Last Call: It’s Not Who You Know; It’s Who Knows You
To get around in the music biz, ya gotta get around.
Music has employed the unemployable for thousands of years. Those who can, play. Those who can't, tech. And those who can't tech, tech drums. The world of a professional musician is akin to the Island of Misfit Toys: a place where weirdoes and outcasts with impractical skills (e.g., a squirt gun that shoots jelly or a person that plays bass) live and work together … sometimes in harmony.
Being a musician is easy. All it takes is playing an instrument. Being a working musician means you cannot allow poverty, humiliation, self-doubt, and the crushing odds against you to get in the way of your prime directive. If you decide to roll the dice, mix business with pleasure and turn do re mi into dough fo' me, well, here's one lifer's take on it.
Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard. We've all heard non-musicians watch somebody like Tommy Emmanuel tear it up and then say, “I'd give anything to play guitar like that, but I have no musical talent." That's like Homer Simpson, between bites of his third Krusty Burger, saying, “I'd love to get in shape, but I don't have the right genes." Musical ability has more to do with the hours put in than innate talent. Playing music is work disguised as fun, but it's work nonetheless.
Some people have natural ability, but sometimes that's their undoing. When everything comes easy, it's easy to not do the hard stuff, and you must do the hard stuff. The hard stuff is not just learning to play on a higher level, but keeping your chops up, making the calls looking for gigs, and finding opportunities when you would rather just hang at home watching Simpsons reruns. I've known many wildly talented musicians who don't do the work, so they never get where they want to be.
Last Saturday, I got a call to play two separate club gigs—for a total of 6.5 hours of guitar wanking, two setup-and-tear-downs, and four gear schleps. Will this lead to anything? Don't know; don't care. I do these gigs whenever I can because:
• I love to play.
• It's great training to play songs you don't really know.
• Work leads to work. The more people you work with, the more people you will work with. It's all part of the fun, exhausting journey.
You should abandon Plan B. I've seen an army of talented musicians come and go, but the ones that stick around are those that did not have any other options. It seems like those who have something to fall back on usually do retreat to their safety nets when it gets bad. For the past 20 years, my plan B has been to work harder on plan A.
It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice. My mother told me this when I was a kid, and it's served me well. Nobody wants to work with unpleasant people. If you find there's conflict in every band you play in, the problem is probably you.
Accept the three stages. If you work hard at your craft and stay in the game long enough, there will be three stages to your musical career (with a Da Capo al Coda ending):
• Stage 1: Who is John Bohlinger?
• Stage 2: Get me John Bohlinger.
• Stage 3: Find me a young, hip John Bohlinger.
• Final Stage: Who is John Bohlinger?
My buddy Duane Sciacqua is a killer guitarist/producer who has an incredible resume. Early in his career, a record deal allowed him to work with Don Henley, Steve Lukather, and power-manager Larry Fitzgerald. After his deal ended, Duane got a call from Glenn Frey's camp saying that Glenn wanted to meet with him at his house out in Coldwater Canyon. They set a time and date later that week. Duane arrived on time, was led to the living room and told Glenn would be down shortly. Roughly 45 minutes later, Frey walked in wearing a bathrobe and smoking a cigarette. He says, “Henley says you're good. Luk says you're good. Fitzgerald says you're good. All I can say is, you better be fucking good. Rehearsals start tomorrow." Frey tossed Sciacqua a cassette with 30 songs on it and walked out of the room. They ended up working together for more than 15 years.
It's not that Duane knew the right people. It's that the right people knew Duane as a talented player, a hard worker, and a great hang. The takeaway is: You get recommended by being good, and you keep your gig by being good, so you better be fucking good. Life is not a dress rehearsal.
Let me leave you with one more thought, from professor Randy Pausch's famous “Last Lecture," which he delivered after being told he had six months to live: “Experience is what you get when you didn't get what you wanted." Friends, that's worth pondering.