Getting Ahead in the Music Business…The Right Way
(because online tools can only do so much)
I decided to write this article after reading a post in a musician group yesterday. The post said, “Where is the best place online to advertise my services as a session musician? I know that there are many websites where you can sign up as a band or a musician, but I was wondering if there was one that specializes in session musicians”. Now, this kind of question usually makes my skin crawl, but it’s not the fault of this particular musician looking for advice. I blame the opportunistic, “scammy” websites for leading musicians to believe that there is an app or a site available to easily solve all of their career problems. Many musicians are led to believe that instead of spending hours doing the work themselves, they can achieve the same results with a click of a button, but it’s just not true. The truth is that there will never be a substitute for practicing, learning about the business, working hard, networking, performing and promoting yourself. Technology will inevitably alter the way we go about doing many of these things, but it will never change the bottom line, which is that there are very few shortcuts in the music industry and hard work pays off! So, let’s get back to this question and I’ll try to answer it constructively…
Question: Where is the best place online to advertise my services as a session musician?
Answer: This is best explained in terms of supply and demand. By joining a service like the one you’re speaking of, you are hoping that an artist, producer, composer, etc. needs to reach beyond their personal or industry contacts in order to find a badass session player. The problem is that in the real world, not many people need to enlist an online service to find session musicians. I actually can’t even think of one instance where a session musician has been hired for a high profile project due to a service like this, but I purposely used the phrase “not many” just in case it has occurred once without my knowledge.
So, why is this? First of all, these people (your potential employers) already know numerous musicians who can get the job done and who have a proven track record. And if for some reason the person in charge of hiring doesn’t know the “right” musician, they just need to contact a trusted industry friend to get them a list of top session cats. So, how do you realistically get your foot in the door as a session musician? The answer is simple but it requires hard work, many hours of networking and a bit of luck. As a musician in general, personal relationships and reputation are everything…I can’t stress that enough! If you are constantly out meeting musicians and industry folk and if you’re always performing at a very high level, you will earn a good reputation. Session musicians are usually just musicians who are well known and respected by many people, which means that they have played and networked enough to be on the industry’s radar. They are also known for being super professional, having good sounding and diverse gear, being easy to work with, possessing good reading skills, enhancing the parts, etc. There are clearly many more aspects that go into being a working session player, but that’s a whole separate article I may write in the future. Also, if you really want to become a session musician here’s some solid advice: seek out a great session player (on your instrument) and take some lessons from him or her. This will give you a unique insight into what it takes to be at that elite level and it will also serve as a formal introduction. Who knows, if you are good enough and professional enough to really impress this particular musician, they might even refer you to some gigs in the future. Referrals are a huge part of the session business, but you have to be “in” with the right people and again, there is no shortcut to networking in the music business.
Now let’s broaden this topic to touring musicians for major artists…
How do you get those awesome sideman (or sidewoman) gigs? Well again, this is pretty straightforward but it requires work. Let me start by saying that there is no website that will land you a great touring gig with a major artist. Why? Again, because no employer (or artist) needs to list major auditions online. There are already a ton of proven badass musicians that will be called for the audition and there is no reason to advertise to people outside of the “circle of trust”. So how did these “chosen” musicians get on this list? This answer is pretty much the same as my session musician answer. These musicians went out and met a ton of people, played all over the place and gained the respect of multiple people in the industry. They stayed out late to hang even when they were tired, sat in at other people’s gigs and got entrenched in the scene. Again, what I’m trying to say is that there is no substitute for consistently sounding good, being incredibly likable and always being visible in the right places. That’s a winning combo that cannot be emulated by a third party service. For instance, when I got called to do the audition for Colbie Caillat, I was referred by two separate musicians, directly to the musical director. This audition was not publicly advertised and it contained a handful of trusted LA players. If I didn’t have a good reputation as a solid and professional bassist, I wouldn’t have been “invited to the party”. The same goes for every gig I’ve ever gotten in my career. When I played with the Sam Yahel trio (on the Steely Dan Tour) I was hired because Sam was a fan of my playing from the years I spent in the NYC scene. There was no audition, he just called me and asked if I wanted to go on tour for a few months. So again, it’s about your reputation and relationships. So, don’t sit around at night watching bad reruns of “Honey Boo Boo” if there’s a networking event, jam session, or cool gig to attend. Your job is to go out and mingle, so get to it!
