How to Play Live Shows
Book Gigs as a Singer, Rapper, Band or Musician
Last Updated: December 2023 | 4491 words (23 – 25 minute read)
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If you’re an independent music artist, performing live shows are normally a big part of your career. It’s important to get out there and play live gigs.
But how do you do that, exactly? Especially when you’re first starting out?
In this guide, we’ll show you how to play live shows – including preparation, getting gigs and how to actually execute the performance.
If you don’t have your music already on all the streaming platforms, upload your music to digital platforms first and get your stuff out there. Having an audience to play to is an important part of performing live.
If you’re not sure who to use to get your music out there, check out our Distrokid vs. Tunecore comparison.
Ok, let’s talk about how to book and play live gigs…
Article Table of Contents
- 2 How to Get Live Gigs
- 3 How to Perform at a Live Show
Audio Version of Article
Are You Ready to Book Live Gigs?
Before we even start talking about booking gigs or setting up a performance, you need to ask yourself if you’re ready for it?
If you’re just starting out, you may not have enough of a catalog or audience to actually make it worthwhile to book gigs.
That doesn’t mean you can’t play live, however. In these cases, it can be beneficial to open up for other artists already doing live shows.
Or you may want to do shows that are looking for “cover” bands/artists – performing renditions of other peoples’ popular songs.
Those are both great ways to hone your “performance” chops at any level.
Having enough performance material to put on a show is essential. When you’re playing live, you’ll likely perform in various situations and need to be ready for them all.
If you’re opening for another artist/band, then you’ll need at least 15-20 minutes of performance material.
If you’re part of a line-up of various artists performing at a single live show, then you’ll want anywhere from 20-30 minutes of material.
And if you’re throwing your own solo shows (i.e. no other headlining acts, only openers) then you may want to have anywhere from 60-90 minutes of material good to go.
Note: I use the term “performance material” because you don’t necessarily need that amount of SONGS, because often there will be stage banter or audience engagement.
But having said that, you want to have MORE song material than banter/engagement material in your performance. After all, the audience is there for the LIVE MUSIC more than anything else.
Another important thing to consider when first starting to play live is the size of your audience.
If you’re just starting as an independent music artist, you probably don’t have any following. You’re lucky if your friends are avid listeners.
In those cases, it doesn’t make sense to throw your own live shows. You’re better served playing in coffee shops and lounges (or clubs as a cover artist). You should also take advantage of opening slots for other local artists.
But if you’ve put your music out there and have gotten some local media coverage, or have a small fan-base that’s spread through word-of-mouth, then you can throw some smaller shows.
Album release parties can be great for this level of artist/band. But booking a tour, may not be. If you’ve got a local following, then keep doing opening gigs for acts in other cities/regions.
Once you’ve built a regional or national following, then you can start throwing your own tours.
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One final thing to think about is whether or not you’re ready to actually get paid for your shows.
If you’re just starting out and building your audience, you may luck out and land a paid gig or two. But that shouldn’t be your focus.
You should be willing to play for free. Anywhere and everywhere you can.
Even if you end up throwing your own shows, when you’re building a fanbase you should try to play for free as much as you can.
Don’t charge for tickets right from the beginning – if the show is free, you’re more likely to get assess in seats. And at this stage in your career, that’s what’s most important.
Besides, even at free shows you can up-sell your merch (CDs, Vinyl, T-Shirts) if you do a good job performing.
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How to Get Live Gigs as an Independent Artist
So you think you’re ready to start performing live…
You know the types of shows you’re looking to get into based on your available material and audience.
But you don’t have a booking agent when you’re first starting out. So, how do you “get the gigs?”
Build Your Online Presence
The first thing you need to do is build an online presence. It doesn’t have to do with performing live shows directly, but is an important part of your ability to book gigs.
First and foremost, make sure you have an online presence – website, newsletter, social media profiles and (of course) your MUSIC on streaming sites.
Have an EPK
You’ll also want to build an EPK (electronic press kit). These will come in handy when you’re trying to book shows or secure spots on other peoples’ shows.
An EPK is basically a page online that showcases your photos, artist/band bio, songs and any videos you have of live performances.
It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. But it should be a single place people can get an overall idea of you as a performing artist.
Record And Share All Your Live Performances
When you start to perform live at shows and venues, make sure you have someone record video of it. You can use this video to share all over the internet.
If you’re good, that alone can help you land more gigs.
If you haven’t started doing live shows out in the real world yet, then you can still share “live performance” material online.
Just start doing live acoustic covers or acapella versions of your own songs. Or take it a step further and record yourself doing a “bedroom show” (complete with full production) and share it online.
By doing this stuff, you’ll give people (potential opportunities) a sense of your live/stage presence. And that’s HUGE when it comes to securing live performance spots.
