I was recently invited to be a panelist at a Pro Music Seminar called ‘Careerealism’ at my alma mater, Berklee College of Music, but sadly I had to decline because I’ll be on the road with American Authors throughout the spring. But during that moment when I explored the possibility of popping up to Boston for the event, the wheels started to turn in the old noggin as to what I might say to advise and inspire a room full of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed musicians, still in school, full of all kinds of ambition. After all, I have learned a thing or two from being a working musician in New York City over the last five years.
MAKE FRIENDS: When I was at Berklee, I was told more than a handful of times that your peers are your most valuable commodity while you’re studying here. Since leaving school, this advice has definitely proven to be true. I have gotten work not only from friends I was super tight with, but also people I casually met once at a jam or a gig. And really try to “make” friends—don’t just “network.” Go to people’s shows. Buy their CDs. Help them carry their drumset. Go to their recitals. Remember their names. Get coffee or lunch or write a tune together. Care about their art. Offer constructive criticism. Recommend them for gigs. Help them with their websites. Pay the cover charge to see them. Ask your friends in Baltimore or Atlanta if your Berklee friends can crash on their sofa/floor when they’re in town on a no-budget tour. They’ll likely do the same for you. Make friends. Don’t be a dick.
WATCH YOUR MONEY: You want to live in New York or LA? Are you going to be able to afford both rent AND student loans? And if you can miraculously cover both of those huge and unavoidable expenses, do you think you’re going to have time to write, record, perform, market, and generally care about your music? Average Rent: $1000 + Medium-sized Loans: $500 = $1500/month which is more like $2000 after NY/CA taxes which is about $70 a day before you have eaten a sandwich, drunk a beer or coffee, or popped a string. Guess what: if you’re a bandleader in NY or LA, you have to pay your musicians for both gigs AND rehearsals. Your 4-piece band is going to cost you over $500 after some VERY conservative expenses, and you’re going to be gigging for at least a couple years before you’re lucky enough to make HALF of that back from ticket sales or selling merch. Double the expenses for out-of-town gigs. Want people to come to your show? Hope you’ve been making friends. If you’re a hired gun, it’s OK to play some shows (and rehearsals) for cheap or free if you believe in the project, and it may lead to more opportunities, especially if you’re just starting out. Provide value, and you will prove yourself valuable. Provide complaints, and you will prove yourself expendable. Make friends. Don’t be a dick.
KNOW YOURSELF AND IMPROVE: If you’re a singer, you had better bring the pain every time with an awesome voice, awesome songs, and awesome stage performance, or don’t bother. Find your own definition of “awesome” and go see what the competition is like. What are they doing better than you? What can you do that they can’t? Same goes for instrumentalists. Drummer? Better learn how to work an SPD-S pad, run Ableton Live, and make your own beats. Guitarist? Better have awesome tone and portable gear, and also be willing to learn bass, banjo, mandolin, keys, and sing backup harmonies. Songwriter? Better be able to make excellent sounding demos, if you’re not already trying to be a full on producer as well (hint: also be a producer). Be a music director and learn how to run backing tracks–it’s part of every major show these days. Are you a virtuoso? Great! But only show off those phrygian chops when the job calls for it (hint: never). If you start making it the ‘look-at-what-I-can-do show’ as a sideman, you will lose the gig, and other bandleaders won’t hire you. Pros prefer people who are easy to work with, who can show up on time to rehearsals and gigs, and play their role for the greater good of the show. If you’re on a tour, you better be fun or at least pleasant to be around for the other 23 hours a day when you’re not on stage. Make friends. Don’t be a dick.
