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Deciding if the Gig is Worth It

Center Stage by Chris Smart
Photo by Chris Smart

Q: I auditioned last night for a seventeen year old up-and-coming female country star. She has recorded an album with well known Nashville producer and has hits with a few her songs. I feel it is just a matter of time before she is signed to a major deal. She has everything the new Nashville loves. My dilemma is this: should I invest my time and energy into this band when I know the record execs will supply her with their band when she is signed? I had no problem learning the material the studio cat played. I do get called for many local gigs, and I believe my ability is at the level needed for this pro situation. Should I take this ride and see what connections I can get out of this? Can you offer any thoughts on how to become a backing player?

A: As far as I’m concerned, time invested in quality situations like these is always worth it. There is no guarantee that her band will be replaced, if it’s up to the standards of the label or musical director. The criteria are likely different depending on who winds up directing her career, if it takes off. It could just be musicianship or it could be aesthetic, stage presence, connections… you never know.

I also also work under the assumption that the best way to meet the people who put bands like that together is to know as many people in that scene as possible. Musicians, producers, engineers, agents, videographers and all others involved. You never know where an opportunity may come from, and the more people who have a positive impression of you and your work, the better.

While I don’t have any direct experience in this world, outside of my current gig with Gino Vannelli (who runs his own show for the most part), it’s clear to me that the person you want to have a relationship with first and foremost is the musical directors. Musical directors can come from anywhere. Some people make a career out of it and some people get plucked out of the basket just by being highly respected as a musical voice.

For the things in your control, put the emphasis and focus on your reputation. That means being a quality musician, a quality bandmate and team player, and a quality person. You can’t be a phenomenal musician and an unreliable jerk and expect to get regular work, usually.

Musical directors are usually just freelance musicians who also have an ear for arrangements, production chops, know how to lead, and know who to call to make the band do what it needs to do without a hitch. This is why having a good reputation with the best musicians is key. The best musicians hang in quality situations that have potential to grow. So should you.

While not every quality situation will lead directly to what you’re looking for, you will likely meet any number of new people who could lead to any number of other opportunities. The fewer degrees of separation that you are from where the action is, the better.

If you feel that the band is happening, it seems a no-brainer to me. But consider the whole picture. Is her current band mediocre, but she’s poised to launch with new label support? Even if you’re talented, one could wonder why someone would want to be tied to a mediocre band, even if they might outshine everybody. Or at least, being in in a mediocre is going to produce mediocrity for the lot. That is an equation you’ll have to balance on your own: risk/reward.

You also can’t discount the reputation and relationship you might develop with the artist getting signed. If she loves working with you or any number of you in the band, she very well could push for your involvement if this thing takes flight. That could be enough in itself.

One last thought. Quite often, after an artist is signed, the first tour and album recorded will be testing the waters. Labels are hesitant to throw the big money at an unproven artist (at 17, she can’t have built up that much of a fan base, I would assume). To me, this implies that she has a local connection who wants to try and develop her. Often, this means that you will be asked to work for little money with a chance on having future successes.

This is the most precarious of positions to be in, because it could likely mean a solid year spent touring just to see if this thing can really take off, with nothing to show for it in the end, excpet a photo album and some good stories. If at this point the artist continues to grow, this is likely when they’ll dump a ton more money into a follow up album and subsequently could wind up hiring a new musical director and putting together a new band if they’re going to do that. This is reality I know people have experienced. Again, everyone is different.

But even that might be reward enough, especially if you are young. It’s a great way to get your road chops together and break bad habits that could reflect poorly on you once you did get hired for the big tour. Personally, I was “in it to win it” regardless of money until I found myself with a mortgage, family and was making enough money that I couldn’t go back to living below the poverty level on or off the road.

Readers, do any of you have any experience with this world of big label support and gun-for-hire tours? How did you make that connection that gets you called for those tours? Please share in the comments.

Have a question for Damian? Submit it to the Ask Damian Erskine Forum. Check out Damian’s instructional books at the No Treble Shop.

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Share your thoughts

Brandon McPherson

One of my best long term gigs came from this exact sort of scenario.

I was playing with a band that was really about the artist, but when his new deal came up he decided to keep me. I don’t know specifically what his motivations were, but I was fortunate enough to have been named by the artist to be kept for whatever new formation was to come, and I stayed. Along the way, I met a ton of great players that I’ve done other jobs with, business people whose wisdom I’ve been able to borrow from and gigs that became stories I’ll tell for years.

Use your gut. If you like the gig, work it and don’t be scared to work for it. If the artist likes you, maybe they’ll vouch for you later on. Just be sure to enjoy the gigs that are there and let the rest fall into place.

Steve Jenkins

This is an excellent topic and an even more excellent response from Damian!

I’m going to offer one thing that one of my musician buddies said in an interview once in regards to the audition process and I’ve heard this countless times as well as used it with my own experiences. So here goes:

They’re (the artist+band+MD) is not just auditioning you. You are also auditioning them. If you have a good feeling about the people involved (regardless of the outcome) that’s important. If you think they might be shady or somehow not on-point, that’s important and you shouldn’t ignore that either. Pay attention to how they treat you from the get go.

It’s information to consider when you are deciding on the kind of time investment you potentially might be making, anyway.

Paul Mallatratt

Paul Mallatratt

Excellent question, and response. I can’t really add much to this, except to emphasise again the importance of networking. If you consider yourself to be a professional then making contacts, gaining experience, building a reputation etc is the best way to do it. In most walks of life it’s not what you know but who you know. If an opportunity comes your way then go for it. It’s better to have tried and failed than to live a life of regrets or miss out on something wonderful.