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Getting Gigs

Dan Wilensky | February 2015

    Most musicians endure periods of unemployment, some that last for months or years.  Regardless of how far you have progressed through the gauntlet of the music biz – or how successful you are – it pays to review a few basics.
    To find work as a musician you need skill, luck, good stage presence, networking skills, quick reactions, flexibility, tenacity, perseverance, and a somewhat likeable personality. It also takes busking – playing on the street.
    I recorded my first jingle when I was nineteen, a direct result of playing my saxophone on the sidewalks of Madison Avenue. One woman who had stopped to listen put five dollars into my open case and told me to call her regarding work. Assuming that she was just trying to be nice to a young street musician, I did not expect much when I called her. Amazingly, though, she turned out to be a jingle contractor, and she hired me to play on a Sugar Frosted Flakes spot the following week.
    During the previous year, right after graduating from Berkeley High, I toured with Ray Charles. This grand opportunity was given to me courtesy of my friend Buddy Gordon, who I had met at a high school band competition. Buddy was playing lead trumpet with Ray, and he stayed at my place when the band came to town. The lead alto player had just quit, and Buddy said, “You should bring your horn to the club.” Ten minutes before showtime, I was asked to join the saxophone section backstage to play through a chart. Then the road manager handed me a suit that was three sizes too big, and before I knew it, I was on stage with Ray Charles. I stayed with him for six months.
    Fortunately, there are many other ways to find work. First, plant seeds: let everyone know that you are a musician, composer, bandleader – whatever – and make sure they have your number; always play like your life depended on it; sit in at clubs; offer to perform at benefits, street fairs, schools and churches; play on song demos for free.  Another idea is to hire several top-level musicians to rehearse and play one gig with you, and offer this band to a club owner or concert space at no charge (few managers can resist this offer). Then, do a ton of promotion and play your tail off. This method, though potentially expensive, often pays significant dividends, even if you only find out how to do it better next time.
    But by far the best and most direct way to find employment, is through other musicians, particularly those who play the same instrument as you.  Cultivate relationships with players from the entire musical spectrum, and do substitute work for them regardless of the wages or working conditions offered. If you are willing to sit through some long rehearsals and low-paying gigs and maintain a good attitude, then better opportunities will surely arise. Either your patron – pleased by your availability and reliability – will reward you with better jobs, or you will meet a helpful person at one of the crummy jobs he gives you. As soon as your schedule begins to fill up, begin returning favors. Recommend the friends who offered you substitute work, even when you are fairly sure that they are too busy to accept more work. It is the thought that counts.
    Even your family can get into the act. They probably will not be able to get you a gig at Carnegie Hall, but they might know someone who is throwing a party.
    Below is my list of job ideas and opportunities. Some of these require further study or formal training, while others can be done immediately.

Street Play: Do not judge this advice until you try it. Street playing is a quick, fun, and easy way to generate income. If you are good – and pick a busy corner – you can make decent money. When I was 16, I bought the tenor saxophone that I still use from money I made by playing on the street corners of Berkeley, California.  Playing outdoors also helps you to develop your sound because you are forced to project it into open space while maintaining proper intonation and timbre. Plus you will meet some interesting and possibly helpful people.

Demos: Make a demo recording and give out copies to anyone who will listen, particularly club and band managers, producers, contractors, and song writers. Some venues or orchestras will have specific submission guidelines, but when you make any type of demo, follow these basic guidelines, some of which are also applicable to full-length CDs.

    • It should be under 5 minutes long.
    • The best material should be at the beginning of the demo. If you have already played on a hit song or a familiar jingle, make that the first track.
    • Either exhibit one strong area of your playing or writing, or demonstrate all your abilities. Each excerpt should last for 30 seconds or less.
    • Put your tracks in an order that will hold the listener’s attention. Consider the tempo, groove, instrumentation, and key of each candidate. Keep it lively, but put slower or more esoteric material in strategic places.
    • The production quality and volume should be consistent from track to track. Do not include low fidelity recordings even if you played brilliantly on them. Use only the best duplication equipment, and if you hire a duplication service, know what machines they use and be very specific about equalization, compression, and volume levels. Ask the CD service to give you a sample recording, and listen to it on several different systems before you authorize them to make more copies.
    • Be creative with the design; make it as fancy, funny, or far-out as you can afford. Hire a designer or ask an artist friend to assist you.

