Life as a Bassist: Balancing Art and Income

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Q: I do regular cover gigs, but I also play with a few original artists and I’m worried about them conflicting. I was wondering how you balance your “work” gigs with your “fun” gigs?

A: I have touched on this in previous columns, but this is a topic worthy of its own dedicated discussion.

For starters, this is a subjective call, and there is so much that goes into a decision like this, including where you’re at. Here are some questions you might want to ask yourself:

  1. Do you have another source of income?
  2. Are you more concerned with artistic growth than money?
  3. Are there people that could sub for you in your primary working bands?
  4. Are you having any fun on those working gigs?
  5. Which gigs make you happiest?

For many, the balance is the struggle. I’m sure all of us would love to have those perfect, musical gigs that are fulfilling, push us musically, and pay well. On the other hand, if you turn down too many gigs, your phone will ring less and less over time, until it doesn’t ring at all.

Here’s how I approach it: there are only two bands in which I am the only guy for the gig, and they are both good paying gigs that only do occasional tours, leaving much of my schedule free. For the rest of my gigging life, I am 100% a “hired gun” and people know ahead of time that I may or may not be available. If it is a gig anyone can do and/or is a low paying gig, I won’t commit too far in advance unless I know for sure I can get a sub in the case I can’t make it after all, and that finding a sub won’t be frowned upon. You don’t want to stress out the band leaders.

On the flip side, the gigs that may not pay much more than gas money but have the huge artistic award are gigs that I’m all about, and I’ll fit those into the calendar as best I can. That means I can still pay my bills with the other gigs, and still have some fun on nights when I’m open.

It sounds like you may be balancing two bands or so and worrying about a conflict between just a few outlets. In that case I would probably do the following:

Join both bands.

If money from gigs is an issue (no day job, or crappy day job) I would probably let the band leader know that I may have occasional conflicts here and there, but that I would always make an effort to honor my acceptance of a gig.

If money is not an issue, screw it. Commit yourself to the artistic and musically constructive gigs and tell the Cover Band that there may occasionally be conflicts but

Always make an effort to honor your acceptance of a gig.

If there’s a conflict, follow your heart, instinct, gut… and make the call.

When you bail on a gig, you should really try and find a competent sub if you can. At the very least, offer to help find a replacement while apologizing profusely.

Like I said, every situation is different and you really have to follow your heart and balance your financial needs vs. your artistic preferences. As idealistic as we’d all like to be, when it comes to relying on playing bass to make a living, compromises must be made at times. My advice is simply to try and strike a balance and never give up your art entirely for a paycheck. You might as well get a job and get some health benefits and start a retirement fund, in that case because nobody wants to grow old, be broke and realize that they hate the music they’ve been playing for 40 years.

Readers, what do you do in these situations? Tell us about it in the comments.

Photo by Ryan S.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. This is a great article and a situation I’ve encountered plenty in my playing life. In general I have my main band which I’m fully available for, and then around their schedule I’ll play with anyone that has me. My golden rule though is once I’m booked for a gig/rehearsal/studio session, I’m committed to that date and won’t go “mercenary” for a higher paid/higher profile gig. So far it seems to work as I head of conflicts at the pass by just simply saying “Sorry – I’m booked for that day.”

    • I am a beginner bassist since Jan 3. I have taken alot of online lessons and learned about 15 songs. When do you know you are ready to start playing with a “band” and not just troll around with some garage hacks? I had a dream last night for the first time I was playing in a band. I wasn’t any good at all, and people in the audience noticed, but just getting started I thought would be good besides all my fears. I really need to get on 1-1 lessons soon, but they can be expensive. Thoughts?

  2. When it comes to art vs commerce, I think there’s a spectrum: On one extreme, are people who are purely “entertainers” and don’t care what they play as long as they’re onstage in front of people and/or making a lot of money. On the other are artists who only care about personal expression and don’t care about having an audience or making money. Most people fall somewhere in the middle. The best thing you can do is be honest with yourself about where you fall in this spectrum, and balance your gigs accordingly. I also think you shift along the spectrum as your playing, attitude and/or financial situation changes.

  3. This has come to be a fork in the road for me lately. Given the fact it all really started with the churches doing Gospel which gave us ultimately R&B which sort of transcended into Funk, Unchained Grace has taken the test marketing we’ve done and composed six Jazz/Funk/Gospel Fusion songs which we’re taking to the studio and then on the road with other material. This has obviously required the vast majority of my time and effort so essentially I do whatever comes my way that pays. Right now, it’s an end justifies the means thing so if it means church gigs or whatever to pay the bills I take it with the knowledge that’s all it is. In answer to Ross Cusic, get with those who can learn the songs you know or can learn them. Start from there. Don’t ever put some level on yourself that says you can’t play music until you know this or that. Get out there and just do it. Just keep it in the groove, watch yout timing and pay attention to what’s happening onstage. You be fine.