Sam Lambeth is a journalist and musician with Birmingham-based band Quinn. Prior to this, he spent three years in The MonoBloggers, who enjoyed successful UK tours, a record deal and magazine coverage. Back in the rock saddle as both a spectator (journo) and participant (muso), he offers a glimpse at the grubby but glorious world of unsigned music.
There are a number of unwritten rules when it comes to being an unsigned band, and they’re passed down from generation to generation. The first rule would be to always befriend the soundman, for they can make or break you. Secondly, don’t show up to a gig without unsold tickets or, worse, a guitar. The third rule would be to make sure you always support your fellow comrades; this is a war, after all, and if you get shot down with the shrapnel of segregation, you want as many privates surrounding you as possible.
Unless you have a genuine reason, it should always be a given that you stay and watch the other bands performing; you expect it of them when you’re performing, so it should certainly be a two-way street. However, this guideline shouldn’t just be applicable to a gig you’re playing, though – if you’re lucky to strike a simpatico with a slew of local bands, you should try your hardest to go watch them, too, as a punter/fan/friend, not just someone sharing the bill.
In the Birmingham scene, there is often an exchange of gig attending. Sometimes you may love the band as much as the people that frequent them, while other times their music may not be your cup of tea, but it might be that you just want to show you’re a fervent friend. I have been lucky in the fact that all my ‘band friends’ are in groups that are inspiring and innovative, and thus watching them is never a chore.
This rule can often be stretched to those outside of the band realm, although sometimes it can leave sad taste. For example, recently my band, Quinn, were rehearsing ready for a gig supporting Tribes’ Johnny Lloyd; for the 2011 me, this was a big deal, as Tribes were to me what Sundara bloody Karma are to the 16-year-old girls that go out replete with glitter and guilt. Our bassist was discussing how her ticket sales were going, and she said “none of my mates really like us, but they’ll come to support me.” It probably shouldn’t have bothered me, but it hit me like a Humvee; I wasn’t too fussed if someone in a band said that, as I’d just be grateful for the support, but I thought other attendees were genuine fans, or friends that had become fans; to hear that throughout our half-hour they’re probably sighing and cringing left me forlornly floored. Sadly, this is just part of the process. Other people may say take the ticket money and run, but it’s never been about that for me – I just want people to genuinely enjoy our music.
It’s important, too, to ensure you’re fully prepared for your gig – recently, I was aghast and ashamed when I discovered I’d left my kettle lead at home; I nervously asked one of the other bands to lend me one, who were understandably confused as to why I was so embarrassed. However, I always pride myself on my organisation for gigs, ever since a couple of years ago I had possibly my worst live experience – halfway through the set we had a song that required a capo, but I’d left it backstage, so I had to run off into the dressing room and try and retrieve it, leaving my rhythm section to nervously adopt the kind of stage banter reserved for wedding DJs.
A few years prior to that, I was under the impression you just took gig money and left the unsold tickets at home. How wrong I was. Fortunately, I’d only left three, but I had to pay £12 out of my own pocket. Worse was to come the next year, when I left four tickets at home – that wouldn’t have been so bad, but they were £10 each, which resulted in a chilly, churlish trip to the cashpoint on a cold Bilston winter’s night.
Make sure you also keep kosher with your soundmen – don’t bound onstage for your soundcheck and instantly play ‘Love Machine’. Don’t bug them constantly about your stage time. Don’t take the mickey when testing the mics. Keep it short, serious and courteous, and always thank them at the end, for if you don’t you might play the next gig sounding like you’re in a Burundian cave.
If you’re just starting out as a band, make sure that you show as much support for your fellow fighters as possible. Don’t leave as soon as your set is finished, or at least apologise profusely for leaving, and also offer hearty compliments for their performances. Little things like this go a long way, and even if you don’t get it in return, at least you can go home, count up the loose change you made from selling four tickets and feel a little bit better about yourself.