So, you want to be a rich and famous musician? Here are the dues you’ll need to pay.
“You want fame? Well fame costs and right here is where you start paying, in sweat!” — Fame
That was the opening line to a surprisingly popular show in the early eighties about a bunch of kids at the “New York City School for the Performing Arts” and how I loved it so. It inspired me and was one of a dozen or more factors that inevitably led to me being a performer.
I’ve played music professionally (meaning I’ve gotten paid for it, though often a pittance) for 27 years. I’ve written about local music for The Pulse for several years now and for another weekly alternative for several years prior to that. I love music, and performing, and everything to do with it so when I was given the chance to write a cover feature it seemed like a perfect opportunity to offer some observations that, if not helpful, might at least be mildly amusing.
After all, there are so many mistakes and missteps one can make in this industry, and I’ve made most of them.
First and foremost, if anything less than an absolute love for music is what’s motivating you to give it a go, stop now and find a nice hobby. Love doesn’t have to be your only motivation, but without it, you will never last. Non-musicians habitually underestimate the tremendous effort, countless hours and money it takes just to reach the point where you might be ready to play a gig and at that point all you’ve done is made it to the starting line. The race hasn’t even begun.
The upside is that if you do have a deep and abiding passion for it, all the time and money invested doesn’t seem like so much (unless a spouse or family member is pointing it out to you.) My point is, it is way more work that it appears to be with precious, little payoff, financially anyway.
“I’d rather be an unemployed musician than an unemployed pipefitter.” —The Commitments
Hopefully, the aspiring musician can agree with the sentiment expressed by the sax player Dean Fay in The Commitments because if you’re going to be a working musician, odds are you’re going to spend a hell of a lot of time that way. This raises a valid point. You’ll have to decide early on exactly what it is you mean to accomplish. Do you just want to play weekend gigs or the occasional party? Will some other job be paying your bills? Then the world is your oyster.
On the other hand, do you plan on being a working musician? Are you going to make your living solely from the music you play? O, best beloved, prepare yourself.
Have you ever seen one of those National Geographic documentaries about some isolated tribe where the members spend 18 hours a day scratching out a meager existence in the hard packed clay of some remote location and freshwater is five miles away? No one can afford to get sick because if you’re sick you can’t work and if you can’t work you can’t eat and if you can’t eat you get sicker, and then you die.
Yeah, that’s a lot like being a working musician.
You will need to gig constantly, and because of that you will need to travel because unless you live in one of a handful of exceptionally large cities, you won’t find enough work locally to sustain you. Books will become your primary source of recreation. They are cheap, portable, and can be squeezed in to what spare time you have.
A working musician learns quickly how to slice away all the unnecessary baggage. In that sense, although it is a very hard row to hoe, it can be an incredibly valuable experience as well. It can be an enlightening experience for a child of western culture to discover how little you really need to get by. Life as a road dog will teach you that lesson in spades.
In all my life there was only a fairly short period of 18 months or so where I sustained myself entirely through music and it was a lean time indeed. I did a lot of couch surfing, ate terrible food, and forgot about extravagances like new clothes. I did it long enough to know that it probably wasn’t the life for me but in retrospect my only real regret is that I didn’t give it another six months or so. Of course that’s an easy thing to say from the comfort of home, 20 plus years later.
“The music business is a business.” —Marc T. Michael (me)
If there are going to be some feathers ruffled by anything I say, it’s going to be here. As I slide gracelessly through middle-age, social media has given me an endless supply of things to find mildly aggravating. Chief among those are the endless whining posts about how, “Nobody in this town appreciates good music! They’re all a bunch of sheep! Bars don’t pay enough! I can’t pay rent with exposure!”
Whatever image you want to present to the public, you have to figure out whether you are more artist or performer. Those two things are definitely not mutually exclusive, but if you want to be regarded as an artist, fine, be an artist. Just don’t get too offended if you find that people don’t care that much. The majority of artists are largely underappreciated and they don’t seem to take it too personally because they aren’t creating art to get noticed, they are creating art to create art.
On the other hand, if you’re seriously considering trying to make a living, or even just wanting to make enough money to help subsidize your gear addiction, then you have to be an artist when and where you can, but a performer when you need to be, which is most of the time.
The equation works like this: You may have the greatest band to have ever trod this mortal coil and your lead player may be a god of Valhallian proportions, but unless you can put asses in seats, you represent no real value to a club or bar owner. Once you have name recognition, once you have a following, once you have demonstrated that you are a marketable commodity, then you can start making the regular paycheck, then you can negotiate for a better deal.
