“So you wanna be a rock ‘n’ roll star
Then listen now to what I say
Then get an electric guitar
Then take some time and learn how to play”
—The Byrds , 1967
Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman of The Byrds may have been taking aim at the Monkees and their lack of musical ability when they penned “So You Want to Be A Rock ‘n’ Roll Star” 40 years ago. Or perhaps they simply wanted to inspire other garage bands and amateur musicians to string up and get on with it.
Get a guitar and learn how to play? It’s almost that easy. For the young campus musician with sincere ambitions, playing music “professionally” around Charleston might be a legitimate option to explore … assuming you have chops and know-how.
Once you have the necessary gear, it’s a good idea to start assembling a repertoire of at least two or three dozen songs. Round up a guitar with all its strings, a basic drum kit (kick, snare, high hat), or a keyboard with at least a few functional audio settings … anything that makes a sound, really. Most up-and-comers choose to start out on an acoustic guitar. In a solo setting, this is usually your best bet.
Gather your courage, practice diligently, try to sing with personality and confidence, and shuffle your way into the inner-workings of the tangled music community.
Start learning a pile of songs: new stuff, classics, obscure songs you love, popular songs you can’t stand … songs that tipsy bargoers will recognize and applaud. Sometimes, Charleston audiences give a songwriter in a bar setting a chance to shine and express themselves. Oftentimes, however, they’ll glare disapprovingly and (rudely) demand that you play a rendition of a familiar tune.
“Come on, dude, play some Sublime!”
“Do you know any Panic, man?”
“My girlfriend wants to hear a Neil Young song right now!”
“Play something we can dance to!”
It pays to go into a gig armed with a variety of material. Unless it’s a hip music venue with musicians on staff, the typical tipsy audience wants strummy entertainment. In some cases, they prefer their live musicians to simply provide un-distracting background music.
Mix it up. Develop a fluid set list of familiar songs. Put your own spin on them by changing the rhythm and arrangement a bit.
Booking can be tricky, but once your foot is in the door at one venue, it becomes easier to book yourself into other spots. There’s no shortage of places to play. “Open mic” nights happen all over town. Some bars pay their hired musicians a flat rate ($50-$150 per player seems to be the average rate in town). Some pay a percentage of the door charge, which is great on a busy night, but lousy when it’s dead. Others offer a few free drinks, dinner, and a hat to pass around.
A press kit is helpful, but not totally necessary. Word-of-mouth promotion runs strong, but musicians are wise to get the word out through other avenues too. Once you’ve secured a date, generate a buzz. Hang flyers in record shops and campus kiosks. Alert the local media and radio stations ahead of time (by two weeks, ideally). Invite other musicians and their friends.
It’s easy and cheap to land a spot on the web. Upload a basic band bio to Myspace, a few decent live and posed photos, an mp3 or two, and an informative but concise gig schedule. Avoid the temptation to pimp things out with useless graphics and blingy gobbledy-gook. If you want the clubs, agents, and media to know who’s who and what’s what, keep things clean and informative.
It’s possible to make a few bucks “busking” in the streets — especially in the touristy hot spots in nice weather. In compliance with city laws, you must obtain a “peddler’s permit” from the Business License office (75 Calhoun St.). There’s a $7 application fee. An annual permit fee is $64.24. Busking without a proper permit could result in a hefty fine, so be careful.
Performing around town can become a grind. The late nights, beery crowds, load-ins, and load-outs can wear a musician down. With the right attitude, going semi-pro on the circuit as a local musician can pay off artistically and financially — Sublime, Byrds, and Skynyrd tunes or not. Get in tune and get down.