Creating a Structured Practice Routine

Like many of you, I teach private lessons to supplement my musician income. In every lesson, regardless of the student’s skill level, I spend a lot of time teaching one thing: How To Practice Guitar. After all, the real progress does not come from the hour the student and I spend together, it comes from the hours they spend with their instrument in the six days of the week between lessons.

This goes for all of us. Our progress as musicians relies on how effectively we spend our practice time. The New Year is always a great time to establish (or re-establish) better habits. Even if you’re reading this in June, today is the first day of a new year. Decide today how you will approach your practice tomorrow.

What To Practice

A good practice routine should accomplish three things:

  1. Maintenance
  2. Improvement
  3. Expansion

Maintain your current skills and repertoire.

Freshman year of college, one of my instructors told a roomful of incoming guitarists, “There will be no other time in your life where you will be able to learn as much as you’ll learn in the next four years. After college, you’ll mostly try to maintain what you’ve developed here.”

That is scary, and largely true. Real life is not friendly to your practice routine. Maintenance is important, but also relative. Will you always need to be able to shred Giant Steps? Probably not. But intonation, technique, sight reading, a good ear, and a standard repertoire for whatever scene you’re in must all be maintained to continue performing at a high level.

Improve your technique.

As good as you may be, there is always room for improvement. Take any skill you’re maintaining and push yourself a little further–speed up the metronome, change keys or modes, apply it in a new way.

For years I practiced four note 7th arpeggios up and down within a scale. I could comfortably do this pretty fast and in any key. One day I decided to add a fifth note at the bottom, simply starting on the 7th. The five note pattern completely threw me off at first, but it brought my awareness back into this little element of my routine. It also turned an exercise into a cool new lick!

Music is essentially a variety of patterns, some are very complex, but they all break down to the same basic problems. If good technique allows you to play a scale with ease, excellent technique will prepare you to play whatever piece of music lands in front of you on a gig.

Expand your repertoire.

Growing up I had a neighbor that played viola in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. When I was about 14 or 15 I told my parents that I wanted to be a musician. None of us had any idea how you do that, so my dad took me up to that neighbor’s house for a chat. I brought my guitar. The first thing he asked me to do was play a song. I couldn’t play a whole song by myself! I was embarrassed, but the lesson stuck with me:

If you’re going to be a musician, you better be able to perform a complete piece of music, by yourself, on command. Everything else we practice is in vain if we can’t play a tune. Always, always be learning new music.

Time Management

None of my students are professional musicians. They all have jobs or school or hobbies outside of music (why, I will never understand). We spend some time talking about how to schedule their practice time. If they can practice for one hour a day, here’s how I might ask them to spend that time:

  • 20 Minutes – Warmup / Scales / Arpeggios
  • 10 Minutes – Getting to know the fretboard; learning every place to play a note, chord, etc.
  • 30 Minutes – Work on repertoire

If they have two hours to practice, I might recommend the second hour look like this:

  • 15 Minutes – Free Improvisation or Composing
  • 15 Minutes – Working on roadblocks, such as difficult chord changes
  • 30 Minutes – Work on repertoire

Scheduling your practice time into hour blocks with a few different chunks of time can be very helpful. Set a stop watch or timer so you can keep track of how long you’re working on something. If it helps, write down how long you spent working on something, just like you’d track your exercise at the gym. Perhaps you’ll come up with a few different “workout” variations for each block of time, and you can vary which workouts you do each day.

Repetition. Rest. Repeat.

Just as repetition and rest builds muscular strength, the act of repeating a skill over and over creates stronger connections between neurons in our brain. However, those connections won’t be immediately apparent. Rest plays an important role in allowing our brain to process what it has just learned.

Once I was on the road, sleeping on the couch in a friend’s apartment. He was trying to learn a melody on a glockenspiel, but since he didn’t play any instruments, he was having a hard time getting it right. Before he went to bed, I told him to play it ten times, focusing on playing the correct notes and not worrying about speed or rhythm. The next morning I woke up while he was on his way out the door. I stopped him and asked him to play the part on the glockenspiel. Running late for work, he hesitated for a moment, but then picked up the mallets and to his surprise, nailed it.

Think about all the times you struggled to learn something one day only to find it made complete sense the next. Or think about all the times you pulled an all-nighter cramming for a test and barely retaining any of the information after it was over. Our brains need that rest to process information. There’s simply no way around it.


The absolute best way to improve yourself as a musician is to transcribe, transcribe, transcribe. What better way to master our craft than to emulate the masters?

Transcribing utilizes everything we would ever need to practice:

  • Aural skills – Your ears!
  • Musicality – Learn not only the notes, but the tone, inflection, and nuances of each note.
  • Technique – Master those difficult passages.
  • Scales, arpeggios, chords, rhythm – The building blocks of all music, directly applied in the piece of music you’re learning.
  • Composition, improvisation – These skills are two sides of the same coin. Learning somebody else’s composed melody or improvised solo requires the same skill and reaps the same benefits.
  • Notation – Memorize your transcription first, but then write it down. Not just for posterity, the act of writing down transcriptions will help you see the music, which will help you improve your reading.
  • Expand your repertoire – You’ve just learned a new piece of music or lick.

When in doubt, Beatles.

When all else fails, when I’m burnt out on my usual practice routine, when I can’t decide what to transcribe, when I start making excuses as to why I can’t practice right now, I learn a Beatles song. My default rule was to learn the second cut on every album, in chronological order. The fewer decisions I have to make before I start practicing, the more likely I am to simply practice.

The Beatles repertoire is my practice safety net. It could be Bach, or tone rows, or Miley Cyrus. Well, maybe not Miley–it helps to have a safety net with a deep catalog–so how about Rush? Whatever it is for you, choose something that will always give you something to practice when all else fails.

Take lessons.

All of us, regardless of our skill level, could benefit from private lessons every now and then. If you’ve tried to structure your practice time and still can’t decide what to work on, perhaps it’s a sign you need to take lessons. Many musicians, myself included, teach via Skype. No matter where you live, all you need is a good internet connection to take lessons.

Good luck on your practice routine, please share your progress in the comments below. Remember, decide today how you will approach your practice tomorrow!

Flying With Musical Instruments: Know Your Rights

If you’re like me and will be traveling with a musical instrument this holiday season, you’ll be happy to know that by law, you have the right to bring your instrument onto the plane as carry-on baggage so long as the instrument can be safely stowed. The clause is part of Public Law 112-95, which was signed by the President and went into effect on February 14, 2012. Below is the section dedicated to musical instruments, copied verbatim (emphasis mine) from pages 74 and 75 of the law, which can be found on the Federal Aviation Administration”s (FAA) website right here.

PUBLIC LAW 112–95—FEB. 14, 2012

41724. Musical instruments

‘‘(a) IN GENERAL.—

‘‘(1) SMALL INSTRUMENTS AS CARRY-ON BAGGAGE.—An air carrier providing air transportation shall permit a passenger to carry a violin, guitar, or other musical instrument in the aircraft cabin, without charging the passenger a fee in addition to any standard fee that carrier may require for comparable carry-on baggage, if—

‘‘(A) the instrument can be stowed safely in a suitable baggage compartment in the aircraft cabin or under a passenger seat, in accordance with the requirements for carriage of carry-on baggage or cargo established by the Administrator; and

‘‘(B) there is space for such stowage at the time the passenger boards the aircraft.

‘‘(2) LARGER INSTRUMENTS AS CARRY-ON BAGGAGE.—An air carrier providing air transportation shall permit a passenger to carry a musical instrument that is too large to meet the requirements of paragraph (1) in the aircraft cabin, without charging the passenger a fee in addition to the cost of the additional ticket described in subparagraph (E), if—

‘‘(A) the instrument is contained in a case or covered so as to avoid injury to other passengers;

‘‘(B) the weight of the instrument, including the case or covering, does not exceed 165 pounds or the applicable weight restrictions for the aircraft;

‘‘(C) the instrument can be stowed in accordance with the requirements for carriage of carry-on baggage or cargo established by the Administrator;

‘‘(D) neither the instrument nor the case contains any object not otherwise permitted to be carried in an aircraft cabin because of a law or regulation of the United States; and

‘‘(E) the passenger wishing to carry the instrument in the aircraft cabin has purchased an additional seat to accommodate the instrument.

‘‘(3) LARGE INSTRUMENTS AS CHECKED BAGGAGE.—An air carrier shall transport as baggage a musical instrument that is the property of a passenger traveling in air transportation that may not be carried in the aircraft cabin if—

‘‘(A) the sum of the length, width, and height measured in inches of the outside linear dimensions of the instrument (including the case) does not exceed 150 inches or the applicable size restrictions for the aircraft;

‘‘(B) the weight of the instrument does not exceed 165 pounds or the applicable weight restrictions for the aircraft; and

‘‘(C) the instrument can be stowed in accordance with the requirements for carriage of carry-on baggage or cargo established by the Administrator.

‘‘(b) REGULATIONS.—Not later than 2 years after the date of enactment of this section, the Secretary shall issue final regulations to carry out subsection (a).
‘‘(c) EFFECTIVE DATE.—The requirements of this section shall become effective on the date of issuance of the final regulations under subsection (b).’’

What This Means

Your instrument will be treated exactly like comparable carry-on baggage. It does not get preferential treatment over another passenger’s roller bag just because it’s more fragile, but it’s no longer subject to any additional fees, as some airlines used to charge. If you have a larger instrument, that might fit safely in a seat, you may buy a ticket for it and may not be charged any additional fees as long as it meets the airline’s requirements. If you check your large instrument in a flight case, you are no longer subject to any additional fees as other checked baggage as long as it meets all checked baggage requirements.

Common sense still applies. If your instrument does not fit or somehow creates a safety risk to other passengers, you’ll have to check it. Be sure to plan ahead of time for the worst case scenario.

Best Practices for Flying with Musical Instruments

We have another article on this site called Airline Travel With Musical Instruments written by well-traveled multi-instrumentalist Nick Rosaci. He offers some great advice, and I highly recommend you read it as well.