The impression I get from a many younger bands (and a few that should be old enough to know better) is that “paying your dues” means learning to play an instrument, forming a band and rehearsing some tunes. No sunshine, that ain’t paying your dues by a long shot. As I said at the start, at this point you’ve only just made it to the starting line, you haven’t begun the race yet.
Paying your dues means developing some stagecraft (which you can only do by performing live), developing a following, garnering some recognition so that when people see your name on the bill, they think, “Hey! Those guys! I want to go see them!” instead of, “Huh, Leslie and the Fuddruckers? Who the hell are they?”
Paying your dues means you will inevitably play in some shady places for little to no pay. Yes, free gigs are a part of it, up front anyway. I know you hate the sound of that, but the quicker you develop a name for yourself, the quicker you can make money and that means taking some of the free gigs to begin with. I know an awful lot of musicians, some highly successful, many who have been at it as long or longer than I have, most who are decidedly better than me, and all of them have played free shows, at least in their early days. It’s part of the process.
Now, by the same token, there are unscrupulous, skinflint venue owners who will never want to pay anyone anywhere anything. They will always try the “but it’s great exposure” line but here’s the magical thing about being a musician and working for yourself: You can say no. You can say no, walk away, and go find yourself a better gig at a better place. Those places that never want to pay usually get what they pay for so you aren’t really missing out on anything if you pass up the gig, but, and I can’t emphasize this enough, this is what you do after you’ve made a name for yourself, even a small one.
A final word on money: Even the best bands pulling down the best fees don’t make the bulk of their cash that way. Mel Brooks said it best as the Yoda character in Spaceballs: Moichandising! Learn it early. If you can put your name on it, you can probably sell it.
A few points that shouldn’t need making, but invariably do anyway: Show up on time. Don’t act like a bunch of jackass divas. Be good to the staff. They might not sign the checks, but they have more influence on whether you get a follow up gig than you think, and it’s just good karma anyway. They’re trying to make a living too, they are faced with any army of pains-in-the-ass every shift, they don’t need it from the band too.
By the way, get this tattooed on the noisiest member of your band: When the engineer is trying to do a soundcheck and wants Bill to talk in to mic one, everybody else shut the hell up!
Don’t stand there and noodle on your guitar, don’t thump away on the kick drum, don’t try to harmonize with Bill and don’t work on your improvised jazz fusion bass solo! Oh, and most especially don’t be on the other side of the bar or out in the parking lot when it’s your turn to soundcheck.
It is the soundman’s job to make sure the audience can hear you, to make sure you sound as good as you can. Make his or her life harder and I guarantee they will give less and less of a damn about what you sound like. It isn’t rocket surgery, kids, show a little respect and a little restraint.
I’ve been in Chattanooga for 23 years now and every day I hear complaints about our music scene. Listen, kids, Chattanooga is not a huge town. We basically have the music scene a city our size is capable of sustaining and it has grown exponentially in the last two decades. You won’t get famous here, but this is a great base of operations, a place to hone your skills that’s within easy driving distance of several large metropolitan areas.
Bear in mind too, that a scene is largely what you make of it. If you’re the sort who prefers to bitch about how great you are and how lame the scene is, more power to you, Mac. I’ve known a hundred just like you, folks who were seriously talented who never did jack because they were waiting for someone to come along and carry them on a litter.
Here’s the truth about success as a working musician: It isn’t easy, it isn’t glamorous, it’s really the opposite of those things, but if you want it and you’re willing to do what has to be done, you can have it.
A final word.
The Pulse is a weekly alternative paper. That means we are largely concerned with arts and entertainment and, as the music editor, I am solely concerned with local music and musicians. It is my job to help promote you, to get your name out there so can get the following you need to make the money you deserve.
I am a resource. Use me.
You can reach me easily through the paper, you can find me on Facebook, and frankly, I’m not that hard to find around town. I would love to hear from you. I don’t care what kind of music you play, I don’t care how good you are (or aren’t.) The Chattanooga music scene has been very good to me, and I feel obliged to return the favor so never hesitate to reach out to me. Whether it’s telling people about your new album, promoting an upcoming gig or just advising you on where to find bulk t-shirts, it’s what I do, and it’s my pleasure to do it.
Now, go be famous.