Being a musician really isn’t as easy as you may think it is. Non-musicians probably just see people up on a stage living “The Life.” Whatever that is. Yeah, there are spotlights, and crowds, and people wanting to hear YOU. But there is so much more to it than that.
Where there is a venue, there is also countless hours trying to get in contact with that venue just to get them to notice you. Once they notice you, you have to convince them that they want you to play there for whatever amount of time you are asking for. THEN, you have to convince them to pay you a decent paycheck. That’s where negotiating skills are necessary. Good luck.
If you do that, and you successfully book a show, you better promote it. Put it on your website, on Facebook, Instagram, wherever you have an outlet. Shamelessly self-promote because it’s your job. If people don’t know you’re playing, they won’t show up; if they don’t show up and you’re getting paid by how many people come in the door, you won’t get much at all, if any. Because first and foremost, a venue is a place that is likely to sell food and drinks. You’re there to make the venue money by providing a form of entertainment. Nothing else. IF you’re getting a guarantee and they’re banking on you bringing a crowd and you don’t, there’s a pretty good chance you will not get asked to come back. Promote your shows.
Where there is ONE song, there is at LEAST 3-4 hours put into just learning the song. Some songs are different; some don’t take as long and some take much longer. But you have to learn the words. Some people put up music stands as a reference but I don’t like to use those. I memorize the lyrics to every single song that I play in front of people. After you learn the words, you have to learn how to play the song on whatever instrument you’re into. For me, that’s guitar. You have to learn different chord shapes and work on transitioning into OTHER chord shapes and then you have to put that together and play that while you’re moving your mouth. And you have to remember it all. To make it a little more understandable for the non-musician, playing guitar and singing at the same time is like trying to draw the number 6 while moving your leg in a clockwise circle or saying, “Irish wristwatch.” I bet you tried to do that, didn’t you? It just takes a lot of practice.
Now, if there’s THAT much work put into just one song, imagine doing that for about 45 songs. For me, that’s a three hour set. I do about 45 songs when I play a 3 hour show. I have extras just in case I need them and I’m always ready to know which songs to cut if I need to go shorter.
Let’s pretend you have learned these songs. You’ve even convinced a venue to pay you to play music for 3 hours plus whatever tips their customers may give you. Did you ask the right questions? What time are you starting? How about when you’re supposed to finish up? What time is their preferred load in (the time you get there to set up) for you? Do you need to bring your own sound? If so, how big is the space? Do you need a lot of sound? Or just a little? Do you get breaks? These are just SOME examples of things you need to know before you play a show.
For example, if I have an 8pm-12am show that is just going to be me playing and I need to use my larger sound, I need to get there at 6:45pm and be prepared to leave around 1am. This doesn’t include talking to the people after the show. If I’m playing the same time and need my small sound, I won’t need to get there until about 7:30pm and I will still have time to drink some coffee between sound check and show time. If it’s a band show for the same time, we have to load in at 5pm or 6pm and be prepared to leave at about 2am. After all of this, you have to drive home. And you get hungry.
If you ever think that being a musician is “easy,” please, I encourage you to help me load in and set up all of my equipment and then help me break it down without complaining that it’s too heavy or that it’s too late and you’re too tired. We (musicians) don’t get paid to play music. We get paid for the hundreds of hours we put into learning 3 hours worth of material. We get paid to set up our equipment and take it down. We just play music in between all of that because it’s what makes us happy. And if you think about it like that… in terms of months, days, and hours we spend on just getting ready to play a show… musicians are massively underpaid. But I’m not going to get into that.
But can we talk about just how unpredictable being a performing musician is? You have ABSOLUTELY NO guarantee for anything. Literally, you can drive all the way to the venue and they can cancel as you’re setting up to play the show. It’s not like having a normal job. You don’t wake up at 7, get to your office at 9, work until noon, have lunch, work until 5 and then you’re done. With that kind of job, you have a salary. Musicians don’t have salaries. Sometimes we’re not even guaranteed payment. #anxiety. Some people just go and play for tips. Imagine walking into your office and asking your coworkers like, “hey, I wrote this column, will you give me a dollar or two?” No. What if they don’t like your column? They won’t give you dollar. Or better yet, what if they DO like your column but they STILL don’t give you a dollar. That’s being a performing musician.
Think about your hours at your job. They’re probably pretty normal. As you can see, musician hours are not normal. I have gotten home at 5am from a show and only woke up for lunch just to go back to sleep until 3pm. I was still in the bed by midnight that next night (was super tired).
You may say, “oh it’s cool though because you get to travel.” Yeah, I get to travel to the beach to see people get drunk and then I get to travel back home. You’re not really in the cool place long enough to explore the cool place unless you make time for it.
All of this and I’m only skimming the surface. I haven’t said anything about dealing with rude people at venues. Sometimes, it’s just as bad as waiting tables because you have to deal with attitudes and silly demands. I haven’t talked about working WITH people who aren’t nice to you. That’s never fun. I haven’t even touched on comments from people in the crowd. I don’t mean nice comments either; I mean ones where a 75-year-old dude asks if you need help changing clothes in the bathroom… I haven’t even talked about the time it can take to write music. I’ve only spoken about performing.
You may read all of this and think, “Why the heck would you want to be a musician? Nothing’s guaranteed, it’s a lot of late nights, heavy lifting, and practice.” Well, I have answer for you: I love it. I love making people smile. It’s so cool to be able to play a song and see someone recognize it and then their eyes get really big and they smile and start singing. That’s cool. It’s cool when someone comes up to you and says “wow. You’ve put a lot of work into this, I hope you get somewhere with it.” Or, like, “hey, I really liked your cover of that song. I think it’s better than the original.” Or even better, “I really loved that song you wrote. I kind of cried a little.” That’s “The Life” to me. I like making people feel something. I like surprising people. And you know what? I don’t care about the late nights. I don’t care that the equipment is heavy. I don’t care that I have to drive 4 hours away to a play a show sometimes. I’d go farther if I got booked.
If you love it, keep playing.