Don’t Argue

In my experience, the most resistance I get from traveling with my guitar is from the gate agent, who will hand me a gate check tag and instruct me to drop of my guitar at the end of the jetway as he or she swipes my boarding pass. I never argue with the gate agent. This person is simply doing what they’re told to do and trying to make the flight attendants job easier by sending less carry-on baggage onto the plane.

Sometimes I get on a plane behind other passengers carrying a guitar. The gate agent hands them a gate check tag and the passenger immediately goes into a rant about how he has the right to carry his guitar onto the plane! How dare you tell him otherwise!

This really accomplishes nothing other than making people upset. If you argue, there’s no way that person is going to help you, and if you enter the plane upset, the flight attendants are going to pick up on it and be less likely to help you. They have to deal with enough crabby passengers, don’t be another.

Be Nice to The Flight Attendant

Instead, I make my way onto the plane with my guitar, smile at the first flight attendant I see, and ask them how they’re doing. “Is this your last flight of the day?” or “Heading home?” or any other question that tells them I’m not a completely self-centered jerk that wants them to solve my baggage problem. Then I motion to my guitar and politely ask if they think we can find it a safe place onboard.

In the summer, the first class coat closet is usually empty and they might be able to stow it there. Sometimes there’s also space behind the last row of seats in first class. Otherwise you’ll be looking for a spot in the overhead bins. That’s where it pays to be polite to other passengers, who might be able to help you by adjusting their bags to make room for yours. Again, a smile can go a long way when you’re boarding an airplane.

Board Early

If at all possible, be one of the first to board the plane. Overhead bins are first come, first served, and once your instrument is safely stowed, they cannot remove it from the plane without your permission (which you don’t have to grant).

If you travel on the same airline frequently, look into their premium membership programs. These always come with early boarding, and typically a little extra kindness from the airline staff. If you don’t fly that often, maybe one of your relatives belongs to one of these programs and can book your ticket, which sometimes transfers the benefits to you. And if all else fails, many airlines sell upgrades to your ticket, including early boarding. This is a way for the airline to make some extra money, but hey, it’s also a way for you to get your instrument on the plane safely.

Know Your Aircraft

The above law only works if the airplane is actually large enough to fit your instrument. Shorter flights often use regional jets, such as the Embraer 145 which is only 3 seats across plus a small aisle, require all passengers to gate check their carry-on baggage. Only coats and personal items are allowed onboard. My guitar would never fit on one of these jets so I try to avoid routes that use them. If that’s unavoidable, I make sure my guitar is packed well to avoid damage when checked at the gate.

You can usually find out the type of aircraft used when choosing your itinerary. Take a moment to look up that aircraft and you’ll have an idea of what to expect.

Safe travels!

Contract Negotiation for Musicians

Unfortunately there are a lot of important aspects of the music business that are never dealt with in college. After receiving two degrees in music, I can’t think of one instance where the topic of contract negotiation was discussed. This is unfortunate for the student because he or she will more than likely be taken advantage of the first time they are presented with contract work. Knowing what to ask for and how to ask for it can make any job that much better. In the contract world, there is no fairness, only shrewdness. Those who get paid more usually are the ones who ask for it.

My First Contract

My first experience dealing with contracts came after I graduated from college. Like most new graduates, I wanted a job and was willing to take anything thrown my way. I had been in contact with a couple of cruise lines and desperately wanted to get booked on a ship. I was offered my first cruise ship contract with Celebrity Cruise Lines. At the time they were using an agency to contract all of their musicians. Little did I know, getting hired for a cruise ship through an agency was not the smartest move. The reason is that any agency has to take a cut for finding you work. I believe their commission at the time was 20%. Now, musicians who have worked on ships before know that any commission taken out of how little we get paid is a crime. The standard for the agency was to start new musicians out at around $1,750/month after their commission. This was way too low! But I didn’t know any better and gladly took what they offered. So I signed the contract and boarded the ship.

After I proved that I could do a good job working in a show band, I was transferred to the flagship of the fleet. This would have been a perfect time to renegotiate my contract, but I was still a little green and no idea how to do it or what to ask for. So I took the job and hoped for a raise. I ended up getting $50 more a month. While I was working for $1,800/month, other musicians were making $400-$500 more a month than I was. They were older and had a relationship with our new contractor and were able to negotiate a higher pay. I couldn’t hold that against anyone but myself. If you don’t ask for it, you don’t get it.

I stayed at that pay rate the entire time I worked on cruise ships, which was about a year and a half. My last contract was for just one month and when I received my contract, the contractor had given me $1,750. A decrease in pay! I immediately called them and asked for more money. Their response was, “The contract has already been written. There’s no changing it now.” This is completely false! It was a contract that had not been signed or agreed upon. I had the right to renegotiate but they knew that they could strong arm me and get me to agree, which I did. They completely took advantage of me and my inexperience. This was not going to happen again.

The Art of Negotiation

I quit the cruise ship industry after that contract and went to grad school. Upon completing my graduate degree, I was offered a job playing for the national tour of Peter Pan. Again, I had no idea what the standard pay was for a non-union theater tour but this time I had a little more experience and knew that I was worth more than what any cruise ship had ever offered me. Their offer was pretty good but I was able to negotiate a little more being that I was being called to fill a spot that they had trouble filling. Apparently they had gone through three other trumpet players who couldn’t handle the work. This was a key point in negotiating. Not only did they need someone right away, but they also needed someone who could handle the book. They were willing to work with me and find a price that we could both agree upon.

Here are some points to keep in mind when negotiating money for a contract:

  • Always be polite. Show that you are grateful of the offer and opportunity. Say thank you.
  • Be willing to turn down a contract that doesn’t meet your needs. Be able to feel good about turning it down if you must.
  • Know what you are worth and be confident when asking for what you want.
  • When talking about money, let them make the first offer. It may be more than you were expecting. If not, kindly ask them if it is possible to raise it closer to your standard. In some cases they may come back with an offer without even hearing your counter offer. If they do ask for a counter offer, go a little above what you would accept and work your way down.

There are many other areas of contract negotiating that will be discussed later on.

After I completed my first tour, I was not eager to go back out on the road. Nevertheless, I was contacted by another company to perform on another tour. Just to see how much I could get out of the company, I made a list of demands in a very arrogant way to the contractor. He hadn’t even given me the official offer before I started in on what I wanted to make it worth my while. He was just calling to get a sense of who I was and if I was interested in the show. I immediately turned him off to the prospect of hiring me for the show. As it turned out, I didn’t get the tour and possibly ruined my reputation with that company. Bad move.

About two months had passed before I was offered another tour by another company. This company had a good reputation and I didn’t want to make the same mistakes that I had previously made. They offered me the role of second trumpet on the tour of Annie. Now, I have never been a fan of musical theater and this show was not what I considered to be on the list of high quality music. This contract was going to come down to numbers, plain and simple. I was very kind and respectful of the call and let them tell me about the company and the tour. After we had discussed various topics about the tour, i.e. how long the contract was, where it was going, etc., I kindly asked how much the position payed. It was well below what I had made previously. About $200/week lower than my last tour. I knew that this was for the role of 2nd trumpet but my standard had been set and I was not about to take any less than that. I politely thanked them for the offer, told them what my rate was, and told them to keep me in mind if another position became available that met my quote.

Sure enough, a few weeks after that conversation, the same company contacted me again with another offer for another tour, The Wizard of Oz. I found out as much as I could about the tour from the contractor which included one vital piece of negotiating information: they were hiring me as a replacement. This told me two things: they needed someone and they needed them quickly. After hearing their offer, I used the information that I had in order to negotiate a slightly higher pay. I politely asked them if they could bump up the offer to meet my quote. They came back and met my request. It wasn’t a show that I was dying to do, but at least I was getting paid enough to make it worth my while.

Additional Tips

My experiences have helped me to look after myself in the music business. No one else was going to do it for me. Freelance musicians do not have the luxury (or the money) of having an agent so we must know how to ask for what we want. Here are some additional points to keep in mind when negotiating contracts:

  • Find out as much as you can about the company. How big they are, what is their show budget, how many people they employ, their reputation, etc. This could help to determine how much you are able to negotiate.
  • Find out if you are the first call or a replacement. Replacements can usually negotiate more easily.
  • Discuss the housing situation. Will the company be paying for hotels or are you required to pay? If you are required to pay, does the per diem cover it? Most companies that pay for hotel rooms provide a per diem of $250-$300/week. If they do not provide housing, then the per diem should be enough to pay for it: about $500/week. All per diem is non taxed.
  • Find out if the company offers some form of health savings account.
  • Discuss if the company offers any form of incentive plan for completing the contract, such as overage compensation. In other words, do they give a percentage of the projected sales that are exceeded back to the company members at the end of the contract?
  • Make sure that you have an “out” in your contract. If you need to leave the contract for any reason (hopefully a better gig) have it stated in your contract that you must present the company with 3-4 weeks notice before leaving. This protects both you and the company.
  • Contact the contractor at the end of the contract to say thank you for the opportunity. This will keep you fresh in their mind and possibly first on their call list for future employment.

An Update from Dave and Cameron

Over the last year, has experienced rapid growth in our readership–something for which both Dave and I are very grateful to all of you. With the increased traffic, however, comes an increased risk of hackers and security concerns.

Some of you may have seen a warning when visiting the site, or found the site to be loading too slow, or noticed the site was down all together. We received feedback from many of you and as always, have been addressing the issue.

This past week our site was down for several hours during which a complete security overhaul was performed. We can’t guarantee there will be no problems in the future, but we have a team constantly monitoring to help it run as securely as possible as we continue to grow.

Meanwhile, we’ve been continually adding valuable content to the site. You might have missed some of it during the outages, so here’s a recap:

The Working Musician Interview Series

We started interviewing musicians that we thought could offer some great advice and insight into the world of the working musician. So far we’ve interviewed these amazing musicians:

We’ll continue next Tuesday with an interview from touring guitarist Jesse Bond, and there will be more in the coming weeks.

Recent Articles

Dave recently changed his focus from music directing to songwriting, and wrote an article all about it, as only he could. Check out How I’m Building a Career As A Songwriter. He also wrote a great piece reflecting on one of his first songwriting projects: ringtones. Have a read at Half A Million Downloads and 500,000 Dilemmas.

