Six (Boring) Tips to Become a Professional Musician

The world is filled with young men and women who dream of achieving the ultimate scam: paying for food and housing through their music rather than through the more common techniques of selling people life insurance or painting houses. I have achieved this dream during different periods of my own life, having become the only lunatic who financed the startup of a strategic consulting firm through revenues generated by Latin jazz. Getting paid at all for music is a neat trick, and when it's actually paying for your rent, it feels like magic. If you aren't already mid-way through medical school, maybe you might want to try it.

As it so happens, I am in possession of multiple can't-miss tips on how to achieve this dream for yourself. These come with a serious caveat: none of these will sound exciting. Being in a hit band with gobs of money and screaming crowds is exciting. Gear, with its cornucopia of lovely, boutique tone machines, is exciting. Being a music professional, on the other hand, can sound profoundly dull. Are you ready for some boring, essential tips to reach your musical dreams?

Tip One: Buy a Watch

You probably thought that the metronome was the most important timekeeper in music, but it's really the clock. Want to watch your career take off? Show up 30 minutes before everyone else to the gig. Never, under any circumstances be late. This may seem simplistic or obvious, but among musicians, I assure you that it is the exception, not the rule. Showing up consistently early tells bandleaders and venue owners alike that you respect their efforts and are there to give your best. I can attest from personal experience that I have taken gigs from better players simply because I showed up on time while the other guy showed up late, drunk, or not at all. Time is money.

Tip Two: Carry an Extra Cable

This is really a general recommendation to keep you gear in working order at all times. Make sure that you have an extra of everything you need to make music. (Within reason; nobody expects you to own a spare Hammond B-3.) Play enough, and things will break at the gig. When it does, the professionals are the ones with a backup of everything. Spare strings; spare batteries; wrenches and truss rod adjusters; reeds - everything essential to make sure there is no reason you can't execute the services for which you are being paid as a professional.

Tip Three: Practice at Home

I’m looking at you, guitarists and bassists. You can always tell amateurs on a gig when there is four minutes of noodley riffs between songs. Another common affliction is the beginning of every tune being a two minute loop of the opening riff, followed by the rest of the band sort-of playing along until it gets rolling.

Look, I am a bassist, so I am not admonishing you for any infraction that I have not committed. ("Bless me Father, for I have sinned. I slapped between songs at a country gig.") And that is why I am sure: professional musicians start the song without the opening riff spoiler, and they leave their bitchin' arpeggio runs for their practice rooms.

Tip Four: Buy a Black Suit

Once upon a time, this author was in his early twenties and had just started to get gigs with salsa bands. For one private party, the bandleader instructed everyone to wear a suit. Every other member of the band was in a stylish black suit while the newbie had on his painfully square blue JC Penney office wear. The pianist leaned over and said dryly, "Buy a black suit, man."

This extends to whichever style of music you are playing for money. If it's a Jimmy Buffett tribute act, you best locate some Hawai'ian shirts. Doing '80s New Wave? Find yourself a skinny tie. For my last honky-tonk gig, pearl-button shirts and cowboy boots looked a lot better than a black T-shirt.

It's show business. Dress for a show.

Tip Five: Change your strings

Nothing screams amateur hack like the muddy, out-of-tune peanut butter blobs that emanate from old bass strings. Professionals always sound good. That does not mean that every pro will have the most expensive instrument; that honor is usually reserved for hedge funders and dentists, irrespective of skill. A professional might just have a $725 instrument and $600 amplifier - but they sound good, well-matched to the style of music. Pedal boards are tidy and have the right power source. Strings are new. The pro does whatever it takes to be able to provide a quality service in exchange for money.

Tip six: Bring a Business Card

It actually isn't too hard to be a professional - you just have to exchange music for money on a somewhat regular basis. Like any business, you seek out potential clients, either "prime contractors" such as bandleaders and agents, or "end clients" such as venue owners and concert promoters. You then agree upon a rate of compensation, and engage in commerce. Whether you play kazoo or lead an orchestra, what makes a professional is to approach music like a business.

Want to look like a pro? When somebody inquires about your services, you don't scribble your bleary cell number on a cocktail napkin - you produce a pre-printed business card. This doesn't have to have flaming treble clefs or a silkscreen of your face. It just needs your name and contact details. Website or exhortation to "Check Us Out on iTunes"? Even better. Either way, you distinguish yourself as someone who provides a service like any other business. This will reduce surprise when someone low-balls you on price and you respond, "Hey pal, free is a four-letter word beginning with F, and people die from exposure."

These six tips are way less exciting than "94 Riffs That Will Get You A Romantic Partner By the End of the Night!!!" But they are also the best way to achieve the ultimate scam - collecting money in exchange for what you would be doing anyway: playing music on your favorite instrument. As with music itself, the devil is in the details.

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