When you first start out as a band you're live shows are probably going to suck.
However, with each show comes another opportunity to work out the kinks, improve your stage presence & musicianship. Above all else you need to make sure that your music is performed to the best of your ability. If little Johnny can't remember his parts and the band as a whole is off beat & out of tune, don't even think about playing a show yet! Get back into the rehearsal studio & keep practicing.
There are many different places you can play a show besides the traditional venue; house parties, malls, art shows, retail stores. Especially when you're just starting out it's a good idea to find places that don't require you to sell tickets. Connect with other bands at your level, get onto shows as an opener or play last. You've got to start somewhere and even though the set time may not be your first pick or the venue isn't glamorous, it'll be worth the experience you gain as a performer that will further your career. The most typical alternative venue for bands to play is at your local bar. The good thing about playing a bar is that you usually don't have to pay to play & the other thing is that you've got a real life audience to test your music on.
The bar crowd is a great way to gauge how good or bad your music for 2 reasons:
They're not there to see you so if you're good, they'll let you know
They've been drinking so if you're bad, they'll let you know!
What's important about the crowd response is that they give you a real unbiased insight about your band. Don't take these comments lightly & read between the lines. These people may not be your target audience or they won't "get" your music but they know a good band when they hear one & though the audience will be honest, they probably won't be rude. So if they say something along the lines of, "I think the guitar amp sounded weird" it means your guitar player sucks & you need to keep practicing! Or "The songs were good but i couldn't understand the singer", you're singer probably sucks & they need to keep practicing. Try not to get caught up in your own hype, listen to the audience, watch how they react during your set. If you can, have a friend take video your entire show so you can review it later. Study it like a sports team does to improve on your weaknesses, own up to your shortcomings & make the next show an even better one!
So how do you book your first show? Well in most cases, you simply just have to ask! Research the venue & find out who to contact for booking or you can always just pick up the phone & call the venue direct, usually whoever answers can point you in the right direction. They're going to ask how many people you can bring to the club & you'll want to be honest, don't over exaggerate your draw. If you don't deliver what you promised the booker it could ruin your reputation around town & make it hard to book in the future. If you can't bring at least 20 people to a show then maybe you're not ready to play a show. Reach out to your fans, see who wants to see you play but even more, who's willing to drive out on a Monday night to see you play at a shitty bar? Once you do book a show, start promoting your show everywhere, immediately!
Playing a show is the number one way to expose your music to potential fans so first impressions are very important. While you're on stage you should try to conduct yourself as a professional, after all that's your goal right? Fake it till you make it! You've surely seen concerts before so you should know more or less how to play a show. What not to do may be less obvious.
Basically just remember that the audience came to hear music, not watch you spend 15 minutes trying to tune your guitar or hear your stand up comedy. Typically they won't understand you anyway because the PA setup at clubs work just enough to be audible. Don't expect the crowd to understand what you're saying word for word so keep the conversation to a minimum, announce your band name before & after your set, anymore than that is unnecessary. You can also let people know if you have merch for sale & or give out your website url from the stage, but if you've got a complicated name just save it for after the show. Be prepared for your show, set up quickly, tune quickly, know what your set list is & don't mess around on stage. This may just a goof off show for you but people don't come to concerts to watch the band act like a bunch of assholes on stage, keep the show about the music. If you can't perform your own songs well then you're completely missing your shot & wasting everyone's time in the process. Of course, there are lots of things beyond your control like shitty sounds systems & small stages but you better make damn sure that one thing you can control, your music, is performed well.
If you made it through your set without the band breaking up or your singer passing out from stage fright then it was a good show! However, you're work for the night isn't finished by a long shot, it's just beginning. The worst thing you can do as a band is pack up & leave right away after your set. You need to get back in there & mingle with the crowd, start a conversation & try to get new fans.
Do you know how frustrating it is to go see a band you like & not be able to find their music online or go see them play again because you forgot their band name?! This would've been avoided if that band left something behind for people to remember them.
Merch can be anything really, from stickers to bracelets, shot glasses to party hats! What works well for one band might not work for another so you'll need to experiment with different items. For example, If you're a metal party-hard band then the shot glasses make sense but if that same band trys to sell me a party hat, that's not metal. Stickers & CDs are the go to items for most bands, even if you just burn a cd of your crappy recorded jam session, people need to remember you the next day. Especially if the audience genuinely liked your show, you could leverage that positive feedback into them buying merch or asking for a donation so you can make a proper recording.
Additionally, unless you've got a great logo or people consistently buying merch at your shows, in my opinion don't buy shirts, save your money. The same goes for your cd, if you've made a proper recording get a small pressing of 200 or less. The last thing you want is for the band to break up & now you're stuck with boxes of unsold merch in your garage.
If you can't make merch for whatever reason, the very least you can do is keep a mailing list.
In fact, you should be keeping a list regardless of what stage you're in as a band. This doesn't mean just setting out a pen & paper at your merch table for people to sign up. No, you actually need to go around the bar & talk to people! Introduce yourself, ask people how they enjoyed the show, ask if they usually go out to see bands, then ask if you can send them an email about your next show when your band get better. People will generally be happy to give you their email especially if they thought you were remotely entertaining. If for some reason they don't have an email you can always get their phone number. What?! No email?? I know right? Oddly enough, there are still some people out there who don't have email so you need to collect some alternate form of communication from them, whether it's a phone number or mailing address.
Networking is key to a successful band & the mailing list is the best way to grow your audience.
People are often drunk at concerts & won't remember most of the night, how are they going to remember your band? You want to do everything you can to make your first impression a good one because it could be the last thing anyone remembers about your band. Practice your songs, conduct yourselves professionally on stage & interact with the audience after the show.Whether they liked your set or not, if you give them something with your name on it, with your URL, or even just have a conversation with them, they're likely to seek you out in the future. On the other hand, you also need to be able to do the same if the time comes to plan a big show or release a record.