 15, 2013 6:39am
 DNAinfo New York provides a guide for forming a band and getting a gig in town.
Making the Band in New York City
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BAY RIDGE — The annual CMJ Music Marathon kicks off Tuesday, when hundreds of unknown bands descend on the city in the hope of getting exposure that will help them make it big. The festival can also serve as inspiration for musicians who spend hours toiling away alone at home — people like Neville Elder.

It took Elder six years in New York City to come up with enough songs to start his own band, the folk noir outfit Thee Shambels.

But the photographer and musician said getting up the nerve to share his songs with the public was the breakthrough that made his whole music career possible.

“When you write songs, it’s no good just leaving them in your bedroom or playing them to yourself,” said Elder, 44. “You want to get out there and you want to see how they work, and you want to show people. You want to be in a band. Being in a band is fun.”

New York City is full of bedroom musicians, many of whom are intimidated by the scale and scope of talent that crowds the city's venues. But it's this volume that works in the favor of young bands, those in the field say.

Small music venues often have three to five bands on stage, seven days a week. And with persistence and the right tools, the next band to take the stage could be yours.

DNAinfo New York spoke with musicians, bookers and engineers to put together a quick guide on how to get yourself out of the house and on stage.

Step One: Find Your Bandmates

With songs you’d like to perform and a specific kind of sound in mind, seek out like-minded musicians to fill out your band. Craigslist remains a go-to spot where musicians connect, according to Elder.

“You’ve got to say right up front what you want,” he said. “Link to any demos — that’s really important because they’re going to want to know what sort of music it is."

Representing yourself as honestly as possible will attract people who want to be a part of what you do.

Step Two: Start Playing

Practice spaces vary in price and quality, but a new band should need little more than a drum kit and some soundproof walls. Find and book a space through BandSpacesNYC or NYCPAspaces.org.

You can also check out the DNAinfo guide on where to practice anything in the city.

After auditioning your players and selecting your band mates, set an agenda for the first rehearsal.

“You’ve got to know the songs before you take it to the people you’re going to rehearse with,” Elder said. “It’s up to you to lead the rehearsal.”

Step Three: Build Your Set List and Make a Recording

The goal for a fledgling band is to play the first gig. With that in mind, develop 45 minutes of material — eight to nine songs. Throw in some cover songs if there are not that many original songs in your repertoire. However, keep in mind that some clubs demand that bands play only original material.

Before you can approach bookers about setting up a gig, you need to have recordings. Some bookers, including manager and booker for the Red Lion in Greenwich Village, Niamh Mahon, specifically request a live performance recording.

“I don’t want to hear doctored demos or produced music because it doesn’t give me an idea of how they’re going to sound live on the stage,” she said.

Elder suggests volunteering to play for a friend’s birthday party.

“That’s the first gig you should have, because it’s fun, there’s no pressure and maybe you can get someone to video you,” he said.

Open mic nights are also a good place to get comfortable with playing live. They happen every night of the week in the city, but prepare for a glut of participants. Arrive at least two hours early to get your name on the list and have two to three songs ready to play.

Step Three: Find a Venue and Book a Gig

The most important thing to club managers is that you bring with you a crowd of fans that will drink at the bar. Therefore, when looking for a venue for your first-ever gig, target neighborhoods where your friends live.

“Ideally I’d like to have every band bring 10 people in, but at the very least, every person in the band should bring at least one or two people,” said Andy Heidel owner and booker for The Way Station in Prospect Heights.

Check out the venue’s website to find out what their policies are regarding bookings. Beware of pay-to-play venues that require that you buy up tickets to the gig that you must sell in order to secure a slot.

“Normally on the website, they’ll tell you what the deal is. They’ll tell you what equipment they have. That’s called backline,” Elder said.

“They always have some amps, normally a drum kit. But their stuff is normally in pretty sh---y repair,” he said. Drummers often must supply their own cymbals.

Bookers usually schedule bands two to three months ahead of the performance date. However, a good tip is to keep an eye on the club’s schedule to see if any cancellations leave vacancies you can fill.

“Say, ‘Hey! I see you’ve got a space at 7:30 on Wednesday evening. We could do that slot for you,’” Elder said. “Quite often the booker’s going to go 'Fine, no problem. Let’s just fill that f---ing spot,' because it’s a pain in the ass.”

When emailing the booker, make sure to send links — not attachments — to your recordings.

“I tell them to send me a link and it’s best if they’re on ReverbNation, BandCamp or SoundCloud,” Heidel said. “Those are all great places to have their music available.”

Step Four: Practice Your On-Stage Etiquette

Projecting confidence is key to engaging the crowd at a show. A successful interaction between a band and an audience will lead to having more fans at future shows.

“If [a band is] nervous on stage it makes the whole room uncomfortable,” said Dylan Brevis, sound engineer at the Red Lion.

“Even if you’re faking your confidence, you really have to sell it," he said.

Get to know your set list and play through it often, in order to work out any kinks in the transitions from one song to another. If you and your bandmates are prepared and in sync, it will be easier to focus on the audience when it's go time.

"A lot of bands talk to each other [on stage] and they think that nobody else notices because the music’s playing," Red Lion's Mahon said. "With new bands, they’re sometimes more worried about each other and what’s happening on stage. They should have that together before they come in. It makes a huge difference if a band is very interactive with a crowd. "

Step Five: Rock the House

Sound engineers often have a thankless task in smaller clubs.

“The issues I have are with bands who are playing a small club in the Village and expect Madison Square Garden sound,” Brevis said.

“There’s nothing I can really do to make them sound better if everyone’s playing at a 10 the entire time."

After you blow everyone in the audience away with your amazing sounds, keep in mind that although this is your big debut, to everyone else you’re just one band playing on a night with many bands playing.

“I understand that they want to talk to their friends, work the room and schmooze but we don’t have time for that,” Brevis said. “I’ve got to get your s--t offstage and get another band on.”

Being courteous is key to being invited to play a venue again, so keep your gear organized and out of the way of waitstaff and patrons.

“The bands I love and the bands I have back are the bands that are fantastic music-wise and are also incredibly gracious and thankful to have a spot,” Heidel said.

Step Six:  Keep Booking and Keep Gigging

Was your first show a disaster? Is it taking forever to book the first gig? Keep at it.

“You shouldn’t give up,” Elder said. “Somebody will give you a gig eventually. If there’s somewhere you like, just keep hassling them.”

Check out DNAinfo New York's weekly Gigs of the Week column here.