You’ve been playing a while and you’re pretty good and you figure you can make a living from your bass playing. With more and more (good) musicians coming up and probably fewer live/studio gigs than ever, how do you compete for, get and keep gigs?
If you want to earn a living as a full-time professional bass player then chances are you’ll have to diversify slightly. However, gigs of all kinds (party bands, playing and recording for artists, theatre work, workshops, touring etc.) can make up a large part of your income so it’s important to know how it works.
Learn Your Craft
I’ll start with the blindingly obvious. It is true that there are loads of bass players out there going for the same gigs. Why would anyone choose you if you haven’t put in the hours to get to a high level? Don’t worry, you don’t absolutely need to be the best there is but you should aim to be the best you can be. Don’t settle for anything other than reaching your full potential. You can always learn and pick up skills as you go.
Here are some specifics you should know:
- Groove. Again, starting with the most important thing; make sure you can play solidly, in time with a great feel. You’ll work if you can do this.
- Technique. Know how to play fingerstyle, slap, and plectrum. Get all your articulations down and work on your touch. Don’t ever have to worry about this side of your playing.
- Theory. Know your theory and how it applies to real-world musical situations. Knowing your modes and scales in all keys will also improve your ear. Having a good ear is key to making new or last-minute musical situations much easier to survive and thrive in.
- Fretboard Knowledge. Master your fretboard and know all notes all the way across the neck.
- Reading. It really, really helps to know how to read charts and scores.
- Repertoire. You need to know lots of tunes in lots of different styles. Sometimes you can not know lots of tunes and just read the chart or score if there is one. But, generally, memorise lots of music.
This is really the bare minimum.
PRO TIPS: Invest in your education. Get lessons, read magazines and books, go to gigs, buy courses.
This is a dirty word to many musicians. It’s easy to think that you’re great and the world will come to you but it just doesn’t work like that. The world doesn’t know you so you have to present yourself to it. Do that respectfully and with good grace and humour and you’ll find that networking isn’t some sleazy thing for business people. Go to jam nights, introduce yourself to the best local musicians, take gigs with new people, and use social media.
PRO TIP: Befriend the best drummers you can and hang on to their coattails.
Build A Brand
Social media is now part of your job so think of it that way. You never know who is watching so don’t post anything that shows you in a bad light. You are your brand. The way you look, act, play and present yourself is part of that so be aware of that and start showing the world what it is you do. If you want gigs as a sideman then don’t post loads of videos of you with that 6 string playing Bach (as amazing as 6 strings and Bach are, this is not what bands want).
PRO TIP: You don’t need to be on every social media platform and you don’t have to shout from the rooftops. Post regularly but tastefully. Also, buy and read this book.
Turn up on time, with well-maintained gear that sounds good, having prepared yourself for the gig. Be polite. You’ll be amazed at how many professionals don’t get every single one of these things right all the time. Band leaders prefer the player who is no trouble over the one who is a genius but leaves you guessing whether they’ll turn up. Do your job.
Look The Part
Image is an extremely important part of the music industry. For many years I dressed like someone who didn’t care because…I didn’t care. If you look at the Instagram page of top bass players you will notice that they all look very cool (as well as being able to play great). Don’t overlook this. Especially if you are playing on stage, it’s important to look right. If you’re auditioning for a band or artist do some research and dress accordingly. It’s wrong but you can even be not the greatest player and get a gig because you’ve got a great image and stage presence.
Work On Your Sound
Your sound is everything. Yes, it comes from your hands but it also comes from your gear. Listen to your favourite players and work out what they play and use. Try out loads of combinations of basses, strings, and amps and see what works for you. Put together a pedalboard so you can cover different sounds fo different genres. Listen to the greatest players like Pino Palladino and Tony Levin and you will notice that their tone is to die for.
PRO TIP: Befriend the staff at your local music shop. Forums are great but there are too many voices and too many conflicting camps and opinions. Try for yourself.
It’s The Music Business
Many musicians forget the second word in Music Business. You should treat it the same way that a pro sportsperson or anyone in business would do. Have a plan, talk to others about your career, do something every day to improve yourself or to get work.
PRO TIP: Study the business. Ask older pros, read books and articles and educate yourself.
Be A Lifelong Learner
Learn how to learn. A career just in music is a tough thing to maintain and you’ll have to follow the changing climate. This means you’ll need to constantly pick up new skills. This is ultimately a privilege. Many people in normal or comfortable jobs get bored, are unstimulated and untested. You will be tested as a musician which is what all humans really need.
If you just play bass; learn the guitar and some keys or double bass and background vocals. Learn to write (words and music), produce, engineer. These are all skills that are useful on gigs.
Playing bass full time is hard and you need to stick at it. Once you establish yourself and get a gig, it’s one of the most rewarding things you can do. Work hard, keep learning and get yourself out there. Good luck!