Battle of the Bands

Nov26

Have you ever wondered how they run those multi-act “Lallapalooza” type shows? Well, first a large corporate sponsor is found, and they hire a bunch of experienced professionals who plan for a few months and do lots of other things that us average folks can’t afford to do. However, I have done this a couple of times, albeit on a much smaller scale – as part of a Talent Show or Showcase, including the Riverside Jam 2000 (David hosted in 2001). So let me give you a couple of ideas, because once you see how easy it can be, you can try it out for yourself.

The Decision

The first step is to decide that you really want to do this, and that you are going to be the host. It helps to have a really good reason, either as a charity event, or a chance to showcase your own band. This is not an easy decision, because even with the tricks I’m going to show you, it’s a lot of work. Although I have done this “for fun”, that’s not always a good enough reason. You also have to be willing to assume the up-front expenses and the possibility that you could lose money. You need to make this decision at least 3 months before the soonest show date. If this is going to be a charity event, then you must take it upon yourself to establish good communications with the charity organization as well.

The Place

Next, you need to find a time and place to play. Try to find a location that has a reasonably large stage. I’ve been lucky enough to do it in school auditoriums, which are perfect. Many schools are open and unused on Friday nights, so it’s not as crazy as you might think. Most schools will charge a nominal fee, plus the salary of one custodian. But don’t use the gym! There isn’t a worse place to play on the planet than the average school gymnasium. There are other places you might consider, including some bars on Sunday afternoons (if you’re old enough), halls where social groups like the Elks or VFW meet or even your church. Just remember that the bigger the stage the easier things tend to be.

The Bands

Once you have a time and place, then you will need to find some bands to come and play. Usually, you figure that each band takes about an hour, 45 minutes of playing and 15 minutes of set-up. So if you have 4 hours, then you can invite 4 bands. If you have more time, you can invite more bands. Alternately, if you know lots of bands, then you may have to cut down the playing time. Anything less than 20 minutes is a waste of effort, even for a charity gig.

Obviously, asking other bands that you already know is a good idea, but check around a little further too. How much variety do you want? Diversity usually means more people will come, but if it gets too eclectic, then some people will decide that there’s less to like. You want to do the recruiting in two steps: first get an acknowledgement that a band is interested, then later, you’ll need to explain the “rules” and get a firm commitment.

The Gear

As with any gig, you’re going to need sound equipment. If you’re lucky, the place you’ve selected will have a PA built in. Double check that they have enough channels in the mixer, and enough monitors. You may need to add some more to the house system just for flexibility. Be sure to discuss this with the house engineer. If there is no house PA, then you’ll have to get your own.

Make a list of all the stuff that is required. But you shouldn’t have to supply all of this yourself. You need to ask each band what they might be able to supply. Make a master list of equipment, and note which band is willing to supply which equipment. Usually, your own band will supply the core equipment, unless you know that some item is not “something to be proud of”, and then ask. Believe it or not, people who have higher quality gear tend to want to use it, and are often willing to share.

  • PA: Since you are going to have to work with different bands you’re going to need to be flexible. So you’ll need a good mix board, effects and EQ, amplifiers, microphones, and main and monitor speakers. Plus, try to find a sound guy to work the board, or switch off with musicians who are not on stage.
  • Drums: You’d like to use the best drums you can, but some drummers won’t want to share their kit. Each band must agree to replace any drumheads that should happen to be broken by their drummer (as rare as this is, you still have to plan for it!).
  • Bass Amp: It is better to have an amp that is too big than too small.
  • Guitar Amps: You should have at least 3 amps. Mainly for variety, as the guest musicians will want to get their best sound. So try to find different brands and styles.
  • Keyboards: If one or more bands has keyboards, then try to settle on a common set. Usually one piano-type and/or one synth. You’ll need an amp for this too.

Getting Organized

So now you have a list of who is going to play, and what each band is willing to share. Now you write a letter (email is great for this!) to each band explaining what is what: No, you may not bring your own drums (you may bring your own snare and seat). No, you may not bring your own bass or guitar amp, you must use the ones provided and described here (but you can plug in all your EFX). Etc. Be as thorough as you can, as everyone will understand that “everyone else is sharing too”, which reduces the whining. Tell everyone to label everything!!! With several bands sharing their gear, anything that is unmarked becomes fair game for misappropriation. Cables and power cords are the most common items to be “misplaced”, but even the occasional EFX pedal, can fall victim to this, and petty theft (usually totally unintentional) can ruin this type of event.

Have an idea how long each band can play. Something like “Assuming everyone shows up, everyone will get 30 minutes of playing time”. If you have an obvious “headliner”, or you want to pull rank as the host, plan for extra time at the end. As mentioned earlier, plan on 15 minutes between each act for overruns and swapping bands. Write a chart with each band name, number/type of musicians.

Ask each band to agree to all of the above. Don’t tell them who’s going first or last yet, and don’t give them the impression that they can influence the line-up.

Logistics

Now that you’ve got most of the important musical aspects figured out, you need to do the logistics. How are you going to handle food and drink? If you’re at a bar, then that part’s easy. But if you’re in a school, then you’ve got to make arrangements, and remember no smoking or drinking on school property. If you’ve got a charity organization working with you, then let them do the food, etc. as they will be making the money and providing the volunteers.

Again, if you’re at a school, then you’ll need to handle security, parking, etc.

