At Musician Wages, we’ve always believed there are as many ways to be a freelance musician as there are freelance musicians. Every musician we’ve talked to has their own combination of jobs that, combined, make up their career. We’d like to share the experiences and advice of more working musicians on our site through a series of interviews. Each musician will be asked the same questions, but their answers will reflect their unique career.
Our first interview is with New York bassist (and multi-instrumentalist) Tony Maceli. You can often find Tony playing or hanging out in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, an area known for it’s music scene.
MW: When did you start playing music, and when did you realize it was something you wanted to do professionally?
TM: I started playing trumpet when I was 10 years old. I loved it right away. My band director featured me in a piece in the spring concert and I told my parents, “I want to be a musician!” To which they answered, “That’s nice.” I knew right away I wanted music and it’s been with me ever since.
From there, I picked up the electric bass at 15 years old, but never really got serious with it till later. I played in different rock bands and used the bass as a tool to meet girls–even the least coolest kid has a chance playing in a band. Trumpet was my bag for my early years, though.
Did you study music in school? How has that impacted your career?
I went to the Crane School of Music for my undergraduate degree in music education with a concentration in trumpet performance. After I graduated, I taught for a few years to save some money.
It was at 25 years old that I bought an upright bass and really began my bass playing career. I took a few lessons with Cecil McBee and went off to pursue my Masters of Music at Indiana University in jazz studies. Once I finished at IU, I came to NYC and have been here ever since, finishing a doctorate in music education at Teachers College Columbia University.
Studying music is a lifelong endeavor, one you can hone in college, or by practicing and learning on the scene via the school of Hard Knocks. Sometimes I look back and wonder whether or not I should have saved the money I spent on my education and come straight to New York to learn from the school of hard knocks, instead of taking the over-educated route.
For me, balance has been the key. At times, when I feel like getting out of the music rat race, I know I have other options, so I can investigate my options and not feel trapped. Ultimately, my music career prevails, but it helps knowing that I can try other things and am making the choice to live the life I am living.
Briefly describe your career today. What kinds of work do you do to make a living?
Cellist Dave Eggar (someone everyone should know about and can learn a lot from) once told me that your music career is a portfolio. I think that’s the best description for what my career looks like.
I’ve performed on broadway (as a sub), in the studio, orchestras, club dates, cover gigs, indie band gigs, tours or anything I’ve been called for. I’ve played on electric bass, upright bass, electric guitar, trumpet, keyboards, and even banjo for a gig. Also, I’ve done several arrangements, be it big band, string or wind parts for a studio record, or something simple for a rock band. I’ve been a musical director for benefits, rock bands/ensembles, and large productions. I’ve even been on the road playing bass, tour managing, and driving (sometimes all at once).
Lately, I’ve been really learning Pro Tools and Logic and getting into the production end of things. I’ve submitted music for commercials (nothing’s stuck yet, but I’m trying to get my foot in the door, just like everyone else), and been working with artists to produce records. I’m always looking for new ways to broaden my portfolio.
Any one of these skills, by themselves would not be enough to sustain my living, but put together, it fits who I am and how I like to go about my business.
How do you find work as a musician?
Generally speaking, finding work is all about the hang.
I was a school teacher for 15 years before I really became a musician (I was 36 when I quit my job). I didn’t realize that finding work as a musician was a full time job and I was trying to do it part time.
Once I quit my job, I realized that I didn’t know anyone, so I ended up going out every night to meet people. Money was an issue, so I had to get to know the bouncers at clubs that charged a cove or go to places that didn’t charge a cover. From there, I’d start noticing a lot of the same musicians playing most of these gigs. I got to know these folks and eventually, someone recommended me to play a gig. I did my best (which probably wasn’t great) and they called me back because I was a nice guy and had the right attitude. The gig didn’t pay much (maybe $75 for a gig and a rehearsal) and I went from there.
Without a doubt, the amount I hang is directly correlated to how much work I get. Go support good music and you’ll eventually get asked to play. Don’t be pushy or a professional hand shaker. Hang loose, keep supporting and you’ll eventually get a shot.
Also, people talk a lot about your network and I think that’s a key. It’s simple math. If you know 3 bands/songwriters that you play with and they all play once a month, you have 3 gigs a month. That’s not going to cut it. If you know 30 folks and they play once a month, that’s roughly one gig a night. That’s if you’re everyone’s first call.
That’s why it’s best to know thousands of folks. That math always works in your favor. Finished playing a gig, you’re part of the hang, stick around. Not working that night, go out and support your colleagues. It can feel overwhelming, but start small and eventually you’ll meet more and more folks. Be patient and know it takes time.
