‘Tis the Season: the Musician’s Checklist to Prepare for Holiday Gigs

By David Bawiec, iZotope Contributor | November 26, 2018

holiday music gig

The holidays are an awesome time, and as such, you’ll probably be getting some fun requests to perform during an office Christmas party or at a holiday-themed night at the local lounge. If you’re playing holiday favorites with your band at an event, here’s your ultimate guide to all the questions you should ask and things you’ll want to prepare to make sure the gig goes smoothly.

1.  Know the type of event and crowd

Before you start to plan for the gig, find out what kind of venue you’ll be performing at and what type of crowd will be attending your show. Are you playing at a restaurant or a nightclub? Do they want an acoustic set or a full band set? Are you performing in a restaurant that's frequented by older guests, or is it a party filled with teenagers?

If you’re playing in a quiet romantic restaurant, you might want to choose more soft and sentimental songs. Dig through some of the older classics like "I'll Be Home For Christmas." The Carpenters are always a great source of inspiration for some great holiday tunes. On the other hand, "Jingle Bell Rock" will probably be more fitting for the party crowd that wants more energetic and danceable songs. It's particularly important to know who is attending your show if you’re playing covers. You don’t want to play Frankie Valli to teenagers, but if it’s a gig at a senior citizen center, I guarantee his tunes will be really appreciated. So know your audience.

Another detail to consider is whether your performance is the main event or background music. If people are there to mingle and you're just providing the atmosphere, don’t play or sing too loudly. Again, you want to provide a great ambience, rather than be a disturbance or annoyance.

2. Determine the song category

When it comes to holiday music, songs can be put into four categories.

Religious: Songs that include lyrics about God, Jesus, Mary, Christmas, or Hanukkah. Examples could include "Silent Night," "Oh Come All Ye Faithful," "Joy To The World," and "Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah."

Secular Tier 1: Songs that mention Christmas and/or Santa and are not religious. These include "All I Want For Christmas Is You," "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting)," "Feliz Navidad," and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

Secular Tier 2: Songs that mention Santa, but don't mention Christmas and are not religious. Examples include "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Santa Baby," and "Santa Clause is Coming to Town."

Secular Tier 3: Songs that don't mention Christmas, Jesus, or Santa Claus and are not religious. These include "Deck The Halls," "Sleigh Ride," "Baby It's Cold Outside," and "Winter Wonderland."

You'll need to ask the event organizer regarding what type of songs are permitted. This may be dictated by the type of audience that will be present, so make sure you know this ahead of time.

Many office parties are required to keep things non-religious, so you'll want to go with secular songs that talk about holidays and the season, but you'll have to ask further as to what's acceptable to determine which tier you can be choosing from. For certain people "Santa Claus" is considered religious; they wouldn't be mistaken, since the word is actually derived from the Dutch Sinterklaas—a dialectal pronunciation of Saint Nicholas. So make sure to find out what's appropriate for the audience in attendance and chose your songs accordingly.

3. Dress appropriately

The way you're going to dress a lot of times is determined by where you'll be performing as well. If it’s a company holiday event, you might need to be more formal—guys will need to wear nice pants, shoes, and shirt, whereas ladies will need to wear a cocktail dress. Find out if small holiday accessories like festive ties or Santa hats are appropriate. If you're performing during the day at a bar on the beach, shorts, T-shirt, sunglasses can easily be part of your outfit. Ask the venue or event organizer for this information. It's also important that everyone in your band dresses accordingly, so communicate this to all your band members.

4. Prepare enough songs to fill the set + 2

Once you know how long the set is supposed to be, make sure you time your rehearsals, that way you know if you have enough songs to fill the entire slot. It's smart to have at least two additional songs prepared as a backup. If people like your show, they might ask you to play one or two more (this usually can translate into nice tips!). Plus, if you feel out the crowd and you need to swap something out on the fly, you've got options.

