What exactly is it like doing a gig in London as a small unsigned band? Are there some cool venues in London and do many people go to see these gigs? How do I get a gig in London?
Lots of questions for bands who would like to get started gigging in London. So what’s the scene really like? To answer that question first I will compare it to say gigging in a smaller town (dare I say Newcastle or Manchester!).
In Newcastle for example there are only a few “rock venues”; the most famous one being Trillians. You can go there to meet some like minded rock people and check out any unsigned band you want together. And because of this Trillians has a good “walk in crowd” that go there, buy drinks and watch bands play live. As a band if you are reasonably good, committed to your cause and gig regularly you can attract like minded “walk in” fans by playing here.
Lots of Venues but no Walk in Crowd
There are loads of venues playing live music night after night in London. There is absolutely no shortage of gigs to go to (and indeed play) in this vast city. There are thousands of bands based in London and the amount of talent out there is humbling to say the least. The great thing about this is that no matter what your niche or micro niche is, you will eventually find your type of music being played somewhere out there.
The downside of this is that there is no centralised rock or live music scene like you have in smaller cities. And so you don’t find a walk in crowd in most small live music venues in London. Indeed the only place I can think of that has a random walk in crowd is the Blues Bar in London.
Bring Your Own Audience
So if there is no walk in crowd then who is going to watch you?
The people you bring to your gig of course! This is pretty easy when you are starting out as a band as your friends and grandma are curious to what you look and sound like on stage and you can draw in a large crowd. In fact scoring your first gig is pretty easy if you just want to get started. Send in a demo of you playing live in your rehearsal room to show you are capable and that can cut it.
If you are looking to get paid, that is not easy. Typically for the first 20 paying fans (who pay £5 to enter the venue and see your band) you get no share of the money at all. But you do get a cut after that, so guest number 21 will earn you £1 and with that logic 30 guests will earn you £10. So if you have bought 30 guests to a gig you can buy the band a round of beers wahey!
After a few dozen gigs bringing audiences to gigs becomes harder. The typical gig consists of you bringing your own audience, the other bands bringing their own audiences. With the very worst promoters there is very little crossover in genre, one moment the funk band has loads of people cheering, the other moment the rock band is on stage and all the funk fans have dissipated. This factory cattle grid set-up means people come only to see their friend’s bands then leave straight out of the venue for cheaper drinks somewhere else. The bands you meet, the crowds they bring…it is all a random mish mash. Given that it is also too loud to actually talk to others, networking off other crowds makes it more difficult. Another reason why this group exists!
Did I mention that some venues actually ban you from playing at their venues again if you fail to bring a minimum quota of an audience? The Bull & Gate are one of these culprits that banned my band in 2006.
Pay to Play
Some promoters like Surface Unsigned and Emergenza commit the ultimate sin in the live music scene. They hand over the tickets for bands to sell in a Battle of the Bands type gig. This is essentially pay to play and no band should have to pay to go on stage. This is a terrible practice and you should avoid this one at all costs. Exactly how it works in detail is highlighted in this fantastic post called The Great Rock ‘n Roll Swindle.
Is there a scene anywhere then?
This random empty mish mash and lack of a scene is not the case everywhere. Indeed the lack of a scene represents London in general anyway, lots of people…very few personal connections….water water everywhere not a drop to drink as they say. But at University music socieities things are different, you already have a circle of musicians and bands. Students get to know these bands slowly and a sort of scene builds up with regulars attending. The same goes for open mic nights that I blogged about earlier.
So there you have it. London does have a huge music scene that is for sure and you could gig here loads. But if you do that, don’t expect audiences to be there for you automatically. Do everything you can to engage those who are actually paying attention to you on stage and for god’s sake get their email address on your mailing list if you’ve caught their attention!
Attention to your music is precious, don’t take it for granted. And that goes for gigging anywhere in the world, not just London.
And most of all…don’t forget to have fun 😉