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Thanks to all that have been following this series...in this final installment,
I'd like to do two things; first, I'd like to take a look at some of the
many miscellaneous gigs I've done over the years, gigs that may exist in
many cities, but that most guitarists are unaware of, as well as simply
unusual jobs that have popped up from time to time. Then, I'd like to
take a look at a subject often overlooked in most music writing, the
human factor; namely, the many situations that can arise between people
that can have an effect (positive or negative) on your ability to cop
gigs. The human ego can be a nasty tool, and believe me, it is something
that any good freelancer needs to be aware of. More in a moment;
We've talked about the casual scene, shows, symphony gigs, and numerous other ways to hustle and survive. However, looking back on the last 20 years, I find I have played a zillion gigs that may be hard to categorize, gigs that can have a substantial effect on one's income, but also, gigs that many folks aren't even aware of. These are in no particular order, but listen up...there's money to be made here. First, let's talk about teaching.
OK, lots of folks are aware of teaching, to be sure, but I started with it because it is a great way to have some sort of steady income, and, depending on one's disposition, it can add up to a lot of cash. I have many musician friends who rely on teaching for varying amounts of their income, and I myself have been doing it for about 15 years, to a greater or lesser degree. How to get started? First, if one has a music degree, a school gig is quite possible. I know many guys who teach at colleges or elementary/high schools, and it is steady work. Yes, it is a "job," so to speak, but depending on one's need for stability, this can be an excellent way to pay the bills. You must have the temperament to deal with the politics/headaches of being part of an academic institution, but this may not be a problem, depending on your personality.
If you don't have a degree, it's hustling time, but there are several options. One is to become affiliated with a music store on a freelance basis. Most large music stores have teachers, so go check them out, and see what they need. You'll often start slow, but can develop a lot of students with persistence. Not as formal as a school, this approach can still add up quite well financially. Also, the store may well provide you with students from the customers that come there, looking for lessons. And believe me, if they do, that's an enormous headache out of the way. If you don't hook up with a store, you can teach out of your home, or go to the student's home as well. The hard part about this approach is, you have to dig up your own students, for the most part, set the schedules, and make sure you get paid..and, more importantly, make sure the students are consistant in their lesson schedules. If, for example, they cancel the day before a lesson, there goes the money. I know folks teaching out of their homes who are doing quite well, but some of them had a large following at a music school before they split off.
In my case, I started teaching at home, and only made sporadic income. Then, about 12 years ago, I got called to do some sub teaching at a local folk school for a couple of weeks. Well, the weeks turned into 12 years, and it has been a great gig, overall. I started out with a few students, and as the years went on, I built up a following, added more days (as I cut back on playing clubs), and have come to depend on teaching as a regular part of my income. I am fortunate, because the school gets the students, does all the business, and even pays you if they don't give 24 hours notice when cancelling. I am usually booked up, and often have a waiting list. I highly recommend teaching...there's money to be made, but it also makes you a better player, cause you can't teach it if you don't know it yourself. It really helps one to get their intellectual chops together. And, there's always a zillion folks wanting to play guitar.
Another category of overlooked jobs are school gigs. There are organizations, for example, that send artists (not just musicians) into the schools to do workshops or residencies, and these can also pay well, and they don't get in the way of any clubwork you do. In Denver, there's an arts organization called Young Audiences which sends many artists into schools on a regular basis. If you do a workshop, for example, you may simply do a presentation about your specialty, playing for the kids and answering questions. A residency, on the other hand, can last for weeks or months, and be a serious source of income. In this case, you go to the school pretty much every day, all day, and spend time with the kids, composing and doing your thing part of the time, and helping the students work on projects the rest of the time. Each year, Young Audiences holds auditions, where you fill out an application, chat with their directors, and see if you are right for the job. I know lots of folks who have done this over the years, and I am sure that most large cities have these types of groups. Do some research, and see if it's right for you.
If you are in the Union, MPTF gigs are often available. This stands for Musicians Performance Trust Fund. Whenever there is a Union recording sesion, a teensy amount of money from the session is put into a national fund, which is allocated to locals around the country (and, I don't know the mechanics of this). This can add up to a pretty good chunk of cash; the Union then looks for sponsors, say a local downtown business association, to put up matching funds for a performance, and presto, instant gig. For example, in the suburbs of Denver, the various cities, during the summer, have show wagons in a park, where they put on musical performances, sponsored by the Union, and using MPTF funds. I haven't done a lot of these lately, but at one time, the Union sponsored my band to do a series in the schools on the history of rock and roll. It was a cool gig, and went on for numerous performances. I still get occasional calls for these, and you usually wind up playing with some very good players.
Playing original music is dear to my heart, as I am sure it is to many of us, and I have, indeed, managed to play my own stuff over the years, although not as much as I would like. There are myriad ways to accomplish this, of course. In my case, I have a good friend named Alex Lemski, who runs a non profit organization called Creative Music Works. Alex gets funding from grant money (another source of income, if you are into doing it), and uses this money to put on shows. The good thing about this is, there's no pressure to fill a club, or bring in a lot of folks. In fact, since Alex actively looks for the way out folks, he knows the audience will often be small...but, the gig is financed by the grant, which means the musicians get paid, the hall rental is covered, and you can play exactly what you want. A bonus on these gigs is often some decent press coverage, which can be quite elusive to those who play on the fringe.
