Things the Best Musicians Refuse to Do

Tuesday, June 28th, 2016

When most of us think about stardom, it’s not diva behavior we’re dreaming of. Not a lot of us want to get arrested for a DUI in Canada, leave fans waiting because we’re too hung over to make it to our own shows on time, or smash up some photojournalist’s camera. We want to be pros. We’d like to get good gigs, get good paychecks, and be respected by those we deal with. We want to bring our listeners some joy, inspire other musicians, and impress other pros with our abilities.

Pursuing pro status means embodying a set of ideals that announce that this isn’t just a game to us. It means demanding excellence from ourselves and others. It also means that sometimes you have to say “no,” even when we’re asked nicely. Otherwise, you might end up doing something a great musician should never do. Here are 10 of those things.

1. Get distracted by unsatisfying projects
Sometimes non-musicians don’t get it. That’s why you’ll sometimes be asked to take on time-consuming semi-gigs. Maybe you’ll be asked to put together a set of covers for a wedding reception. Maybe somebody wants you to compose a soundtrack for a corporate training video, or sit in on keyboards for Uncle Leon’s Young Rascals tribute band.

If these gigs seem enjoyable or lucrative, go for it. But if they take up too much time, or pull you too far off course from what you’re really doing music for, feel free to respond with a firm “no.”Your musical time is valuable, and it isn’t limitless.

2. Play at your own expense
None of us should be afraid to pay our dues when starting up a new project. Open mic shows, talent contests, and unpaid slots on the B-stage at a summer festival have their uses. But those shows aren’t for established acts. Once you’ve played out a few times and have any sort of a following, there’s no advantage to taking gigs that enrich someone else and give back nothing to you.

Bar shows for tips only, or two beers apiece? Unpaid shows at colleges or public venues that have substantial budgets? If anyone is gaining financially from your performance, you should be, too. After all, it’s cost you a lot of money and time to get this far.

Of course, playing a fundraiser to finish the Giant Tortoise Room at the local animal shelter is a different story. Giving your time and talent to help others is a great thing to do. But playing to line someone else’s pockets is not. If someone asks, say that you’d love to perform, but tell them your minimum fee and let them decide.

3. Let unfinished work get out in public
That half-finished session from two years ago with your old bass player should be locked away. Those boombox demos from your practice space while you were working on new material? Hide them or erase them. Ditto for live recordings with terrible sound, studio tracks that don’t have the vocals yet, or any sort of recording with bad audio quality or audible mistakes.

It’s really hard for casual fans and non-musicians to hear past mistakes and distractions to understand how good you actually are. Don’t let crappy recordings reach the public, period. Your whole group needs to be on board with this one.

4. Allow yourself to be promoted by the wrong name
This is self-explanatory and incredibly common. Check those flyers. Check that website. The blackboard behind the bar at the place your playing this Thursday? Check it. Correct it. Send promoters a text or an email telling them exactly how to spell your name and how you should be announced. Don’t turn into a joke or confuse your fans.

5. Invest in unreliable people
The world is full of well-meaning folks who just can’t seem to get it together, and they will drag you down. Fortunately, they’ll announce their incompetence in the first three or four interactions you have with them. Some of the symptoms include: taking weeks to respond to phone calls or emails, giving you conflicting information about shows, not being around when they promise they will be, or being part of some sort of collective where the moving parts don’t talk to one another.

If you sense that someone will be a nightmare to deal with, walk away  even if that person holds the key to a gig you might want. Life is too short, and there are too many other gigs.

6. Perform with substandard gear
Robert Kiyosaki, in his popular finance book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, brags about his path to riches. He also writes, unflinchingly, about struggling and being broke. “Even when I was broke,” he writes, “I did not wear cheap clothes, and I did not drive cheap cars.” To some, that might seem elitist, and readers might question how poor ol’ Robert really was. But he felt that he had to maintain certain standards as he attempted to build an empire, and showing up to a business meeting driving Grandma’s ’78 Hoopty didn’t match them.

No matter how broke, do not find yourself onstage playing a guitar with five strings, an amp with a blown speaker, or a keyboard with missing keys. Your guitar doesn’t have to be a new Les Paul Custom, but it should have all its strings, stay in tune, and not have the jack hanging out. Mow lawns and walk dogs for extra money if you must (and do it with pride), but don’t be caught using broken equipment.

7. Get onstage out of uniform
Uniforms will vary. Maybe your stage outfit is a leather jacket with 100 safety pins stuck to it, or maybe you play in a white suit with a matching top hat and tails. But you should be flashing a look that communicates something about what your act is all about and differentiates you from someone walking down the driveway to pick up the morning paper.

Take the time to prepare yourself and your band for a show. Fix your hair and get your outfit on as you would for a job interview. After all, you’re interviewing to be someone’s new favorite band.

8. Take anybody for granted
Many musicians have been lucky enough to sneak backstage and meet some of their favorite artists in person. Generally, those people are just like you’d be in their position: gracious, humble, and willing to take a minute to chat with a fan, sign an autograph, and thank people for their help.

Ideally, every roadie, every sound tech, and every bouncer should be fans of yours; not just fans of your act, but fans of you. Leave them thinking you’re friendly and easy to deal with, not an entitled douchebag. Leave it to Justin Bieber to urinate in house plants and trash the green room.

9. Abandon your post
If there’s one thing that pros cite as a secret to success, it’s persistence. This means always writing, always practicing, and always promoting. Sure, if you put your instrument down for a couple of months, you can get your chops back fairly quickly. But that’s time that you could have been moving forward and improving. Keep at it! Keep tweeting, keep booking, keep promoting.

There will be times when you seem to have hit a plateau, and it’s hard to rise any further. Those are the times to push a little harder and be a little more consistent. If you really are going on vacation, leave an outgoing message for people who try to contact you, as any serious businessperson would. Post something on your Facebook feed or website about the triumphant success of your latest project, and the fact that you’ve gone off for a week or two to celebrate. You’ll call everybody who needs you when you get back.

10. Chase trends
Stay true to yourself and your sound. Mess with Auto-Tune because you think it’ll make your new single sound amazing, not because somebody else made a lot of money doing it or because you need it to copy someone else’s sound. Not a lot of stars are born by copying other artists, and turning 90 degrees to pursue musical fads will just blur your identity and make it harder to really dig your music.

 

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