After playing a lot of shows with a lot of artists around NYC, I started thinking about what works and what doesn’t. Why do some musicians get called for gigs and why don’t others? Perhaps the hardest thing is number 11, in the world of people playing for free, making sure you get paid is tough. Hopefully these thoughts will be helpful.
These are not necessarily in order of importance, with the exception of number one.
1) Crush The Material
First and foremost, your job is to play the material to the artist’s liking. That means you must know the material. For me, knowing the material means that I can either blow through the chart or have the songs memorized to the point where I don’t have to think about arrangements. Being on autopilot with arrangements means that you can play with more emotion, and that’s where you want to be.
2) Don’t Be A Pain In The Ass
If you are difficult, awkward, annoying or otherwise a pain in the ass, you won’t last long. Some examples of “pain in the ass-ery” are being defensive when being asked to change a part or adjust your playing, talking too much, or complaining a lot (about anything).
3) Have Your Transportation Together
Particularly if you are a drummer and you want to be a side person, you probably need a car that is reliable. I can’t imagine how I would function around NYC without one. If an artist has the choice of hiring a drummer who gets to the gig on their own or one who needs help or a ride for every gig, why would they pick they latter?
4) Have Your Gear and Sound Together
One of the things that will make you stand out from the pack is having your sound together. That implies that you have your equipment scenario figured out. Top notch gear, in the right hands, means a high level and pleasing sound. Give this a lot of thought and attention.
5) Embrace Direction and Ask Questions
Being a side person means giving the boss what they want. If you can’t take direction, you should just start your own band and forget being a side person. You should also make sure you ask whatever questions you need to ask if you don’t understand something in the music or need some clarity.
6) Be a Great Hang
It’s just a fact that your playing is only half of the picture. If you are no fun to be around, you’re toast. Do you have good social skills? Do you know when to shut up and when to contribute to the conversation? Can you read people socially so you know how to behave to make them like you? You must figure this out to be successful.
7) Be Early
Being early means you have more time to get your gear set up, read the situation you’re walking into and generally be comfortable. Being late can cause all kinds of problems for your leader, and therefore for you, so take this seriously.
8) Play Within Your Abilities
When you’re first asked to do a gig, consider whether or not the music is “in your wheel house.” Can you play the style convincingly and do you have the vocabulary for the music you’re being asked to play? Every genre has it’s own set of grooves and vocabulary, so make sure you can really play that style before saying “yes.”
9) Play Appropriately for the Song
10) Exude Quiet Confidence
You want the artist who hires you to feel comfortable that the music is going to sound great and that everything will go well in the heat of the moment. If you don’t act confidently (this doesn’t mean arrogant), the artist won’t feel comfortable and relaxed. Your quiet, ego-less confidence will make other people in the band feel more comfortable and relaxed. That’s what you want.
11) Get Paid
If you are doing this for a living, or you are working towards doing this for a living, you have to get paid. And if you really live up to everything on this list, you SHOULD get paid. You’re worth it. So don’t sell yourself short out of insecurity. I understand that it’s not so easy, and I do believe there are certain situations where you trade favors. But at the end of the day, requiring a certain price will get you more respect and bolster your reputation. Anyone who wants a “pro level” player but says they don’t want a “hired gun” is full of crap. You get a pro level player by paying for one.