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pix Freelancing: How To Survive In The New Millennium By Playing Your Guitar, Part 3 pix
pix pix by Neil Haverstick  

Page added in December, 2000

About The Author

Neil Haverstick is a guitarist out of Denver who won Guitar Player magazine's 1992 Ultimate Guitar Competition (Experimental Division) with a 19-tone guitar piece, "Spider Chimes".

Neil has written for Guitar Player and Cadence and has written two music theory books, "The Form Of No Forms" and "19 Tones: A New Beginning".


His latest instrumental CD is entitled "Stick Man".

Send comments or questions to Neil Haverstick.

© Neil Haverstick

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  Hope you all are enjoying this series...I sure am. Let's get down, and start talking about reality...namely, you have the attributes of a freelancer, and are ready to boogie...now, how to proceed? I want to talk about the many types of gigs out there, and the ways you can go about landing them. Needless to say, there are a zillion paths, and perhaps yours will be different than mine. But, there are some constants which I believe will apply to anybody trying to hustle a gig. And, number one is: it's a name game! I cannot emphasize this enough; before someone can hire you, they have to know who you are. So, be aware that this is the very beginning of the quest for jobs; you need to be aware of the need to get your name out to the right folks, and then convince them that you are, indeed, the guitarist they are looking for (and that can be a tough sell, indeed). So, as we discuss the various work situations available, remember, you must have good self promotion skills, or you're in the wrong biz. Now I am going to chat about some of the different types of jobs one can play, not necessarily in any particular order of importance...things can vary from city to city, and person to person.

The biggest category of freelance gigs available falls under the broad category referred to as casuals. Called casuals because of the lack of rehearsal (usually zero), this genre of gigs can cover everything from weddings, to fancy parties at hotels or private homes, to country clubs, to bar mitzvahs, or jazz pick up gigs. I first found out about this scene when I moved to LA in 1982, and started looking around for work. I contacted the Union, and got a list of leaders, or contractors, who are the folks who book the gigs and hire the players. I got schooled, and quick, as I started going down the list, trying to get hired. First, no one knew who I was, and they didn't really seem to care...getting someone to talk to me was a major accomplishment; then, when they do take maybe 30 quick seconds to chat, you find that they already have all the guitarists they need, and see you later. It was tough, but after repeated calls, I finally started getting some leads, and finally a gig. So, the frst thing the leader says, is, "Be sure to wear your black suit." Huh? That was news to me, and a big lesson..on the fancy gigs, you will need a tux/good black suit as a constant uniform. No if's, etc. It's a requirement. So, I got one, and have used it 20 zillion times since.

As I began putzing my way through the LA casual scene, I discovered that there were certain individuals who ran agencies that booked many gigs, and employed many musicians...obviously, these were the folks to get to know, and that's correct. For the most part, at least in the big cities, these casual agencies manage to get a foothold in the society scene, and thus get many calls for bands. Getting aligned with one of these agencies is quite important to casual success, and can mean a lot of work if you become a regular. These big casual moguls can have from a few, to dozens of bands on gigs at any given time...basically, they call players on their list, and assign them to various gigs (remember, no rehearsal). You will show up, perhaps not even knowing the other players, and may have to play anything from Aretha Franklin to Charlie Parker to Britney Spears. Often, there are charts, but sometimes not. An ability to read sure comes in handy, and being able to solo over jazz tunes is a must, or you will get your booty kicked, as a lot of casual players are killer jazzers.

On these gigs, there is one musician who is the leader, and you do need to realize that...he calls the shots (and also gets paid more). There may also be a pecking order (A team, B team, etc), and the better players get the better gigs. I know guys that make good money consistently doing these sorts of gigs...they're fairly painless, and usually very businesslike, and can keep you out of the bars (if you don't like bars). On the other hand, I have heard many players complain about the boredom of these faceless gigs, and the monotony of playing very commercial music for (often) a lot of (rich) bozos, who could care less if you are a good musician or not. These are all things to consider if you wish a stab at the casual scene. How to find the casual bigwigs? Simple...look in the yellow pages under Entertainment Agencies, or a related heading, and start calling. And, be prepared to have a resume available, perhaps a tape (these days, a demo CD doesn't hurt), or an audition is highly likely. If you can break in, it's also a great way to meet some of the better players on the scene, so always carry business cards, and give them out liberally, letting folks know that you are available for work at a moment's notice (collect as many cards as possible, too, and start your own file of players).

