5 "Do Nots" of Indie Hip-Hop shows

This article is aimed at people involved in their local indie hip-hop scene. If you’re booking national/global tours or are a globally known artist, you most likely won’t read anything here you don’t already know.


1. Don’t expect an audience

·      Don’t get upset because you don’t think there are enough people there. Be a professional and rock that shiz even if it’s just for the venue staff and the other artists. You never know who’s in the crowd and you might be surprised what opportunities arise from playing your heart out even when it feels like nobody’s watching. Don’t punish the people who are there to support the event just because you think you deserve more attention. Keep it in perspective and remember that even established artists get bad turnouts and sour reactions now and then. They’re still doing it because they kept their stride through the inevitable rough shows.

2. Don’t pester the audience

·      Under no circumstances should you ridicule the crowd for not paying enough attention to you. It’s one of the quickest ways to never get booked by the promoter or venue again, and the other artists on the bill won’t be happy they have to deal with a crowd who now has their guard up after feeling wrongly attacked. And rightfully so. If you’re feeling that way shrug it off and go harder, or maybe softer if you’re being too intense in front of a calm audience. Reading the mood of a crowd and evoking the energy of your songs from within them is a crucial and difficult job that doesn’t always come naturally to new performers. It’s much easier to work with a crowd’s energy than against it, so practicing a wide range of songs and styles helps you adapt when the energy levels are different than you planned for. You can command the mood of an entire room if you work with the audience and ease them into who you are, what you’re feeling, how you see things. Making yourself vulnerable and being genuine about where you’re taking the audience creatively is a good way for them to feel more receptive and willing to explore where you want to take them.

3. Don’t worry

·      Don’t stress if you mess up or forget a lyric. Most of the time the crowd doesn’t even notice because they don’t know your music well enough to know you messed up. However, if you get all in your head about it, apologize for forgetting lyrics, or get visibly upset, they will definitely know. If you forget a whole verse, just freestyle or tell the DJ to cut the track short and move onward to the next. Most of the time the people who come out to support local shows are good supportive folks who want to see you do well.

4. Don’t Be late or leave early

·     Again, if you consider yourself a performing artist, it is your job to show up and be a part of the event from start to finish. Can you be late to your day job? Can you leave your day job whenever you feel like it? (If you can, get at me because I want to work there too). Show up on time, ask if there is a soundcheck before the show you should be there for, and don’t take off after your set unless you absolutely have to. Stay and support the other artists out of respect and professionalism. Don’t take away another artist’s opportunity to be heard by leaving the room right after your set with everyone who came to see you. Don’t make people decide whether they should leave the room to give you props or stay inside to catch the next performer. Your fans and friends won’t like you less if they enjoy the entire show, and I promise they will still love you - in fact they’ll probably see that you play events worth watching and will want to support the next one even more. Performing with other refined acts who also care about the show in its entirety is what we need to build lasting scenes that fuel the overall community, which is much smaller than most people realize. It’s better not to spread yourself thin anyway. Reserve your energy for the shows you’re excited to play and don’t decide to play events that you don’t even care about. If you don’t enjoy the other artists on the bill then turn down the goddamn show. Also, sometimes promoters pay out the artists at the end of the night for this reason exactly. You probably won’t get paid if you are not present.  

5. Don’t perform over studio tracks

·      This debate has been heating up again recently although the topic feels as old as the earth itself. Before I start, let me preface this by saying this does not apply to globally known artists who sell out stadiums. I am not equipped to give advice to people like that. However, you better believe that those artists have their performances VERY well-rehearsed and there are a multitude of reasons they have background vocals where they have them. For example, they are on tour performing EVERY night and need to preserve their voice, or there are specific songs where the performance is more focused on dancing than singing/rapping.

Anyways, I think the rise in people performing over their studio tracks may be related to the “turn-up” up culture of trap-oriented scenes. From what I can tell, these artists use their live performances to basically turn up with their friends/audience to their music. Nobody in attendance is super concerned with emcee skills, just having a good time and partying. No judgment here, but as far as artistry is concerned, its going to be difficult for a lot of people to hold that performance in high regard.

I am a more traditional, “boom-bap”, artsy sort of guy so that is the scene I am most familiar with. I am sure in other scenes, performing over vocals the whole set is the absolute norm and there is no penalty for it and if that is the only scene you are concerned about being in, then do you. However, if you want to start spreading out into different scenes, playing bigger venues that book more than just hip-hop you may want to consider changing things up. At the end of the day, if you’re a rapper, people expect you to rap. Also, some of these people are accustomed to seeing bands that play every aspect of their songs live (singer included). So, you can imagine how hearing you compete with your own studio vocals, jumping up and down and rapping when you feel like rapping may seem wack to someone expecting a raw authentic vocal performance.

