1. Lazy promoters
Like most unsigned bands, you spend more time than you’d like to admit trying to get gigs and get noticed, which means sooner or later you’re going to run into that lazy promoter. This guy will swear blind that he’ll pack out your gigs so much that you’ll need a bigger venue. This is not to decry all those hardworking promoters out there who’ll give their all to promote your gig, but there’s always one who’ll just do a single share on Facebook and proclaim their job done.
2. Payday – a distant dream for unsigned musicians
Some people (perhaps even your parents) think that it’s possible to earn a living when you’re a member of a band. And for top bands like Alt-J or Explosions In The Sky, this is true. However, for unsigned bands, the world is far less forgiving. If you’re not playing covers for two hours, the chances are most venues won’t be paying you in anything other than beer tokens.
3. “Free exposure”
A gig promoter will often proclaim – in lieu of any cash payment – that you are receiving valuable “free exposure” instead. This is a bit of a double-edged sword because you need exposure to be successful, but you can’t use it to pay this month’s phone bill. Learn to have a conversation about payment at the right moment. Keep in mind that when you first start out, you probably end up playing for free. That’s unless you’re prepared to go down the cover band route and play Bon Jovi for two straight hours.
4. Kit sharing
One of the more annoying aspects of being in an unsigned band is having to share your kit. When you turn up at a venue to play, there will undoubtedly be another band that will bring minimal equipment (unless that’s you, in which case, shame on you!). They’ll bring a guitar or two at best, and then expect to borrow everyone else’s equipment. Here’s a tip: just say no.
5. Grumpy, unenthusiastic sound engineers
Sound engineers are a bit like promoters: for every great one, you’re likely to come across an equally frustrating and uninterested one. You can identify the latter easily: they will ignore what you ask of them, try to look busy, tell you that they have ‘sorted it’ and even straight up lie to your face while some awful, unintended distortion belts out of the PA. If you know a great sound engineer, hold onto them for the sake of your sanity.
6. The dreaded house kit
Anyone that values their kit like a newborn baby (which should be all of you) will dread the words ‘house kit provided’. Sometimes, very occasionally, the drum kit or bass amp in question is well serviced and maintained. Unfortunately, this is a rarity and usually, you’ll have kit that’s so poor it could have its very own Channel 4 documentary. The easy fix here is just to bring your own kit to all your gigs or, at the very least, bring your own leads, snare drum, cymbals and accessories to minimise how much you need to use in-house kit.
7. Sharks and snakes
The Holy Grail for any unsigned band is getting that all-important record deal. You’ll find that, if your band gets a bit of traction, you’ll start to get all sorts of offers coming out of the woodwork. However, all too often unsuspecting artists will get caught in the trap of signing the first contract that’s put in front of them. Always be wary and always read the contract properly. If you can, get a solicitor to have a look at it. Also, do your research: what else has this label released? How well did they promote it? What do previous artists have to say about them? A bit of digging can pay dividends before you’re stuck with a 4 EP deal with Phony BMG.
In spite of the tragically funny travails of life in an unsigned band, it’s worth taking a minute to appreciate the upside too. This gif captures the essence of this perfectly: