Choosing the Right Path for Your Music Career

Bassist in the shadows

Q: I’ve been weaving in and out of bands for a few years, since bassists in my town are scarce. But I rarely find a band I enjoy playing with due to either the members’ personalities or the music I end up playing. As someone who wants to make a living playing music, starting my own band – with people I like and playing music I like – seems rather daunting and somewhat pointless when there are spots open in already established local bands. What do you recommend?

A: There is a long list of reasons to start a band of your own. However, I’m not sure that “because I want to choose the people I work with” is at the top of the list. For some, that might be true, but not for everyone.

Often, those who want to go through the sometimes painful and/or frustrating process of starting and running their own band do so because they simply have to get their music out there. That or they just prefer to run the show and make sure that everything that is associated with them is up to their own standard.

It sounds a little more like you may live in an area with fewer musical opportunities. This is the precise reason that most freelance musicians wind up moving to New York City, Los Angeles, or any other city with a thriving music scene. There’s also a bigger likelihood that you will develop further and more quickly in scenes like that, by virtue of the myriad of musical situations that you may find yourself in.

Without knowing your exact situation, it’s hard to say. But depending on your age, level of determination, skill level, family status and ability to hustle, I might suggest that you consider moving to a place that has the kind of musicians you want to surround yourself with. If music is what you want to do full time, a change in location could be all that you need.

This – especially these days – is not necessarily the only way. These days, you can use social media to get your art into the world and then hustle clinic tours, hit the tradeshow circuit to broaden your exposure and brand, and explore that direction. You could also take the road-much-traveled and hire your dream band to record an album of whatever music you like and hiring fantastic musicians for a tour and hope to make a splash that way.

Most people choose to move to where the scene they want to be a part of and duke it out in the trenches, hoping to find themselves somewhere near enough the peak after a dozen years that they can hold a mortgage (and then continue to climb).

The path you choose for yourself is a choice that only you can make. There is certainly nothing wrong with starting your own band and trying to climb to the top of your local scene. Just be aware that it is tough to lead a project, pay decent musicians, book gigs and try and support yourself doing it.

There is also a time when you might realize that you have become a big fish in a small pond, and it can be even tougher to then decide whether it is worth continuing to work a smaller scene or move to where there are more opportunities, but nobody knows you yet. You’d be starting all over.

Whichever path you choose, give it your all. Devote your very existence to it. Passion and talent rarely go unnoticed for long.

Readers, if you’ve faced something similar, which path did you take? I’d love to hear your take. Please share in the comments.

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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Leave a Reply to John M Shaughnessy II Cancel reply

  1. One thing no one tells you about doing your own music on top of being a pro musician is that you have to work twice as hard at everything – your commercial stuff AND your own music. Also, one thing I realized as I’ve gotten older is that original projects aren’t an ego trip – they are a representation of what you can REALLY do. This is important, especially for commercial bass players. No matter how good you are, people will think of you as just the guy knocking out 8th notes in Born to be Wild, if that’s all they hear you do. Showing as many sides of your playing, recording, arranging, and composing skills as you can is a very important career strategy these days.