Open Mic Nights, Competitions and Events
Search around your city for different “open mic” nights, competitions and events that you might be able to perform at.
Open mic nights are events where random people are able to go up on stage and perform. They happen in music and in comedy. Many cities have them, so search online and you’ll be able to find something. If not, why not start your own open mic night?
Things like talent shows/contests and “battle of the bands” type of events are a great place for aspiring live performers to start.
The stakes are low, and you can really nail down your performance style this way while getting good feedback. They’re also great places to build a fanbase and if you end up winning, there’s likely some additional media coverage you’ll receive.
But beyond that, an overlooked area of live events are from corporations and non-profits who hold fundraisers, galas and other random events that may require a musical act.
Depending on what kind of music you make, these events may be a great live opportunity for you.
The best way to start getting live gigs is to start building relationships with the people in your city and wider region (i.e. state/province).
Everything in business is all about relationships, especially in the music business.
And building relationships means providing value to people. Don’t just be selfish and ask/take. You need to give. Do favors… Help people out… Be friendly and really try to provide value to peoples’ lives.
Don’t expect anything in return, and paradoxically, you’ll end up getting a lot in return.
Local and Regional Artists
The first people you want to build relationships with are local and regional artists that are on your same level or a little bit ahead of you in the business.
You should know ALL of the other acts in your city that perform your type of music. And you should actually go beyond “your style of music.”
Build relationships with whoever you meet that is musical in any way. You never know how it might pay off.
The more people you are friendly with, the more chances you’ll have to open up for their shows or do collaborative events.
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Music Venues and Professionals
You also want to build relationship with music venue staff, venue owners, music press and radio personalities.
This could mean anyone from any of these areas (including coffee shop/lounge owners where there’s live music).
When you go to a live show of any type be friendly to the staff. Make conversation and get to know each other at venues you go to regularly. When you’re at a lounge and there’s a live act, be friendly to the staff, the act and anyone else involved.
If you happen to meet or know who owns the place, be helpful and friendly to them as well.
Eventually, you can start to mention your music and maybe even ask for opportunities. But remember to build the relationships first, before you ever ask for anything.
Network at Concerts
When you go to a concert, there’s a good chance there will be a lot of people involved in the music scene there.
This could mean press/media, venue owners, other acts/artists and, of course, music fans.
Networking means just being open to meeting new people, starting conversations, etc. Again, don’t ask or take, be friendly/helpful and provide value.
Don’t go into the relationship expecting something in return. Instead just do it for the sake of being “that cool person.”
You never know which relationships you build will help you land opportunities you could only ever dream of.
Online Booking Platforms
In the age of the internet, everything is made a little bit easier.
There are a lot of tools/sites online that help aspiring artists find gigs they can perform at. The most popular one being SonicBids.com.
The site lets you create an EPK and then submit that press kit to venues, bookers, and other live performance opportunities.
There are other platforms out there, and they all have their place in an overall booking plan. But don’t just use these platforms to try and land gigs.
Instead, these should be used in combination with the other methods we talk about here. It’s just one tool in your toolbox.
Throw Your Own Shows
Of course, if you’re up for it you can become your own booker/promoter and throw your own live shows.
Whether you want to do a solo one-off show, an album release party or a collaborative show with other artists, you can handle everything yourself.
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It’s a lot of work, and only works well if you (or your co-acts) have built up a bit of an audience to play to. But it’s absolutely doable.
Rent a Venue/Equipment + Promote the Show
The thing about throwing your own shows is that you have to do everything – plan your performance, practice it, book the venue, get equipment and then promote the show as well.
Like i said, it’s a lot of work. And it’s only worth it if you know you can pull at least a little bit of a crowd.
For equipment rental, you’ll need to find a local music shop that rents out live equipment like:
- PA Systems (i.e. speakers and mixers)
- Musical Instruments or Playback System/DJ Equipment
- Visual Media Displays (if applicable)
As far as the venue goes, just search around for small venues in your town and call them to ask about booking. They will most likely charge you a fee, so be prepared for that.
In terms of promotion, there are a lot of things you could do – social media ads, event website postings, physical posters/flyers, local/college radio appearances, etc.
And of course tell your existing fans and friends. And tell them to tell their friends.
When you don’t have a marketing budget, though, it’s important to get creative with how you get the word out there.
How to Perform at a Live Show
Now let’s talk a bit about how to actually perform live when you’re up there on the stage.
Don’t take this lightly. A great show has to be worked on. You don’t want to just wing-it on the night of the performance.
Here are some things to consider when you’re getting ready to perform a live music gig.
Practice/Rehearse Your Show
This is HUGE and most new and upcoming artists don’t give it the attention it deserves.
