Business - Part Two

In Part One of this topic on Business, we covered some of what you can expect to face in the way of obstacles. We also covered one of the biggest problems for musicians and artists, the fact that most of us just don't really understand, let alone implement, good business practices in our work.

What I'll offer here is a guideline, based on personal and anecdotal experience. It isn't hard and fast, and doesn't always work exactly as described. But one thing is clear: you better be ready to work hard, sacrifice "fun in the sun" to some degree, willing to fire players, be hired as a sideman (maybe being required to join the Musician's Union), join a band that actually has a shot, but which is not presently interested in your songs or whatever else you have to do to begin to earn a living. You will have to commit to eating, sleeping and breathing music. This may also mean going without a girl/boy friend, living on the cheap, pinching pennies, spending only what you must to survive, living with the band or with room mates who understand you are a musician and may occasionally make loud noises (when you are doing personal practice time).

Yes, this piece is rather long - but it is very important information here. If you want to have a career as an artist or musician, you need to know this stuff.

Oh, and one more thing: stop taking drugs, even just on weekends, if you're a recreational user - or worse - addicted. Sorry, but drugs have absolutely no place in your life if you want to be the most creative person possible. Your life will be better without them anyway. When I quit, my life improved very dramatically within a few months. And if you want to be successful, too, then quitting drugs is an easy decision. Besides, what's more important, the drugs or your career? Yeah, think about that one for a minute. And while it may be difficult, try to work with musicians and bands that have a similar philosophy.

I don't much care what people do on their own time, but when their habits begin to affect my work and my career, then I do indeed get to have a say. I can choose to continue without saying anything and take my chances, or I can speak to the leader of the band and express my concern that drug usage before and during band time (rehearsals and gigs) is dangerous to our work. What if these people get busted when they step outside for a "smoke". We're screwed and they've messed with my career and potentially hurt my reputation as a reliable and dependable musician. If the band leader doesn't care, then you do have a responsibility to your career path. You should tender your two week notice and start looking for a better gig. I don't work that way and neither should you.

You have to maximize your potential. Anything that impedes your abilities, your hope for success, your progress, your creativity, cannot be allowed to be a part of your life. Like I said, leaving drugs in your past is an easy decision. And I don't care how good that band is; if they are endangering your career, your success or any other aspect of your progress, leave. You may be taking a step or two backward in the short run, but if you are in this business to succeed - and remember, it is your business and should be treated as such - then setback are to be expected and you should be prepared for them.

So here we go.

Teach your instrument. It's a good way to earn money. Good teachers are hard to find.

To teach is a learned art. And it also requires you to not only know what you're doing, but to be able to explain how to do it to someone who has no idea where to start or how to do anything. It took me a number of years to learn how to teach effectively. If you are a student of the instrument, learn how to teach from your own teacher, then emulate that as your starting place.

I have had numerous students come to me from other teachers, even so-called "academy" places, who had terrible experiences with these people. Looking over the material they brought showed me how disorganized and scattered most teachers are. You should strive to avoid this practice. Create or find clear and well presented material for your students. Then teach it. And, yes, it is okay to use someone else's method as your guide. Eventually, you'll develop some of your own lessons. I myself have developed beginning lessons, some modal lessons, scale lessons, arpeggio lessons, and some chord theory lessons. For most everything else, I use materials I've gathered for the last twenty or so years, some of which came from students I've had.

Charge a reasonable rate. If you've been playing for twenty years, a buck a year is a good starting place. However, the economics of your region will dictate what is reasonable. In one town I charged $25.00 per hour - never teach half hours unless requested by the student, it just isn't enough time. In another town I charged $30.00 per hour, and didn't raise my rates for five years. A reasonable rate shows that you are serious, but not greedy. Some teachers charge a lot more per hour. Maybe they're worth it, but the average person who wants to learn, usually in high school or early adulthood, is not rich. Charging a hundred bucks and more per hour, even for webcam based lessons, is just outrageous. Unless you are a major figure in the music world, rates like this are over-inflated and unrealistic.

My philosophy is that I am more interested in sharing my knowledge with people, encouraging them to learn, than charging what I might actually be worth. Keeping my rates down around 50 bucks these days is a choice. You'll attract more people. And that's the point, to have enough students to sustain you if you're not gigging all the time. If I need to leave for a week or two, my students are loyal because I've demonstrated I am a good teacher (compared to most) and they'll support my work. It also gives them more time to work on the materials I've given them!