THE SHOW: Hey Berklee kids–Does your band play out in Boston? What’s the booking agent’s name and email at the Middle East? The Red Room? Who is an up-and-coming band that is playing there that you know or like? Have you reached out to them to be the opening act? Why not? Is there a band like yours in NYC or Philly? Have you swapped shows before? Why not??? Day of the gig: You better have promoted your ass off through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, email, phone calls, texts, smoke signals, jedi mind tricks, etc. (but not annoyingly so–there’s a fine balance). You better have rehearsed your ass(es) off. No lyric sheets or music stands at the show. No last minute ‘hey how does that bridge go again?’ You have to play the everliving shit out of your set every time. Amps will break. Mikes will short out. Sound guys will be blackout drunk. People will be texting during your show. In the early stages, you have to overcome any of these obstacles, and do your best to win that crowd over every time. Be nice to the sound guy, booking agent, and bartenders. Don’t get too drunk. Be helpful. Interact with potential fans, but don’t start barking at them to sign your email list or buy something; they will do that on their own if you have done your job well up until now. Make friends. Oh, and don’t be a dick.
THE BUSINESS: The word “professional” in my experience usually means “when money is involved.” This is tricky in creative fields, because it takes plenty of sweat and perseverance to get any steam going. ‘Hey I’m a professional actor!’ ‘Have you been cast in any projects?’ ‘No…’ ‘Well then guess what: you’re not a “professional” actor–yet.‘ You have to go on a million auditions for commercials, plays, TV shows, indie films, or even measly amateur student projects to get a reel, to make it look good, and to be competitive. You have to ASPIRE. It’s going to cost you a lot of time, money, heartbreak, and patience. Same goes for starting an original music enterprise; you will have to record countless demos, write thousands of songs, play some horrible gigs, and suffer and sweat before you have anything to show for it. But guess what: being a professional actor or musician or any kind of artist IS EXTREMELY DIFFICULT, COMPETITIVE, AND THEREFORE VERY SPECIAL. Treat it as such. Play the part on social media and online. Have professional photos. Think long and hard about branding. Educate yourself about all the work that goes into being a professional at all levels. What does a tour manager do? How much money does a mixing/mastering engineer cost? What publishing company might be interested in your product? Make friends. Don’t be a dick.
THE MUSIC: I can’t tell you what kind of music to play or what kinds of songs to write. Neither can pretty much anyone at this school. Neither can a record label; they only know how to market something that’s already proven itself to be marketable and commercially viable. What moves you? What do you want to hear more or less of? What’s in your wheelhouse? Are you a good enough singer? Should you take voice lessons? How many songs have you written in the past month? Year? Everyone I know that is a successful songwriter has written over a hundred songs (or marketable instrumental tracks for a vocalist to sing over) in the last year almost without fail. They didn’t release all one hundred, but they had to write those “just OK” 85 songs to get those amazing 15 songs. Have you written songs with people who are better than you? Did you make a demo? How does it sound? Would you play it for me right now? Or an A&R person? What if you met Taylor Swift or Pharrell or their managers in an elevator this week? Next month or next year? Are you going to have something to impress them? If you’re not trying to make pop music (this can just mean “popular,” not necessarily bubble gum music for tweens), and just want to go for a grassroots following, I hope your art is very singular and unique and you have enough thousands of people across the country that will support you. Otherwise, you have to play the game to some extent. Look at the roster at Atlantic Records, or Island, or ATO, or others. What kinds of artists do they have? Do they need songs? An auxiliary musician? A photographer? A merch person? Tour manager? Roadie? (Spoiler: the answer to all of these is almost always YES). You can sometimes get hired for one of these jobs, and have it turn into something much more special and fulfilling by working hard and selflessly and for the greater good of the team. And you had better love what you do, because many people would kill to have that gig. Make as many friends as you can. And under no circumstances should you be a dick.
Have I failed at many of these “rules”? Am I dick sometimes? Could I work harder? You bet. But I always try to learn from my mistakes, recognize my shortcomings, and create opportunities not only for myself, but also for my friends. Believe me: it’s a fun job to have.
(And why did they ask yours truly to be a panelist and not a more famous alumnus? I might be friends with someone who picks the panelists. Sue me.)