But you’re not most people are you? So put a lot of time into planning, practicing and rehearsing your live show.
It’s not something you can just do. You want to practice and prepare EVERYTHING. Start your rehearsals a couple months before you plan to actually play live.
And treat all of your rehearsals like they’re “dress rehearsals” – practice everything you’re going to do on stage, as if you’re actually on stage.
Set Lists & Live Versions
The first thing you need to get ready for your show is obviously your set list – the songs you plan on performing live.
Depending on the type of show you’re about to play, make a setlist that has as many songs as you have time on stage.
You want the flow of your performance to unfold logically. There’s an entire art to crafting a great set list, but think of it in terms of energy.
Some songs will be higher energy than others. So how are you going to order them? Your first song will set the vibe. And then where are you going to take things after that?
A general rule of thumb is to end your performance on a high note (or an emotional note). And putting a slower song right before your last song often makes sense.
Key Moments + Flow
The next thing you want to plan and practice is the flow of your show.
You’ve already got a list of songs and which order to perform them in, but now it’s about everything else in your performance.
What’s the pacing and overall flow of the show? Are there any key moments between songs where you want to do something a little bit “extra?”
When are you going to include some stage banter (i.e. talking) or engaging with audience members?
Remember that your job in this area is to PUT ON A SHOW! If people just wanted to listen to your songs, they could do it at home on Spotify.
So try and “produce” your show – for example, with different special moments throughout your performance that can help break things up. Be unique and memorable so that people will remember it (beyond your music).
Moving on Stage
This may sound weird, but you need to practice EXACTLY how you plan on moving when you’re up on stage.
This is especially true when you’re just starting out with live performance. Don’t leave things to chance, and don’t just “wing it” when you get up there.
We’ve all see the singer who stands completely still and just recites their lyrics like a lifeless statue, or the rapper that never stops running all over the stage like a chicken with it’s head cut off.
No one wants to see that shit – that’s NOT a good show.
So when you practice your songs for a live show, really spend time planning where you’re going to move on stage and when.
Are you going to perform to the left side of the room for verse 1 of this song? And then move to the right side of the stage for verse 2, while doing the choruses in the middle of the stage?
Are you going to dance at any point during your songs? Run around? Ask for audience participation?
Plan all of this stuff out, and more importantly, practice it!
Props and Visuals
You may not think you need props and visuals, but they can really aid in you putting on a better show.
And props don’t have to be corny, either. Your props could simply be the microphone stand itself, or a small stool you sit on for a slow song.
You just want to know when and how you’re going to use the props. Plan out when during various songs you’ll use a microphone stand versus holding the microphone in your hand.
Plan if you’re going to sit on a stool or stand.
And maybe you can think of creative ways to include other props in your performance so that your show is more engaging and entertaining.
Visuals are another element that you could include in your live show to make it better. Rent a projector and a big screen and have some cool animated graphics that relate to your song playing in the background.
Turning your live performance into a real SHOW can be a really fun exercise in planning.
Ok, so you’ve planned a great show – down to the tee. You’re ready to kill it on stage.
But before you go out there, you want to make sure you’re in the right frame of mind (and body).
Don’t Eat Heavy Meals or Drink Too Much
Bad food (or just lots of food) is a big no-no – for both performing on stage and in the studio.
Heavy, greasy meals slow you down – full stop. Don’t have that cheeseburger and fries for dinner before you’re set to perform.
Better yet, don’t even eat dinner until AFTER you’ve performed. When you’re stomach isn’t full, your energy level will be higher.
And you won’t have to deal with any embarrassing burps while you’re trying to sing/rap.
Drinking is another thing to be careful with. I know a lot of people like to have a shot (or three) to help take the edge off and calm the nerves before hitting a stage.
But if you overdo it, you will become very sloppy during your performance. You don’t want to slur your words, or miss your queues to start singing/rapping.
I get it… (and do it myself). If you want to use it as an aide, go ahead and have a drink. Just don’t overdo it.
It can also help to have a pre-show ritual that you do that will help you get in the right mindset before you hit the stage.
A lot of artists do this. And you should too.
Some people like to be alone and quiet before performing. Others like to hype themselves up.
Do whatever you have to do, to put yourself in the right frame of mind to give a stellar performance. That’s all that matters.
Meditation before a show can help to calm nerves. A quick pre-show visualization of what you’re about to do can also help.
Try different things out.
If you’re able to (depending on the venue/event you’re performing at), always do a “soundcheck.”
A soundcheck is basically a “dress rehearsal” on the day of the performance to make sure everything is working correctly.
It’s a quick test of the stage equipment to make sure microphone levels are right, speakers/lights are working and just generally making sure everything is good to go.
Of course, you won’t be able to do this for every live show you perform. That would be impossible in some situations.