We also received another great piece from SFC Joshua DiStefano, our expert Army musician. This time he focused on musicians that have recently joined the Army band. If that’s you, I highly suggest reading his Advice for New Army Musicians.

Finally, I’ve written a couple pieces as well. First I reflected on My Ever-Changing Career as a Musician and explored my changing streams of income over the last decade, and the effect it’s had on my approach to being a musician. I also wrote an editorial piece in response to some industry news, trying to answer the question: Why are there fewer working musicians in 2012 than 1999? Or 1989 for that matter.

Thanks again for reading, discussing, and sharing your experiences as musicians. Happy gigging!

Why Are There Fewer Working Musicians in 2012 than 1999?

Every day I receive a few email newsletters, including the Digital Music News. As I sipped on a fresh cup of coffee this morning, one of their articles titled “Recording Sales Declines & Musician Employment, 1999 – 2011…” caught my attention. It was published on Saturday by DMN editor Paul Resnikoff. I enjoy Paul’s insight on the music industry. Digital Music News does a great job covering the changes in the music industry and I recommend all of you subscribe to their newsletter.

I was mostly interested in the article because of the “musician employment” part of the title–which is of course the primary topic of It’s also something DMN rarely discusses.

In this particular article, Paul writes:

There’s more music being created than ever before, but paradoxically, musicians are making less. Which means there are also fewer musicians and music professionals enjoying gainful employment, thanks to a deflated ecosystem once primed by major labels and marked-up CDs.

He also shares this graph overlaying statistics from the US Department of Labor and the RIAA.

The reddish orange bars represent the number of “musical groups and artists,” which is a classification used by the US Census Bureau. The white squares represent the amount of recorded music shipped, which basically means sold to retail stores (and includes digital sales even though nothing is actually shipping).

This graph is trying to draw a correlation between album sales and musician jobs, so it begs the question: Is the decline in album sales responsible for the decline in musician jobs?

I have a buddy that works for the US Department of Labor so I asked him for some help checking these employment statistics. I found that while there is a decline in the number of self-reported “musical groups and artists,” it is not as dramatic as this graph makes it appear. Paul wrote that there has been a 41% in paid musicians since 1999, but based on statistics I find from the Census Bureau, there has been a 15% decline. Perhaps there are other numbers in play? I’ve asked him about his source, so we shall see. For all intents and purposes, most people would agree that there has been a decline in jobs for musicians.

The decline in album sales has been well documented by the RIAA and through Nielsen Soundscan sales reports. I don’t think anyone will argue that there are far fewer albums being sold today than 10 years ago.

My wife is a professional researcher, so I asked her what a statistical analyst would think of this graph. She said it was a weak correlation, and suggested I look up this blog post about correlation and causation. Turns out statistical analysts have a sense of humor that is 63% better than expected. It also means that this data alone is not sufficient to explain a cause/effect scenario.

Now, I have no doubt that the decline in album sales has had a negative effect on musician employment as we’ve known it over the last 70 years. Dave Hahn once pointed out that the recorded music industry isn’t responsible for creating the career of “professional musician.” For hundreds of years before recordings, people worked as musicians, and it’s reasonable to believe that will be the case even if recordings are no longer worth money.

However, I don’t believe that we can simply blame the decline in album sales, and to do so would be short-sighted for the musician industry. Let’s look at the bigger picture. What other factors could cause a decline in musician jobs?

1) Recording Technology

Without a doubt, technology has always been one of the most consistent disrupters of industry. Printed sheet music, player pianos, the phonograph, synthesizer, and mp3 are all examples of technology that impacted the musician industry.

Dave and I recently had a conversation with a veteran NYC drummer. He compared the scene of 30 years ago to the scene today. NYC used to have thousands of recording studios and employ tens of thousands of musicians, many of whom made very good money. Back then, he explained, every note of music you heard anywhere had to be played by a musician. Commercials, albums, demos, jingles, soundtracks, and anything else that required music required musicians.

By comparison, these days I can cut a demo and pitch a commercial in my living room, on my computer, by myself. Anybody can do that today. The technology is relatively affordable, and sample packs and plugins can take the place of other musicians and expensive studio gear. It’s not necessarily better, it’s just possible.

Furthermore, how many musicians does it take to record a hit album these days? I looked up the top album on iTunes today, and then looked up the album credits. There are a bunch of producers and writers, but I could only find one guitarist credited. Another guy was credited with “strings.” The rest of the music? Probably assembled by the various producers.

I also looked up the credits for Rihanna’s latest album. She is one of the biggest stars today, so how many musicians does she use on her albums? Two, covering the guitar and bass. No drummer. Somebody has a credit for “instrumentation,” and there are also credits for fluids and good vibrations, hair stylist (two of those), vocal engineer, and many, many more production credits.

Compare either of these to Michael Jackson’s Thriller which employed dozens musicians in the studio during the early ’80s and had only one producer.

Recording technology has replaced the need for musicians the same way robotics have replaced people on assembly lines, but there will always be a demand for high end, hand crafted product.

2) DJs (and DJ technology)

I realize that this might make me sound like a crotchety old man, but hear me out. I have nothing against DJs, but it is a fact that where there were once bands full of musicians, there is now a guy behind a computer. If we’re lucky, he or she is actually using turntables.

DJs exist because there is a demand for them. They cost less and take up less space. People like to dance to the music. In fact, sometimes the music they play isn’t even recorded by real musicians, so why would you hire real musicians to perform what a DJ spins?

Regardless, I think we need to agree that DJs are a cheap competitor to working musicians from here on out, and technology will continue to make DJing possible for anybody with a laptop and decent taste in music.

3) Greed/The Economy

Just as technology allows you to do more in a recording studio with fewer musicians, you can do more in live performance. Backing tracks, or “sweetener tracks” are more common on pop tours. Broadway pits have gotten smaller and smaller over the years, partially due to pop/rock musicals written for smaller orchestras, but also due to the never ending battle between the producers and the musician’s union. Producers will make more money if a show uses pre-recorded music. Sometimes it just boils down to somebody wanting to make more money by downsizing the band.

Additionally, maybe people just don’t have the disposable income to spend on entertainment like they used to. This is especially true with younger people, who might go out more frequently. There are numerous economic factors that could come into play, but the point is, people choose to spend their hard earned money elsewhere.

4) People’s Choice

Has the evolving aesthetic of popular music cost musician jobs?

Bob Lefsetz keeps saying electronic music is the new rock’n’roll. There’s something to that. Not everybody wants to go to the local symphony, jazz club, or blues bar. Some people, just prefer music that doesn’t require any musicians.

Also, can the audience really tell the difference between pre-recorded music and a live band? Even if they could, do they care? Pop stars have been lip synching or using autotune live for decades, and for the most part their fans don’t seem to care. Will those same people ever appreciate a great live band in the same way? It’s difficult to speculate, but it’s very possible that the market for live music is smaller than it used to be.

What can musicians do?

I don’t believe the failing recording industry is entirely to blame for a decline in musician jobs. Did it have an impact? Absolutely. But so have these other factors.

To succeed as a musician, it’s very important that you pay attention to the state of our industry. It’s foolish to think that because you studied at an elite music school you’re entitled to make a ton of money as a studio musician, or that you can form a band, get signed to a label, and be set for life. Sure, it’s possible those things can happen, but the probability is much smaller today than it was before 1999.

Learn how to adapt. I can not stress that enough. The way you make a living today might be very different in two years. The studio musicians of 20 years ago that are still working today figured out how to adapt. Along with being a great musician, learn how to use the internet to your advantage to help you network and be easily available to people that can hire you.

Understand what is in your control, and what is not in your control (hint: You cannot stop technology, avoid greedy people, or change people’s taste in music). The biggest lesson we can learn from the recording industry and the digital music revolution is that you cannot fight change.

Learn from other musicians. Dave and I try to share as much of our knowledge as we can on this site, but we also interview others and look for guest bloggers to cover topics we cannot write about ourselves. Many times it’s just an excuse to pick the brain of musicians smarter than us!

Finally, be a champion for the working musician. Support the arts and arts education and help kids appreciate music. Take pride in your work. You don’t have to be in the union to advocate for musician jobs, all you have to do is support industries that support musicians.

Freelance Musician Profile: Guitarist Lance Seymour

Several months ago I was looking for a specific piece of gear. I couldn’t find it on all the usual places you go to shop for used items, but then I saw a friend post something in a Facebook group called Gear Talk: Classifieds. I promptly joined the group and found the pedal I wanted, er, needed (as I explained to my wife).

I later learned that Gear Talk: Classifieds was an extension of a Gear Talk group where musicians, mostly guitarists, just chatted about gear. You see, guitarists can have vastly different ideas about politics, religion, and even different tastes in music, but we all see eye to eye when it comes to a sweet rig.

It turned out the Gear Talk groups were started by Atlanta based guitarist Lance Seymour. As the original group continued to grow, Lance saw the need for smaller regional groups, and groups for bassists, drummers, pro players, praise and worship guitarists, acoustic instruments, and more. Collectively these groups have become an enormous network for guitarists and other musicians all over the world.

Over the last several months I’ve gotten to know Lance. Before he started Gear Talk, he built a career as an in-demand freelance guitar player in the Southeast. On a recent visit to Atlanta, I got together with Lance, played some guitar, and talked to him about his career and what he’s learned about building online communities with Gear Talk.

Guitarist Lance SeymourCM: Tell us about your career. How long would you say you’ve been playing professionally?

LS: I have been playing professionally for about 10 years in Atlanta. I started doing gigs quite a few years before. Small bar, cover band type stuff. I also played in church almost immediately after starting to play music, 13 years ago, or so.

What kinds of gigs are you doing these days, not just playing, but any sort of musician job that puts bread on the table?

You could say playing guitar has been my main source of income for the last 10 years.

I definitely have been playing the ‘jack of all trades’ role as a professional musician. My gigs are so spread across the board, playing everything from Rock and Pop gigs, to Classic country, and new country and of course playing gospel and contemporary Christian music all the time. Atlanta is really as diverse as it can be, music-wise. But I think that’s a good thing. I love one night getting to play classic country and then the next night play RnB, and get up the morning after that and play at a church somewhere. Makes for A LOT of music to learn.