Audition and Sit in Relentlessly: Even when you don’t want the job, audition for it anyway just to gain more experience and meet people. You can find audition notices on the internet, in the back of music trade papers, in the classified section of your local newspaper, and on college and union bulletin boards. When you speak with the audition organizers, ask as many specific questions as they will answer: what the job involves; which songs to learn; who will accompany you; who will preside over the audition; whether it will be filmed or recorded; what to wear; the number of people auditioning; whether non-musical skills will be considered. Sometimes you won’t be given anything but a time and an address, and even if you do know all the details, it may not help to prepare beyond getting a good night’s sleep.  Still, a little information can go a long way. When you do an audition, arrive early, be friendly, do your best, leave promptly unless the audition coordinators ask you to stay, and forget about it the minute you walk out of the door.

Put a Band Together: Then play at weddings, hotel bars, bar mitzvahs, corporate parties, and industrial shows.  There are three essential requirements for building and maintaining a happy, healthy band that should be mentioned at the outset. First, define your band’s mission and your music. That means you must know your market, your audience, and your limitations. Do not try to be all things to all people. Second, communication is king: make sure that all band members know the band’s mission and understand their own role. At the same time, everyone should feel able to speak their minds and offer suggestions that will be taken seriously. Build trust.  Finally, nothing makes a band member more loyal and enthusiastic than abundant, lucrative gigs at great venues. Keep your band in the black.

Play at Clubs and CollegesRemember that club owners and managers are primarily interested in selling drinks, and they usually do not care what you play as long as you attract a crowd. You can buy a great deal of artistic freedom when you fill a room with free-spending friends and fans.  Build a solid local following by sending out regular e-mails to anyone who will sign your mailing list. Talk about your band to everyone you meet. Hand out t-shirts and other giveaways to your faithful fans. When the band isn’t performing, stay in touch with your followers through social media and let them know about your current recording activities and future plans. Thank them for their support.
    Beware of pay-to-play deals, where you actually pay a fee to book your band at a club. Do not volunteer to be ripped off.

Collaborate: Work with as many people as you can. Two heads are better than one, so even if you don’t produce fabulous music or make buckets of cash together, you will make new contacts via your colleagues.
Volunteer: Play at hospitals, nursing homes, and mental institutions via organizations like Hospital Audiences.

Studio Playing: Although this is now a ridiculously crowded field in a deep recession, try to break into your local studio scene. Most of the record, film, and jingle work is still done in New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, and Chicago, but there are thousands of small production houses scattered around the world that produce music for cable television, internet sites, smartphone ring-tones, independent films, industrial shows, video and computer games, and other uses. Contact these studios, visit them, give them your demo recording, and invite them to your gigs.

Build a Home Studio: Put together a home studio and sell services such as film scoring, CD duplication, song demo and voiceover production, sound design, and Pro-Tools editing.

Write Music: It is best to write music that students and amateurs can easily sing or play. You can also produce songs for young artists.

Send Out Casting Materials: Send a professionally produced video, 8 x 10 photo, and a résumé to all of the casting agents in your area. You never know when a client will need a real musician (or your instrument) for a print ad, television commercial, or film.

Start a Music Preparation Service: Most professional copyists now use computer software, but some clients still prefer to use handmade charts.

Work at a Music Store: This is a great way to meet people (and get equipment discounts). You can also learn instrument repair skills, and eventually start your own repair shop.

Run a Rehearsal Studio: With the right location, gear, and advertising, your business will thrive.

Spend Time with Creative People: These can be poets, painters, actors, dancers, designers, or filmmakers. Through these people jobs – or at least job ideas – will come your way.

    Most of all, keep on plugging away with unyielding determination.  Maintain high hopes and low expectations. Good things will happen!