And get a couple of cases of bottled water. If you’re at a bar, explain that this is necessary because water is best for everyone, and plastic bottles don’t break. Seriously, don’t forget this.

And believe it or not, think about a logo and T-shirts. You can usually get a silk-screened T-shirt for less than $10 if you buy over 20. If you get a light-colored shirt, then people can sign them. This may seem hokey, but it’s actually pretty cool.

The Middle Period

There is a quiet time between the initial contacts and the week before the gig. Usually it’s a couple of weeks. Once you get experienced at doing this sort of thing, you can shorten up the time from start to finish by reducing this middle period. Don’t forget to rehearse your own stuff. During this time you should consider any advertising you may want, and follow up on some of your logistical issues. This is also a good time to review the sequencing for the bands. Usually, you want to save the best for last, or save it for yourself (even if you’re not the best!), but consider that the first band shouldn’t really be the worst either. Although you may not have a full crowd at the beginning, having a solid band go first is a good idea, as they give confidence to any of the weaker bands that follow.

The Week Before the Gig

Contact all the different people to confirm that they are still on target. Re-confirm with all the bands that they are ready to play, tell them what time they’ll go on, and how long they get to play. Tell all the people who are contributing equipment when and where you will want it delivered. Put up posters with the band names and approximate times. You will probably find out that someone has not done something they were supposed to do, and so you’ll have to scramble a bit to solve that problem, but because you found out before it’s too late, you can usually make it work. This is the time that you really need to delegate the specific tasks. Jimmy will get the PA. Jane will get the drums. Try and identify one person to be a “runner”, a trouble-shooter with no fixed tasks and a pick-up truck.

The Day Before

Decide what time you want to set up. Earlier is usually better, so that there is some relax time between setup and playing. But some bars won’t let you in early. Confirm (again!) that the various pieces of equipment will get dropped off on time. Draw a sketch of the stage and where you want the drums and amps and keyboards and PA all to go. Try to get some sleep! Turn off the phones after 10pm. If your gig is on a Friday, plan on taking the day off from work, or at least half the day.

The Big Day

The Setup

No matter who else is doing what, YOU need to be at the site on time, and stay there! Tape your sketch on the wall so everyone can see it. Meet and greet everyone as they come in – be the “host”. Tell them where to set up, and where to store the extra gear and cases. If you can, set up the drums first, the amps second, and the PA third. If there is a problem, decide how to fix it (including the option to ignore it and carry on!) and assign someone to get it done. Try to do as little as possible yourself. I know this seems odd, but the idea is to keep it organized. Alternately, plan to do most of it yourself. You fetch all the gear and set it up yourself. I find it very difficult to try and coordinate many people and do a lot of the work at the same time.

The Break

If you’re lucky, you’ve got everything set up at least an hour before the first band goes on. This is a good time to relax, have a seat, chat with people. Absolutely no playing of instruments! If you have time, grab a shower, or at least change your shirt – wear one of the event T-shirts! If there are any money issues, now is the time to resolve them.

Show Time

One of the biggest problems for the host of these events (or any elaborate party) is the host doesn’t get to enjoy it. You should try to stay relaxed and spend as much time meeting and greeting the various musicians and other guests. If you appear relaxed, others will derive confidence from you. Hopefully, the arrangements will be obvious enough that everyone will know where to set their guitars, and where to get a drink.

One way to get the show started promptly is to have your own band go first. (Note: if it’s a long show, you can go again last!). This way, you get to check out the PA and the rest of the set-up with a band that you know. The problem with this is that you are not around to greet people and trouble shoot any other start-up problems. A lot depends on how well you know the other bands, and how experienced they are.

In any case, try to get the first band started on time. And pay attention to the clock. If a band looks like they’re going to run over, walk to the edge of the stage and tell them that the next song is the last one, pointing at your watch. If a change-over takes too long, tell the next band that they’ll have to cut back a bit, but try to spread it out (if you’re 20 minutes behind, take 7 minutes from each band). It’s good if you can play CDs during the change-overs, but not too loud, as it makes it hard to think on stage.

Problems

We all know Mr Murphy, and he always gets invited to these parties. The best thing is to stay relaxed and just work to solve the problem as best as you can. Don’t panic or become frantic. Just solve the problem as professionally as you can and move on. If you have done a good job preparing for the gig and you’ve set up a good stage, then you are probably going to be fine, and the biggest problem likely will be related to the food or parking or other minor (!) issue.

Tear Down

For the most part, tear down should be easy to organize. If everyone takes away whatever they brought, then there will be nothing left. In reality, you will probably have to lug a lot more than you did during set up, but that’s OK. You don’t have to organize anything anymore. Just make sure that all the money issues are resolved.

If you are so inclined, it’s a great idea to collect some of your closest buddies and head out for food after it’s all done. Go to a local diner (or my favorite – Mexican!) where you can get food and relax. You may not realize it, but you’ll be exhausted. So sit, eat, and bask in the knowledge that you succeeded in running your own mini Lallapalooza.

See, it’s easy!

Get out there and Play!

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About Dan Lasley

Dan Lasley learned to play in bands while in college near Chicago, where he played keyboards, bass, and "slide-pots"(sound board). Builder of his own fretless bass and designer of 400W/channel amplifiers, Dan continues to stay involved with sound engineering. He is also the mastermind behind the Riverside Jam.

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