Reaching the Next Level in Your Music Career

Bassist on Stage

Q: I’ve been playing continuously, usually in a band, for 40 years. All bass guitar, and no other instrument, other than a little piano and guitar for my own amusement. Name a genre, and I’ve spent time and effort learning and performing it.

My ears, musicality, knowledge, and technique, stage manner, learning speed, intuition and gear have all improved tremendously over the years, as you might expect for a “seasoned” vet player.

Recently, I also made big life changes in an effort to improve my overall health and appearance, eating clean and giving up alcohol completely. As my playing got closer and closer to “pro” level, I thought it would advantageous to look and act the part of a serious musician. Even did some wardrobe upgrades!

As it is, you might say it’s paid off. Been playing with lots of good people, averaging 2-3 times a week in performance. Mostly bar gigs, some jam hosting, wineries, the occasional festival. I probably shouldn’t complain.

But I am.

Just not satisfied with the caliber of the venues, the music, or some of the folks I’m collaborating with. Local bars are depressing, for the most part. Festivals on a big stage, which I love playing, are about a once yearly thing. I feel stuck at a “tier” of bands and performance opportunities rife with low-commitment players who are happy playing the same old ad infinitum. Not acting like pros. With little discipline, regard for music quality, or performance excellence.

I’ve placed ads on Facebook groups, have a solid reputation, and seemingly what would be required to “break out”, but no luck doing so to-date. Same ol’ same ol’ week after week.

Any tips, advice, etc would be immensely appreciated.

A: I’ve been there! I remember that mental space well and I know all too well how local bar gig after bar gig can wear you down emotionally or at least start to feel like a real lack of forward momentum in your career/playing opportunities.

I really only have two pieces of advice and they are both things that I employ to this day when I feel stagnant in some way or panicked that I’m lacking some kind of meaningful trajectory.

1. The Projection.

I’ve found it immensely effective both in life and music to try and visualize (or hear) the person/player I want to be in 5 or 10 years. This could also relate to what you want to sound like, what you want your career to look like, what gigs you want to play, etc… Whatever it is that you want to prioritize in your life…
Visualize that person and really dissect what it would logically take or what would need to happen to be in that place in the future.

  • Reverse engineer the steps you imagine would lead you in that direction.
  • Now, prioritize those steps. Put yourself in a mental state where every decision that you make somehow fosters growth in that area.

When people talk about “manifesting your reality (future/ideal)”, it’s really just a fancy way of saying, “decide what direction you want to walk and walk your ass off… it’ll happen.”

2. Patience.

As long as you are actively working towards… something, you have to trust in the process and let it run its course (adjusting as necessary, but always keeping the bow pointed in the right direction). Most things don’t happen overnight. Even if they seem too, they are often the result of having consistently moved in the same direction for a long enough time for things to manifest and evolve organically (seemingly spontaneously).

It sounds like you’ve already done quite a bit of that. While you may need to just be a little more patient, it NEVER hurts to also be more proactive (just the fact that you wrote in with this well-conceived and thoughtful question suggests that you are very much in that place already).

I don’t know how much traction things like FB ads would have with regard to getting more work as a sideman but, it couldn’t hurt.
I would certainly try and focus on every possible avenue which raises your visibility. Be it online performance videos, the online educational path, etc…

I also wonder if you have an album under your name? (or at least one that you are proud of that you can get people to listen to?)

Much like many performers you see have a bit of an intentional aesthetic (or straight up costumes), branding can go a long way when it comes to your sound as well. Creating a body of work that speaks directly to your strengths, and the things you want other people to hear in your playing can be a huge boon. Not only does it give you merchandise but it also helps you establish your “brand”. Not only that, it gives you something to hand to the players that you meet or play with that you want to remember you and check you out more, as well as something to straight-up send people online, if they agree (I get a ton of emails from people sending me links to their projects with a polite, “if you care to listen…” type message. Some of it is pretty great! And you know what? I totally share that stuff with other people and post links to related content on my social media pages, etc…

That’s actually how I met (virtually) one of my favorite players. He sent me a video link and blew the top right off the top of my head. I’ve since bought every album that he appears on, shared a ton of videos, and have since maintained contact.

Another idea I found helpful in many ways was to take lessons from some of the people in your region that you aspired to play with. That way:

  1. You’re learning from players that you admire.
  2. They’re getting to hear you play.
  3. You’re developing a personal relationship with one of the people you really want to have a professional relationship with as well.

You may find it helpful to make a list or outline of some kind and brainstorm ways to get are and more people hearing your playing, expanding your circle of friends/musicians, and just getting it out there more. Couple that with a car direction and vision of what you want to achieve and some tenacity and it seems that forward momentum is (almost) assured!

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. Len Mongeau

    Wow, I have the same issues mentioned in the question. How to get to the next level!
    I was able to move up for 2 years but that band has dropped out.
    Local work is not happening, very depressing and I am in a position to travel.
    Great advice as always Damian.