Friday, February 7, 2014
How often do you hear the idealistic diatribes from some musicians about how they are going to become rock stars? There has been a half truth perpetuated about the music business for years that leads the uninformed into idealistic delusions of grandeur. I call it a half truth, because every so often someone beats the odds and becomes successful in this highly competitive industry just by being at the right place at the right time. For those privileged few, talent and hard work aren't necessary. However, for the rest of us to have successful music careers, we actually have to work at it.
First of all, let's not discount the element of luck. Music is a very competitive business, and yes, there is some degree of luck regarding success in this industry. However, as Thomas Jefferson said, "The harder I work, the better luck I seem to have." In many ways, you can create your own luck to a point by effectively preparing yourself for, and managing yourself in this industry. However, in most instances you won't get a shot at making a living in music, unless you do your homework and take the necessary measures to prepare yourself for a very competitive and demanding career. If you want to become a professional musician, you are going to have to be professional, and in today's world, that means developing professional musical, as well as professional business skills. Also, don't forget your interpersonal communication skills. No one wants to work with a jerk.
I have been in this industry for a long time and have been in a variety of musical situations. My paid musical career actually started when I was in high school back in the 1970s. I was doing a few gigs here and there playing for parties given by a fellow high school classmates. I also made money playing in pit orchestras for summer stock theater productions and dance recitals. I played in, and acted as drummer, contractor and band leader, for a pep band supporting a very short lived professional soccer team in Hartford, Connecticut, called the Connecticut Wildcats. I played in club date bands outside of the college's musical curriculum. Through out the college training phase of my musical development I always playing in my various school performing ensembles whether they were jazz bands, concert bands, chamber, or symphony orchestras. When I transferred from BGSU to WESCONN, I was also playing with a funk band that did clubs and private parties. The bulk of my professional career was spent in the United States Air Force as a drummer/percussionist. I spent 26 wonderful years as a musician in the United States Air Force. During my first assignment at McGuire Air Force Base, I played with the concert band and with the jazz ensemble. In 1979, I won an audition for the Air Force's premier musical organization, The United States Air Force Band, in Washington, DC. My assignments were as the drummer with the Singing Sergeants Combo, and then as an auxiliary percussionist with the concert band and symphony orchestra. When the position became available, I auditioned and won the job with the Air Force's premier country band, Silver Wings. While I was the drummer for the United States Air Force Band's Silver Wings, I was also the component's Assistant Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge, Director Of Operations, and Public Affairs Representative for varying periods of time.
Currently, I'm doing some rock, country, and blues gigs on a regular basis with the Hall Brothers Band, and the Joy B Band. as well as being a regular sub with the renowned blues band, Bad Influence. I am able to do this, because I have a pension from the US Military that allows me the luxury of not having to hold down a full time job. Staying in until I had earned that pension was part of my musical game plan.
None of the musical decisions I've made over the years have happened haphazardly. I had a goal, and used a flexible game plan to achieve that goal.
As a side note, if something happened to me where I could not play music anymore, I could still participate in the industry by continuing to teach private students, as well as use the skills I acquired in the Air Force to go into artist management and/or marketing and promotion.
While I love the art of music, I have a very realistic view of the profession and consider music a business first. Don't get me wrong. I haven't lost sight of the artistic side of the music industry. However, I don't consider it "selling yourself out" if you lean toward the commercial side of the house. That's the musical product that most people seem to want. If a commercial musical product is offered competently and with an artistic presentation, it's not selling out. It's facing the realities of this industry. Every industry faces the same thing. You will not stay in business very long if you are offering something that the paying public doesn't want. Also, musical fashions change. If you are not willing to bend a little here and there, and keep up with the changes, you are going to be left by the wayside. Consequently, I won't turn down a job, just because I don't like the style of music. I know people that have that mindset, and they either have no money, have really good day jobs, or a spouse or significant other with a very good day job. You have to be prepared for, and willing, to play just about any kind of job that comes down the pike. Every new musical situation you do exposes you to a new crop of musicians. The larger your sphere of contacts, the more opportunities will be sent you way...providing of course, that you show up prepared, on time, sober, and with a cooperative attitude.
