“From the point of view of the person doing the hiring, it is far better to contract with a competent player who has a great and professional attitude than with a brilliant but irresponsible and egotistical musician who will likely require reigning in and micromanaging. No matter who you are or what you’ve accomplished, if you’re working for someone else, you must always have humility about your role.” –Scott Bradlee, Postmodern Jukebox (excerpted from his new book Outside the Jukebox)
I recently performed the first show with my new funk project to about 500 people at the Teragram Ballroom in LA. It was one of the greatest performing experiences of my life. Most of the previous 600 shows I’ve played over the past decade or so have been either solo or fronting a 4-5 piece rock band. This new project demands no less than 10 players on stage. It is a throw-back, original 70s funk project with a full horn section. Laptops be damned!
Wrangling 10 musicians is no easy feat. I’d consider myself a competent MD (music director) and since I wrote every song, scored the horn parts, had a hand in every part recorded and have listened to the record ad nauseam, I knew the parts intimately, inside and out. However, being an MD is so much more than knowing the music. It’s also about whipping the band into shape and keeping everything (and everyone) organized.
Most of the players on this gig were pros, but a couple issues arose this time around that got me thinking.
After speaking with other MDs and band leaders, I’ve put together 11 rules freelance musicians should live by if they want to thrive as a hired gun in the industry.
1. Show Up Prepared
I see this far too often with insanely talented musicians. They’ll listen to the songs for the first time on the way to the first rehearsal, loosely charting out the parts in their head or scribbling out a haphazard chart on the steering wheel. If the music director sends you music in advance, learn the parts inside and out. Rehearsal is not a time for you to figure out your parts. It is time for the players to gel and to work out the show. Parts should be mastered when walking into the first rehearsal. Mastered.
Just because it isn’t the Beyonce tour, you shouldn’t take a gig any less seriously. You never know who is on this gig, who the band leader is, who the manager is or how connected your employer or fellow players are. Even if the gig is small, someone linked to the gig (or in the audience) could be a key person to your future. You never know who is watching.
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2. Show Up 10 Minutes Early
This should go unsaid, but most musicians don’t show up on time. If rehearsal starts at 7. That means downbeat is at 7. Show up at LEAST by 6:50. Not 7:01 and take 10 minutes setting up your gear or tuning up. You may have been getting away with tardiness with the low pressure gigs you’ve been taking up until this point, but if you want to hang with the big kids, be on time. Early is on time.
If you’re even 5 minutes late to soundcheck or the gig (gasp!), you may lose that gig.
3. Provide Your Own Gear
Because most rehearsal spaces and smaller venues in LA provide backline, many guitarists, bassists and drummers expect they don’t need to provide their own gear, ever. Expect that when you get hired for a show, that you will have to show up with all the gear necessary for you to perform. If you’re a drummer, expect to provide a working drum kit and all accessories. If you’re a guitarist, expect to show up with your amp, pedal board, pics, uh, guitar and anything else you need. If you’re a bassist bring your full bass rig.
Communication is key. When you get called for the gig, one of the first questions should be “What should I bring?” Anything left up in the air is potential for a problem.
4. Bring Your A Game To Every Gig (Not Just The High Paying Ones)
A freelancer I just played a gig with told me that her fellow violinists discussed that they only prepare based on what they’re being paid. This is a sure way to never get hired again. Once again, you never know who else is on the gig or who is apart of the rehearsal process or the gig.
If the rate the gig pays insults you, don’t take the gig. Treat every gig like it’s the best paying gig you’ve ever had with your favorite artist on the planet. Whether the gig pays $50 or $5,000, bring your A game. Every time.
If you don’t think you can stomach the gig or don’t want to be pigeonholed in this genre (and think it could lead to other similar gigs), then politely pass on it.
5. Pay Attention To The Person Leading The Session at All Times
Yes, we all want to have a good time, but when you’re on the clock in the studio (recording or rehearsal), don’t joke around with the other players if the band leader / MD / producer is not in on the joke. Do not snap photos or film the other players for their Instagram. Do not do anything that will detract or derail what is going on like playing while people are talking/working things out.
6. Show Day is a Booked Out Day
If you have any other commitments on show day this must be communicated to your employer BEFORE taking the gig. Don’t expect to be able to show up 5 minutes before you hit the stage or leave 5 minutes after. Set times shift. And oftentimes bigger shows will have load in and sound check times that you are required to be at. Do not tell your employer the day before when you receive the call times, “oh sorry, I have a prior commitment and can’t make sound check.” Sure fire way to never get hired again.
7. Read the Instructional Email / Texts Like Your Career Depends on It (Because It Kind of Does)
I like to send one final email days before the first rehearsal laying out all expectations with all details. The email is typically long, but this is one email that should be read, not skimmed. You may need the parts memorized. You may be be allowed to use charts. Charts may be provided or you may be expected to bring your own. Rehearsal may actually be at the OTHER go-to spot in town. Sound check may be 3 hours before show time. Backline may be provided. Or not.
Every detail matters. Pay attention to the details. If you have any questions, ask.
8. Have a Good Attitude and Be a Good Hang
You may hate the music or think the gig pays below what you’re worth or you don’t know or care about the project. But, once again, you never know who else is going to be in the session or what other projects the MD is a part of and will need players for.
Being a good hang is actually, believe it or not, MORE of a factor whether you will be hired again.
9. Put Your Damn Phone Away
This mostly goes for younger musicians out there. It seems that every musician under 30 would rather become an Instagram star than a working musician. And every opportunity they get to snap selfies or record little videos of themselves showing off impressive riffs is more important than the gig they are currently on.
Before pulling your phone out to document anything, make sure to ask the person in charge if it’s ok. More times than not, it’ll be fine and possibly even encouraged to help promote the show. But, as a general rule of thumb, it’s a bad idea to film or shoot anything without explicit permission. Especially if you’re in a recording session. This should go without saying, but you’re working with proprietary (unreleased) content here. And you don’t own it. Be respectful of that. You may just get a “not cool, bro.” Or, you may get hit with a lawsuit.
I’ve been an actor on a bunch of TV shows and they have a VERY STRICT policy of keeping everything a secret until the episode airs. I was once on an episode of Mad Men and the show creator Matthew Weiner put the fear of god into everyone involved. If we shared even as much as the fact that we were even a part of the show before it aired he calmly stated “you will be dismissed.” And I’m pretty sure he didn’t just mean from the show… but the industry.
Sure, many gigs you’ll play will be for singer/songwriters and bands who would love the additional exposure on your Instagram, but you never know. Always ask first if it’s OK to take ANY photos or ANY videos during any of the process. The superstars will typically make you sign NDAs.
10. Dress The Part
Always ask what to wear to the gig. It matters. If the band leader just says “whatever,” it doesn’t actually mean whatever. It means look super hip. Fit the vibe and energy of the project.
11. Your Chops Don’t Matter
Every MD and band leader I’ve ever spoken to has communicated they’d MUCH prefer a player with less natural talent who shows up prepared, early, has a great attitude and makes life easy for everyone involved (and is an all around class-act, professional) than someone with incredible chops, but is a pain in the ass to work with.
The players that end up getting the most work and become legends in the industry are not just masters on their instrument, but follow these 11 rules and continue to bring their A game, for every gig. Every time. Do you want to be one of the greats? Or would you rather be a great Instagram musician who can’t get a paid gig?