Yes, your time is valuable. Of course it is. But some perspective is necessary here. If you price yourself out of the marketplace in your area, if you are not a well known local, regional or budding national celebrity - and even if you are - remember, there are a whole lot of capable people who are charging far less than you. Yes, you may be a better teacher in most ways, but most people don't know what a "good" teacher is like for an instrument they are trying to learn. They have no benchmark to compare, unless they have tried a number of teachers and then picked the one that works best for them.

And this is an important thing to remember: compatibility between teacher and student is paramount to learning. If someone is not sure, I recommend they give a few other teachers a try. I'm not "selfish". I am confident in my abilities. I openly give them the facts, that this compatibility factor is important. I'm more interested in helping them learn to play than I am in being the one to teach them. This openness has resulted in people coming back to me, not just because my methods are focused and directed, nor that I have recommendations or anything other than that they have found other teachers may be nice people, but they just aren't "right". Sometimes I'm not the "right" teacher, and that's okay. So I've given more than my share of "one off" lessons to people looking for the right teacher. If things don't work out with the teacher they did choose, hopefully they'll come back to me because I was open, friendly, supportive and demonstrated a passion for music that impressed them.

Oh, and be sure they do the bulk of the actual playing during a lessons. You are their guide. They aren't there to lisen to stories or watch you "perform". If you want to lose students, just behave like a "rock star". Sometimes "war stories" are relevant, but mostly they waste time. Some days I don't even touch the instrument during a lesson. The students are doing all the playing. I'm helping them with fingering, positioning and other essential stuff, even reading notation. If they don't "do" the work in the lesson so they will remember it when they go home, you haven't done your job, the job they're paying you good money to do. Got it? Good!

Make sure they actually learn something new with each lesson. It doesn't have to be a huge epiphany, it just has to be something good, something useful. Even small things will make a big impression. I spent a whole lesson with one student working on thumb position behind the neck on their bass, helping them understand the importance of placement and pivoting to make stretches. They were so happy to have learned that the stretches they couldn't do when they walked in were not impossible. At the end of that lesson, they left thrilled to get home and start using this newly understood technique. That's when I know I've done a good job and earned my keep.

Become a Studio Musician. You don't have to be phenomenal to do studio work. You just have to be able to follow direction, read music notation and, more simply, create and/or understand a basic "Nashville Style" chart, and know the style you're being asked to play well enough to sound "authentic".

Tommy Tedesco, well known studio musician (you've heard him even though you don't know it), tells one story of how he faked his way through one particular session when asked to play in a "classical" style. The reason he was able to make it work is because, while he couldn't actually play Classical style guitar, he could fake it well enough to sound Classical... or Flamenco. The part, fortunately, wasn't composed. He was asked to make something up on the spot, which made it even easier for him to "wing it". The producer loved it and they kept the first pass.

Studio rates vary, depending upon demand for your services and what a client is able to pay. First Call players command the highest rates; Second Call are next, and Third Call are at the bottom of the scale. You have to make a decision about the value of experience over income. Oftentimes it is wise to do a session for less money because the experience (and addition to your resume) is of greater value. More time in the studio as a session player, the more experience you gain, and a reputation grows if you're good, co operative, accomodating and capable of hitting the part in two or three takes (which requires time to learn how to do with music you just sat down with for the first time 20 minutes before).

So the rule is simple: if you're just getting started in studio work, never turn down a job - ever. You need the time in the studio, you need the experience. And, as mentioned above, you need to build a reputation as a reliable, capable and dependable player. You have to demonstrate you can nail your part in no more than two or three takes. Yes, you'll screw up, lose jobs, and worse. But if you generally deliver, you will overcome all that stuff and eventually get to the Second Call list. And by continuing your education and sight reading skills, developing the ability to "play any style" required, or at least "sounding" like you know the style in a way that is authentic enough to convince a producer, and whatever else you need, you'll make it to First Call status.

