This blog post is going to help you figure out how to get the gig you want and then how to keep it. This isn’t a “step-by-step”, but more of a “these guidelines will point you in the right direction”. Every situation is different. This is just a introduction to some of the topics and will most likely be expanded upon at a later date.
The thing you should always keep in mind is that the music business is still a business, even though the medium is music. Most people go to see music performed in a social setting. It’s even described most of the time as “I play this” or “I play that”. That description alone makes it sound “fun” or “recreational” and not a serious business.
You may or may not know who I am, but you definitely know some of the people I have worked with. I have been playing music professionally for over 20 years and making a living at it with the ability to pay all of my bills. I work constantly and the information I am going to mention below has been taken from my personal experiences as well as several other musicians who all work consistently solely in the business of music.
One thing to think about is that if you were to be a lawyer or a doctor, there are multiple paths laid out for you to get the job you’re looking for. There is an abundance of information as to which schools to attend, which classes to take, where to send your resume, internships and residencies, finally leading to a job. If you’re trying to be a professional musician the syllabus is a bit more convoluted. The information may not be readily available because people have a fear of you “stealing their gig”. Most of the time when a gig arises, it is because of some extenuating circumstance. Someone got arrested, their car broke down, didn’t validate their passport in time, didn’t keep accurate records of engagements and forgot (or double booked themselves), family issues, didn’t plan for traffic, etc. So when that happens you need to be prepared if you get the call to fill in because that could be your new gig. With that being said, no gig lasts forever. Once you accept that fact, you will stay hungry and continue working.
So where do you start? You need to think of your musicianship as any other commodity that a business would be selling. If you were to buy a product, the first thing you would look for is quality in that product. How do we equate that to music? That would be your playing. You need to have such a command over your instrument and musical ability that it is undeniable that you should be the one hired. This is not being cocky, but being confident in your abilities. You need to play for the music and not your ego. The people hiring you are usually not the same people that play your instrument, so you need to perform so that they hear what they’re looking for and to make the music sound the best it can. I’ve never gotten hired for my “licks”, but I’ve gotten several calls for my ability to play good time, or a comfortable groove or even smart musical choices. There is an acronym I learned called M.V.E. Mutual Value Escalation. This is playing unselfishly and in a manner that makes everyone else sound good around you (this can also be used in just general people skills-raising the value and appreciation of others regardless of social or monetary stature). One way to keep your musicianship on point is to work on it. Obviously practicing regularly is key. Another step above that would be taking lessons. Don’t ever become complacent with your playing. Always strive to keep learning and getting better. It only makes your market value go up. On the other end of the spectrum, knowing your strengths and weaknesses is key. In some cases you might be better off passing on a gig (and suggesting someone that might be more qualified for a specific genre or skill set) rather than playing it poorly. A bad reputation spreads a lot faster than a good one.
Next when you’re buying a product, you look at the price point. Is it worth the money invested? You should play every gig with the same attention to detail so that whomever hired you feels like they got a discount on your services and you are worth much more. This goes for a pro bono charity gig, a $50 favor for a friend or a $3,000 major high profile tour. Your work ethic shouldn’t change because you deem a gig one of “lesser importance”. You never know where that will lead to down the road. I know several musicians who have done a “favor” or some “charity” that has led to events that are 10x more lucrative and reputable.
After that you want the product to be available. You need to show up on time. I will repeat that. YOU NEED TO SHOW UP ON TIME! I had a band director instill in (me and the rest of) his students, “to be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late and to be late is not to be discussed”. Things happen, sometimes out of our control (traffic is the first thing to come to mind). You need to plan accordingly “in case of…” Another professor I had didn’t accept a lot of excuses. I always used to hear him say to students, “If it was important to you then it would have been a priority to…” (you can fill in the blank with whatever you want but “plan ahead” can usually be the umbrella term that fits). If you buy a product, you expect it to be available at the store, or delivered in a timely manner. Just think of your favorite sitcom show that comes on Thursdays at 8pm. What if one time it came on at 8.30 and another a 7.45, and another didn’t come on at all. Eventually you wouldn’t trust the scheduled airing, and stop watching it. Now assume that is a musician showing up for an event (whether it is playing a gig, catching a flight, making a lobby call, etc). Half of the battle in life is just showing up. You have a better fighting chance if you show up on time (early).
Marketing your “product”. Most companies spend a fortune on marketing and press for awareness and visibility of the product they are selling. This is a tricky one. Yes you should market yourself (networking), but it has to be done tastefully. You don’t ever want to come off as “thirsty”. There is a tactful and respectful way of marketing your skills and that is usually based off of your general people skills. The same way a company has success in marketing their product to customers, you will have success in “selling yourself” to people that might hire you. Most marketing can be divided into two categories. Interruption marketing and permission marketing. Interruption marketing is when a commercial comes on in the middle of your favorite TV show and has 60-90 seconds to pitch you a product. In that short time they are trying to create awareness, and increase your desire to take action and buy their product. Humor and sex appeal usually have the best effect. However what has the bigger conversion rate is actually permission marketing. This is when the customer “gives you permission” to contact them about said product. The best way for this to happen is when the customer is your friend. You are more likely to check something out or buy a product when it is pitched to you by a friend you trust (sometimes this can also be from a celebrity qualifying the product too). Your goal should be to make everyone who meets you feel comfortable around you. There has to be a level of trust that you are generally sane and a good person. You may be the greatest player on the planet, but if no one wants to be around you, you’re not going to get the call for the gig. This should also apply for social media. You should be the same in person as well as online. Courteous and respectful.
Location, location, location. Where should you be based out of? When you are trying to get the gig, you should go to where the gigs you want are being booked. Out of sight, out of mind. It is up to you to decide what it is you are trying to accomplish and where is it taking place. After people know you and you are established and working, then you can move to wherever you want. If the people don’t know about you in the first place, it might behoove you to get to a location that will put you on their radar. The next step is who is booking that and then knowing who already has the job you want. You should be familiar with why those people got the job and what it was that made them employable. That is not to say you should outright copy them. You should sound like you, but you should also be able to offer what it is the employer is looking for.
Investing in the company is also imperative. Every successful company does it. When you start getting paid, you need to look at your compensation as partial investments. The first person you should pay is yourself. That means, you should have a savings account somewhere with a “rainy day fund” as this industry is every changing and you never know when that phone can stop ringing for a bit. After that, you should take some of that money to make sure your gear is not only operational, but upgraded as necessary, especially with the constant changes in technology. This will help keep you “current” with regard to what you’re able to achieve.
Finally, there’s artistic integrity vs. being business minded. You need to make sure there is a balance between the two. You could create the best music on earth, but if you’re stuck in the practice room with no one to hear it, you won’t be a successful musician. The same goes for being overly loquacious about what you can do and not being able to back it up with the same aptitude. You should be able to be expressive and creative in your art, but also have enough attributes and competencies so you can work with other musicians from all walks of life.