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Capture the gig on (digital) film
Live action shots are a must for your band's press kit and web site. So where do you obtain these photos? Have them taken at open mics and other free performances. Even if you're the opening act, dress up in your regular stage duds, just as if you're the main attraction.
To take full advantage of the opportunity, have 2 or 3 friends and significant others lined up to take photos to protect yourself from camera failure, dead batteries, or a friend not showing up. Encourage them to take group shots, closeup shots, and perhaps one or two photos without flash if you're using stage lighting. (For more photo ideas, see the Tips for Band Photos article.)
Lights... camera... action!
A video of a free gig not only serves as a time capsule recording, but is great to upload to YouTube or other video sharing site. Videos make great critiquing tools, too, especially if the videographer takes shots of all the band members. These videos won't get shared with the public, but are a great tool to watch during a band meeting to help improve the show. If you don't have anyone to shoot the video for you, you can set up your camcorder on a tripod if it's somewhere where it won't get knocked over or stolen.
Play it up in your press kit
When you're performing to add photos to your press kit, you don't have to mention that you performed at a recent Sky City Rock Club open mic. Instead, you can caption the photo as simply "Band X at the Sky City Rock Club." If it's a famous venue, get a shot of the band in front of the stage door, dressing room, public entrance, etc. If the club manager is there, get a shot of him or her with the band. Ditto of there's a celebrity in the audience. Make the most of it!
Improve your confidence
Or if you already have swagger to spare, help your band mates boost their confidence levels. Learn to make eye contact with the audience. This makes audience members feel special. Smile. Act like you're having a great time. (If you're not, you can get a job washing dishes at the local diner and probably make more money than you make with the band.)
Audience members come to watch a show. Give them what they want. Move around the stage. Mug it up a little during the guitar solos. Add a short drum solo, especially if your drummer can twirl the sticks. Have the lead singer carry the mic stand over to the lead guitarist during a chorus so they both can sing into a single mic. Work on all this until it comes naturally. Your audience will dig it, and so will you.
Test your promotion machine
Is the public invited to the free gig? Is the venue a good fit for your band's expected audience and image? Is your band practiced up and ready to give a great show? Then consider the upcoming event as a great way to test your promotion "machine". Don't take chances on the venue taking care of the advertising (especially if it's your first performance). They don't know you. You'll have to do the work yourself.
Print your own fliers, contact the local radio and newspapers, put the show info on your band web page and social media sites. Make a big deal out of it, since your band "wants to give something back to the community" by agreeing to perform at the particular event or venue. Put fliers on local bulletin boards. Ask the local music stores that you buy from if they will put a poster in the front window. Hand out 1/4 page flyers at work.
As for informing the media, be sure to include a publicity photo with your press kit or press release. You can find contact information for the local media outlets by looking at their web sites. Ask that the event be included on their local community event calendar and feel free to make your act look like the star attraction: "The Columbia Gorge Freedom Fest, featuring The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and the Mudswallows!" Notice how modest you appear to be, by putting your band last in the list of featured acts. Since you only include photos of your band, if the local press runs the article or event, guess what band they're going to feature?
If your band is better than the typical open mic or free performer, then audience response from your free performance will surely be more enthusiastic than if they'd paid $25 or $50 to see you. Remember Frampton Comes Alive? That album captured the frenzied audience as local performer Frampton wowed 'em. The live album sounded so great that everyone else figured we were the stupid ones who hadn't realized how great he was. The result was a mega platinum success.
You can increase the chance of having a great recording by doing a few things in advance. One is to set some condenser overhead mics in the back of the hall, which will capture audience response and the band. Put the audience mics on their own channel (if you have enough recording channels to do this). Before you start, ask to be introduced with the statement that you are recording the performance for an upcoming live album, and that you'll appreciate an enthusiastic response.
Now go out and get some gigs!
Use the experience, photos, and successes from your free performances to make your act even better. It can't help but result in better bookings and more money for you and your act in the future. Not to mention the good feeling inside you get when you perform at a charity show that benefits a worthy cause. Break a leg!