For all the musicians out there in the world wondering how they can take their career to the next level, I asked my friend Martin Motnik to write about his experience.
He took the time to write out this amazing list of tips and tricks that helped him succeed in his pursuit.
Making A Career As A Musician Making music is a wonderful passion, and a great way to express yourself. But what if you want to earn a living making music? In that case, you have to treat it like a job. No worries, you can still have fun, and I think it’s the funnest in the world. But like in every job there are certain skills and habits you need to develop in order to be able to get compensated for the work you provide.
I always wanted to make a career as a session bass player, or as they also call it a "hired gun", and over the years I was able to perform and record with some of the best musicians in the world who have been involved with some of the biggest names in music (from Elvis Presley and Elton John to AC/DC and the Scorpions). Also, recently I was chosen to be the new bass player for German heavy metal pioneers ACCEPT.
While everyone’s approach might be different, I have identified the following five traits to be very beneficial in my efforts to get hired for gigs, and then to get hired back (an indicator that you actually did a satisfying job):
1. Know Your Stuff
This should go without saying, but when you want to play with/for other musicians you need to know the material. If you get the music before the session, make sure you prepare it to the point that you can confidently perform it. If it’s a situation where the music will be provided on the spot (like a studio session), practice your reading skills and make sure they’re up to par. By the way, rehearsals are not meant to be used for learning songs but they are used to ensure that the ensemble/band sounds good together. You need to know your part beforehand.
Also, don’t just know the music but also know your gear. Be familiar with your instrument(s) and equipment, so if a certain sound is requested you’ll be able find it quickly. If you have a new gadget (a new keyboard, new effect pedals, etc.) don’t be too excited to bring it to a session without having spent sufficient time with it so you know your way around it. As in almost every job, time is money, and you don’t want to be the one others have to wait for.
2. Be Reliable. To be professional means to be reliable. That means that every aspect of your job should be as dependable as humanly possible.
First of all: Be on time. Once again: Be! On! Time! Nothing ruins a first impression faster than not being present at the time you’ve been booked for. Give yourself enough time when you leave, plan for traffic, surprise detours, or unfamiliar destinations. Ask if it’s ok to show up early (you might get in the way if you’re there too soon). If not sit in your car in close proximity, or find a coffee shop in the area and then show up with a couple of minutes to spare.
You also need fully functioning instruments and accessories (effects, amplifiers, etc., whichever accessories your specific instrument requires) which can produce the sound that is desired. You don't have to have the most expensive gear, but it has to enable you to perform on a professional level, meaning it should produce high-quality sound and should be free of faults. So before every job, make sure your gear is in tip-top shape, and make sure you maintain it properly. Bring spare strings, sticks, reeds, etc., depending on your instrument.
Also, if you’re required to arrive at your place of performance on your own, make sure your means of transportation is reliable. It makes you look very unprofessional if everyone’s waiting on you at a rehearsal or even worse a gig, and you've broken down at the side of the road and you have to call and announce you’ll be late or you won’t be able to make it. A reliable car is a big expense, but it’s a necessity to be able to perform your job properly.
Speaking of calling, be as communicative as reasonably possible. You don’t have to announce every step of your way to your client, but be proactive in your communication. Definitely respond to messages in a timely manner (these days minutes can make a difference whether you get a job or not), and make sure your phone is always charged. A power bank is a smart investment since long days on the job can easily drain your phone’s battery.
3. Find Out What The Artist Wants.
In a hired gun situation you are usually less of an artist and more of a service provider. Your client is usually the creative leader and will expect you to perform in a manner that serves the final product (whether it's a recording, a live performance, a video shoot, a clinic, etc.). In order to be prepared, it's helpful to ask your client questions. Examples in recording situations could be: What sound(s) are you going for? Do you have any sort of reference material? At live shows, it could be: What gear do I need? Are we using amps or in-ears? What’s the dress code? You might think your questions might make you seem ignorant, but your client will appreciate you taking the initiative to be well-prepared.
However, sometimes your client will not be completely sure of what to ask for. In that case, your experience on your particular instrument comes into play. Be prepared to offer options, such as different sounds or different ways of playing. But remember that your client is the ultimate decision-maker, so don’t insist on doing it your way. Remember, he who pays the piper calls the tune.
4. Maintain Good Relationships.
Making music is the projection of emotion through melodies and sounds. Therefore, making music is a very emotional thing and requires people to vibe not just on a mental but also an emotional level. Getting along is a big part in getting hired and getting hired back, so it’s important to develop and maintain good relationships with your clients. Word of mouth spreads quickly, and your reputation of being someone people get along with will help you tremendously (imagine being stuck on a tour bus for weeks with someone you can’t stand). Also, because music is such an emotional thing, sometimes collaborations don’t work out. Don’t take those things personally and don’t burn bridges. You never know when someone who didn’t call you back might need you in the future or refer you to someone else. In times of social media, it’s easy to fire off a nasty post about someone you think who’s wronged you. Hold off! It will almost always come back to haunt you. Be the bigger person, and if you’ve really been wronged, rely on the fact that Karma will do the dirty work for you.
In that context, be friendly, but don’t get taken advantage of. Be helpful when you can and give others a hand (such as offering to help carrying others’ equipment if you’re done with your own stuff). It will make you stand out. But if you’ve really been screwed over (a client hasn’t paid you is the prime example) don’t get fooled twice. Sometimes the best thing is to let it go and walk away. But inform yourself about legal ways to make it right if you get wronged. Again, you’re in a business, so learn the rules and laws that apply.
In general, be confident but be humble. People respect experts, and you’re an expert on your instrument. So be proud of your skills and accomplishments. However, nobody is perfect, and you’ll never be so good that you cannot learn something new. Carry yourself with the knowledge that you have what it takes to succeed while being open for suggestions. Listen more than you talk. There’s a reason you have two ears but only one mouth.
5. Be Open-Minded And Keep A Positive Outlook. The music business is an ever-changing field and requires permanent adaptation. What used to work in the past might not work in the future, and in order to survive and to thrive you have to observe the changes. Especially with ever-evolving technologies it can be hard to keep up what’s working and what is not (anymore). Stay informed, keep reading various blogs (as you're doing right now – good job!), and keep adapting the tools that have proven to be useful.
Also, there might be moments when times are a bit rough. A tour might fall through, a bandleader might replace you with someone else, or a car repair rips a major hole in your funds. Look at the big picture and assess your accomplishments. If the past has been good to you, chances are good that you will continue to succeed. Financial fluctuation is a common occurrence in the music business, which is why it’s important to save money when you can. If you have a good run, put some of that cash away for bad times. That way you can stay focused on your career and get through slow times until the jobs pick up again. Stay positive! Use that time for your own creativity. After all, you’re an artist yourself. Now is the time to shine yourself with some original music.