My first thought when asked to write a guest post titled “Five Pieces Of Advice For Bands and Musicians,” was that I am probably in no position to give professional advice to upcoming musicians. I’ve been bumbling along trying to figure out a way to make a living in music for more than 20 years now. My journey has taken me from having to eat peanut butter on a spoon in the back of a 90s astrovan with a hi-hat stand jabbing me in the side, to playing for audiences in the thousands, complete with catering and good hotel rooms. It has taken me from having credits on Grammy-winning recordings, to being back to eating peanut butter, yet in a newer model van.
All said, I have played many, many gigs during my career. I have worked in many facets of the business, including musician, live sound engineer, recording engineer, stage hand, event organizer, producer, booking agent, talent buyer, and manager. All of these jobs have given me a good idea of what works, or maybe more importantly, what does not.
So in lieu of “giving advice” with the notion that I have anything at all figured out, I will share five things I have screwed up along the way and how to try and avoid these same mistakes. I’m not an authority on what or what not to do, or how to “Make it” (whatever that means). However, I have messed up and learned from it. Plenty. Here are the results of this lessons.
Be a pro:
Be on time. Or Early. Shake hands. Smile. Make eye contact. Remember people’s names. Deliver projects as requested and on time. Say “Yes sir” or “No sir” when it’s appropriate. Challenge and push yourself. Look respectable. Be respectable. Do not do underhanded things to get ahead. Practice good personal hygiene. (Some reading this may think that last statement is ridiculous. Those people don’t hang around with touring musicians). Know what is expected of you, and execute it to the best of your abilities. And for the love of God, don’t gossip or badmouth your fellow local musicians. They are on your team, and you are in this together.All this applies to any job or skill. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that it also applies to any position in the music industry. Even though we are being handed a check at the end of the night., many of us treat playing music professionally as a glorified hobby, and don’t give it the respect it deserves. Long story short: Have pride in what you do, and do it at a high level. Those who do so go on to have careers. Careers don’t happen casually or by mistake. Especially, in the arts.
2 We are not rock stars:
As musicians playing in bars and clubs, we are entry-level service industry workers. Yep. We are there to keep people at the venue spending money. Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that the joy we experience with our club or bar audience isn’t meaningful. It is! Likewise, don’t think that the venue doesn’t care about music. They do! However, when we look at the bottom line, we are there to sell beer and food. Much like servers, cooks and bartenders. So stumbling out of your van like Mick Jagger, acting like a drunken buffoon on stage, being rude or entitled with patrons or staff…. None of that even makes sense. It’s what amateurs do. The term “Rock Star Behavior” is what actual rock stars use to describe the behavior of drunken, entitled buffoons who pretend they are Keith Moon. Most rock stars take it really easy on the road. They’re likely to be on the bus drinking hot tea listening to the news and working on business before their sets.
3. This is not a competition
Don’t compete, help out! If a band in your scene (God, I hate that word) is not as solid as your own, prop them up. Help them to be better. If you come across a new group looking for a foot in the door with gigs, let them open for you. Then, sit down before the show and share a meal and a beer. Make people happy. Be supportive. When we stop viewing playing live music as being a competition, opportunities will immediately arise as a result. Start viewing your local live music scene as a community and help your community GROW! In doing so, you will set yourself apart from the crowd quickly. Most of us love doing this! So, why be curmudgeonly about it? It just doesn’t make sense.
4. Playing hours count the most
The time you spend playing and working on music is directly related to the quality of your product. This is a universal truth. Play as many gigs as you can and rehearse as often as you can. Record demos. Write together. Spend time on the road. It all helps. For me, it has always been about slow growth. I have never been part of a project that was immediately any good. It’s always taken a lot of time. My current band, The Floorboards, have played 400 + gigs by now and we have continued to maintain weekly rehearsal time for the past 5 years.
5. Get your ego out of the way
Instead of being there to serve yourself, be there to serve your audience and the song. Stay in that moment. It’s my belief that when you approach any endeavor with the attitude that “I am X, Y or Z” and/or with the preconceived notion that you are better or worse at said endeavor than the next guy, you are making things hard on yourself. I have also come to understand that self-deprecating thoughts or statements are egocentric, selfish things to indulge in, and therefore dangerous. The problem with approaching playing music, or any art or activity for that matter, from an egotistical viewpoint, is that you are inherently comparing yourself to others in doing so. If you’re a kid in your basement learning guitar listening to Jimi Hendrix, and you tell yourself “I will never be that good”, you have initiated a self-fulfilling prophecy. You will never be as good as Hendrix, because you’re “You.” But YOU have something else to offer!
Similarly, those who think of themselves as better than those around them will plateau in their ability as musicians and fail to learn how to play meaningfully, or connect with other musicians. I have seen this scenario play out a thousands of times. Instead of comparing yourself to others, we should each learn from and find inspiration in those who inspire us. Comparing yourself or holding yourself to someone else’s standard has always been a mistake for me. Remember the kid in his basement listening to Jimi Hendrix? At some point, that kid WAS Jimi Hendrix listening to Albert King.
Leaving your ego out of it leaves room for only real, actual confidence; The good stuff.
Thanks for reading. Now go practice!
Jake Dempsey is the owner of Summit Sound, a destination, residential recording studio and retreat hidden in the middle of no where, VA. Learn more about Jake and the studio online at: http://www.summitsoundva.com/Welcome.html