OK, let’s move on to licensing music for TV and Film, another field with which I’ve been heavily involved.
Now, there are quite a few websites that claim to give you listings for these “great opportunities”, but again you have to ask yourself: Why would a music supervisor, producer or director list a great and lucrative opportunity on a paid website in search of an unknown talent? Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen directors post ads on Craigslist and Mandy.com for low to mid budget projects, but I’m specifically talking about these online services that charge musicians to receive “special” leads. I won’t name names, but you know who I’m talking about. In my experience (having over 300 placements) I can honestly say that I’ve never met a music supervisor who needed to hire a service to find music for them. All music supervisors have piles of music surrounding their desks and an overflowing iTunes library. Also, they are constantly being “pitched” new music by musicians who know how to play the game and get in touch with the right people. So again, why on earth would they need to hire a service to help them get even more music? The answer is that in most cases, they wouldn’t. And if for some reason a director or a music supervisor is new in the game and doesn’t have a large database of music (or musicians) yet, they will most likely use a free service like Craigslist, Mandy or something similar. So, please think about this stuff before you plop down your hard earned cash to get “premium leads”. BTW, I also have a related article you might want to read about avoiding scams in the music industry which discusses how to research some of these sites before you commit. And if you’re really interested in licensing your music for Film and TV and would like to know how to do it yourself, I’ve made an entire masterclass video on the subject, which you can see below this article.
Are all these music services bad?
Now don’t get me wrong, there are some good online services relating to the music business and I’m sure that more will be created. Also, there are some areas of the music business that can benefit more from online listing services like Party Bands (Parties, Events, Weddings, etc.) because the clientele is not necessarily comprised of professional musicians or industry people with contacts (although we musicians get married too, LOL). Anyway, in a case like this, an online listing service could be beneficial because you are a service provider for prospective clients who will browse through multiple profiles and compare based on their needs. That’s a different scene altogether, but the point of this article is just to have realistic expectations about what online services can do for your music career.
Also, I want to be clear that when I’m referring to online services, I’m not talking about social media. It’s incredibly important to get your social media presence out to as many people as possible in today’s technological world. In my opinion, if you’re not at least on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Tumblr, Google+ and YouTube, you’re most likely missing out on some serious promotional opportunities for your music. And if you need help in this area, check out my “Social Networking for Musicians” videos on our YouTube channel…they’re free and they’re chock-full of useful info regarding optimizing your online presence and promoting yourself. And one last thing – I’m not condemning the use of any free internet services that list your name, your band or your profession online; again I’m just telling you to be realistic about the results. As a matter of fact, if someone will list you online (for free), it could be good SEO (search engine optimization) for when people “Google” you. It really just depends on if you want those listings to appear when your name is searched or not. Does it strengthen or cheapen your brand? You have to decide that for yourself.
So, to sum this up…
I can go into much more detail regarding how to actually get further in the music industry using your talent, marketing, networking and more, but I will leave that for another article since it’s such a vast subject. The main point is that if you want to be successful in the music industry, you will have to work hard in the right areas and you must understand what technology can and can’t do for you. And due to the fact that this essential work is difficult and time consuming, it naturally filters out about 70% of musicians who don’t want to put in the time in the first place, thus making it a clearer path to success. It’s just like the NFL player Roger Staubach said, “There are no traffic jams along the extra mile”. This is very true in the music business, so always remember to travel that extra mile and you’ll notice that the ultra-competitive music industry will become a little less competitive.