Furthermore, you sell yourself short when you perform over your studio tracks. Let me explain, part of the advantage of a live performance is you get to use your voice in a way you might not be able to in a recording booth. You can add a little more emotion here, or a little more inflection there and tailor the performance to the vibe of the room/audience. You can also call an audible and insert the name of the venue into a lyric or something along those lines. Things like that make the audience feel they got to experience you and your music in a way nobody else has.  Also, nobody really cares if you miss a word so using your main vocals as a crutch in case you slip up isn’t really a good idea (also, just rehearse). People would often prefer to see an authentic performance where you slip up then hear a song they can stream on Spotify from the comfort of their home.

Nobody is against having an adlib here or there, or a part of the hook that really needs the vocal effects from the studio recording to get the feel of the track, but simply performing over the actual song comes across as ill-prepared and amateurish. If you get big enough where people don’t really care what you do on stage, then more power to you, clearly you did something right. However, I’ve performed many times, in many cities and have seen this done on countless occasions and it has rubbed the crowd the wrong way almost every single time.


1. Don’t overbook

·      People who attend local events will often show up to see and support one artist or group in particular: the one who invited them. You’re greatly minimizing the willingness of supporters to go to your events by shrinking the set of who they came to see. This is especially true for artists with an older fan base that has to plan around work, school and travel. Nobody wants to be smacked in the face with 15 different 10-minute sets when they came to support one artist. This is a poor business model that often doesn’t produce results anyway, because artists are less likely to promote a show heavily where their people will only get to see them perform 2-3 songs.

2. Don’t cut corners

·      Don’t try to cut costs by making the flyer yourself in Microsoft paint. Flyers are often the first impression and they need to be on point and have all the necessary information. Don’t rely on pictures from camera phones to provide content for after the show. Book a professional photographer and/or videographer. Don’t sacrifice the quality of the sound by renting sub-par equipment. Don’t try to save money on the DJ and just bring a laptop that people play their music off of. People have a ton of options for how they spend their lives and you need to make sure your event is worth their time. Don’t assume you’re the only person in your city who’s building something profound and worth supporting. Being local and independent are not good enough reasons for your community to support you. You need to involve yourself in the community, attend events you’re not organizing, and become a component in the ecosystem by supporting and adding to it yourself. Building a scene or fan base can take decades even when you’re doing everything right, and doing everything right on trial one is an incredibly rare phenomenon in any DIY community. Embrace the mistakes and losses you’re bound to make and take and keep your stride with those lessons in mind. Complaining about a lack of support to the people currently supporting you makes you seem undeserving of any at all.

3. Don’t charge artists

·      The pay to play controversy rages on. Promoters, I get it. A lot of these “artists” out here are lazy and unprofessional and you need to make sure every show you throw isn’t a loss. However, don’t punish all artists for the behavior of clowns. Just stop booking the clowns. Letting people pay their way onto events is how the scene ends up watered down with a bad reputation. The pay-to-play model has resulted in any and everybody being able to get up on stage as long as they have some expendable income. They pay, they bring nobody out, their performance is lackluster and it’s a bad look all around. Find the artists who are willing to put in the work WITH you to properly promote. If you’re going to do the selling tickets thing, that’s cool, but you have to communicate with the artists so they understand that it’s on everyone to make sure everyone profits. If everyone sells their tickets, we have a crowd, and everybody walks away with a little cheddar.

4. Don’t rely on 1 source

·      Don’t just make a Facebook event page and share it once a week and think people will see that and come out to the event. Use every resource possible. Various social media accounts, local blogs, podcasts, radio stations, etc. Reach out to any and every resource that may help you spread the word. Print physical flyers and at the very least post them up around the vicinity of the venue. Take the flyers to other related shows leading up to your event.  If you have a budget, create targeted ads on social media. You need to carry as much, if not more weight than the artists you book on the promotion front.

5. Don’t wait

·      Don’t procrastinate getting the information out in the world. People make plans weeks or months in advance. Venues can book up months in advance. If you have an idea for a show, get to work right away sending emails and feelers out there. Don’t wait until a few days before the event to start pushing it heavily (this goes for artists too). Don’t wait to find out what the venue, sound person, DJ, or artists may need from you. Reach out to all the artists you booked ASAP and let them know how they should prepare their set (file type for instrumentals, set length, bring a flash drive, e-mail the DJ directly, etc.) and encourage them to get the ball moving on promotion and explain to them that if everybody puts in the effort to bring even 10 people, everybody benefits.

Thanks for reading. Comment and add your thoughts to the conversation!

Written by Simon Sed & edited by Just Joey