Another option for those who want to do an original show is, simply, do it yourself. I have done an annual Microtonal concert for six years (Microstock), and until this last one (which Alex graciously took over), I did it myself. Of course, the problem here is, you often wind up spending money, and making none, which isn't much fun...but, sometimes there's no other way to present your art, especially if it's way non commercial. But, I know there's other folks out there like Alex...in Albuquerque, there's Tom Guralnick, who has a space called the Outpost, and he has brought in many fine avant garde folks over the years. The trick is to look around, and see what's in your city...I believe most large cities have such organizations, and if you hook up with one, there's gigs to be had.
I mentioned grants...basically, a grant is free money for artists, given by the city, state, federal govt, or corporations or foundations. Actually, there's a lot of this going on, and many dance and theatre groups depend on this money to survive. I won a grant in 1999 from the Colorado Council on the Arts ($4000.00), and I know lots of folks who have done the same..comes in handy. It's simple...you must first know where the money is being funded from, and then find out the rules for applying. A grant application can often be long and tedious, and there are actually professional grant writers who can be hired to do it for you. But, as Alex told me, once you get known by a funding organization, you can often get repeat funding. I see certain groups here in Colorado, such as the Symphony and various theatrical groups, consistently getting money...it can be done. Be aware, though, guys like George Bush and crew hate to give money to artists, and look for ways to cut off funding. Better get on it soon, before they make all of us start digging oil wells in West Texas.
OK, there's a few avenues to check out. Before finishing up this overview of unusual gigs, I just want to mention a few jobs I've done over the years, some of which are one shot deals, some of which may repeat once or twice a year, but, the point is this: each job is cash in your pocket, and pays a bill, or feeds you, or your cats. Each time I get a call, I feel blessed, and am very grateful. If they call again, yippee...so, check these out...
Over the last four to five years, I've done a solo guitar gig for Sunday brunch at a nice restaurant...maybe they call me six or eight times a year. It's easy, and I get to play some nice classical, flamenco, Brazilian, and jazz standards. But, you gotta be able to play three hours solo...
I play with a local folk/rock band, maybe, again, eight to ten gigs a year. I'm sort of their auxiliary guitarist, so if the main guy can't make it, I do it, or if they need a big band, they use both of us. They also just used me on a CD of Buddy Holly tunes, which was a nice project. Tunes run from Grateful Dead to rockabilly to Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to a yearly Woodstock tribute...and, we never rehearse (gotta have a fast ear).
One summer, I filled in with a blues band for several months, again, no rehearsal, repertoire ranging from BB King to John Hiatt. We did a lot of gigs, and it was fun.
Over the last ten years, I've taken occasional gigs with flamenco dancers. Of course, you have to know the compas of the flamenco forms, but surely don't have to be a virtuoso (which I am definitely not). It's a very specialized form, and not a lot happening, gig wise. I've always enjoyed flamenco, and learned a lot from doing it. Paco de Lucia is one of my heroes.
I did a bunch of gigs at Denver International Airport this year, walking the concourses with a clarinet player, playing jazz standards, serenading the folks walking through the airport. A most unusual gig, not likely to happen often, but it paid my rent for 3 months. I'll take it.
A few years ago, I did a bunch of gigs with a mandolinist, with a repertoire ranging from Carmen to Dawg music to the fastest Hungarian music you've ever heard. Very tough, but got to play a lot of interesting, mostly European, forms...almost all rhythm guitar (gut string acoustic, of course).
In the 1980s, I did a number of big band gigs, including the annual Jerry Ford Golf Tournament in Vail -- played with Bob Hope, Dinah Shore, Charley Pride, and others -- high pressure, for sure. Over the years, I've done a number of big band gigs. You play Freddy Greene style, and occasionally sing Johnny B. Goode -- they never let you solo on the jazz tunes.
Have played several gigs with Japanese koto players, doing traditional Japanese stuff, and my originals...very specialized, and very beautiful music.
I'm sure there's more, but I can't remember them all, onto:
The Ego FactorPlease let me say that I have met many wonderful folks over the years, but I am not going to talk about them now. I want to discuss, for a moment, the kinds of people who are out to make your life miserable, and believe me, there are many. We're all grown up here, so I don't want to be polite...please bring your sense of humor for a moment. Basically, it's real simple: in life, we must interact with other humans, like it or not; and, in the music biz, there are no shortage of colorful characters, many of which suck real bad. I just want to briefly mention likely scenarios you will encounter, and perhaps ways of dealing with them.
