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Thoughts on “Making It” in the Music Business

Photo by John Nyberg

Q: I’m a bass player in Chicago. I’m 17 and have been playing for 10 years. I’ve always wanted to be a bass player and I always will be. I wanted to ask you about being a bass player in today’s society. When you listen to interviews with older bass players, they say they played in a couple bands, did some session work, then ended up being extremely sought after. They make it sound so easy! I’m gigging whenever I can, and I feel my eagerness is getting the worst of me. I want to be out and playing. How has the ‘scene’ changed for bass players today and what can I do to stay hip and valuable to contemporary musicians?

A: This is a multi-faceted question, to say the least. I have written multiple columns in the past about how to be visible on the scene and try to network [editor’s note: check out this one: What Does it Take to Become a Professional Musician? from 2009.]

While trying not to be redundant, there are a few other things worth mentioning.

First, you need to be patient, but don’t lose that fire. Use your impatience as a motivator to work hard and be the best player that you can be.

Deriving from your sense of how the scene used to work, we could say that in the 80’s, for example, all it really seemed to take was:

  1. Live in one of the big music cities (LA, NYC, Chicago, Nashville, etc.)
  2. Be a true professional
  3. Be one of the better players in town

Honestly, I don’t know how things really worked but that is the impression that you have and it works for one of my theories which is this:

There are many ways in which the scene is different now, not the least of which is the fact that media and reach is global now. This means that anybody can be seen and heard by anybody. This is a double-edged sword as it both means that we can really get out there and show our stuff, but it also means that the pool is diluted, and it is getting harder and harder to stand out. This, coupled with the fact that the bar has been raised to seemingly unreachable heights over the past few years and it can seem daunting to think about.

The reality is that there are a ton of great technicians. There are a ton of rock solid, meat-and-potatoes-type players. There are a ton of guys with a great work ethic. There are a ton of guys with great tone. And they can now all be seen regardless of where they live.

What there isn’t is a ton of guys who encompass all of that.

A lot of our favorite YouTube guys don’t actually gig that often. A lot of them also aren’t able to keep any high profile gigs that come their way because in the end, they are deficient in one way or another.

There is no single way to guarantee success, and there never was. The best you can do is be your best and do your best to be seen and heard. This is no easy task, and I’m not sure what the best way is beyond what I have written about in previous columns (for example: getting session work, money, auditions, going full time and getting noticed.).

The reality is that it was always hard. Very few people actually made it with that first good band they joined or got signed right away. One thing we have definitely lost is our support system. Previously, a talented artist could get backing from a label and then use the financial support to get airplay, tour consistently, and everything else that we aspire to do. That support system is in it’s death throws.

We’re on our own, which means that we need to get creative and need to work harder than ever. In some ways, the cards are stacked against us. The cost of living only goes up while musicians salaries haven’t changed much in decades. In fact, the freelance guns for hire actually often make less now than they did 20 years ago in the pop industry, because a handful of people out there realized that they could make money by being the go-betweens. There are a number of people who are the go to guys when an artist needs a band for a tour. The people choosing musicians quickly realized that there is no lack of talent out there and they can always find a phenomenal player who needs a break and will work for less money. The person who puts together the band can now find a band that will work for a third of what one might expect to make years ago. This puts more in the pocket of the talent scouts, in addition to saving the primary artist a wad of dough. You’d be surprised how little some major tours actually pay these days.

This is not always the case though. A lot of artists who fought their way to the top also respect the energy that goes into refining their skills, and many top artists do demand that their band gets well compensated.

I’m getting a little off-topic, though. In a way, I don’t really have a direct answer for you except to implore yourself to make sure that you have the will to do this, whether it means a life of financial insecurity or not. These are the people who work the hardest and usually wind up pulling it off, to one degree or another.

If you are going to do this, do it for love of music and your instrument, and work as hard as you can to be the player people will want to hire. Very few of us will ever pull in the cash a surgeon makes, but many of us will make a decent living doing what we love. This has always been my goal. Now that I’ve reached it, my goal is to work even harder to make sure that I can maintain it for a lifetime and hopefully one day, maybe even climb even further up the success ladder.

This brings me to one last point: If you think of all the guys who “made it” back in the day, how many are still active? A lot of famous musicians die poor or struggling. As few as there are of those who have made it, there are fewer even still who were able to make a career that lasted a lifetime. Musicians need to think like actors. No matter how good this gig is, it will end. There are actors we see and recognize on shows or in movies that may be unemployed for a solid year in between gigs. A musicians life is much like this. I pay my mortgage one gig at a time and I know that every tour I do that pays well, may indeed be the last good paying tour for who knows how long.

Most successful musicians are married to their craft, never stop working and growing, and continue to live simply regardless of how good this year has been.

One last story: I read an interesting article about sports athletes, and the one thing in common most of them shared was the ability to put gain ahead of pain… the feeling like your chest is going to explode, but running even harder because your desire to be the best surpasses any physical pain you are feeling now.

I think this holds true for musicians as well. The guys I admire never stopped working at their craft. There are many who will only practice what is fun or what they are good at. There are many who figure that they are good enough and rely on their present abilities to lead them through more challenging gigs. These guys don’t get referred or called back. If they’re lucky, they find the band that suits their current level and make a career out of that.

In a sense, this question is a very Western perspective. We worry about financial security and fame before our musical depth.

Work yourself near to death and then? Work more. To master your instrument takes a lifetime. “Making it” is never a sure thing, but mastery can give you a better shot. Focus on mastery and musical empathy and leave the “making it” part for later. It may never come but if you put the music first, then you can live your life in a place of satisfaction.

So in a nutshell, make sure you really want it and bust your butt to get it! If you love what you do, you’ll never work another day in your life. You might be broke, but you’ll at least love what you do. How bad do you want it?

Readers, I’m alway impressed with what you have to offer as it relates to these questions. Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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