There is an attitude among many part-time musicians that music is a big party, where you all get together in the guitarist's basement, drink yourselves into a stupor, do bong hits all night long, and then "rehearse" the same songs over and over until they sound just as bad as when you first started playing them. Yet for some reason, they think that they are going to become rock stars, live in huge mansions in the Canary Islands and be sleeping with five women at once every night while on tour. They finally get enough material to play a four hour gig. They then start making the rounds to the clubs with a blatantly obvious home made press kit stuffed in a torn manila envelope with the closing clasps broken off. This state of the art press kit includes a horrible tape or CD with the list of songs scribbled on the label with a magic marker that was recorded in someones cellar with truck noises or a jack hammer in the background. There is also an out of focus or crooked picture with everyone squinting at the camera, and resumes and bios that read like they were written by a third grader with Alzheimer's. There is no attempt at showing any modicum of professionalism—and they wonder why they are not getting any gigs.
Purchasers of music; club owners, convention bureau managers and promoters, talent agents, cruise ship entertainment directors, festival talent coordinators, etc., are all very busy people. Some of them get hundreds of press kits per day from bands and entertainers looking for work. You can be the greatest band in the world, but if your marketing materials are second rate, you are not going to go anywhere. Yes, marketing costs money, but it is money well spent.
First of all, make sure that all your marketing materials have a consistent look. Coordinate the look of the business cards, folios, logos etc. so that there is a cohesive look. Keep the same look at the band's Internet site.
Use only good quality folios and mailing pieces. Use a white hard sided mailing envelop rather than manila or brown. Make sure that cover letters and resumes are laser printed on the best quality bond paper you can find. Letterhead with the bands logo is also very impressive. If you don't think you can write a professional level cover letter or resume, hire a professional to do it.
If you don't know someone who can take a professional photograph, Use a professional photographer. Yes, it will cost money. Under US copyright laws, the photographer owns all rights to the photograph. You are going to have to negotiate editorial and self promotion rights from that photographer, and that could cost some money too . Insist on a figure up front, and make sure the necessary rights are in a signed, written contract. Verbal agreements won't hold up in a court of law.
Make a professional quality demo CD, and have quality reproductions, including jackets made. Make sure the CDs are labeled. Personally, I like the ones where the information is burned right onto the disc itself, rather that having a label on the CD, but either one is fine as long as it looks professional. You can either spend the money to make a full length CD that you can sell at gigs, or do a press kit demo. The demo is what I recommend you do first. All you need are 30 seconds with a board fade at the end of 5 or 6 songs. You should be able to knock that off in a recording studio in less than two hours.
If you are interested in doing corporate functions, contact the convention bureau of the city where you plan on marketing yourself. Get a list of the various conventions coming into town. Contact those organizations and find out who the talent purchasers are. Contact them and send them your press kits. Follow that up with telephone calls. Conventions tend to book a year in advance, and they tend to stay with entertainment that they have used in the past. However, if they are dissatisfied with that entertainment, they will be willing to look at new bands for their functions. If you do a good job for them, you will be their first call for future conventions.
I used to work for a contractor that also provided entertainment for weddings. He used to buy booth space at various bridal shows. He could provide entertainment from solo pianists to small groups, string quartets, solo harpists, and up to an 18 piece big band. He had a loyal stable of musicians that he could plug into various products, and as he expanded his business, he was always looking for new qualified talent. In the 1990s he closed down his business and moved to Europe, where he opened up shop in Austria until he retired a year ago.
If you are interested in working in clubs, make an appointment with the owner to drop off your press materials. Follow up with occasional phone calls. In a lot of instances, perseverance will eventually get you a gig in a club. With clubs there is a downside. You might have to work for the door in the beginning before a club owner is willing to commit finances in your direction. If you don't bring in people, you are not going to make any money. If you treat a club owner well, they will spread the word to other club owners. They all know each other, and tend to network behind the scenes.
No matter what kind of venue you are playing, professionalism is the order of the day. Show up on time. Don't look like slobs. Some gigs are casual, but make sure you know what casual means. Are jeans and a T-shirt OK, or does casual mean "corporate casual," which means a nice open collar shirt or polo shirt and a nice pair of pants. Hawaiian shirts and khaki pants will work in most situations if you are not sure, and they are extremely comfortable to play in. Many wedding and convention gigs call for either a dark suit or a tuxedo. Make sure you have both and they fit you well and look good. Dry cleaning and pressing work wonders. If it's a black tie affair and you are playing background music for cocktails or music for dancing after the formal part of the function, you are going to be expected to be in black tie. Dark suit or Tuxedo also doesn't mean that you wear black tennis shoes. If you believe the misconception that you can't play in anything other than sneakers, either get out of this business or grow up. It's no harder to play in dress shoes than it is in tennis shoes. Also, make sure that your shoes are in good shape and if they need shoe polish, shine the damn things.