And, here's an important point...at first, you may get called only when someone else can't make it, so be ready to play with a day's notice, or maybe even a few hours. If you can do this, you are a hero, and are likely to win the approval of the big guy. Also, when in LA I received some superb words of wisdom from one of the players..he said "play with as many people as possible," and that's good casual advice. Get to know as many people in the scene as possible, and get known as a guy/girl who takes care of business quick, and the phone will ring. Yes, the big moguls book a lot of gigs, but often the players themselves will score little parties here and there, and need players. Be ready for anything is my motto...should be yours, too.

The casual world is vast, and employs many musicians...I cannot possibly talk about all possibilities, but this is a brief look at that world.

On a related subject, there is the world of booking agents. What makes them different from the big casual guys is that they do not put the bands together for the gigs, but instead call looking for bands/solo performers to fill job openings. If you have your own band, or can put one together real quick, this can net you many gigs over the years. I have done this many times, and have booked gigs ranging from a jazz duo to a mini big band of 8 pieces (3 horns, guitar, bass, drums, keys, vocals). The trick here is to know many players, and be able to put something together fast. I collected the names of many musicians as I sailed the casual waters, so I have the resources to get a band together if need be. It comes in handy.

Leaving the casual scene, let's take a look at the world of theatre, plays and musicals. Believe it or not, I have found there is a good market for this kind of work, and I have done a lot of it in the last 12 years, including "Man of La Mancha," "Grease," "Little Shop of Horrors," "Oklahoma," and many more. Some of these gigs have been among my favorites of my playing career, including the world premiere of "Eliot Ness in Cleveland" (which just played Cleveland), and "A Dream Play," which I did at the Cleveland Playhouse, and for which I got to do some real original music. Of course, this scene is really going to vary from town to town...it so happens that Denver has a real active theatre scene, and the Denver Center for Performing Arts won a Tony in 1998 for best regional theatre (it's a good gig, but not a lot of work there for guitarists). But, at this time, I am involved with a new production, "Inna Beginning," which has been in the works for 2 years, and opens in the spring of 2001...the music is quite original and modern, and even allows me to play my beloved microtonal guitars.

Gigs like that are rare, though, but I copped it because of contacts made over the last 12 years of doing pit work. As with casuals, there are contractors in the theatres who hire the musicians. Often, the playhouse hires a musical director, usually a pianist, and they give him/her a list of the players they need. He/she hires them, simple as that. And, one thing I've noticed is, if you do a god job, you are quite likely to get hired back because they don't have time to be screwing around, trying out players. You must be fast and very dependable in theatre, cause the rehearsals fly by, and there's a lot of stuff going on which must be coordinated...therefore, there's a bit of loyalty in this scene (but, a bit of treachery can sneak in...I got toasted out of a gig at a local theatre because of personal chemistry, not because I didn't do a good job. The person (s) who screwed me are on my undying shit list). Also, reading skills come into play here...again, this will depend on the show, the city, and the musical director. Don't plan on doing these by ear, cause everybody has charts, some more detailed than others. Eliot Ness was real detailed, down to the use of a chorus pedal in a scene, where Grease allowed me to improvise my 1950's licks. Playing banjo is a handy skill here...both Eliot and Parade required a guitarist who plays banjo. Usually, you just tune it like a guitar, and play Dixieland type figures...if you don't have a banjo, you can always rent one.

