A Guide to Playing Your First Live Gig

How to know you're ready for your first show

Man on stage playing guitar in nightclub
Zero Creatives / Cultura / Getty Images

So you've been plugging away, writing songs and lyrics, and you think you're ready for the next step. As a musician, playing live ranks pretty high on your list of to-dos — or, at least, it should. After all, there's nothing like the rush of the lights and adoring fans dancing to and enjoying your music. But how do you know it's time to get out there on stage for the first time?

Every musician has to have their first gig at some point, and it can be a little daunting to figure out the best time to make your debut and hit the stage. Not to mention the added stress of finding the right booker and venue for your first show. Some musicians often wait for the chance to come to them. Although it's natural to want something to happen on its own, you do have to put some work in yourself — especially if you want the night to be a success, that is.

So as you plug away, ask yourself whether you have these things in place:

You Have Enough Material

You should be able to showcase original material. That is everything you've written and perfected. How else is everyone going to know and appreciate your talent? But it's not enough to just go out on stage and sing a few of your own songs. You need to be able to fill up at least one set.

So how many songs are enough? That really depends on how long a set the booker/promoter is requesting. So never accept a gig for which you don't have the songs to play. You obviously don't want to say yes to the show and then frantically try to write the songs to fill it — you won't end up putting your best foot forward. If you can't fill at least a 30-minute set, you might want to stack a few more tracks before you start seeking out some live performance slots. The bottom line is: ask how long you need to be on stage for your set.

But just like any new band, your repertoire won't necessarily be filled with catalogs of your own music to choose from, so there's always an alternative you can use to fill up some time — the cover song(s). Putting your own spin and interpretation on a classic can really create some vibes. And it's a great way to get comfortable in front of a crowd and earn some cash to support your musical ambitions. But remember, unless your ambition is to become strictly a cover artist/band, your real first gig is when you play your songs for a group of people.

Get Your Backup

So you're a talented instrumentalist who can play every part of their own songs when recording. Excellent. Now, how are you going to do that live? If your music involves guitar, bass, and drums, you simply can't play all of these by yourself. You need some players behind you.

That doesn't mean you have to start a band if you really want to be a solo artist. What it does mean is you need to rally some fellow musicians together who are willing to learn your songs and jump up on stage with you.

They don't have to the Paul to your John, the Keith to your Mick or the Marr to your Morrissey, — they just have to be on board to help you get the job done. If things start moving along and "gigging" becomes a regular thing for you, then you'll need to find musicians you can work with on a regular basis whether you officially become a band or they work with you as session musicians. Think you can get around this by playing an acoustic set? Think again. If you're being booked to deliver a full band performance, you need to deliver a full band performance.

You Are Comfortable on Stage

This one is a tricky one. The idea of playing a live show for the first time is bound to be intimidating, at least on some level, and if the notion of climbing on stage fills you with far too much apprehension, you're probably just not ready to tackle live music.

Any seasoned live artist will tell you you're always going to be nervous before a show. And there's nothing wrong with having a little adrenalin from nervous energy drive you while you're playing. But don't underestimate how different playing to a room of people is from practicing on your own in your basement, garage studio or anything else you've done.

Before you book your first gig, try playing a few parties, for friends, in front of the family or rocking out for your co-workers — anything you can do to get accustomed to playing your own music in front of people while maintaining your calm. It's also a good idea to practice talking between your songs.

You don't need rehearsed stage banter, but you do need to be comfortable enough to say a few words to the crowd here and there without feeling faint. This kind of practice will help give you a realistic gauge as to what playing your show will be like, which will increase your confidence so you feel more free to focus on delivering a good set.

Here are a few ideas to consider to chat with about the audience:

  • Your inspiration for the song you're about to sing
  • Your background and how you got into music
  • Your favorite bands
  • Why do you really like this cover?

Getting used to this type of atmosphere in front of people you know before you land that first live gig is great because they can give you honest feedback on how you can improve. Going cold in front of strangers probably isn't such a good idea. After all, they may not be as kind — especially if they're paying to see you and don't enjoy the experience.

Practice Makes Perfect!

Nothing will prepare you more for your first live gig like rehearsal. You should have a firm grip on all of the songs that make it into your setlist, so you're free to relax and just let them come out on stage.

The old adage that practice makes perfect is really true. All that repetition is good for your voice, mind, and fingers because it helps you remember chords, keys and lyrics and you're less likely to fumble or make mistakes. But even if you mess up a note or two on stage, it's not the end of the world. No one may even realize the vast majority of mistakes you make when you play live. However, that only comes from practice.

And there you have it! If you can tick all of these boxes, now may be the time to go forth and book!