Personally, I never drink a drop of alcohol at a gig. That is my own rule for myself. However, there is nothing wrong with having a couple of beers or drinks over the course of the evening. Don't consume alcohol to the point where it even begins to affect your ability to do your job, and yes, it is a job. You are getting paid. I also don't feel that you should be doing drugs before or during a gig. If you want to get stoned, do it after you get home. One band I played with a few years ago had a no alcohol policy until after the gig. I had no problem with that. I think it's a good idea. I was working with a bass player a year or so back who would start drinking beer as soon as he arrived at the club, and would have several beers over the course of the evening. By the second set, it was starting to affect his time. By the third set, he was all over the place. Having to fight his time and keep things steady made gigs difficult to say the least.
If a club provides a meal as part of the compensation package, don't go whole hog and order the best steak on the menu, unless the owner or manager says it's OK. A bowl of soup with a burger and a salad makes a nice meal, and doesn't put the club owner in the difficult position of having to tell you that you can't have the 30 oz New York Strip for free. Many private functions I've played provide what are called vendor meals. Rather than feeding the entertainment the meal that the guests are having, they provide something along the line of a club sandwich with chips or fries, and maybe a salad. You won't go hungry. Don't complain. Someone else is paying for it. I've had my share of club sandwiches with soggy potato chips, and it didn't kill me. One place I've played, the owner of the club gives you a 25% discount on any menu item. It's OK to order what you want in that situation, because he's made it clear that you can have anything you want at a discount. He's still making some money, and you are getting a break on the price of the food.
Finally, I want to dwell on preparing yourself musically for a career in professional music. The hard reality of the situation is the days of the seventeen year old self taught musician walking out of a record company office with a million dollars in a briefcase are over. If you are going to have any chance at all of either working full-time or regularly part-time in this industry, it's best to have some formal musical training. A university degree is not necessary in this business. However, it's not a detriment either. If you earn a Music Education degree, you can always fall back on teaching in the public schools if things don't work out for you as a performer. If your ambitions are to teach at the university level in the first place, you are going to have to stay in school long enough to earn a doctorate degree. Very few schools will look at you without that type of sheepskin. Even though most military musicians have college degrees, there were a few of us that didn't. The handful of us that didn't have degrees still had years and years of formal musical study through private lessons and some college level courses in music. For me, not having a degree has been a mixed blessing. If I hadn't left college after my third year, I never would have ended up studying with Sonny Igoe in New York City, who taught me what I needed to pursue a career as a professional drummer. Without his expert teaching, I never would have developed the chart reading and technical ability that was needed for the career that I chose. Sonny was the one that encouraged me to get experience in a military band. He had done the same thing during World War II. My initial plan was to join a service band for four years, make some contacts and gain experience, and then move to a big town like New York or Los Angeles and try my luck at breaking into their respective music scenes. Once I realized that I was not quite the material for the New York or Los Angeles "major leagues," I decided to stay in the Air Force and have a very rewarding career playing "AAA ball." On the other side of the coin, if I had earned my Bachelor of Music Education degree, I would have had the security of having a college education, and been entitled to the career opportunities that are available in the music education world. However, I wouldn't have had the playing opportunities that have come my way. I wouldn't have had the training in commercial music skills that are necessary for professional level commercial music work. I would have had decent classical percussion skills at best, which wouldn't have been good enough to land me an orchestra gig. In an ideal world, I could have had them all, but we don't live in an ideal world. I'm not complaining. I had a very respectable career in the Air Force Band, and I still have a very respectable career as a freelance musician. I can keep a roof over my head, food on my table, and clothes on my back and still have some money left over from being a musician. Not many musicians can claim that.
Keep yourself focused on what you want to accomplish as a musician, and then pursue whatever you need to do to reach those goals. Take lessons, go to school, network with other musicians, market yourself, and be professional in your dealings with other musicians and the public. To paraphrase the Thomas Jefferson quote that I eluded to earlier, "work hard so that you can get lucky."