As for other things that put bread on the table, I teach several instruments. I just started teaching Skype lessons, which has been incredibly rewarding. I am also the band leader for a few different artists. I write charts for them, which I’m paid for.

How do you find your gigs? Or how do they find you?

Typically gigs find me. Fortunately I have been able to play with so many musicians in the last 10 years, that my number gets passed around. I get calls constantly where the conversation starts with “Hi, I got your number from ….so and so. I’m looking for a guitarist.”

The key is being a professional when you’re on a gig. I often say “the gig you’re on right now is an audition for your next gig.” If you do your job and are a great hang at the same time, it’s impossible not to get called for work.

What advice would you give specifically to young guitarists that want to make a living playing music?

HA! Why would anyone want to make a living playing music? No, I think being a professional musician is awesome and I would not trade it for another job.

I think it’s important for young musicians to learn the type of things that really get you work:

Knowing tons and tons of songs and playing them all authentically is huge for getting gigs. Constantly be adding to your repertoire.

Learn musicians’ language, terms and phrases so you know what people are talking about in rehearsals and on stage.

Also LEARN NUMBER CHORDS. It’s so important for musicians to be able to recognize chords by their numerical name. No excuse for not knowing them and being able to read them.

I think for guitarists in general, need to be able to able to tailor their tone to whatever style they happen to be playing at the time. Guitarists have so many choices when it comes to gear and effects, in general. It’s important to know how to dial it in and make it feel right for the song.

One piece of advice I give to younger players all time comes from that saying “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” Meaning basically to do every gig like it’s your dream gig. Just because you’re doing what you consider a ‘less than stellar’ gig, you have no excuse to give less than 100% to it. It’s disrespectful to the people you’re working with and to yourself. That attitude will lead to the gigs you actually want to be doing.

Changing directions a little bit, you’ve also been actively building a community of musicians on Facebook with the Gear Talk groups. What made you start the first Gear Talk group?

Gear Talk started for a couple of reasons. First being, I wanted a place for me and my friends could go and talk about guitar gear. Pedals and amps and all that sort of stuff. I found myself on the phone constantly with my gear head friends, having two hour long conversations about guitar pedals. Like really passionate debates. I wanted there to be a network online where all my gear head friends would talk and debate and learn.

Also, just over a year ago, when I started Gear Talk, I had several guitar pedals I wanted to sell. I posted them on my newsfeed on Facebook and got zero responses. I thought it was strange considering the majority of my friends are musicians. Did my post just go down Facebook’s timeline and hardly anyone saw it? I figured I’d create a group and add all the guitarists I knew might be interested in buying my pedals! The whole thing kind of snowballed from there.

Why did you decide to do it on Facebook, verses a different online platform?

Facebook seemed like the ultimate platform. Everyone is on it and are using it all day. They know how it works, there’s not much of a learning curve. It has a great mobile app that’s easy to use.

I could not have invited all my friends to join some random gear forum somewhere else online and expect them to join it. The members were already built in to the network. Seemed like a perfect place for gear nerds to commune.

Also, one of the big advantages of Facebook over traditional forums is that there’s no anonymity. People tend to be friendlier and more honest because they are using their real names and you can see their picture. Nobody is hiding behind screen names.

Do you have any plans to create a website for the group outside of Facebook?

Yes. As a matter of fact, I am about to launch It’s a site that will cater to Gear Talk members’ interests. It’ll have articles, gear reviews, interviews with professionals in the industry and lessons.

So essentially, it’s not a forum to try and take Gear Talk members off of Facebook, but a site that offers them more options than Facebook groups allow and is custom tailored specifically for already existing Gear Talk members.

What are you learning about building communities online?

I am constantly learning. My goal was not to start a forum and get a ton of members in it. There’s really no reason to have tens of thousands of members in these groups if they’re not passionate about gear.

What was great about Gear Talk as it started with me and a bunch of full-time working musicians. It was not something I started to create a business. It’s been really organic from the get go and I think that’s what people find cool about it. It’s not sponsored by some company trying to sell you anything. It’s a great hang for gear heads from all over the world now.

I think as the groups have grown, I am able to spot things that need to be fixed and improved, so things in the group evolve. Sometimes rules are made. Sometimes I have to re-direct to focus of the group/groups.

One thing I have learned, is people love to feel part of a community. Not part of this massive monster forum of anonymous people. This is why I started Gear Talk regional groups, in order to help people network in their own regions and also make buying/selling/trading much easier.

Last March you hosted the Gear Talk Expo 2012 in Atlanta, which turned out to be a big success. Tell us a little about why you decided to put that together and how it’s effected the online community.

Yeah, GTE2012 was amazing! It was also an idea that snowballed into this huge thing.

Several months ago, we were talking about having a get-together for Gear Talk members in Atlanta. It started as a backyard BBQ sort of idea. Bring your gear, hang out, eat some food.

A friend of mine, Damon Breeland, works for Avatar Events Group in Atlanta suggested we host it there. Seemed like a perfect location. Right in the center of Atlanta and a venue that is quite comfortable with guitar geeks cranking up their amps. Since Avatar has a stage, I booked Damon’s band, Nigredo to play. They’re a terrific instrumental band. Sort of an amazing wall of sound created by dozens and dozens of amps and guitar pedals.

Iconic guitarist/Co-Founder of 65 Amps/producer/sideman, Peter Stroud has been an active member on Gear Talk, and also lives in Atlanta. I emailed him and asked him if he’d be interested in doing a clinic at the get together. There really was not a better choice. Peter was incredibly cool and agreed to come out.

After Peter/65 Amps were on board, it seemed like a good idea to invite other builders in the area to bring their stuff to show off. I asked Richard Goodsell of Goodsell amps and he was in. Then Fuchs amplifiers, thanks to Bryan Akers who works for Avatar. After that, companies from all over the country started contacting me asking me if they could come.

I had about 40 days to organize and promote GTE2012. It ended up exceeding my expectations with number guests and amazing networking. The cool thing about it was, it was not corporate at all. It was grassroots. It was not sponsored by some corporation. I financed the entire thing myself! It came off exactly how I wanted it. A get together among gear heads with a bunch of special guests and some truly amazing gear.

What’s next for Lance Seymour?

Tons of gigs. I am pretty slammed right now and working on Been one of the busiest years of my life. I am already planning GTE2013. I can’t wait for it. I am working on ways to develop Gear Talk for members and companies. Just recently, i started the group Gear Talk: Marketplace as a way for companies to promote their products for free to Gear Talk members without coming off like they’re trying to post a commercial on one of the Gear Talk groups. It’s been really successful so far.


Visit guitarist Lance Seymour’s website and Facebook page to learn more.

If you’re interested in being a part of the Gear Talk community, join one or more of the groups below!

An Open Letter to An Angry Reader

Since it’s launch, MusicianWages has been well received by the musician community. Dave Hahn and I have been very pleased to see our pet project grow into an informative hub for all types of musicians. We believe this growth is due to our commitment to integrity and quality content, and as long as we find the articles on our site useful, you will too.

Sometimes, though, people get upset and send nasty emails. Most of them are ignored, but I felt this recent one deserved a response. The author is upset because we’re selling some contact lists from the Chronicles of a Cruise Ship Musician blog. Since he didn’t include a valid email address, prohibiting us from writing him back, we decided to respond publicly.

These lists are the first products we have ever sold from the site, and perhaps all our readers deserve an explanation of why we’ve opened the MusicianWages Shop after four years of giving away all our information for free.

Here is the email from “Joe” and our response.

You suck. I have been at your site before and you were all cushy cushy with all the agents. I thought your site was a cool idea at first. But you really don’t have a clue as to what real musicians wages in the real world are. I’ve been pro for 25+ years and know a lot of musicians. And now I see you are selling the list of cruise ship agents. Well there goes any respect I have for you. Obviously your not making enough money as a musician. You’re going to end up working for an agent before too long. Sad. Last time I visit the site.

Well Joe, sorry you feel that way. I hope you’ll read this response and have a better understanding of what Dave and I do, what MusicianWages is all about, and why we’re selling these lists.

Dave and I keep very busy working as full time musicians. Dave plays keyboards and conducts on Broadway, which is one of the best paying steady gigs a musician can get these days. I’m a freelance guitarist playing with different bands, subbing on musicals, and earning income from my own recordings (sales, royalties, licensing, etc.). We’re both members of our local AFM chapter and are well aware of union and non-union wages for a variety of musician jobs.

While continually building our careers, Dave and I have written extensively on everything we know about being musicians. We’ve shared all this information for free, on MusicianWages. We are the only people that run the site, and we do it for the love of sharing practical advice and helping others.

The website does generate some money, but not very much. We are far better professional musicians than we are professional bloggers! For the last several years we’ve basically been breaking even, making enough to cover monthly maintenance costs and hire professionals to help us with things beyond our skill set. However, we aren’t trying to make a living from this website, we’re trying to make a community of musicians.

When the two of us started MusicianWages four years ago, Dave’s articles about working as a cruise ship musician were a central part of the website’s launch. He had written extensively about the gig while playing on ships in 2004 because before he got the gig, there was simply no information online to prepare him for life as a cruise ship musician. His articles filled a void, which has made them very popular, and everybody researching cruise ship gigs finds MusicianWages in the top of their search results.

Dave’s only experiences on ships, though, were contracts in 2004 and 2007. I’ve never played on ships. We really don’t have any new information on the scene, with the exception of some contributions by other cruise ship musicians. Nonetheless, that section of the site has always been popular and we regularly receive emails from people wanting to know how to get a gig on a cruise ship.

In response to the many emails asking us, “How do I get do I get a cruise ship gig?” and all the resumes and links we receive from readers thinking we can place them on a ship, we decided to create these lists.

The Cruise Ship Talent Agency Directory and The Cruise Line Entertainment Department Directory were both created through time intensive research. The How Do I Get A Cruise Ship Musician Job eBook is a collection of articles from our website compiling answers to the 30 most asked questions about the cruise ship gig.

All of the information in these resources is freely available online for those who take the time to do their own research. Because we invested our own time and money compiling the information and presenting it in clean, easy to read eBooks, we decided to make them our first products to sell. We are charging for the convenience, for the time we’re saving you, not for exclusive information.