First, there's the snots. Just as in high school there are cliques, the jocks, the stoners, or whatever, the same thing is going to happen on the music scene. The snots are found everywhere, and are basically elitists who will not allow you into their group if you don't meet their standards, whatever those may be. In fact, you can be standing right next to them in a room, and they will act as though you are not even there. They are the lowest of scum, and are most unpleasant folks. The problem is, if they happen to be an agent who books a room you are trying to get into, you're toast...you will never, ever play that venue, even though you may be absolutely perfect for it. I have a dear friend, one of the most respected folk/acoustic musicians in Denver, who has never played one of the main rooms for this kind of music, even though she's much more talented than many of those who do play there. It's because the slime that books it is intimidated by her on a human level, and refuses to acknowledge her existance. My friend handles it with grace, but harbors no deep love for this supposed human...nor should she. Good news is, this person is now gone from the scene, so maybe things will change...although don't hold your breath.
The other thing about the snot factor is just the sheer unpleasantness of these people, should you ever find yourself on a gig with them...which does, indeed, happen. They will play a gig with you, without ever once saying hello, or even looking your way. It's an amazing act, and act it is, but they do it anyway. It makes for a long gig, and what should be fun turns out to be tedium galore. This is a situation where you must call upon your sense of humor, and realize that they have the problem, not you, even though they will try mightily to make you feel like shit. If you don't fall for it, they are defeated.
Along with the snot factor is the clique. Of course, it's the same thing, but what happens is that a group of snots acting together forms a clique, which again means less work for you, because they don't think you are hip enough to play with them, or whatever it is they think. And believe me, this often is not a matter of talent (and if talent is the isue, you shouldn't be on the gig, anyway); no, it's a matter of like minded folks hanging together, and they don't want you hanging with them. Case in point: my blues band just did a gig (in November) at a local blues bar. We definitely kicked ass, the club owner loved us, the help loved us, and the crowd had a great time. Only one problem...the woman who the club owner hired to book the club, is one of the biggest turds in Denver, and has not returned four phone calls from my friend Mark, who booked it. We even went to the club and confronted this woman (peacefully, of course), and she still will not call us back. Is this cool, hip, or whatever? No, it really sucks, and is extremely dishonorable on a human level...especially since our band is quite good, and is certainly qualified to play this club.
But, here's the deal...this woman (and I say that very loosely) has never ever liked me as a person, and for absolutely no reason that I can discern, since I've never even done a gig with her, much less insulted or antagonized her in any way. It's chemistry, pure and simple...hate at first sight. And, what can one do about it? Well, I'm still looking for the answer to that one. To beg for the gig is demeaning to your spirit, and to let the gig go sucks, because we should be playing this club. The point is: this sort of thing is very very common on the music scene, and you need to figure this into your career aspirations real quick. It isn't always fair, and not always based on talent, to be sure. You may be highly qualified to play a room, and loose the gig as soon as the owner/manager lays eyes on you. Then, to add insult to injury, guys that have not a shred of talent will surely be playing these rooms on a regular basis. Why? Because like attracts like, and a big dickhead may fit the chemistry of a club better than the more talented musician, because the room itself is full of folks who could care less about music, and are only there to see and be seen. And, guaranteed, on the local club level, this is more common than not.
And there, in a nutshell, is one of the biggest problems that have confronted serious artists (not just musicians) from time immemorial...the art itself is often not the most important thing to these people; it's the power and manipulation that comes from being a clubowner, or booking agent, or whatever. I read once where Ornette Coleman said he met wealthy clubowners who said such things as, "I got enough money to burn a wet elephant, but I ain't giving it to you." Yow! Once the head starts swelling, it's all over for art (art for art's sake, and money for Christ's sake). Plus, if you happen to be talented in a genuine way, you will often arouse the contempt of those folks who are not as talented, because you intimidate them. Remember Mozart? The Italians at the court, led by Salieri, made his life miserable because they were not on his level, and rather than study with him, which would have been the honorable thing to do, they messed with him...true story, and it happens all the time, at every level. And, if you think this stuff doesn't happen, or it isn't as bad as I'm saying, I advise you to stop taking the Prozac, and get a reality check.
Sorry if I sound a bit pissy...this part of the music biz is most distasteful, but very real. From working with Texas mafia clubowners (some very bad boys), to losing gigs because you don't look "hip" to some cheesehead's standards...I have seen it, and experienced it, and seen many many other very good artists go through the same thing. Of course, on the other hand, I have met my share of marvelous folks, and have lived to write this article, and pay the rent for 30 years. Yes, there are also very good people in the biz...your best bet is to try and find them, and learn to tell the difference between them and the shits quick..you'll save your dignity, and have a much more enjoyable life in the process. At this stage in my life, I have a low tolerance for nonsense, and weed those folks out of my life as fast as possible. To put up with elitists, or prima donnas, is a waste of precious energy, and should be avoided at all costs. You will be a happier, wiser person if you hang with those who behave honorably...best of luck.
This is my last freelance column for a while...I hope to return next issue with a series on the world of tunings, how they evolved and what they mean to us as musicians. It's the least understood subject in all of music, but perhaps the most important of all. Because, if you're not in tune, the music sounds like crap, and who wants that? See you...
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