5. Print the setlist

If you're playing with a band, you don't want to pause between each song to announce to the players what song you're doing next. Prepare and print the setlist for each player that way everyone can stay on track during the gig.

6. Get parking info ahead of time

This may seem basic, but trust me, there's nothing more stressful than spending 20 minutes circling the block in search of a parking spot during the holidays. Find out if there's any designated parking for you and the band members. This is particularly important if you have equipment that you need to unload.

7. Public or private? Ask about event details

Ask if this is a closed or open event. Some gigs you can bring friends and family to, others, however, are private events where bringing your own guests would be frowned upon. So ask about this ahead of time. If it is a gig that's open to the public, follow up with questions about how your friends/fans can get tickets to it, and if there are any discounts they offer for family members.

8. Sheet music, iPads, or from memory

Certain clients will be really weirded out if you're on stage with your sheet music or lyrics. Others, however, will be totally cool with it. Find out ahead of time if you need to have all the music/lyrics memorized or not. Also, since the world is going digital, many performers are choosing to use tablets instead of printed sheet music/lyrics. Again, make sure that this is OK, as not every gig will find that to be appropriate.

sheet music on stand for holiday gig

9. Indoor or outdoor

This is an important one as it will affect many other elements.  If you're performing outdoors, you may need to bring gloves, scarves, and hats to stay warm. On the other hand, indoor spaces are often times overheated during the winter, so prepare to dress in layers that you can take off in case things get too warm.

10. PA, lighting, and stands

Every musician and band needs a tech rider. If you don't have one yet, here's everything you need to know about what a tech rider is and how to get one ready for your shows.

Make sure that the venue is able to amplify you in the way you need it. If you're performing outdoors you may be asked to bring your own PA system. Occasionally you may be performing at a gig where there is no PA system and they don't want one. Plan accordingly to bring acoustic instruments only.

Asking about lighting may seem strange, but consider this: imagine you show up to perform at a venue, but they're having you sing/play in a dark corner with no lighting. Suddenly there's a problem, as you can't see any of the sheet music or lyrics that you brought with you! So ask about lighting. This is especially important if you're asked to perform outdoors and at night. If there's no adequate lighting you may need to make sure that each one of your band members has personal music stand lights. Alternately, book lights are great if you're holding your music.

Also: stands. Confirm that the venue has at least mic stands or music stands, if not both. It's really hard to hold a microphone in one hand, hold your binder with sheet music in the other, AND try to make your performance not look rigid and uncomfortable. The less you can hold in your hands, the freer you will be to actually interact with the audience and make your performance expressive.

Again, all of this should be discussed ahead of time and sent over in a tech rider, which would list out what you're bringing and what you're expecting the venue to provide.

holiday hat christmas music

11. Weather policy

Another thing that may severely affect your performance is the weather. Particularly if you're having to perform outside. Find out ahead of time what happens in case of rain or snow. Does the event organizer have any covered stage with heating lamps available that you can perform under? If not, see if they are prepared to move you indoors instead. If possible, try to negotiate a weather cancelation policy, meaning that if it's raining or snowing and they can't accommodate you inside, and thus you can't perform, that you still get paid the full rate. After all, you showed up for the gig prepared.

Some musicians believe in "roughing it out." I don't. Any sort of precipitation is how people get sick. If you have ten or more gigs booked during the holiday season, roughing it out could lead to you falling sick and not being able to perform at any of the other gigs. So don't take chances and protect your health.

12. Learn and rehearse the songs

We all know the "12 Days of Christmas." Well, we all really seem to know the "Fiiiiiiiiiive goooldeeen riiiiiiiiiiings" part. The rest gets fuzzy.

Preparation is key to making sure your holiday gig goes smooth. Learn and practice all the songs. Sing through all the verses so you're familiar with them, that way you avoid any mishaps when trying to sight-read them on the spot. After all, everyone "knows" these songs, so your performance has to go flawlessly.