It was March 1st, 2014, and I had just freshly moved to New York City. I was innocent, filled with drive and optimism, hungry to start my career, and ready to show the city that I’d arrived. I started booking gigs in some of the legendary haunts, one of my first shows being at the Blue Note Jazz Club. With the artistic and financial success of each performance, my personal confidence and business knowledge grew.
During one such gig, at a landmark venue in the East Village, Manhattan, that by the way I had coveted to perform at for so long, just as I was about to step onto the stage, the venue manager comes running up, grabs my arm, and gruffly shouts, “So you’re only playing for twenty minutes tonight, make it count!” I was shocked. With the little feeble courage I mustered, I replied with a strangled voice, “Didn’t we agree on a forty-five-minute set?” And the guy just couldn’t wait to unload his excuse on me, “Yes! That was when you guaranteed me thirty sold tickets. So far, we only got fifteen people here to see you. Half the people, half the time!” Before I got a chance to respond or plead my case about heavy traffic and latecomers, he just kept the rudeness coming, “We’re also overstaffed given that your people didn’t show up. I will send some waitress home.” Then swiftly turns around and walks away as if nothing happened. I was left to feel every emotion ranging from shame to confusion, to embarrassment, to anxiety, willing my legs to get onto the stage, and praying my face won’t give me away.
Mind you, all of this literally within earshot of the audience and AFTER he had announced my name. I was shaking, I stumbled onto the stage, joined my band, and needless to say, it was one of the weakest gigs to date! All I could think of every time I saw someone enter was “Oh, great! here’s another person, that makes it twenty. Oh, wait! Hi Jess! That’s thirty. Maybe now the waitress won’t lose her shift and pay because of me” I was completely disconnected from my artist self with so much confusion and questions piled up in my head from this fiasco.
Now this so-called manager ended up letting me play my initial forty-five-minute set because he got his numbers and some. But the gig was ruined as I had already rearranged and cut songs off the setlist thinking I had less time. And at the end, just as I am announcing the names of my bandmates, he cuts off my mic, turns up the volume on the house speakers, and I suddenly find myself screaming over Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean! Just perfect.
Though it’s been a long time and I have grown immensely from that experience, and others similar to this one but none so devastating, it taught me the importance of creating artistic and business-related boundaries. I can’t be my own manager and the artist while on stage. So I started my own little blacklist of venues and managers that I would update secretly and faithfully whenever necessary. Sort of a reminder of who not to turn into as I’m diving deeper and deeper into the music industry. I also now guarantee half of the turnout that I actually expect. Now I promise fifty sold tickets when I actually know I’m going to sell a hundred. It’s safer that way and it grants me artistic and emotional security and it’s a win-win for everybody. And oh! I still got my blacklist. If you’re an artist scouting for gig venues in New York, hit me up for “friendly advice”. Or we could bond over updating it.
Shilpa Ananth is an Avant-Pop Singer, Songwriter, living and working both in New York, US and Bangalore, India. She also currently teaches vocal lessons and musical theory at Berklee Abu Dhabi.