Been a while since I updated this. At some point I’ll get more regular about it, when there’s actually something exciting going on and I’m not mentally bogged down with everything. In the meantime, while cleaning out old word docs, I found this “interview” I gave to a student doing a project. He emailed me the questions, and I typed my overly-wordy responses. Thought you might like to read them. Here goes:
What are the major responsibilities/duties associated with your job?
As a performer, the duties are twofold: setup/teardown and performance. Setup involves arriving to the venue or studio in enough time to set my equipment up and have it in working order, and also enough time to change clothes if need be. Performance is about playing the right notes at the right time, which can be dictated by a piece of sheet music or determined by what I am hearing other musicians play and my own creativity. As a teacher, my main focus is to provide the student with as many tools as possible for them to become a better musician. But for any instance where I am asked to play my bass in a professional setting, the most important thing that I can do is make things fun for myself and my fellow musicians and/or students – this is WAY too much work to do if you’re not enjoying yourself!
A colleague of mine is fond of saying, “We get paid to show up, set up, and tear down… we play for free.”
Do you have a formal job description?
Hmmm… bassist, private teacher, that’s about it. The only thing formal about me is the tuxedo I sometimes wear to wedding gigs.
How long have you been on this job or in this career area?
I have been playing professionally (live and studio) and giving private instruction for about 15 years. (Ed. note: this was a few years back; I started playing professionally in 1990.)
What interested you in this field/job?
Chicks, mostly. (JUST KIDDING.) Actually, I had been playing any instrument I could get my hands on for as long as I can remember – I used to spend hours on end sitting on the left side of the piano bench, pounding on the low notes. What it was that made me gravitate towards the piano, and specifically the bass notes, is anybody’s guess, but it seemed to foretell my future in a way. One day when I was about 10, my brother came home with an electric bass and an electric guitar, announcing that he and his friend were going to form a band and he was to be the bassist. After hearing him play a bit, I simply loved the tone and asked my mom if I could play bass, too. I was informed that I was not going to be allowed to play the same instrument as my brother because my mom didn’t want us fighting over the things. So I got to be a guitarist for about a year, which I enjoyed, but I would always try to sneak into my brother’s room and play his bass when he wasn’t around. And every so often he’d walk in on me playing his bass and beat the tar out of me, and I’d learn my lesson, and 4-5 weeks later I’d get brave again, and the cycle would repeat itself. Then, one day I came home from school to hear my brother plunking away in his room in the basement, and I thought that sounded like a good idea, so I decided to go downstairs to where my guitar and amplifier stood. But when I approached the stairs that led down to the basement, I looked down to see an electric bass flying UP the stairs! I quickly backed out of the way, and the bass made a noise somewhere between a thud and a clang as it hit the ground. I turned to look down the stairs at my brother, and I saw him stomping off towards his room. I called to him, “Uhh… do you want this anymore?” He shouted, “NOOO!!!” and slammed the door behind him. I looked at the bass, realization slowly dawning on me, said, “Great!”, grabbed the bass and ran downstairs to plug it into my amp. For the first time, I was able to play that bass without looking over my shoulder to see who might catch me; it was unbelievable! When I recall this moment, I can see a light shining down upon me in my mind’s eye, and can clearly remember hearing an unearthly voice in my head that said You remember this momemt, because this is what you’re going to be doing with the rest of your life. To the best of my knowledge I can only explain this as the voice of God.
25 minutes later, my brother came out and started walking towards me, and said, “Gimme my damn bass back.” Seeing as how he was twice my size, there was no arguing with him, so back it went, but I immediately went up to my mom and explained what had happened… and that Christmas there was a nice new bass waiting under the tree for me. Things just sort of went on in a wonderland sort of way after that.
What do you like most about your job? (Creativity, freedom etc.)
Yes and yes. And so much more, really. Being an artist (which, in the end, is what a musician really is) means that not only do you get to be creative in your work, it also means that you’re your own boss – you choose what gigs you want to take, how much (or how little) you’re willing to play for, who you want to play with and who you don’t. Now, you could be “free and creative” with just about any occupation that fits under the Artist umbrella, but the best part about being a bassist, for me, is that I’d be doing this ANYWAY – whether I got paid or not. I basically make my living doing something I’d do for free in my living room every night. What could be better than that?
What is the most difficult part of your job?
