Mugging for the Camera on Stage

Bassist performing on stage

Consider this column a PSA. Feel free to agree or disagree and, in fact, please do leave a comment, as I think this is worth making mention of and talking about.

I have had a handful of gigs so far this year where musicians have positioned cameras on themselves in an attempt to gain some extra social media content from the gig. I’m all for this and love documenting gigs myself but I’m noticing a trend.

A number of musicians I know who set the cameras up only on themselves with the hope of grabbing some potentially viral badass moments seem a little (or a lot) too focused on the camera and are forgetting to serve the music and, instead, seem to focus on the flash, to the detriment of the music happening around them.

It’s one thing to document your band and hope for some gold but when you zero that camera on yourself (often constantly checking the screen to check themselves out while it happens) and start only playing for the camera, there seems to be a (not so) subtle shift for some players. They start playing solely for content creation. Fills become flashier, faster and trickier. Epic, over-the-barline fills happen in the middle of verses that don’t fit the vibe at all and stomp all over the melody. Grooves become forces of nature that may or may not have anything to do with the music everyone else is making dynamically. There’s little to no eye contact with other musicians onstage because they are laser focused on the camera and thinking about that next thing they’re going to do for that camera.

Folks start mugging for the camera.

The focus becomes singular and has nothing to do with serving the music or interacting with the musicians making music with you.

This is by no means a universal truth. I actually subscribe to a ton of social media feeds that are laden with performance videos of players I admire and they routinely set up a camera for (seemingly) every gig and an implausible number of afternoons in their living rooms. The primary difference is that, once that camera is rolling, they forget it’s there and play the music.

What I think they realize is that ultimately, there is nothing more impressive than a musician who NAILS their parts, plays with sensitivity to what’s happening around them, and makes the musical statement stronger. This is especially impressive to the bandleader, I can assure you. I’ve seen a lot of great players actually lose gigs because they aren’t focused on the moment and are too concerned with wowing their followers on Instagram.

Certainly, there is a fine line to walk but I think it’s important that we focus on being musicians first and content creators second, at least in the musical world I live in. I know, I know, there are a ton of players online who have gotten internet famous melting faces in their media feeds but very few of those folks work all that much outside of NAMM-style showcases (which often don’t pay well) and shreddy internet collaboration videos and, occasional, gigs or tours. That stuff is fun and I’m all about checking that stuff out (although I can’t usually make it through an entire video and have never made it through albums made this way and with this intention) but the musicians who actually work a lot and make a significant living off of music are the ones who focus on the music. Period. You might not even know their names, as is evident when I suggest players to explore to my students. They usually know every viral bassist out there but start furiously scribbling names when I mention the first call players for gigs of different genres.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule and there are plenty of names who have been discovered by virtue of their viral virtuosity. I’m not trying to slam shredders or heavy content creators, but I just want to get a conversation going that revolves around musicality and musicianship over mugging for the camera.

Many of the pros that grab killer content from performances became pros by serving the music, having a professional attitude and approach, naturally leading to working a LOT, naturally leading to getting even better, inevitably leading to potentially virally exceptional performances just because they are so great, so consistently.

Think of that Corey Henry solo that went so viral from Snarky Puppy’s “Lingus” video (or Lalah Hathaway’s vocal solo on “Something”, for that matter). The singular focus for each of them was the music and their expression within the constructs of those songs and as it aligned with those around them. If anybody had played anything differently, their approach would likely have shifted. They were immersed in that moment and that song. There is nothing greater.

What I’m kvetching about are those moments when you think to yourself, “man… we could all stop playing all-together and they might not even notice. He/she had that lick saved up before we even started the song. They’d do that same thing no matter what was happening right now. Do they even know we’re here?”.

We all have licks. Muscle memory and licks are not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about forcing square pegs into round holes because you want that square peg for Instagram.

Musicianship is not chops. It is not having over a million views on a clip or your best solo captured by a hi-def camera. Musicianship is ones ability to serve the music happening and operate in harmony with the others on stage with them. And, if you play the hell out of that song, take a great solo, and it gets captured on your camera? Fantastic!

In my opinion, we should strive to create content by virtue of creating great musical moments on stage, not by playing a fill that nobody else could pull off.

Admittedly, this is why I don’t produce nearly as much content from home as I (feel like) I should. I need the music to inform me and make me feel something while I’m playing and I just can’t capture any kind of impactful intention with my playing when I’m sitting in my living room or practice space by myself. I’m not saying that makes me a better musician, and enlightened musical being, or anything of the sort. I’m just saying that I don’t understand the drive to make music without a complete musical statement and it’s possible to my own detriment that I haven’t tried to push past that. Who knows…

Regardless of one’s ability to bring forth the magic when by themselves at home for the camera, I very much believe that when we are on stage and playing with a band, I would hope that everybody’s focus is on the music and the moment. If it is, then the “greatness” usually takes care of itself.

I’ve captured a ton of gigs that didn’t have anything worth posting to the greater bass world. Why? Often, it’s because the music didn’t necessitate anything beyond playing simply and solidly. I’m 100% ok with that.

Come to think of it, maybe I should start posting more videos of me playing that kind of thing. “Be the change you want to see in the world” and all that.

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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Share your thoughts

  1. Keith Kenyon

    great article! i agree 100%!!!

  2. Crush

    I used to post a lot of videos, and I found that I started measuring my self worth by the number of views, likes, and comments. I was at the mercy of strangers. Eventually I stopped posting videos and I feel much better. It was a deep dark place that I am sure a lot of people get caught up in. Reclaim the joy of playing music and leave the videos alone.

  3. Brandon T

    I’ve done a handful of videos, but only a small number for promoting myself as someone who records for others (to show “hey, I’m available to record for you”. When I do record video it’s primarily because I want to get the audience’s perspective of the band, to hear how we’re playing together. Often you see and hear it done a certain way on stage, but then you see it on video as if you were a member of the audience, and it’s a whole different thing (certain things you thought were cool are actually not cool, and vice versa). I find it so annoying when you see a bassist or any type of player, video’ing themselves and they’re constantly looking at themselves on the screen (it’s like “play your damn gig, man, quit trying to be a damn poser”.

  4. Michael Hamer

    Great article! I totally agree!