What skills are necessary to be successful at your job (or jobs)?
This is different for everyone. Figure out what you love to do and make that your focus.
For me, I like being completely ADHD and doing as many things as possible. I make sure I’m completely focused on the project at hand and do my best to nail it. If I have a pop gig that requires bowing on the upright, I’m all about practicing my classical chops. If I have a gig that’s a jazz gig, I do my best to play standards that week, and so forth. There are friends of mine that just love playing jazz and that’s all they do with a focus and purpose and that’s cool too. That’s for the music.
I know this might sound like common sense, but don’t be late, and know the material (memorized-avoid charts). If you don’t do this 100 other people will. Think of that bumper sticker, “Don’t be a Dick” – stick to that.
I imagine this post is for folks that are not established, so I recommend memorizing music and being on time, always. If someone like Will Lee or Mike Visceglia are reading this, then it doesn’t matter for them. They’ve been around and are completely established and can do what they want because they are in demand. I would venture to say, however, those guys still come on time and super prepared (just a hunch- that’s why they work a lot).
For me, I make a living, but don’t feel that I am established enough to be slacking off – we’re only on this planet for a short time, make it count, no matter what you’re doing.
Finally, do you have any advice for younger musicians aspiring to be professionals?
First, try not to get involved in a situation asking what you are going to get out of it. Ask instead what you are going to give to it. Sometimes, you are needed to be an audience member. Sometimes it’s to be a guitarist. Other times a background vocalist, and the list goes on. Figure out what you are contributing and people will feed off that positive energy.
Second, think of being a musician as opening a business. That’s what you are – a one person business.
I think of it like a coffee shop (who doesn’t love coffee?). Let’s say I can make the best coffee and only do coffee, but is that enough? Is my coffee that good? Do I need the cup holders that make sure my customers don’t burn their hands when holding a hot cup of joe? How about pastries? Do I want to sell music in my coffee shop like starbucks? etc, etc, etc.
You play an instrument – that’s obviously the coffee. How much do you charge for coffee? The price changes by the pound (gig), you offer other frills such as pastries (background vocals), cup holders (instrument doubling), and the list goes on. Make conscious decisions about what you want to be so you have a focus.
This is how you create your brand. I know this part is so unmusical and it kinda is something I’m terrible at, but I acknowledge it’s existence and my shortcomings in it. At present, I choose my brand to be unfocused because I’m kinda all over the place. I realize that limits the type of work I can get, but for now it makes me happy. When it’s time for a change, I’ll change.
Third, try to divide your day up so that you can hit what you need to hit. I don’t write this down everyday, but I have an idea of what I’m going to do. Maybe something like this:
- 11am-12pm – Internet time/coffee/breakfast
- 12pm-1pm – Upright warmup/bowing exercises
- 1pm-3pm – Learn tunes for Friday gig
- 3pm-3:30pm – walk around park
- 3:30pm-6:30pm – rehearsal for friday gig
- 6:30-7pm – Dinner
- 7pm-9pm – Rockwood Music Hall to watch two shows
- 10pm – 12am – Living Room for a show
- 12am – 2:00am – Back to Rockwood for late hang
Fourth, be in it for the long haul. If you have the proverbial, “If I don’t make it by the time I’m (a certain age),” attitude, don’t bother trying to be a musician. A musical career takes years to establish. Being short sighted will come across and no one will want to play with you. They’ll see the stars in your eyes and run the other way. Besides, if you wake up in the morning and your job is to make music, and that’s all you do, you’ve made it. Regardless of how much money you make.
Finally, for anyone new to New York, I have a musician hang/community night once a month at Rockwood Music Hall. It’s called Full Vinyl (www.facebook.com/fullvinylnyc). The night is populated by performing songwriters and working musicians in New York City. It’s like our office holiday party once a month. We pick a theme (i.e. – Stevie Wonder night, 80’s Movie Music themes) and everyone performs a song relating to the theme. No rehearsal, just throw down and know your part. I try to involve everyone in the night in some way, shape or form, but can’t get everyone in due to limited slots. It’s a great place to meet folks and support the music community. I try my best to help connect folks, so stop by.
Thanks for reading and I wish anyone pursuing a career in music the best.
Tony Maceli has performed with many artists including Dave Egger, Jenny Own Youngs, Elizabeth and the Catapult, Elizaveta, Ian Axel, Bob Kinkel, Vienna Teng, and many more. He has also subbed on Broadway shows, including the original production of Rent. Connect with Tony at the next Full Vinyl show at Rockwood.