There are two things that come to mind: First, there’s a LOT of prep work in becoming a competent pro player. When I first began getting serious about electric bass, I played my bass for about 7 hours a day for the first 5 years (from 8th grade until graduation and 1 year of music school). Now, I loved doing it, but I also recognized that there was a big difference between the player who put the hours in and the player who simply relied on his natural ability and didn’t practice as much. This meant that I didn’t see a lot of my friends (of course I made new ones as a musician), but in the end it was worth it to me. I still rely on the things I learned as a young musician every day of my bass playing life. Second, there’s often a LOT of gear to haul around, especially if you play in really loud bands – those amps are heavy, and until you can hire roadies to carry everything for you, you’re on your own. Sure hope you like trucks, vans, and station wagons, ‘cause that’s what you’re going to get to drive for most of your life…
What qualification/ training/ education/ experience is required for this position?
To be really honest, none. If someone is willing to pay you to do what you do, they’re not going to ask you for your college degree or demand a letter of recommendation from someone you’ve worked with in the past – it’s even pretty rare that they ask for a resume. More often than not, they’ve either heard you play before, or they got your information from someone they trust, and usually little more than a short rehearsal to make sure you’re able to play the material is all that’s needed. What this means, however, is that if you’re going to take a gig, you’d better be prepared – word gets around fast about who’s good and who’s not, and your reputation for your musicianship as well as your professionalism will precede you. Obviously the more experience you get, the better, but it’s a rare gig that requires you to have proof of having played for so many years or provide documentation of a degree. It comes down to basic American capitalistic principles: create a demand, provide a service, and charge a fee.
What are the most important skills needed/ used in this position?
On a personality level, being able to get along with different types of players is a must. You’ve got to be open to other people’s ideas of how a song should go, and how you ought to play it. More often than not, you’re the one being hired instead of doing the hiring, so you’re at the mercy of someone else who is calling songs and running the show. This means, very simply: check your ego at the door.
On an ability level, you need to know your instrument. If you’re joining a band that is willing to rehearse with you until you get up to speed, you’re very lucky; you owe them the best that you can do, which usually means hours of practice on your own. But if you tend to be more of a “hired gun” (meaning that you play with whoever calls you for a gig), you don’t have the luxury of a rehearsal – you should probably be able to read chord charts at the very least, and standard notation is always a good skill to have. But learning your fingerboard ought to come first – imagine the humiliation and indignity of having to ask the bandleader where Eb is on the G string so you can play “Take Five” properly.
What is something that you’ve found interesting or surprising about this job, or something that most people really don’t know about this occupation? Any myths?
The big thing that people don’t really get is that this is work. This is really hard to do; if we make it look easy, it’s a credit to us, but it doesn’t mean that we didn’t spend hours upon hours getting to the point where we could make it look that easy. It’s much the same as an athlete and the work he/she might do to get to the point of name recognition: for all his natural ability, Wayne Gretzky probably spent more time on the ice practicing than his buddies did when he was growing up, but few people heard of him until he was winning Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers. It’s the same with musicians (although very few of us make Wayne Gretzky money) – we’re getting paid now for the work we did in our early playing days. People think that because we’re “playing” that it’s not hard to do; truth be told, this is WAY too much work for something that you don’t love with all your heart and soul.
Myths? There are still a few people out there that think that all professional musicians who aren’t employed by the symphony are drug addicts or alcoholics. The truth is that these days it’s just as common to see someone you work with on a daily basis battle drug and alcohol addiction as it is to see a musician in the same boat. And the players, like their “real job” counterparts, usually don’t last too long as professionals in that condition. Even in the 21st century, my long hair still sets a few people off until they get to know me better. I can’t say that I ever caught someone looking for needle tracks on my arms, but I’d be surprised if it hasn’t happened.
What is the typical salary range for this occupation?
No such thing. Different parts of the country will get you different levels of pay for the same work. It’s certainly tied to the economy of an area – basically, any money you get for what you do has to eventually come from someone who had money left over after bills were paid to buy a ticket to your concert or purchase your album. Certain areas of the country that have an overload of musicians, such as Los Angeles or Nashville, don’t pay very well for small live performances due to the number of people wanting to play, and last I was in LA most clubs in Hollywood were working on a “pay-to-play” basis: your band would get booked by a club for a one-hour set, and you’d pay $500 for 100 tickets that you could turn around and sell if you chose, or give them away if you were willing to pay for the exposure. Stuff like that only seems to work if your band is “swinging for the fences” and trying to hit the big time, and it’s pretty expen$ive in the meantime.
