Time and again I am asked the secrets of maintaining a career in music. I wish I had all the answers, because then maybe I’d be retired by now, gently strumming a ukulele on an island, surrounded by fruity cocktails and a tropical sunrise. As musicians, however, we don’t do this for the money (OK, maybe for a little money). More than anything, we tour and play and learn and grow for the love of music. The genre of music doesn’t matter. It’s the notes that call us back, even after years away from our instruments, and take us to places that we never dreamed possible.
But how on earth can we make a living doing this? Well, there are some guidelines that I have stumbled upon that may be able to help. I’ve been up one side of the mountain and down the other. I’ve traveled to the gig by station wagon, tour bus and every mode in between. I have sought words of wisdom from the most successful of artists, to kids playing their first gig. Below is a list, in no particular order, of things to keep in mind when you’re trying to get a gig, enjoy a gig, and most importantly, keep a gig. They may vary slightly from situation to situation, and the names have been changed to protect the guilty (me).
Rule 1: Shut up. This sounds harsh, but remember the old adage “speak when spoken to?” It holds up very well in our business. Listening is more important than speaking, especially in a new gig. Let the artist open up to you; then you can open up to him or her. If you tell them straightaway that you got fired from this band or that band, you may get “let go” from this one, too. Listen to the label people, listen to the fans, and listen to your peers. They will offer you endless insight into your situation, and you can be aware of exactly what you have gotten yourself into.
Rule 2: Be prepared. The Boy Scouts had it all together, didn’t they? You really need to be ready for anything, in all aspects of your gig. Don’t just know the songs in one key. The artist may go a half step down right before you start the song. You better be ready. Your gear must be in order as well. You have to be on a plane tomorrow night for a show and your gear is going to be backlined. Do you have a pedalboard or a separate “fly rack” ready to duplicate your sounds? You’d better. Do you have extra “stuff?” I’ve broken two strings in my 24 years of playing, but I’m not getting caught without extras. Do you have batteries, cables, an extra strap? The techs will take care of you once you get to that point, but until then, be ready for just about anything.
Rule 3: Less is more. This applies to so many facets of our touring and musical life, but I’ll help you with just three. First, the music: as a bass player, less is more. Space and silence are your friends. Use them, and use them well. Second, your rig: let those pesky guitar players monkey with all the pedals and rack effects. Choose a few really great sounds and run with them. I appreciate the tones and sounds and shimmers you can get with the outboard gear. I do it at home all the time. I showed up to my first country gig with a pedalboard’s worth of stuff. Within a couple of weeks, I was down to a tuner. Make it easy on yourself. Let your sick, fat, fantastic tone ring out. No need to ruin it with a dozen pedals running at once. And third: less is more when it comes to your luggage. You have two shows this week? One pair of jeans, one stage shirt, and one other change of clothes. Done.
Rule 4: Have fun. This one is most important. We’re on the road, playing music for a semi-living, and seeing parts of the country we would never see otherwise. Translated: we’re broken down, out of money, and hitchhiking to the gig at the Neshoba County Fair. So what? It beats digging a hole in the ground. You’re doing something that most people only dream of. There is going to be a day you can’t get onstage anymore, and you’ll no longer hear the applause. Soak it all in, and enjoy everything you can on the road. I’m not talking about the usual rock and roll stories. Find what’s unique about where you are and see it. Find a pawn shop and get that ‘61 Strat back. Make great music, and get great tone. Life is too short to do otherwise.
Rule 5: No #2 on the bus. Alright, this one is the most important rules of the road.
Your journey as a professional musician is a never-ending tutorial. Even the most seasoned pro hits the speed bumps and needs a refresher. These rules are not carved in tolex and staring you in the fretboard every time you play, either. These are simple guidelines of common sense, exercises in humility, and challenges of greatness that await you every time you play. What you do with them is your business, but don’t get on my bus if you haven’t read #5.
Steve has performed and recorded with a diverse range of artists, from Edwin McCain to Randy Brecker to Course of Nature. Steve is also an alumnus of Woodstock ‘99, performing with his band King Konga. His current projects include extensive touring and video production with Bucky Covington (Lyric Street) and writing a popular weekly tour journal on his website: shinybass.com.
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