But if you have the opportunity to do a soundcheck, don’t miss it.
Performing On Stage
Next, let’s talk a bit about actually being on stage when you’re performing your music.
There’s a few different areas that you should consider.
The first is that you have to remember, you’re there to put on a show, not just perform your music. It can be helpful to study other artists and the way they perform live.
Pull up your favorite concert movie and just watch what the artist is doing. You want to provide your audience with a similar energy and control.
A big part of performing is having the confidence to do it. Unfortunately, the only way to build confidence is through competence.
That means you just have to keep doing the thing you’re trying to get good at (in our case, performing live).
It can be difficult to overcome stage fright when you’re performing in front of a crowd, but you should remember that they are there to see YOU. You’re in control.
They are expecting you to take control and guide them through your world. Try and internalize that mindset, and it can help you be more confident on stage.
And being confident on stage is EXTREMELY important to a well received performance. Even if you have to fake it, portray confidence and control whenever you’re on stage.
Engaging with your Audience
Audience engagement is something critical to a great live show.
The people are there to be entertained, and they love being able to feel like they’re taking part in the show.
And this can mean a few different things for you…
It can mean having small, one-way conversations with the audience between songs (i.e. stage “banter”) or it can mean getting the audience to participate in the performance somehow (i.e. “everybody clap along” type stuff).
But it can also mean how you engage the crowd as a whole.
You don’t want to just perform to one section of the audience. You should be dividing the audience into 6 sections – the front side left/right/middle, and the back side left/right/middle.
You want to look at all of these different crowd sections throughout your show. Don’t make anyone feel “left out.”
That means moving around on stage and looking at specific areas so that everyone feels like you’re performing towards them.
This is a big part of performance in general, and ties back in to planning how you’re going to move and act on stage beforehand.
Promote Your Album, Merch and Newsletter
Since you’re performing in front of a (hopefully) captivated audience, there’s no better opportunity to shamelessly plug the thing you’re selling – your music.
When you’re on stage, be sure to let people know about what you’ve got going on.
That could mean promoting your album, trying to sell your merch (including CDs/vinyl) or even just asking the audience to fill out a sheet with their email address to keep up to date with you as an artist.
And you can mention these things multiple times throughout your set. Don’t be annoying with it (i.e. don’t say “buy my CD in the back” after every song), but you should promote your music and merch from stage.
Make sure you bring merch with you to every show. That way you have the opportunity to make a little money even if you’re playing a free show.
Things WILL Go Wrong…
Finally, always be prepared for things to go wrong.
They may not go HORRIBLY wrong (hopefully), but things will always go wrong. And you need to be prepared to deal with it.
Whether that means the microphone starts cutting out, or you forget a lyric or the track skips a beat – something is bound to happen and you’ll have to think on your feet.
If something like that happens (and it often will), you’re going to have to improvise.
The worst thing you can do is stop the show to try and fix something. Just keep it going – the show must go on.
If that means yelling your lyrics into the crowd while your bassist goes and switches out the microphone, do it.
If it means finding your groove again after the track skips, do it as best you can.
When things go wrong, improvise – work with what you’ve got in front of you to keep things going as smoothly as possible.
Don’t Make the Mistakes Obvious
The other thing to always remember is to NOT MAKE THE MISTAKES OBVIOUS!
If you miss a note or a word while you’re singing, ignore it and move on. Don’t laugh about it. Don’t say “oops.” Don’t apologize for it after the song.
IGNORE IT AND MOVE ON!
If you don’t hit a pitch perfectly, who cares.. move on! If your drummer is losing his timing, subtly signal to him and MOVE ON.
Don’t bring attention to the mistakes. You should just keep going as if it never happened.
And trust me, 90% of the time, the audience won’t even notice that you made a mistake in the first place.
if you decide to call it out, you’re doing it wrong. Just keep the show going and keep doing better.
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Frequently Asked Questions
You can book live gigs for your music by searching for open mic nights, networking with other bands/artists and opening up for them, renting out small venues and throwing your own show, trying to get a slot on a festival and many more ways.
You can book gigs in a variety of venues like theatres, coffee shops, lounges, conference/convention centers, universities and colleges, bars and more.
There’s a lot that goes into performing live music shows. And it can feel overwhelming as an independent artist.
And to be honest, the first time you do this stuff it kind of will be…
But that’s ok, the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. You just have to slog through the suck. Keep going and put one foot in front of the other.
You’re not going to get everything from this guide right the first (or second, or third) time you perform a live gig.
But over time, you will be able to hone a SPECTACULAR live show. Just keep trying to get better each and every time.
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Thanks for reading this long-ass guide on how to book and play live shows as an independent artist. I hope it was helpful!
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