In the Front Range, studio players can make as much as $500+ per day – it’s all up to the person hiring them. Often, a few songs’ worth of work will cause the musician to ask to be paid by the song, which I’ve seen to be as much as $100 per. Again, it’s all about agreement on a price – ultimately, we are worth what someone else is willing to pay us to hear us play.
Private instruction in the Fort Collins area is averaging out to be about $20 for a ½ hour lesson.
What is the future outlook for this occupation?
As long as there are people out there wanting to be entertained, there will be a market for musicians and live performance. Could you imagine your life without music – no radio, no muzak coming over the speakers in the grocery store, no CD stores? This is why I still have a job.
What with the rising gas prices, however, I am concerned that more people than I would like will decide not to take lessons as they prioritize where their money goes.
What is the competition like for this kind of job?
Well, it’s interesting… playing bass just doesn’t have the “glamour” that a lot of other instrumentalists enjoy, namely guitarists and solo pianists. It’s kind of like growing up dreaming of driving a bus; very few people have this aspiration with a great deal of passion at any age. For this reason, bassists tend to be few and far between; there is probably a 10 to 1 ratio from guitarists to bassists. This means that there’s a fair amount of job security in playing bass (if you’re good and you’re interested in working a lot), and there will be a demand for it so long as there are people willing to pay to be entertained. You don’t even have to be a terrific player to get work – really, all you have to do is be competent, know the material (or be able to read it on the gig), have your gear in working order, show up on time, and don’t insult the bandleader’s mother and you’ll most likely get called back for another gig.
What are the opportunities for career advancement?
Being a professional musician means that you’re the captain of your own ship – you are bound only by the limits you place upon yourself. If you want to play 7 days a week and do studio work all day (assuming you can land the jobs in the first place), and you can keep that workload up for an extended period of time, people will certainly begin to notice you – and that’s a good thing for a good bass player.
What is the typical “career path” for this type of position?
It’s really different for everybody. Lots of people start out playing in clubs and bars – it’s not the most “family-oriented” environment, but it does offer a chance to play in front of others and get paid for it. It’s wonderful experience, but many players choose to keep this as their livelihood for many years. There are, however, other places to play, and the bigger and more popular bands are able to pick up better gigs. Cities have programs where they put on free concerts for the residents, and pay for bands with taxpayer money; larger concert halls offer an opportunity for a band to bring in a larger audience and charge admission; festivals all over the world of varying shapes and sizes have bands going on day and night; private citizens have need for entertainment on occasion (weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, holiday parties, etc.) Also, most big cities have agencies that will have musicians on call to send to particular gigs.
As a studio player, it’s much more difficult. Perfect listening environments show off flaws in your playing that you never would have noticed otherwise, and only a select few players are able to overcome this. Getting started usually involves a recommendation from someone else (usually someone who can’t take the gig for one reason or another), and the pay once again depends on the client and the agreed upon price.
Private students came to me purely by accident – I used to hang out at a music store here in town and play the basses for fun. One day one of the employees said, “We just got two requests for bass lessons – feel like giving it a try?” I do know, however, that I never would have been offered the position had the employees not respected my playing.
Was this job/career what you expected it to be? Why or why not?
Really, I had no expectations. I simply looked for ways to play out with other people and get paid to do it. And it’s like the weather in Colorado – it’s rarely the same thing twice in a row. Depending on your personality, this can be a good thing or a bad thing. Personally, I enjoy the variety – even though my current “main gig” is playing 3 nights a week at the same place, the clientele is different every night, and it keeps things interesting.
What advice would you offer to someone interested in this occupation?
Most important: you better love it. You better love to play for other people, you better love to make other people happy with the way you play, and you better learn to find ways to enjoy what you’re doing even in the worst of circumstances. You need to understand that this is not a way to “get rich”, unless you plan on joining the Rolling Stones. This is a means to do what you love and get paid for it. And if you have a problem with being told what to play, you can start your own band, but there’s no guarantee that anyone is going to like it. At that point it becomes a labor of love, and it’s no longer a profession unless your band catches on. What I’m getting at is, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be allowed total musical freedom and be paid well for it – but the rewards of this vocation far exceed any amount of money you’ll probably ever get paid for it. Sure, it’s a lot of work getting good enough to be able to do this, and you probably won’t be driving around in your Lexus anytime soon, but come Monday morning all my friends go off to work… I go off to play.