Last week I posted a review of my top 10 bands from the heats of The Underdog 2016. When I was going back through my notes, I realised that some patterns had emerged. I had written some of the same things time and time again – band after band was making the same small but significant mistakes. I also realised that most of these were things I had done myself as a musician, and had never realised (until I saw nearly 60 bands in quick succession) what a difference it makes to how professional a band looks when a performance doesn’t contain these issues.
So for the benefit of the bands who have made it through to the later stages – and equally those that didn’t but want to keep improving – here are my top tips for an on-point stage show, otherwise known as “what not to do”.
So many bands have a tendency to talk themselves down, criticise themselves, or make jokes at their own expense on stage. I get it: you think you’re being light-hearted and conveying this image that you don’t talk yourself too seriously. Everyone thinks this is the right thing to do when they start out in a band – I was no exception! But the truth is, self deprecation is basically never good stage banter, and you’ll notice that the bands who seem the most professional don’t do it. It draws attention to things the audience probably haven’t noticed, puts people in a mood to notice your mistakes and perceive you as under-rehearsed, and just generally sounds a bit amateur. Don’t do it.
You spend hours in rehearsal making sure every note of every song is tight, but playing songs is not all that happens at a gig. How many of us practise where we’re going to be on stage, how we’re going to act, and what we’re going to do in between songs? This is not something I ever gave much thought to until this competition. But I realised pretty quickly that the bands with the best stage shows were the ones that had rehearsed their whole set, not just the songs. This isn’t to say that your performance should be rigidly scripted – there’s always room for some improvisation and creativity. But to really propel yourself from an amateur performance to a professional one, it’s important to have a clear idea of your band’s image and how every member is going to convey it, to have some key messages you want to get across when you’re talking to the audience, to know who is going to do the talking…etc. This is the main tip I’m taking away for myself and my band. Practise every element of your performance, including your in-between-song patter.
Everyone gets technical problems. Leads break, strings break, drumsticks break, you stand in the wrong place and get horrible feedback…the list goes on. We’ve seen some fantastic examples of bands dealing with technical problems and not letting it ruin their set. At the other end of the spectrum, we’ve seen some bands who were caught completely off guard and didn’t know how to handle the situation. Panic ensues. It’s so important to be prepared for the possibility of technical problems, and to have some idea of what you’ll do to mask it if it’s mid-song, or stall for long enough to get the problem fixed if it’s between songs. On a related note, if technical problems mean you get to the end of your allotted time and you haven’t played your whole setlist, it’s unfortunate, but basically tough luck. Cut your set short. Changeovers are usually short, and there’s a knock-on effect on the rest of the night if you mess up the planned timings, even by a couple of minutes.
Everybody tunes their guitar before getting on stage, but it was clear that quite a lot of vocalists had not done the equivalent preparation and warmed their voice up before their set. This becomes particularly obvious in bands with multiple vocalists when one has warmed up and the other(s) haven’t. It’s really important to take vocal warm-ups seriously; it makes such a big difference to the quality of your performance if you can get the most out of your vocals. I really think that all vocalists should have at least a couple of singing lessons. At the least, you’ll learn a few good warm-up exercises that you can use every time you gig. But on top of this, singing lessons can help even the most accomplished vocalists bring more control and power to their voices, and this all adds up to a band with a better, more professional sound.
No, not like that. The Underdog is pretty much unique in its field in that the outcomes are weighted towards judges’ scores rather than tickets sold, meaning that new bands without much of a following don’t automatically lose out to established bands who can bring a lot of people. Nonetheless, pull is an important part of success in the music industry – apart from anything else, isn’t it just nicer to play to your friends and family who you know are going to be super supportive than a room full of discerning strangers? The majority of bands have done their bit, but we have seen a couple who haven’t sold a single ticket, and unfortunately it just doesn’t matter how good you are – if you don’t bring anyone, you won’t make it through.
I’ll be quick on this one. Don’t load out while another band is playing. Just don’t. Ever.
Let me know in the comments if you have any other tips!