One of the things I wondered when I got to Nashville after college was “how in the world do you get a gig?” I spent weeks e-mailing everyone that had a public e-mail listed online. I responded to every Craigslist “music community” post looking for a guitarist or bassist. I made a website and listed all of my accomplishments (including all of the recording software I was proficient with). I even set up daily meetings at Starbucks with people I would run into at Guitar Center or at church.
It took about 3 months to realize that I was living a life that wasn’t sustainable. Not just in the sense that I was running myself ragged, but also in the sense that I was constantly in a state of stress. I got a lot of chances to play through that season of “hustle”, but they were also pretty poorly paying gigs and weren’t really moving me to a place I wanted to be in my career as a musician. I decided that something had to change.
One of the first changes I made was to make community a priority. I felt so isolated even though I was meeting a lot of people. Almost immediately after I started being intentional to build into particular friendships I found that I was feeling a lot better about life as a whole. I have a tendency to overachieve, but my friends kept me rooted in the fact that I didn’t need to have it all together to be worthy of friendship.
With community as the first change, I decided to start only playing music that I believed in. I know that sounds idealistic, counter-intuitive, and SO millennial of me, but I think it’s something that shaped my career more than anything else. When I wasn’t taking just any gig, I could concentrate on playing music that I really thought meant something. Worship music isn’t always the most creative, but I honestly loved watching how people were truly impacted by it. I figured that even if I didn’t write, or to be honest, even enjoy the music, I could get behind the message and how it affected people (including myself.)
The last thing that I did that really made a huge difference was consolidating my “resume”. I play a number of instruments fairly well, and I like recording/producing music, and I also dabble in graphic design, web design, marketing, consulting, and I have a business Master’s degree and… etc. etc. etc. I found that while people were impressed with me as a person, they wouldn’t hire me because they didn’t know what I did well and what I just dabbled in. I decided to change my twitter and instagram bios to “I’m a professional musician in Nashville and I play bass for (insert your name here)”. I made a website called “jesseplaysbass.com” and just started telling people I played bass for a living. This was one of the most impactful changes on my career because people would have me in their minds whenever they were looking for a bass player. Sure I might have left a few guitar gigs on the table, but it’s well worth the investment to be one of the first people to come to mind when people think “bass player”.
So… where does this leave you? How do you find gigs? Here are a few practical steps to pair with my experience from above.
1) Getting gigs and touring isn’t a magical process that you suddenly find yourself in.
Finding a gig looks a lot like being plugged into a community of people and playing with them as they build their careers. Certainly you can find auditions and open calls to play with artists, but most likely you’ll find your best gigs (and even a lot of auditions!) through the friend group you’re in. Find a group of friends, root for their success even if it doesn’t include you, and make yourself available to them if they’re in need. Run their merch table if they don’t need a player just yet. Just make sure you don’t make friends just to use them for music. That’s super lame and won’t get you anywhere.
2) Treat every opportunity like it’s playing for U2 in a huge arena.
I guarantee you if U2 were to ask you to play, there would be no song they’ve done left uncharted and practiced a thousand times. You would step into that first rehearsal ready to play every lick they’ve ever recorded. While playing for a 50 students at a youth worship night might not be as glamorous, come just as prepared as you would for much bigger opportunities. This does 2 things: shows honor to the person asking you to play and sets you apart from other people. I truly believe that the separation of good to great musicians is in the preparation. Set up each gig like it’s a big deal. You’ll get callbacks when you’re the one people are looking to for the right chords in rehearsal.
3) Make yourself available and be diligent to grow your craft.
These seem like two different things, but they go hand in hand. When opportunity comes, you better be good at your craft or you won’t get asked back next time. It’s about WAY more than just playing, but an artist won’t trust their reputation with you as a player if you don’t come through. One way to do this is to set up a practice routine and take videos or pictures each time you practice to put online. Don’t just do it for “the gram”, but legitimately practice and show others how you’re improving and growing your craft. So many professional musicians don’t grow because they’ve reached a stage of “good enough” to coast. Set yourself apart in practice and people will know they can count on you.
4) Be a good person to be around.
People will always hire the guy that’s a good hang. You don’t have to be a party person or a super witty guy to be a good hang. If you care about people, genuinely want everyone in the band to succeed, and are willing to work hard you will be a great person to be around. 95% of touring is off-stage. Whether traveling, waiting in green rooms, loading in/out, etc. most of your time spent with others will be off-stage. That’s a huge factor in why certain people get gigs and keep them!
All in all, everyone’s path is different, but these are some ways to find gigs and have gigs find you. And with that, U2 just came on inside of the Einstein Bagel’s shop I’m typing this up in. I’m gonna go stop typing now and listen to this goodness. Thanks for reading. :)