Thirteen Rules For Playing A Rock & Roll Show (Part One)

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A quick history lesson. The origin of popular music was not the recorded song. The album did not become the focus of creating music as entertainment until about the 1960s. The origins and the lifeblood of music has always been in performance. It predates recorded sound by centuries. From ancient narrative prose to 19th century opera to early 20th century porch music, creating music in groups and for audiences is one of the oldest and most singular social practices known to man.
But what it seems that some of us may have forgotten, what has somehow been misinterpreted, is that when you are a band, there is nothing more important than the show. A great rock show is the most important thing a band can do. It’s more important than a record, it’s more important than getting good press – it’s the absolute most important thing you can do. Why? Because that’s the reason you’re in a rock band. You play in a rock band to play music. 

So I present to you my Thirteen Rules For Playing A Rock & Roll Show. Surely, these aren’t the only thirteen. There are more. Lots more. But these are the big ones. Bear in mind that these are my Rules. They’re mine and only mine. Don’t get overzealous about it, kid. You can go ahead and call me an asshole. You can proselytize to our common friends just how wrong I am. You can make up your own fucking rules. But I can say with a degree of certainty that by adhering to these mores, I’ve cultivated a band that plays one of the most white-hot shows around.

Unless most of your music is slow, you probably shouldn’t play the slow songs until you’ve developed a following and have sold some records. It bores people. And when people are bored, they tune out. And when people tune out, they completely forget about your band. Maybe you’re thinking, “But when I go see Radiohead I love their slow songs!!!” Well, you’re not Radiohead. I’m not saying your whole set should be 6th gear, skin-of-your-teeth, breathless madness rock and fucking roll (it should). What I’m saying is leave the solo acoustic number in the practice room.

Keep all stage banter to an absolute minimum. People have paid hard-earned money to see you play, not to hear your jokes. And please, don’t ever say to your bandmates, “We need to work on our banter.” Remember: the less you talk, the more you can play. After all, that’s why you play in a band, right? You play in a rock band to play music. Also, we heard you the first time you told us that you’ve got a record for sale or a mailing list to be signed. Reminding us between every song gets real fucking tired. You telling us is not going make us buy your record or sign your mailing list. You blowing the roof off of the club sure will, though. Don’t tell us what the next song is about. Chances are we don’t really care. And if we do care, chances are you’re playing at the kind of club whose PA system leaves a lot to be desired and we can’t even hear the lyrics anyway. People go out to see music, to be entertained, and they’re expecting you to entertain them with your music. Not your jokes. That’s why they go to comedy clubs. Some people use banter to cushion their set because they may simply not have enough music. But nobody ever said there was anything wrong with a 20 minute set!

Speaking of that hard-earned money, don’t ever forget that people in the crowd are paying for a product. Now, the product isn’t concrete; it’s entertainment. But it’s a product nonetheless, and if they’re paying to be entertained, you’d better fucking entertain them. Remember, the show isn’t about you. It’s about them. So when you’re developing a show, think about what you’d want to see if you were out there in the crowd. This is especially important when your band is contemplating doing that seven-and-a-half minute noise intro to your three-and-a-half minute pop song. Here’s a tip. Don’t.

Don’t act like one. Don’t ask the door guy how many guest list spots and drink tickets you get the minute you walk in the door. Be a little cool about it. Don’t hang out ‘backstage’ (which is likely a bathroom). And don’t forget, there’s nothing wrong with starting a set a little early. You’re not supposed to play until 10 but you’re set and checked by 9:50? Don’t walk off stage, get a beer, take a piss, smoke a cigarette, and saunter back at 10 or, worse, ten after. Tell the sound guy to fire it up. Start rocking. You’ll get to play more songs. After all, that’s why you play in a band, right? You play in a rock band to play music. 

They should be reserved for girlfriends, boyfriends, husbands, and wives. Everyone else should pay. Because the fewer people who pay, the less the door makes. The less the door makes, the less the club makes. The less the club makes, the smaller shot you have of getting another show there. If your friends can’t afford a $7 cover, then why are they drinking $7 beers during your set? Fuck the free-loaders. Tell your friends beforehand. Make it an ethos. “Sorry, guys. We don’t use guest lists. We’re trying to make sure all of the bands get some gas money.” Or something of that nature. It’s really not too much to ask.

And even that’s stretching it. Listen, it’s great that you have all of these songs and that your guitar solos stretch a four minute song  into a six-and-a-half minute rockathon, but the fact is that if you’re playing a small bar or club, you should never play for that long. It’s so much easier to loathe a good band who plays for way too long than a mediocre band who rocks and rolls (rolls as in leaves). Kick ’em in the face (sonically, of course) and get out. It’ll leave a much better impression and it should leave them wanting more. And them wanting more is the most important thing about building a following.

We’re all in this fight together. There is nothing worse than a band who shows up ten minutes before their set and leaves (bringing their fans and friends with them) ten minutes after. Stay. Listen. Take notes. What did that other band do that was great? How can you incorporate that into your set? So you’re headlining a five-band bill. Come early and watch everyone. They deserve it just as much as you do.

About the Author

Michael Venutolo-MantovaniMy name is Mike V. I write about things that make me angry. Or happy. But usually angry. Because when I'm happy, I don't want to write. I want to be happy. I grew up on the Jersey Shore and I play guitar and sing in a rock and roll band called The Everymen. We fucking rule.View all posts by Michael Venutolo-Mantovani →