The Real Gig: A Musician's Guide to the Universe
**Guest Post by Bret Alexander of The Badlees and Saturation Acres.
"I’ve been a vocational musician for almost 30 years. I’ve played in bar bands, had record deals, worked at and ran recording studios, wrote hundreds of songs, produced a ton of my own projects, and engineered and produced the projects of countless others.
This is an incredibly difficult business to make any sort of sustainable living at for that long, so inevitably people ask me what advice I would have for anyone who wants to do the same.
Opinions are certainly like assholes, but I’ll give you my take on that. Do with it what you will.
I’ll start by laying out one of my favorite quotes ever made by a musician.
BB King: “ Being in the music business is like being in a horse race. Every once in while, someone notices you are running. But you’ve been running the whole time.”
Now B.B. did his first gig before almost all of us were born. He did his last gig at the age of 89. I believe that makes him an expert witness on the subject. I’ve used that quote several times before, but it always bears repeating.
To rephrase B.B.’s quote another way, I’d say “No matter what, keep working. Because some things are just out of your control.”
I remember being 24 years old and thinking that if I didn’t have a record deal by the time I was 28…..well then I was going to have to quit playing. That’s laughable to me now, but it was a very real concern at the time.
Truth is…. if you suck, you’re lazy, and you’re delusional, then most likely you are not going to see the success you want. If you are talented, disciplined, and intelligent…. You might STILL never see the success you envision. If you DO get to your goal, I guarantee you it is going to take a lot longer than you want it to…. And that place is going to look nothing like what you had in your head.
American Idol, America’s Got Talent, etc, etc, . They are selling you a unicorn. It just doesn’t happen that way otherwise. I’m more interested in what the loser unicorns do when they go home to their respective pastures and look at their empty calendars. Now that is a show I would find inspiring.
Personally, I would rather watch Cinderella Man than The Kardashians.
Anyway, so what do you do? While you are running, you are just going to have to find your peace in some other way.
You can’t control IF someone is going to like what you do. You can’t control WHY they like it….. if they do. You can’t control if your fellow musicians and bandmates will share your vision for the music you are making . (*Unless you have a shit ton of money, then it’s pretty easy to get musicians to miraculously agree with anything. Yea, they are a courageous bunch at times.)
You can buy your way up a radio chart and put yourself in the public eye. But still, this is no guarantee of success (I learned this one from watching major labels operate).
So where does this leave the hero of this story? I think his only recourse is to spend all his(or her) energies “finding his voice”. You always hear great artists talk about that. I’m not talking about singing. By “finding his voice” I mean his point of view, his signature, his way of playing that will be recognizable in 10 seconds to the guy surfing around a radio dial. His special way of saying things that make someone turn to his music when they need to feel better. His vibe that will make his fans argue vehemently that he is more badass that the drivel that everyone else listens to.
His verse in his key in the big ole song of life.
Stevie Wonder knew what the hell he was talking about.
Masters of branding say that if you can’t describe your product in a sentence or two, you are screwed. I believe music is the same way. I’m not talking about making millions of dollars….. I’m talking about making a connection with someone. It’s got to be focused to connect. Some musicians just want to cram too much shit together in the name of being creative. Or in the name of democracy.
The best artists make good records and bad records. That’s inevitable. They push forward and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But their voice remains the same.
My wife and I have a saying in our house, “Shitty Metallica is better than no Metallica”. Basically, a lesser version of something awesome is better than not having it at all.
Suck is preferable to starvation.
If your “voice” is honest and righteous, your fans will give you that leeway.
You’ve heard the saying “Take care of the little things and the big things will take care of themselves”. I’d rephrase that to “Take care of the little things because the big things aren’t up to you”.
I don’t mean that to sound pessimistic. I believe in cause and effect first….. and luck second.
But truth is sometimes all you can do is work as hard as you can and hang on.
Take care of the little things. Groove, timing, tuning, emotion, arrangement. Question your good songs and finish your bad ones anyway. Play shitty gigs as well as the fun ones. Play to people who care and to people who don’t.
Test things out. Eventually you will hit on something that works for you. Your batting average will go up. You will be able to throw less punches with more impact. This is a subtlety that is lost on most people. But eventually you will start to hone in on “your voice”. Then everything you create will come from that center.
At that point, it won’t matter whether you are playing a sports bar or a stadium. The philosophy will be the same. It will be automatic. You have learned to the point of forgetting.
Like driving down a highway 100 miles and never noticing the lines on the road. You never acknowledge them consciously, but they are always there keeping you on track.
Your brain has learned to the point of forgetting.
It’s not an easy trip, but finding that voice is your Holy Grail. You are going to lose sleep. You are going to go broke. You are going to be called a fraud. You are going to leave friends behind. But it’s worth it. It’s your membership card. It doesn’t matter what level of success you are at. Any decent artist worth his salt will recognize you are in the club.
How many people ever read a book because of the author's amazing command of the English language? Not many. It's not about technical prowess. They want to feel something. When I am feeling down, I listen to Van Morrison or maybe Death Cab For Cutie. When will people turn to your work? If you aren't feeling it they won't either. If you aren't willing to give it up they won't take it.
People say, “Play from the heart” or “write from the heart”. Well, the heart has some shitty social skills. It has a tough time explaining itself. Your voice is the translator. It will make the connection with the people out there that can’t explain themselves either. And they will love your music for it.
Your voice will reward you in ways you can’t imagine.
And every once in a while, someone will notice as you run by.
Till next time…"
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Enjoy more of Bret's writings via Bret Alexander Music.