On shows, you are one cog in a mighty big machine, and the spoken lines are the thing....all music is subservient to the dialogue, and you must play your parts accordingly. And, as in a Symphony, the musical director is God...you gotta be a real good sideperson to pull these off. Of course, depending on the gig, you can make suggestions...but, on the bigger shows, forget it...they know what they want, and you need to give it to them, quick. The plusses of shows are that they are generally very pleasant working environments, they pay well, and the business is handled very professionally. I really enjoy these gigs, and hope to do many more of them in the years to come. How to cop them? Again, check out the Yellow Pages, and see what's happening in your town. Most big cities have numerous theatres, and when one needs a guitarist, someone is going to have a nice job. As with any of these various scenes, once you get to know folks, it's a bit easier. Getting started is tough, but can be done. I highly recommend this path for freelancers.

Symphony's also hire freelancers occasionally, depending on the gig. Often, a guitarist is needed for a Pops concert, as opposed to a classical concert, so the work comes and goes. Before the Colorado Symphony got a permanent conductor, they did a lot of Pops in the 1980's to sort of fill in the spaces, and I did a bunch of these, probably over 2 dozen, plus 2 CD recording sessions. In this case, it was rather simple to cop the gig...Denver is not a real big guitar town, so there are not that many guys here who are qualified to do the job (and maybe that's changed by now). My first Symphony gig was with Opera Colorado, doing Verdi's "Otello;" they needed 2 classsical guitars, 4 mandolins, and 2 English horns for one tune in the play, so I got the call. It worked out, and they called me regularly for about 10 years. Again, since they got a full time conductor, this gig has largely dried up, but in any city with a Symph that has Pops concerts, a guitarist is often needed on the show. And, again, there is a person on the Symph staff, usually one of the musicians, who is the contractor...if he/she does not know who you are, you won't get the call. And, again, if you do a good job, they will most likely continue to keep using you, as they have not the time for experimentation. The down side is when contractors change, and a new one comes aboard. I have missed 2 recent Symph gigs because the guy that used to hire me is gone, and I have not established myself with the new one...hopefully, that will change. A contractor may well have his/her personal favorites, and that's life...just realize that is an inevitable part of the biz.

Oh, yeah, by the way...this is so important to keep in mind...believe me, a lot of your reputation will be developed by the performance you deliver on the job, and what the other players think of you. If you do a good job, and are a nice, pleasant sort to boot (and let me tell you, there's a lot of points to be had by being a wonderful person on the gig), then you are in good shape, and can expect gigs to start coming your way. Word travels fast, and the good players don't want to spend their working hours messing with a dickhead. Word of mouth is a very significant factor in the working musician's career, and sooner or later, who you are will be well known to everybody on the scene. And, it can, indeed, have a big effect on how often the phone rings. We will discuss the psychology of the musician's life in the future, how the human ego can be a big part of either being successful, or a bomb. And, to be real honest, it isn't always fair, but needs to be addressed if you plan on becoming a working pro. In every professional situation, we're dealing with humans, and whatever personal baggage they/we bring to the table, and the chemistries involved do, indeed, have an impact on one's career.

There's more gigs to talk about, but we'll save that for next installment. To close out, let's address a very important consideration for the freelancer, the Musician's Union. Is it necessary, or can you get by without it? From my experience, I would say that it has been absolutely an essential part of my freelance career. For starters, there are certain gigs you cannot obtain without Union membership, mainly the Symph, and certain shows. And, I have met many many good/great players through my Union affiliation...all the show guys, and many of the better jazzers are members. Also, the Union often has a referral service, and you can get calls for gigs if you belong. I know, too, that in the big recording scenes, you gotta be in the Union if you want to do the studio thing. All in all, I don't think it's a bad idea to join...maybe it's not perfect, but you can, indeed, make good contacts (and, I just got a credit card from the Union, with some nice features...doesn't hurt).

Next time, we'll look at freelance club work, and other miscellaneous ways to make ends meet, including playing original music as part of the freelance diet. Keep those posts coming!

Good luck, and we'll get into more details about the freelance lifestyle in future editions.

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