The hang, the music, or the money ? what’s most important for you, when deciding to take a gig?
When I first moved to Philadelphia, I didn’t know many musicians, but I was determined to get involved in the local music scene. I went to as many open mics, house shows, park jams, and networking events as I could. I took any gig I could get, and said yes to every opportunity that came my way.
Keeping an open mind led me to meet a ton of awesome musicians and play some really fun shows. I started collaborating with a wide variety of local musicians, and, in the span of a few months, I went from playing in one band to playing in four. Some weeks it’s a breeze to manage. Others I question my sanity.
As I got busier and met more people, I quickly realized that my wide-open mindset was unsustainable. I had to start saying no to certain gigs and collaborations. I also played enough terrible gigs to know when to run for the hills.
This is how I evaluate the gigs that come my way.
Gigs: the holy trinity
I’m not sure who coined this concept, but you’ve probably heard it before. If someone offers you a gig, there are three factors to consider:
The music: Does the music groove or will you have to swallow your dignity and play Brown Eyed Girl?
The hang: Will you enjoy spending time with these musicians or are they bitter, elitist sad sacks?
The pay: Will you earn an appropriate amount of money or does compensation consist of light beer vouchers?
Everyone has their own threshold for these factors, but in general, if a gig satisfies two out of the three, it’s probably worth taking. If it hits all three, you should definitely take it.
That seems easy enough, but what happens when you get two gig offers for the same night or you’re worried that you’re just too busy to handle the commitment? The decision becomes much more nuanced. Consider these additional factors, weigh the pros and cons, and do what serves your primary goal as a musician.
Prep time: Realistically estimating how many hours of preparation you need for a gig is hard. It’s harder when the opportunity is enticing—like playing in a faithful tribute performance of your favorite band’s best album or filling in for someone at a four hour set on a yacht. Sometimes it all comes down to timing and what you have going on, but if you over-commit and can’t put in the prep time, the music will suffer.
Repeat opportunities: Every gig can theoretically lead to future opportunities, but how likely is it that it actually will? Is this a venue or promoter you can establish a relationship with? If it’s just a band who wants you to fill in at a bar gig for their drummer of five years because he has the flu, don’t get upset when they don’t take you on tour with them.
Exposure: Ugh, exposure. It’s such a dirty word. I’m wary of opportunities for exposure, but, like it or not, they can be extremely valuable—especially in terms of expanding your digital following.
I’m generally fine with doing something for free when there’s a large platform with an engaged audience. If your band gets the opportunity to play a single on a popular YouTube channel, go for it! If someone asks you to play a three hour charity set at their cousin’s block party, kindly tell them where they can put their exposure.
Musical diversity: Sometimes a gig has no tangible benefit other than it will lead you to grow as a musician. If you get the opportunity to explore new sonic territory, then you should jump at it! You’ll incorporate the experience into your own playing and be better off because of it.
Rejecting a gig.
Sometimes turning down a gig feels like you’re burning a bridge. If a fellow musician approaches you with a cool gig or collaboration that you have to regrettably turn down, think about making an effort to jam with them another time or attending their next show—it’ll show that you respect what they’re doing and are open to working with them in the future.
The decision to play a gig is different for everyone. We all pursue music in unique ways, live in different music scenes, and have our own standards that a gig has to live up to, but one thing’s for sure. Getting paid to play music in front of people is pretty sweet.
Kyle Sparkman is a musician and writer based in Philadelphia. He writes about music and other things that are interesting to humans. If the music is funky, he probably likes it.
Photography: gig by Martin Robles.