One more thing. The equipment you'll need for studio work is pretty extensive. Your primary amp rig has to be everything for every need. You will need a variety of different kinds of guitars, from acoustic to hollow body electric and everything in between. Tommy Tedesco had a huge variety of instruments, many ethnic, like an oud, ukeleles, guitarron and beyond - and he brought most everything to every session, unless it was a very specific kind of session that required only certain kinds of equipment. Read his book, "Anatomy of A Guitar Player" for an idea what you should know. Oh, by the way... no tablature, all notation.

A word of caution, though: A few well chosen guitars, such as one Stratocaster, a Telecaster, a Gibson of some stripe (LP, 335 or SG), will be enough for most of the music you'll be playing. Later, a big Jazz box and some custom configured stuff might do well to have, too. A good two channel amp will cover virtually everything you will need. One channel for clean, the other channel for lead lines. And with a few well chosen pedals, you will have every combination of sounds you might need for 90% of your sessions. So you can start on the cheap, so to speak, with well chosen gear that you learn how to use in every way possible. Learn everything your small amount of gear can do - everything. Learn how versatile just a few tools can become by being creative with them. You don't need 20 grand worth of gear to get a million dollar sound. You just need to know how to really use the gear you do have.

Work as a Hired Gun: This is probably the easiest gig you can get in many ways.

You are hired to play in a musical situation, either for one night or for the duration of a tour and everything in between. You will not have any say in what the material is, your hours, expenses (sometimes comp'd, like hotel and travel), or other factors. You are being hired to do a very specific job. Sometimes after you're hired, you will be asked to do something more, perhaps even sing backup if necessary. Basically, if you accept the terms of the job, and have negotiated an acceptable salary, just do whatever else is asked of you as long as it is within reason and your ability to accomplish well. If you do not sing, tell them up front at your audition. Then, do not sing a note during the length of the contract.

I have had great fun and success as a Hired Gun. I have also had nightmare experiences. You take the good with the bad. Since I am a man of my word, when I sign a contract, I do the job until the contract is expired. If I am asked to continue, it is then I make the decision to stay on or move on. A good gig can turn into a very lucrative contract. If you are offered an extension, give yourself a raise - a reasonable increase in salary - as a condition to continue. For example, if you are working for 500.00 a week, but pay for your own rooms, ask for hotels to be comp'd or for enough money to compensate, like an additional 250 bucks a week. That pans out to around 30 some bucks a night for a room. Yeah, less than the 50 it will cost you for a cheap place, but at least you'll get some of that expense offset by the increase.

However, the band may be operating on a very tight budget and can't give you but a little bit, maybe a hundred more a week. That's when you have to look at the greater potential the gig might hold. Or that it just isn't worth it because the band is not playing enough "good" gigs in large cities where you can get some personal fan base going. All that stuff may or may not be important. For me, sometimes the steady gig is better than the personal "fan base" building. It depends on the economy, my standing in the music community - not all music communities are the same. LA is filled with good players, so is Nashville. You have less bargaining power in saturated markets. But if you got the gig, and it's working for you, and you get along with the band and like the music... stay put if that suits your purposes in the long run.

Remember this fact: if you have aspirations for more, to record an album of original music, you can still do that - on your own time when the band is not playing. With today's modern compact "studio in a box/computer" software and some small half rack stuff, you can take it with you and use modeling technology (Line 6, Amp Farm or other similar stuff) to lay down tracks during down time between performances or in your hotel room after hours. You can add drums and maybe vocals later or in a quiet space somewhere. You can hire the band's drummer to lay down some scratch drums on stage at your gig site during the day. You have time, be patient and be focused. The "day gig" of playing as a hired gun is serving a deeper purpose, right? It's what I did for a number of years. I worked for other people and then during my time I worked on my stuff. There isn't much time for anything else, but then, you want that career to have legs and longevity, right?

I've known a number of musicians who worked like this. A bass player I worked with had aspirations for more, for a real future as a Jazz musician. During the day, in his room he practiced with Jazz charts, learning the catalogue of tunes every Jazz player needs to know. A keyboard player I met in one town would go to the local church during the day and compose on their piano. He was between bands and didn't have his gear with him in the town we were in. But the church was kind enough to let him in for a couple hours a few days a week. And so it goes. I know many musicians who keep pushing ahead, even though they may not be in a band or playing the kind of music they prefer. They make time for what matters most.

Okay, in the third and final installment, we will continue with our topic of income generation and more. So stay tuned.