No agents, agency, or cruise lines were involved in or benefit from the creation and sales of these lists. We receive no commission on any cruise contracts signed by anybody that buys these lists. Most of the money we make from these lists goes back into the site or helps us develop other projects that we hope will help us and our fellow musician.

The musician industry isn’t the only place you’ll find these kinds of resources. After college my wife was applying for a very specific job in an industry where she had little experience. She bought a book that taught her about the industry, the position she wanted, and how to prepare for the interview. She studied the book cover to cover, tidied up her resume, nailed the interview, and got the job.

Similarly, we believe these lists are a very valuable resource for talented musicians that have everything it takes to play the gig, but don’t know much about it.

If you don’t want to work on a cruise ship there are plenty of other ways to make a living as a musician. Dave and I both have steady careers on land, as do many of the site’s contributors. We strive to keep MusicianWages full of pragmatic, useful information culled from the experience of professional musicians. This information will always be available for free.


Start Your Own Wedding Band

Finding a safe, viable career performing music is no easy task. While it might not be the first choice for every aspiring musician, one way to make a decent bit of money from gigging is to start your own wedding band.

It takes a bit of time to get your wedding band off the ground, but for me it was an obvious choice–starting up a professional gigging band, such as a wedding band, offers a better guarantee of regular income than you might have with your original music.

Why do most musicians start or join wedding bands? The money. Unlike an original band, you don’t have to worry about how many people are coming through the door or how well you promoted the show. Once a wedding band has established itself it can have gigs booked a year out, all with guaranteed money.

And the money is good! As a wedding band you can expect to charge anything from $1250 upwards per show. Even in times of economic downturn there are still a lot of people willing to spend big money making their special day a memorable experience.

To run your own wedding band, you need to think of it as a business enterprise that will need a little bit of time and money invested up front before it pays off. It is, however, a rewarding career choice both in terms of the money and the people you meet. Finishing a night’s work knowing that you’ve helped make someone’s big day an especially memorable experience is rewarding in itself.

This article aims to help you set up your own wedding band and give you advice on how to run it as a successful, rewarding business.

Step 1: Putting together the band.

Like any band it is important you have a group of people that you work well with together musically but what is hugely important in this field is having a group of professional minded people that can look and act the part and not jeopardise future bookings (see 5 Traits of a Professional Musician).

All of you will be representing the band on and off stage so having a group of people that look and act accordingly is key to your success. From my experience the two biggest pitfalls that wedding bands face are having someone that feels they are above manual work or having members that you would be worried about talking to wedding guests.

As well as being able to play well together it is worth considering how each member can contribute outside of their duties as a musician. Think about what everyone can bring to the table to cut down paying additional crew – is someone in the band quite business minded? Do you have a marketing wizard that could make your self-promotion stand out? Can someone act as a sound engineer? Do you have enough drivers/cars or someone with a van? Without these, the journey ahead will be a lot harder if not impossible.

You will be expected to be a self contained unit so can’t rely on crew that a venue might ordinarily provide. It will make all of your jobs a lot easier if everyone pitches in on unloading gear and setting up.

The best wedding band jobs I’ve had in are when everyone contributes in their own unique ways and gets along. Having a group of people you actually like spending time with is important and avoiding infighting can be the difference between this being a rewarding lifestyle career and another day at the office.

Step 2: What will you need?


One of the biggest problems you will face on setting up a wedding band is having the capital to get all of the equipment you’ll need to go out and gig. One solution to this is going out and playing some bars as a cover band when you’ve got a set together and using some of this money to fund it. Not everyone has the money up-front to cover these costs and if you want to avoid using a credit card / loan this is a good solution that will mean you won’t have to worry about debt before you’ve even started.

As a basic set-up you will need professional quality instruments and gear, a PA system capable of handling large venues and enough lighting to make sure you’re well lit when a venue doesn’t have these facilities.

Often the places you play aren’t designed for bands or will be located far away from any music hardware stores so remember to bring a spare of everything you can and plenty of power extension cables and multi-sockets with a decent fuse on them in case there aren’t sufficient power supplies at the venue.

Think about your set up as a mobile stage that can be easily transportable and can set up in as minimal time as possible. In this line of work I have played venues from teepee’s to large scale halls and often you won’t know what to expect until you arrive so it really doesn’t hurt to be over prepared.

A lot of venues (especially at corporate events or though booking agents) will want to know that all of your electrical equipment has undergone all of the necessary safety checks and that you are covered for public liability insurance so it’s best to get this sorted as soon as possible to avoid losing bookings.


Depending on what sort of music you are playing and how you want to put yourselves across as a band this will differ in each wedding band but it is important to dress right for the gig. Just look smart and try to look like you all belong together.

You will be expected to look the part and it is your choice whether you choose to go for matching outfits or try to fit into a visual theme. It is important that you are dressed formally but set yourselves apart from wedding guests/waiting staff.

A lot of wedding bands opt for matching colour themes, but there is no rule of thumb. Check out what other bands are wearing and think about bands that stand out in your mind for how they look (Temptations, Bruno Mars etc…).

Picking a visual theme that works for your band can make all the difference, especially on agency sites where people are browsing a variety of groups.

Step 3: Coming up with a repertoire.

Choosing your repertoire will depend on what sort of band you want to be. There are a huge variety of bands that people book for weddings such as jazz trio’s, big bands, pop covers.. so it is up to you to decide whether to want to cover a niche market or try to cater for everyone.

Unless your wedding band is playing a specific genre and you feel that your set will meet the expectations of this you are going to want to try and cover all of the bases. Most wedding bands will have a style that they play in but try to keep everyone happy. There will be a broad age range so it helps to have a few from each popular genre – 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, disco,some light rock classics and try to throw in a few recent chart hits for the kids!

You will be booked largely on the basis of what type of music you play so be careful to monitor which songs go down well with crowds and consider learning songs that are popularly requested.

If you’re largely out of touch with pop music, try asking a younger friend/relative or keep an eye on the charts for songs you think your band could do a good job of.

What some bands do is offer the client a song request of their choice if booked far enough in advance. This can be really useful for first dances or for songs that hold a sentiment to the newly weds and can make quite an impact if played right and make it all the more memorable for the client.

When it comes to learning the songs it is rare that the band will follow charts so being able to improvise and have a good rapport with the rest of your band will make your lives a lot easier and cut down on practice time. Considering how many songs you’ll need to learn, especially in the first few months before you’ve got a set, you’ll probably want to spend as little time in practice room as possible.

Successful, well functioning wedding bands I have been in in the past have discussed songs together, picked a key that works best for the singer and then learnt the songs in our own time. Practice time can then be spent productively once everyone knows the songs and is largely time to try out putting songs into medleys or adding exciting motifs to the music to make the show memorable.

If you have a prominent musical director type in the band they might have their own ideas for arrangements and each band will play songs in a unique style to themselves as you are trying to make a wide spectrum of music sound good with one set-up.

Some bands choose to learn songs exactly as they are on record while others favour fitting them into medley’s with other songs or doing their own thing with them. How you decide to approach this will affect the product you’re trying to sell, as some bands rely on authentic and true-to-record versions as a unique selling point.

It is unlikely that you are going to be passionate about every song you play so it might help to try leaving your personal feelings towards music at the door. By the hundredth time you’ve played any song you will feel relatively indifferent to it but it is important from the audience perspective that it looks like you’re enjoying every moment like it’s your favourite song.

Step 4: Booking gigs.

First and foremost, when you’re up and running and ready to get gigs, you need to think about booking from the perspective of somebody planning a wedding.. typically the bride. While I often pick up weddings from playing bars and club nights, many brides-to-be don’t want to dedicate a lot of their time to watching different bands as they have a lot of other things to think about and entertainment might not be on the top of their list of priorities.

You might consider paying money for advertising in wedding magazines, websites or wedding planning phone app’s. Some of these will cost you so are worth waiting for later down the line when you have the dollar to fork out.

There are booking agents that you can audition for / apply for but from personal experience these are not to be relied upon for consistent work. They will also take a generous commission and you may find that it is better to think of these as a way to fill the occasional date rather than use them as a long term solution.

Wedding expo’s are another route to take although again, will depend on some money up front to be there. This can take a few different forms from playing occasional slots during the day to sitting at a table with a display talking to potential customers. This is where a full on charm offensive can be of utmost importance and often serves as a fantastic opportunity to network with other wedding related businesses who may choose to promote your wedding band through their own work (e.g.- recommending your band in bridal wear shops or putting a link to you on their website in return for the same).

This is a huge industry to itself though, and while it will cost you to be there it is a rare opportunity for a captive audience of wedding planners to take an interest so use each second you’re there to push yourself and chat with people. Even if you don’t get as many bookings as you’d hope for it will help you get into the mindset of your client and understand what people are looking for in a band.

Having a strong online presence is important as many people will do the majority of their wedding planning online. So get yourself a website made, don’t overwhelm the viewer with information just tell them what package you offer, what sort of music you play and try to provide some pictures/audio clips of you playing, any other media is an added bonus.

Equally, social networking sites and free ad sites can be a useful tool for directing people towards your band. There are plenty of sites out there that will advertise on your behalf for little to no money so try and be creative when you’re writing the description for your band to make you stand out.

You should try and get a testimonial from each gig you play and put these on your website and it is useful for clients to see whether paying customers feel that they got their moneys worth.

Generally, wedding bands are booked far in advance of the day itself so when you start out you shouldn’t expect to be playing any high paying gigs for a while. It is important to manage your diary effectively and plan up to 2 years in advance but putting in the time will pay off in the future. Use this time to play more immediate gigs, it will help strengthen you as a band and make sure you’re well practiced in a live scenario before you’re asking for serious money.

Step 5: Managing the business.

While there are obvious benefits to playing music that people already know and love and a decent wage at the end of a night, it’s important to remember that like any other business you are going to need to give it a lot of attention to keep bookings coming in.

Be prepared

When you have some gigs booked, there are a few things to think about and plan ahead to make sure the day goes smoothly. Think about how long will it take to get to the gig and when you are going to be able to set up and sound check. You might be left with a tight schedule to do this if guests are arriving early or the venue is being used earlier in the day so don’t turn up a few hours before you’re due to go on and expect that people can work around you.

