Am I Selling Out?

Bassist on Stage

Q: I’m a pretty good bassist. Not the best, not the worst. I manage to find a few decent gigs per month but so much of what I get asked to do is cover-band gigs, weddings, corporate… it goes on. I feel like I’m selling out or something when I do those gigs. But I also want to make my living playing bass. How do I reconcile that?

A: Something tells me that you are not alone, friend. However, it has never occurred to me to live on that island.

Everybody is different and everybody plays music for different reasons. Personally, I continued to pursue music into adult-hood simply because I liked it more than anything else that I could think of doing for money. I knew that I would always play, so I thought that I might as well try to make my passion/hobby into my career as well. At a certain point, I had to decide whether to bail while I had time and pursue a job that would guarantee some kind of base income or double-down on the “music thing”. (hint: I doubled-down on the music thing).

Because of that perspective on my music playing, I never actually cared about much beyond a) being the best player that I could be and b) trying to manifest playing opportunities wherever they may lie.

Some of my peers are surprised when they hear that I play in a top-40 cover band. Some are surprised that I regularly play dozens of weddings and corporate events every year when I’m not on the road.

Yes, I also play in original, hyper-creative jazz projects, play in original funk bands, songwriter groups, the list goes on…

For me, I just love playing good music with good people. That’s really my only caveat these days. Of course, when I was just getting going, I played a lot of crap, but I did it because I needed the experience, needed to meet other players, and needed the money!

Honestly, with the right group, I can have just as much fun playing Bruno Mars as I can Chick Corea or original creative music. And if Bruno and Chick both ever called me, I couldn’t tell you which way I would lean, all other things being equal. They’d both be a blast and challenging in different ways.

Side note: learning dozens of songs that span the genres necessary to play those gigs is also a great vocabulary builder! I learn a TON doing those gigs and made some of my biggest developmental strides playing weekly cover-funk gigs, etc. There’s no better way to expand your vocabulary then learning all of the music necessary to play and hour long jazz set, followed by a few sets of bumpin’ funk, Motown, and dance tunes.

I’m not saying that you should adopt my way of life for yourself but I will suggest that you should consider what your goals are (although it sounds like you’ve done a bit of that already, I think that you could likely take it further).

Do you feel like you’re “selling out” because you think other people might think that you were selling out?

If you want to make your entire income from playing music, can you afford to turn down weddings, etc.. (which tend to pay WAY better than your every day local gig at the club)?

I frequently play with the best musicians in my town and we often do it at events like that. Why? Because we all make our living doing this and, if we can make $500 on this one night, that helps pad the income for all of those $40-100 “creative music” gigs. And you know what? We have a really good time doing it! When the band is slamming, I don’t care what we’re playing, it’s going to be fun.

If you truly only want to play original, “creative” music, you really need to start manifesting some things for your self or figuring out how to really get something going because a few gigs per month won’t cut it. You may have to start your own project or you can actively start seeking other projects in the area with like minded folks.

You will likely also have to get into marketing, promotion and the like. Really getting your original project off of the ground takes some dedication and serious groundwork. In my mind, this ties into the bit of soul-searching and manifestation/visualization of the band you want to be in. You’re going to need to make it happen, rehearse like hell, start wherever you can and slowly build that following. It very well may pay off, but it’s a tougher road.

So the determining factor is, “why do you play”?

Do you play for art? Fantastic! Make it happen!! It can be a tougher place to start but can lead to the ultimate in satisfaction when you get there.

Do you play for fun? Fantastic! Do whatever brings you joy!

Do you play for income? Fantastic! Go where the money is! It’s out there.

Do you want to balance all of those things? Fantastic! Me too. That’s where I try and live. Do it all and relish the joys of playing music with friends and experiencing all facets of the musical world around you!

Don’t ever make a decision to do or not do something based on your perceptions of how others may view it. They don’t matter. YOU matter. It’s your life, your career, and your happiness. Do what makes YOU feel good at the end of the day. Be honest with yourself about what you want out of it (outside of perceived peer pressures) and chase it down.
Being honest with yourself and with others is a great way to neutralize fear, anxiety, and can certainly help you decide whether or not to feel bad about doing cover gigs for money.

If it truly rubs you the wrong way, don’t do it. Just know that for every action, there is a reaction. When you turn down that $500 gig on a night you had free anyway, know that you will wake up feeling good about not “selling out.” But you also won’t have $500 in your pocket the next day that you could have made instead of binge-watching shows.

Which leads me to my final point: If you decide NOT to do those money gigs, don’t waste that time that you could have spent making half your rent in a few hours. Hustle. Practice. Read. Build your website. Strategize. Write new songs…

Make that time work for you one way or the other!

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. MikeyM.

    Excellent article and practical advice for all categories of musicians/bassists. Thanks Damian!

  2. Really nice answer! Thanks Damian. This is how we all, or at least many of us, do. Just play gigs no matter is it weddings or at the stadium.