Living a life as a musician has been both a blessing and a curse. In retrospect, my 2 decades of stage stompin’ fun have been rewarding and I’ve been lucky to be part of some wonderful things. But the truth is that, those things can be few and far in between. Boo hoo?
Over the years of teaching guitar a common question from student’s former and current is; how can I become a professional musician or even an artist? I would find it extremely hypocritical if I would discourage such a thing. Let’s face it, this music thing is brutal. Physically it’ll take a toll but mentally and emotionally is where it sinks its fangs.
I might have a discussion with them in terms of other professions; but like most musicians, once on board the crazy train it’s virtually impossible to get off. So I say hunker down, buckle up and enjoy the ride. It’ll be a bumpy one, but it may also be the best ride of your life.
It's difficult to think that there's any one way to go about it. I myself haven’t a clue on how I’ve achieved anything remotely successful in this business. But I do know in order to do something, you do it. There’s is never any easy way and when you want something bad enough, chances are something will happen.
I've compiled a list of 13 ideas that I hope can shed some insight for aspiring musicians. Everyone's experience is uniquely different and in mine, these are the things I find fundamental in my day to day as a musician.
13. Know the biz. The music business is constantly changing. Sonically trends come and go but more important the way of doing business changes. You will meet various people in the industry that have less to do with playing or making music like; managers, agents, lawyers, producers, publishers, broadcasters, talent scouts, corporate sponsors and investors. Some of these people are very smart and some aren’t. Beware of the sharks who will try to prey on your passion and talent. When you have an understanding of how things work, it is difficult for someone to pull the wool over your eyes. With knowledge always comes power. Use your power.
12. Look the part. Musicians are mostly concerned with how they sound or how well they play. It’s a fair sentiment; music is heard and listened, not watched. The misconception of looking good is that you have to be good looking, that's just silly. Making an effort on how you look is important. Before any notes happen your “look” is the first thing an audience will notice. Maybe that night you were playing in a shitty band; but some of the audience stuck around, because you looked really good at sucking. At least they’ll remember you for that and that’s a win in my books! Take care of how you look. It matters more than you think.
11. Own the stage. When you’re a working musician a lot of gigs you will play won’t be fun or even have any “cool” factor. But take it upon yourself to perform accordingly. Performing isn’t necessarily just about your playing. Show up and be a star no matter the gig. Be confident and have fun. Engage your audience and show them you want to be there as much as they do. Don’t just stand there, do something! No need to over-complicate, you’re a rock star!
10. Practice and step outside the box. I can’t stress the importance of practicing. To a point we are all naturals and have a knack for our instrument, but it doesn’t mean you stop growing and learning. Practicing is in itself a full time job, but take some time out of your daily playing to practice. There is a difference between the two. Musicians respect other musicians who really know their stuff and it’ll show. Be versatile, step outside comfort zones and always be a student of music.
9. Everyone is really good, strive for greatness. A hungry musician makes for a great musician. Keep your standards high; remember to be happy but never satisfied. When your greatness shines someone is sure to take notice. It’s wonderful when you’ve performed with the who’s who in the biz, but the only credentials you should count on are the ones written by your finger tips. When all the hype and fame goes away all you’ll have left is your talent. Be great and show them how great you are; no one can ever take that away from you.
8. Bank it. You’ve landed a sweet paying gig and have made some money. Time to go buy yourself the Ferrari you’ve always wanted, right? Every nice car deserves a house, so go and get a big one with a pool and make sure to hire a butler named Alfred. Now you’re pimpin’ and are the envy of all your friends...success? Be smart, ya dummy. You’re in show biz; you might be hip today but gone tomorrow. Make sure your tomorrow can pay for gas, buy some food and pay the rent. You never know what and when your next gig will be. Never live beyond your means. Keep a balanced cheque book. It’ll be the difference between living the dream and dreaming about it.
7. Be tech savvy. Let’s face it; playing music for a living always costs more than what we’d like. Opting for lower grade gear might seem like a good idea, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes we end up spending more money that way. The most expensive gear doesn’t always translate into quality either. Try to find a middle ground. Buying used quality instruments or equipment is a good place to start and usually a more affordable alternative. If you know of a brand that works for you and know it can handle the rigors of the road; opt for their more economic models. Sometimes you’ll find a diamond. Look beyond the badge.
6. Magic tricks up your sleeve. When you’re a musician you will wear many hats. Ironically playing music can sometimes be the thing you work on least. You can often be your publicist, manager, business manager, art director, photographer, producer, engineer and even tech. Having other technical skills that have nothing to do with music will prove to be very beneficial; especially if they’re geared to your overall propaganda and image. Yes these skills can also bring you additional revenue but also help you save money, which is crucial. Learn other skills don’t be a one trick pony.
5. The ego. Indeed we all have massive egos; why else would we do what we do? Ego is a very important part of our psyche. As a musician you will get rejected more often than not. Ridicule and criticism always chime in and sometimes you'll even think the entire world is against you. The ego will help you deal with the ruthless nature of the music industry. Your ego will tell you that you are the greatest, and anyone that rejects you, is the real loser. But don’t let it run away with you and cloud your better judgement. The ego can sometimes show up as ignorance, so please tread carefully; especially when dealing with other musicians. Keep it in check and be respectful to your peers.
4. Be grateful. Any time your two feet land on a stage, is a point of privilege. If someone is paying you to play music take it, run and don’t look back! Not all opportunities are equal and sometimes you can say no. But don’t take anything for granted and never be bigger than any one gig. Be grateful for whatever opportunities land on your lap. Don’t forget to smile and be happy, you play music for a living. What’s cooler than that?
3. Be healthy. Musicians sure do like to have a great time. Life on the road can be difficult and tempting. It’s important to set boundaries and limits to extracurricular activities that may happen. Keep a level head, stay focused and understand why you’re there to begin with. No one wants to pay to see and hear a sloppy musician. When you’ve been on a 3 week bender, it’ll rear its ugly head soon enough. It’s tough on the road don’t make it harder than it needs to be. Be a pro on and off stage and when it’s time to cut loose don’t abuse it.
2. Work ethic. When you’re a pro you show up on time, do your homework and never make excuses. A lazy and unfocused musician is useless to everyone. Anything that you will achieve is really due to the hard work you put in. A little luck might go a long way in this biz; but when lady luck does find you, it’ll be your hard work that weighs in. Sometimes you will put in a 12 hour day and walk home with a 2 hr pay cheque. It’s an unfortunate circumstance, but don’t get discouraged. Get your hands dirty and keep them filthy. Work and walk very hard.
1. Burning of no bridge. You will find that in professional circles the world can be very small. The chances of you seeing similar faces in different projects is astounding. The people in this business will frustrate you and things might not always go your way. Sometimes you might even feel like ripping off heads; but keep calm. Don't let your frustration and anger get the better of you. Pick your battles and try your best to be diplomatic. Your future is always at stake.
Musicians are a passionate bunch. Love gives us our purpose and passion lets us drive it. I hope some of this can help aspiring musicians along the way. It's worked for me time and time again.