It’s worth taking into consideration that there are also additional things to budget for like new gear, food costs and transport costs.. all of these things mount up so try and keep some money in the bank if you can and always try to keep some money free in case of emergency. If an expensive piece of equipment breaks down you will need to be able to cover hiring gear if you aren’t otherwise able to borrow any.

When you are negotiating a price with the client it is best to have a clear price structure in mind beforehand; often people will try to get away with charging as much as possible and the client will smell the BS a mile away.. look at how much other people are charging for what you’re offering and try to give a fair price for what you offer.

Offering a range of packages to suit the clients needs

As well as the wedding band itself, you might want to consider offering a range of different packages in different price ranges; these can include:

  • Offering a DJ service in addition to a band – often the client will want to book the evening’s entertainment in one package rather than pay for a band and a DJ separately so if this is something you can provide then it’s seriously worth considering. Even if it’s just a laptop with a good range of music some people will be more than happy with this, just be honest about what you’re offering up front.
  • Incentives for booking early – this will help to encourage clients not to hold off until the last minute and secure you bookings for the future.
  • An acoustic set for reception/meal – this can be a really nice extra touch if you want to provide some light dining music before your main set and can make you a talking point before the evening begins

Setting aside a marketing budget and using it wisely

To be more efficient with your marketing budget it’s best to keep track in the first year of how you’re getting each booking which will help you determine what is the most effective way that works for you. You can analyse this in your second year and help you plan a more focussed strategy with minimum waste.

One way to do this is by keeping a spreadsheet so that you have a clear record of what’s working for you and what you could spend less on in the future. It’s all about figuring out what works for you best but once you have a more refined strategy you will find it this a lot easier.


Playing in a wedding band is all about delivering a great experience for the client. It is natural for a lot of wedding band musicians to feel like they are selling their soul a bit by playing cheesy pop covers but you are aiming to provide an evenings entertainment that will cater for as many people in the room as possible.

Keeping your ego in check is important as well, as nobody wants to hear a rip-roaring guitar solo and the focus is going to be very much on the bride and groom. It’s not to say that you can’t stand out or offer something truly memorable but bear there are limits ( so do what you are paid to do.

Word travels fast in this businesses and it is often the case that when someone is getting married, they will have friends doing the same before too long. Making a good impression at one gig can lead to further bookings so it is important, even if you’re just playing a bar, to look like you’re having the time of your life. Reputation is everything.

Finally, I’d say that the most important tool you can have in playing in a wedding band is a good attitude. Try to approach the band from a customer perspective and find creative ways to showcase what you do. Being a solid, exciting band that people will remember is important but you will find that the relationships you build by being a professional and reliable character will go a long way to ensuring your success.

And smile, always smile. It’s their special day.

How To Find Work as a Gigging Musician

There’s a scene in the movie Inception where Cobb asks Ariadne how they came to be sitting outside a cafe in Paris. When she couldn’t recall, Cobb pointed out that we can’t remember how our dreams start; therefore she knows she’s dreaming if she can’t remember how she arrived someplace.

Sometimes I try to remember how I arrived at this point in my career as a musician and struggle to define when it even started. When did I become a professional musician? Was it when I got my first $20 weekly gig when I was 16, or when I told the IRS my occupation was Freelance Musician? Waking up every day and practicing guitar for work and not knowing how I got here… yeah, this is starting to feel a bit too much like a dream.

How does a musician find gigs?

Regardless of whether you aspire to tour as a sideman, play in a symphony, work in a Broadway pit, compose for TV and film, teach private music lessons, or more likely doing some combination of all these jobs, there are two factors that will directly effect the frequency and quality of your work:

  1. Your skills as a musician.
  2. Your reputation and ability to network.

First, you have to be a superb musician. Period.

That said, the best jobs do not always go to the best musicians. Most gigs do not require insane technical chops or mastery of the melodic minor modes. They do, however, require timeliness, cooperation, preparedness, and professionalism.

Finally, you need to learn about the people that hire musicians make an asserted effort to connect with them. It’s up to you to make the first inroads for your career.

Hone Your Skills

At the risk of offending some of you, one of the reasons you might have trouble finding gigs is that you’re just not good enough. Yet.

Music is a very competitive field with many factors outside our control. Our skill level is not one of them. Every outstanding musician went to great lengths to practice, practice, and practice some more. If you want to be a professional musician, practicing is your 9-5. Learn how to practice.

Growing up, I was fortunate to have a neighbor that played viola in the St. Louis Symphony. He outlined some of the basic skills I should start working on immediately:

  1. Ear training: Know what a minor chord sounds like compared to a diminished chord. Recognize the sound of every interval inside an octave. Learn the sound of music theory. Musicians communicate with these sounds, you must learn the language.
  2. Learn to read and write music. You don’t have to be the best sight reader, but if you really want to make a living as a musician, you can’t afford to turn down work because it involves written music.
  3. Finally, have a performance ready piece of music, that you can play by yourself, ready to go at all times. If you can’t sound great on your own, you’ll never sound great in a group.

That is some of the best advice I was ever given. I would have learned it eventually, but I’m thankful for being schooled early on, allowing me to internalize all of those skills.

In my experience, one of the best way to develop these skills is through transcription. Learn how to play exactly what the masters play. Teach yourself by ear, then write it down. Every great musician starts this way.

Honing these skills will help you learn new music faster.

To make a living as a musician, you’ll probably have to start by spreading yourself across many different gigs. Your private students want to learn new songs every week, the singer/songwriter you accompany just wrote three new songs for the gig this weekend, and you have to learn three hours of cover songs to sub in a wedding band. It’s a lot of work, but with practice, you’ll be able to learn music quickly and efficiently.

Build Your Reputation & Network

When I recently looked over the past two years on my gig calendar, I realized about 95% of the work I’d done can be traced back to my musician friends, either because they were already on the gig, or they recommended me.

In this regard, the best piece of advice I can give you is something you’d expect to hear from your mom:

Work hard, be a good person, and associate with other hard working, good people.

If you do this, you and your network of friends will get in on the ground floor of each others careers have a greater chance at becoming successful working musicians.


My dad once told me that he would follow up interviews with a hand written note. People remember those kinds of gestures, and even if you haven’t asked for anything in return, there’s a good chance your thoughtfulness will be repaid.

This, he explained, is called reciprocation–the act of responding to a gesture with a similar gesture. People do this all the time without realizing it. We’re all programmed to keep balance in our lives.

I transferred schools my junior year of college. Being the new guy on campus I wasn’t getting very many calls for gigs, but I wanted to play. I set out to book as many gigs for myself as possible. I needed people to play with me, so I called the musicians I’d become friends with, paid them whatever I could, and helped us all get some more working experience.

Many of the musicians I was hiring were playing with other people as well. Gradually, the guys playing on my gigs recommended me to other musicians in town. The work I was creating for some was reciprocated through a job with somebody else.

Paying it Forward

This idea of reciprocation goes beyond the “I give you a gig, you give me a gig” scenario I just described. Musicians that have more established careers know the importance of helping each other out, and often pass work to younger players that they feel have earned a shot at more lucrative jobs.

Of course, these seasoned pros don’t necessarily go looking for their proteges. You have to be proactive and reach out to musicians who are doing the kinds of jobs you want to do. There are a lot of ways to reach out: go to their gigs, ask to sit in, take a lesson from them, or simply offer to buy them coffee and talk shop.

In turn, pay it forward as you become more successful.

College Connections

The core of my network happens to be friends I met in college. It’s been 10 years since I was a student, but I work regularly with musicians I met in college, including Brad Whiteley, the keyboardist in my trio, and Dave Hahn, my MusicianWages cohort.

If you’re undecided about whether or not to study music in college, I interviewed several pro musicians that majored in music for another MusicianWages article called Advice On Using a Music Education. Each of them felt studying music in college gave them an advantage after school.

There’s also a certain camaraderie felt among music alumni. I’ve worked with guys that went to the same school as I, but at a different time. Immediately, we’ve got some common ground.

Additionally, there’s credibility associated with going to one school or another. It assures other musicians that you probably know what you’re doing. It’s a thin veil, though, lifted as soon as you start playing.

How to Really Use the Internet

As I mentioned, about 95% of my work comes from my network of friends. The other 5% comes from my internet presence or being at the right place at the right time.

A good internet presence is important for musicians, but only because it reinforces the networking you do offline.

People you meet should be able to quickly find you online by searching your name and maybe the instrument you play. Once they find your site, make it easy for them to contact you, buy your music, etc. All this is possible with a well optimized website.

Similarly, social networking sites are a great way to stay connected with people you meet on the scene. Drummer Jeremy Yaddaw wrote an article about Facebook networking for musicians that describes exactly what I’m talking about.

Who Hires Musicians?

Let’s take a look at some of the people and places that hire musicians. Click on a list item to skip ahead:

  1. Music Venues
  2. Other Musicians
  3. Music Contractors / Music Directors
  4. Music Producers
  5. TV/Film Professionals
  6. Churches
  7. Schools
  8. The Military
  9. Event Planners
  10. Regular People

Music Venues

Public places that regularly book live music typically fall into one of two categories:

  1. Those that use live music to attract their clientele.
  2. Those that use live music to enhance the atmosphere of their establishment.

The Bitter End in New York, Hotel Cafe in LA, and The Basement in Nashville are all examples of places people go to when they want to hear live music. Since the music is the primary draw for customers, bookers or talent buyers are interested in artists that will fill their room with paying customers.

If you can sell tickets, you can make a lot of money.

Restaurants, wineries, and hotel lounges are the kinds of places that hire musicians as background music. These gigs often go to solo musicians or smaller groups that play niche styles. For example, a solo jazz guitarist could be a good fit for Sunday brunch, a string quartet would sound nice at a winery, or an accordionist playing traditional Tarantella would create the right atmosphere at an upscale Italian restaurant.

If you can play music that will enhance or add authenticity to an establishment’s atmosphere, you should be able to find some work.

