Life is a journey and we are all at different points along the road. A professional musician starting their career should probably take every gig that comes their way. Why? Because you learn so much from every situation including the bad, low-paid ones. You will meet fellow musicians, learn about your strengths and weaknesses, gain practical gigging skills you never knew you needed and much more.
As your career progresses you may find yourself able to be slightly more selective about the gigs you take. You should be selective, otherwise, you may find yourself stuck in a rut. It’s your career and, even though it can be tough to find work, you should have at least some kind of a plan about what kind of player you want to be and what kind of work you want to do.
Over the years I’ve come up with a set of criteria I run every gig through. Sometimes you have to take work on as the bills never stop; but a far greater quality of life and a more creative musical experience can be had from thinking a little more about what you do, now and in the future.
The Gig Matrix
Let’s go through the categories:
- What’s the musical experience like? When you’re in the thick of making money just from music it can become a treadmill like anything else. The joy of being creative and artistic can sometimes be pushed to one side. If you have a gig that makes you musically excited then you tick this box. Maybe it takes you out of your comfort zone, offers an opportunity to learn a new skill (synth bass for instance or reading dots on a show) or play a style of music you’re not so familiar with. All these cases represent a chance to grow musically as well as satisfy your creative juices.
- Who’s on it? I don’t want this to sound too cold or calculating but who you know is important. Many great players find themselves at the right time in the right place around the right people. Expanding your musical network is something you should do Click To Tweet Say you have to choose between two gigs. One is well paid, local but with musicians you know really well. The other is further away, less well paid but has a couple of high-level players you don’t know. Take that one. The more great musicians you know and play with, the more you’ll be in the shop window leading to potentially more gigs.
- Where is it? Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts once said being in the band was “5 years of working and 20 years of hanging about.” I know what he means. Playing music for a living can take you around the world and that in itself is a great thing. You don’t always get to see the place but I’ve had gigs that have taken me to Moscow and Beijing where I got to see Red Square and walk on The Great Wall Of China with no one else around. They were fantastic life experiences I’m grateful for. Closer to home, if a gig calls for an early leave time and a late return then think about that carefully. If you divide the fee by the hours you are away from home, some gigs start to look less financially appealing. Remember time is the most important resource. Without wanting my cake and eating it, right now – with a young family – I want to spend as much time as possible at home so I may say no to gigs further afield. I’m fully aware that as musicians we signed up for this life but some gigs are a pain if they’re too far! Another thing to think of here is moving closer to the action. That’s why so many musicians choose to live where there is a bustling music scene.
- Is the money good? A professional musician earns money from their craft. It’s funny how so many people can’t get their heads around this fact. However, this doesn’t have to be the most important consideration provided the other boxes are ticked. You need to earn money but you also need to make sure you are developing as a musician as you progress through your career. You have to balance the need to earn money with your own musical and artistic development. If this is the only box that you can tick on this matrix then it’s a sign that you might want to look for a new gig. It’s really easy to plod along for years doing the same old work if it pays well. This is what leads to stagnation, resentment and bitterness.
If you can tick all the boxes then it’s a no-brainer, same if you find yourself with four crosses. The reality is that work opportunities offer a mixture of outcomes. You want to be aiming for at least 2 ticks per gig. If there are no ticks, politely decline unless you really need the money (or you’re just starting out – remember it’s worth doing as much as you can in that case).
It’s all about balance and it’s normal to find yourself in different phases in your career perhaps doing what you have to at the time to make ends meet.
It takes time to establish yourself as a self-employed working musician and there isn’t really any careers advice tailored just to you. There are more musicians going for the same work now than ever before so the best advice is to work hard on your craft. This could mean anything from working on your timing and technique, learning an additional instrument to acquiring the gear you need for the sound you want. The great thing about being a musician is that you can keep getting better and better the older you get. We have this advantage over, say, pro sports stars. The trick is to do whatever you can to keep the fuel burning so the passion drives you forward.
If you are constantly making small improvements and working on your music then there’s no reason why you can’t expect to get lots of well paid, satisfying work with great musicians in fantastic locations.
Are you a pro or aspiring muso? What are your thoughts on taking gigs? Comment below.