Making it happen live - advice from Pete Webber

We raid the sound booth to get top advice from Pete Webber on gigging and sounding great on stage, and discover why reaching out to the right promoters could transform your career.

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 12 Apr 2012
  • min read
For the latest instalment in our Make it Happen series, we raid the sound booth to get top advice on gigging and sounding great on stage, and discover why reaching out to the right promoters could transform your career.

Pete Webber is a sound engineer, producer and record label owner. As well as releasing new music through his Breathe Out imprint, he is an in-house engineer at the O2's Indigo2 venue in Greenwich, and the in-house engineer for The British Music Experience at the O2. More recently, Webber has worked with Live Nation in the UK to launch a new music service for unsigned acts called Live Connection.

With social media becoming increasingly valuable for emerging artists and songwriters, is it still important to play live when you are starting out?
It’s essential. There is no better preparation for an artist than to actually go out there and hone their skills and their set, make those mistakes they’re inevitably going to make in smaller venues and empty rooms. There’s nothing like experience as a teacher. Maybe social media have pushed it back to second place a little bit, but I think it’s definitely where you start building your fan base.

Many new songwriters start out in their bedrooms and sometimes there isn’t any live element going into the music in the first place. How difficult is it for them to make that leap to performing live?
There are so many bedroom producers, especially in the urban scene, where live doesn’t come into it. They release their music online having never done a gig. The thing is, it could be disastrous to make a record in your bedroom that could plausibly be performed live, and then if it turned out to be a hit, you’d suddenly have to play to lots of people. I can’t think of an artist that would handle that situation well.

Years ago, if a new act was great live, there would be an A&R scram and a record deal would be done there and then. Are there still A&Rs who scout out gigs?
Yes, but nowhere near as many as there used to be. I’ve spoken to A&Rs who make the rightful point that, in this day and age, their job is to pick up acts that are already selling records, filling decent sized venues and have several thousand in their online fan bases. The A&R will then take the act to the next level. So, the point when a label needs to get involved has moved right back. The labels let the artists develop themselves and then cherry pick them further down the line. It’s no reason not to play live shows of course, but it just doesn’t happen in the same way as it did.

So if the label participation has been pushed right back, say to one or two albums in, what kind of team does a songwriter or band need around them early on?
I go round lots of gigs and I know that the promoters are out doing the A&R thing, looking for new talent to pick up and work with. For an artist, it’s important they’ve got a decent manager who is in touch with these promoters. Along with social media and making recordings, getting your gigs is a primary step for artists. Being booked by the right people at the right venues is important. There are promoters who are right in the know, who also write blogs and are renowned in the industry. If you can plug into these promoters, who also have a distinct following of their own, it’s almost like you’re bringing them into your team without actually having an ongoing business relationship.

It’s also about being clever with your decisions, and about sitting down and putting in the work. I’ve often said to people they should spend the day in front of their laptop and google all the online radio stations around the world that play their sort of music. Gather the contact details and then send them your music. If five out of 100 stations start playing your music you could be increasing your audience reach by potentially tens of thousands.

Do you have any tips to help performers sound better before they go into the live environment?
Obviously they need to be very well rehearsed. That’s key. Then the best advice I can give is to be really nice to the engineers, although obviously I would say that! I have seen gigs where someone in the band pissed off the engineer and they didn’t sound too good! We all do our jobs, but bands need to be open and friendly when they work. Sometimes engineers have been in their jobs for 25 years or more, and have worked with the world’s most successful acts, but they will still go up to the guitarist in an unsigned band and help them to find an elusive amp setting or offer a new way round a problem. You never know who you are going to be working with.

Is there anything that you see lots of bands doing during set-up that’s a real no-no?
Yes, guitarists are always too loud. Bloody guitarists! They turn their amps up so much and it creates so many problems, spilling into the vocal mic, then you turn the vocal mic up and it becomes a vicious circle. Guitarists take note: keep it low!