In both cases, you’ll probably have to deal with a talent buyer, manager, bartender, or some other employee at the venues. While in college, I worked at both types of venues–a bar that booked bands six nights a week, and a restaurant that hired background musicians on the weekends. I learned what to do, and what not to do, if you want to be booked at these venues, and wrote another article called What I Learned Working at Venues.

Other Musicians

Booking your own gigs is great, but it’s also a lot of work. Another way to land the same type of gig is to be hired by other musicians.

These are typically sideman jobs, that is, you are hired to be a supporting band member for another artist. Some of the best musicians in the world have lucrative careers recording and touring alongside popular artists.

Fellow musicians might also hire you to help with tasks they can’t do themselves, such as transcribing, writing charts, or acting as their music director.

In my experience, the first musicians that are going to hire you will be your friends. As you perform more often and continue meeting and working with other musicians, your network will expand. When artists need to hire somebody for their band, they ask often their friends and band members for recommendations. If you’ve built a solid reputation, people will start recommending you.

MusicianWages has several articles on working as a sideman. To better understand the job, check out A Guide To Being a Successful Sideman.

Music Contractors/Music Directors

Music Contractors and Music Directors are two different jobs with different responsibilities, but because they’re sometimes done by the same person, I’m grouping them together. Both jobs are management positions that oversee performing musicians.

Music Contractors, also called Music Supervisors in musical theatre, oversee the hiring of musicians for a particular gig. Even though the contractor does the hiring, he or she usually isn’t directly involved with the music.

Music Directors are responsible for teaching the music to the performers. In many cases, the MD is also in the band.

Jobs with Music Directors on board typically enjoy bigger budgets, which means more pay to the musicians. The most lucrative jobs are very competitive. Contractors and MDs often act as a filter to find the right musicians for a job, and they usually start with people they know and trust.

Again, this comes down to being a great player and networking. If Contractors and MDs hear your name enough, eventually they will call you with a job. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to reach out and let them know you are available.

Dave wrote a great series explaining how he became a Broadway musician, and discusses exactly how he reached out to music contractors, music directors, and everybody else that works with musicians on Broadway. If you haven’t read that series, I highly recommend you check it out. Even if you don’t want to play on Broadway, you’ll find some vital information in his articles.

Music Producers

In the music industry, the music producer’s job is to oversee the making, or production, of a recording. Originally, making a recording was simply (or not so simply) a matter of capturing a live performance in a studio. As technology progressed, multi-tracking and post-production sound manipulation broadened the role of the producer. Today, for better or worse, the technology needed to produce a modest recording is easily accessible to anybody with a couple thousand dollars.

One of the producer’s roles is to hire musicians for recording sessions. They need musicians that can learn the music very quickly and nail their parts in few takes. Having a great ear, professional sound, excellent time feel, and the ability to sight read are all important skills for a studio musician.

The recording scene has been greatly decentralized with the rise of home studios. Now, wherever somebody is making an album, there is potential for studio work.

One problem is that most people with home studios are trying to make albums as inexpensively as possible, and cannot afford to hire session musicians. Sometimes, though, opportunities to work with young producers can turn into long term collaborations that will be valuable to your career down the road. It’s important to know when to take an unpaid gig, but occasionally they can pay off in the long run.

It’s also possible to work for producers without ever actually being in the same room as them. Virtual session musicians record their parts at home and send them to the producer online. For a thorough read on this topic, check out Scott Horton’s How To Be a Studio Musician Without Leaving Home.

Finally, some of you may have dreams of working in high end studios and playing on pop stars hits. I hate to break it to you, but the days of storied groups of dedicated studio musicians like the Funk Brothers or Wrecking Crew are long gone. Session work at that level isn’t as sustainable as it used to be, and won’t be for the foreseeable future. It still exists but on a smaller scale, allowing fewer musicians to make a good living playing sessions exclusively.

TV/Film Professionals

Composing for TV and Film can generate a great income for musicians, but the industry has been changing over the last decade or so. Instead of in house composers and studio bands, much of the music you hear on TV and in the movies now either comes from a music library or is licensed directly from an artist or record label. Nonetheless, there is still good money for musicians in film and TV placements.

Ethan Stoller, who composes, produces, and edits music for TV and film, wrote about his career for MusicianWages. He offered a few pieces of advice for musicians interested in these jobs: Be prepared for the job you accept, be someone people want to work with, and connect with people in your local film making community.

Once again, hone your skills and network. Read his story and you’ll see how his connections from high school turned into his big break.

Note: If you’d like to do this type of work but are not in proximity of film makers, you have to consider moving.


Churches, synagogues and other places of worship have always employed musicians. There is a wide variety of music in churches, from traditional and classical to contemporary rock, pop, and gospel.

Most churches employ at least one full time musician, such as an organist, who might also be responsible for all music related activities. In larger churches, there may be more full or part time musicians on staff to share these responsibilities.

In addition to their staff, churches often hire freelance musicians for holiday services, musicals performed by the youth, or sidemen for contemporary worship bands. Churches may also commission music by freelance composers.

Staff positions are typically hired by church leaders. For example, when my parents’ church recently hired a new organist and music director, candidates met with the pastor and a congregational committee. When churches need to hire musicians for their staff, they’ll likely post the positions on musician jobs boards, religious jobs boards, or in classified ads.

Freelance positions, on the other hand, are usually hired by the music director. It’s possible she’ll post the jobs in classified ads, but more likely that she’ll look for musicians in the community, either through members of the congregation or by recommendation of other church music directors.


Schools, like churches, have several methods of employing musicians.

First, there’s staff. Band, choir, and orchestra directors, and if the school has a large enough program (and budget) they might employ private instructors, accompanists, and other specialists. If you’re interested in being a music teacher at a school, you’ll need a degree in music education (bachelors at least, masters for higher education). Then you’ll be able to apply for teaching positions as they open up.

Next there are contracted positions, for example, somebody hired to help instruct the drum line in a high school marching band. These are part time positions that aren’t needed during the entire school year.

Finally, there are clinicians–professional musicians hired to teach a masterclass or give a lecture. These are basically freelance jobs that typically last a day or a week, less than the contracted positions.

Clinicians and contracted musicians are hired by a school’s music teachers. To start finding this type of work, contact your old high school band director! Start with the people that already know you and try to learn who is hiring outside help for their programs.

In my opinion, musicians that are passionate about teaching make the best teachers. Education takes a lot of patience, planning, and expertise. Just because you’re good at music does not mean you’ll be good at teaching it to others.

The Military

Joining a military band isn’t something most musicians consider when they first pick up an instrument. However, it can be a great gig with a salary, benefits, and plenty of playing opportunities. I’ve known a few musicians that joined a military band because they were struggling to make ends meet, and they ended up loving their military career.

Granted, this gig isn’t for everyone, and I don’t know enough about it to give you proper advice. Lucky for us, Staff Sergeant Joshua DiStefano, a pianist in the U.S. Army for 14 years, has been a regular contributor to MusicianWages. Read about Josh’s experiences in The Life of an Army Band Musician.

Event Planners

Event planners are people or companies that organize and oversee upscale private parties, weddings, corporate events and other special occasions. Most of the time, these events include live music. Musicians call these jobs “club dates.” Club dates are commonly high paying jobs, especially in large cities.

Because club dates and private events can pay so well, there are companies that operate multiple corporate party bands and event planners specifically to book these gigs. They hire musicians through auditions. If you’d like to play in one of these bands, contact corporate bands in your area and ask them for an audition.

Many times, however, the event planner usually deals directly with one musician acting as the music director, who in turn hires the rest of the band. When events only need a small group or soloist, the event planner might deal directly with the musician or group.

If you’d like to be hired directly by even planners, search the internet for “event planners” or “event planning” in your area. In a big enough city, you’ll find anything from large companies to individuals offering event planning services. In all cases, event planners need a network of trusted vendors, including musicians, to do their jobs effectively.

Don’t expect them to call you, though. Make first contact, explain what you can offer (type of ensemble, repertoire, etc), and tell them you’re available immediately. If they don’t have an event for you on their calendar, politely follow up every few months.

Regular People

Finally, there are plenty of jobs to be found from people outside the music and entertainment industries. Regular people hire musicians to teach private lessons, write a song for a special event, perform at their anniversary party, company holiday party, or a house concert.

How do these people find musicians? The internet, neighbors, churches, schools, local music venues, or anywhere musicians work.

I haven’t looked at a Yellow Pages in years, but I’m pretty sure there wasn’t much of a musician section like, say, plumbers or pest control. There aren’t many directories people can use to find local musicians, so it’s up to you to let people know you’re available. By simply mentioning you do private events on a business card, your website, or postcards at your other gigs, you’re making it easier for people to hire you.

Tying it All Together

This article is just the beginning; there are many links embedded throughout it that lead to words of wisdom by other musicians. Learn from every opportunity, strive to be a better musician, a good hang, and contribute to the musician community by helping others. Please feel free to share your tips in the comments below!

Good luck everyone, and happy gigging.

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5 Tips to Keep Your Gig

Much has been written recently on the topic of networking, and as a freelance musician, I fully understand and appreciate the importance of constantly seeking new sources of work.

But what about keeping the gigs you already have? Assuming you have a handle on the most commonly discussed factors like punctuality, reliability, playing in tune, keeping your chops up through regular practice, and even personal hygiene and social skills, there are other less obvious traits I’ve discovered (many through trial and error) that can make a lasting impression.

Unlike musicians who perform and compose their original music, a sideman’s key to success is understanding, meeting and ultimately exceeding the expectations of the artist to stand out from the thousands of other players available for the job.

1) Immerse yourself in the material.

This issue is a personal favorite, and one I feel very passionate about.

As a freelancer, there may be weeks when you’re learning material for 4 different bands, and full immersion simply doesn’t seem feasible, but I highly recommend listening to the songs at least enough to recognize each one by name. A blank stare at the mention of a specific tune can make it appear that you’re planning to mail it in.

I’ve found songwriters to be very appreciative when a band member demonstrates that he or she isn’t hearing something for the first time at rehearsal or intending to just sight read the charts and hope for the best.

There’s an excellent article on this site by Matt Baldoni titled, “Learning Music Quickly and Efficiently,” which thoroughly examines this topic and details a ritual I’ve successfully followed for years.

When people ask what music I’ve been listening to lately, my response is usually, “The songs I have to learn for shows this week.” It ‘s definitely a sacrifice that can seem excessive, and perhaps even a little obsessive, but if you ace the gig and get invited back regularly, the steady work is well worth the initial time investment.

If it turns out to be a one-time thing for reasons beyond your control (the songwriter moves away, decides he can’t afford a band and goes solo, etc.) the effort still isn’t wasted because you establish a reputation with your musical peers as someone who does his homework.

2) Be a supportive team player.

During a typical week, I record, rehearse and perform with a wide variety of people in a handful of different projects. When songwriters choose to hire full-time freelance musicians, they’re usually aware that our survival is dependent upon keeping busy with multiple bands, and willing to accept a smaller overall time commitment in exchange for efficiency and professional musicianship. That being said, I believe that during the two hours you spend in the club or practice space, the artist deserves 100% of your energy and enthusiasm.

If the bandleader has a carload of PA equipment, grab a heavy speaker, and unwind a few cables. If there’s a rush to start on time, offer to help with the set list.

If you’ve already recorded and uploaded a rehearsal to supplement your own learning, it only takes a few extra minutes to email the files to your band mates. Not only does this ensure that everyone is on the same page (especially with last-minute arrangement changes) but it also shows that you’re genuinely interested in the overall success of the performance, and not just in it for a quick buck.

You can separate yourself from the competition by consistently going above and beyond for the people who hire you, and becoming a valuable, and hopefully irreplaceable, part of their support system as a team player. If you maintain that reputation over an extended period, it’s possible that someone may even value your contribution enough to have flexibility with booking and plan shows around your schedule.

3) Play the part you were hired to play.

A few years ago, I got a call from a drummer friend to fill the bass position in a singer/songwriter project. As with many bands of this type, it quickly became apparent that my role was to provide a simple, solid foundation with the kick drum. After the first rehearsal, he expressed relief and thanked me, explaining that the previous bassist was an accomplished fusion player who used the songs as a vehicle to showcase his ferocious chops and rarely ever played a root note–clearly not playing the part the singer/songwriter wanted to hear.

In other situations, with wedding and corporate event bands, I’ve seen world-class jazz virtuosos fired because they felt it was beneath them to learn a Billy Joel song or insisted on re-harmonizing the chord progression of a Journey power ballad.

One of the most difficult challenges for younger musicians, especially recent music school grads with a high level of proficiency and a strong improvisational background, can be adapting to a sideman situation where a “less is more” approach is required. If you agree to work with an original or cover band and the idea of playing a three-chord song just like the recording makes you cringe, remember that you’re getting paid to execute the material a certain way.

It’s not always about you, so whenever possible, be flexible, be aware of what’s expected of you, and most importantly, be willing to check your ego at the door.

4) Be thorough with your pre-gig communication.

Another way to make a good first impression and instill confidence in your musical employers is to be thorough with your communication and address any aspect of the set list or the material itself that isn’t clear.

With original gigs, I usually start out by asking if there are mp3s and/or charts for the songs, and whether they accurately reflect the most current arrangements. Even if charts exist, I compare them to the recordings, and frequently end up making my own if I discover discrepancies or omissions.

In subbing situations, clear communication can be even more crucial, especially for weddings and club dates, where players are often expected to show up and nail a list of 40-50 songs with no rehearsal. Most seasoned musical directors will include the keys and artist names with the title and tell you up front whether they generally stay true to the original.

When you receive emails containing audio files, always listen to the attachment, and never assume anything, even if you’re convinced that the version in your iTunes library is the definitive one. Within the standard club date and wedding repertoire, there are multiple versions of many popular songs.

For example, if the song list includes “Soul Man,” you can avert a potential train wreck by asking if they’re doing the original Sam and Dave version or the Blues Brothers remake. The latter is in a different key, and repeats the intro for four extra bars after the bridge.

There are also common titles shared by completely different songs (“Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars and Billy Joel), as well as extended dance mixes, acoustic versions, and even an occasional customized edit a bandleader might make to fit a special dance request or guest entrance. Never assume anything!

5) Have patience and a sense of humor.

There’s a good reason for the immense popularity and widespread quoting of This is Spinal Tap among musicians. I read once that The Rolling Stones couldn’t bear to watch the movie because it hit too close to home, but I personally love to exchange stories about double booking debacles, no-shows and blown lighting systems.

Obviously, when you’re in the middle of a set, a technical meltdown is anything but amusing, but when you’re sharing stories of past shows, are you more likely to recall that funk gig where everyone nailed the outro section of “What is Hip,” or the retirement party where the jeweler downstairs went ballistic because the bathroom flooded and leaked all over his display counter?

One of my first paying gigs during college was a beach party for some wealthy young clothing company executives who offered $20 per man and free boxer shorts as payment. Every few years, when I mention the event to any of the other musicians from that night, nobody really remembers what we played, but everyone recalls very clearly (and with hearty laughter) that the band set up on a narrow concrete pier in a lightning storm, and made it though about 5 songs before the skies opened up and the guests lunged forward to cover our equipment with wet, sandy tarps.

When you perform several nights a week, year after year, it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter plenty of adversity. A large part of paying dues as a musician is repeatedly dealing with humbling experiences, like getting ripped off by shady club owners, or arriving to play at a crowded house party with the promise of great exposure and learning that you’ll be singing to a pile of coats in a remote bedroom.

If a band loses a weekly engagement because one of its members has a volatile temper and engages in altercations with belligerent drunks over Skynyrd requests, there’s a good chance that person won’t have their job for long or won’t be asked back at all if they’re a sub. There will be nights when you want to sell your drums as firewood, or slam your guitar down mid-song and make a dramatic exit, but your ability to keep a cool head and see the humor in these absurd fiascos will endear you to your fellow musicians and demonstrate that you’re mature, professional and emotionally stable.

All of these tips basically boil down to having your act together and being so dependable and reliable that, when you’re committed to a date, the person hiring you feels more relaxed and confident. Obviously, self-discipline, musicianship and dedication to your instrument are very important, and helped you land the gig in the first place, but to keep it, you need to exhibit a greater sense of professionalism that can’t be learned in a practice room.

5 Traits of a Professional Musician

Being a musician is awesome. It’s almost a crime that people are allowed to play music for a living. But like crime, music doesn’t usually pay. To get the gigs that pay, and keep getting them, musicians need to exude a high level of professionalism that is often a lot less glamorous than the sexy life of a rock star. While these qualities might seem obvious, you’d be surprised at how many prima donnas out there don’t get it.

1) Follows directions well.

Because most musicians make a living playing music for other people, they have to be good at doing what those people want. If that sounds vague, it is. Whether you’re hired to play a wedding, write a jingle, perform as a sideman, be a studio musician, be a pit musician on Broadway (or your local community theater), you have to be good at taking directions.

More often than not, those directions are poorly communicated by people that don’t know music, but a professional musician knows how to translate any kind of instruction quickly, without getting frustrated, and make the client happy. Other times you’re getting quick directions from a music director that knows exactly what she wants, and your ability to adapt quickly is key. These are one way communications where there’s either no time to ask questions. Performing well in this type of scenario will get you recommendations and ultimately more work.

2) Well organized.

In a nutshell, keep a calendar and learn how to tell time. There’s nothing more frustrating or embarrassing than tardiness. In a world of great players scraping together $50 gigs to make ends meet, schedules are usually both busy and erratic. Everyone is trying to squeeze a rehearsal in before teaching a lesson and then get to a gig later that night. But if you can’t keep track of everything and be where you need to be on time, you’ll lose work. Plain and simple.

Additionally, you will probably need to keep track of a large amount of material. Many sidemen play in multiple bands and have to learn both original music by songwriters that hire them, and cover songs for weddings or corporate gigs. Storing all this music in your head gets easier with practice, but in the beginning you’ll need to learn how to organize it. Matt Baldoni, a successful and very busy freelance guitarist, wrote an article on learning music quickly and efficiently.

There’s a saying among musicians that goes something like this:

An amateur practices until he gets it right, a professional practices until he never gets it wrong.

3) Good communication skills.

When dealing with people that don’t know anything about music and not much more about the business, you have to be able to lead most of the conversation. Offer suggestions, draw up contracts, and know how to say what you want without coming off as brash or greedy. Don’t be too proud to ask questions.

At the other end of the spectrum you’ll be dealing with other musicians. Show up to the first rehearsal with the music prepared. If it’s your gig or you are the music director, make sure your music is written neatly or created in a program like Finale or Sibelius. Make sure the sheet music communicates the road map of the tune clearly (repeats, coda, etc.). If you expect the other musicians to learn from a CD or MP3s, make sure they have the proper tracks and are aware of any key changes or cuts that are not on the recordings. These things will make the first rehearsal run as smoothly as possible.

4) Plays well with others.

This should go without saying, but you’d be surprised. Not only should you be able to play your butt off, you should be able to tone it down and play what’s called for in the music. Stereotypically speaking, guitar players are notorious for turning their amps up too loud and never shutting up. Singers zone out when they’re not singing and miss their entrances. Drummers are too loud. Horn players don’t listen to each other and sound sloppy as a whole section. This is all Music 101, but it’s often over looked.

While it’s very important to nail your solo, it’s more important to blend in with the ensemble or make the soloist sound better. Playing tastefully and in the appropriate style will get you more calls than being able to shred.

5) Prepared for the job.

Ultimately, the big difference between a professional and everyone else is preparation. This is the same in any field. A professional salesman is expected to know his product. A professional marketer is expected to know her target audience. A professional custodian is expected to know what kind of cleaner to use on what surface. Likewise, a professional musician is expected to show up for the gig with the right instruments, dressed appropriately, and prepared to nail the music. Let me repeat part of that. A professional musician dresses appropriately. Whatever the gig, make sure you know what to wear. Flip flops are probably a bad idea unless a grass skirt is involved.

In summary, if you want to establish yourself as a professional musician, step back and evaluate these five qualities. Music is a highly competitive field, and mastering your instrument is simply the first step to becoming a working musician. For those that want to take their craft to the next level, the thing that sets professionals apart from the rest is what they can do beyond playing their instrument.