Benjamin Coy


Waiting for a call

February 2, 2015 at 11:53 am

Musicians (especially freelance musicians) spend a lot of time waiting for the phone to ring. Which raises the question: who are we expecting to call? Random calls are vanishingly rare; gigs nearly always come through pre-existing relationships. So rather than simply staring at the quiet phone, it makes sense to invest in the kinds of relationships that will lead to calls later. This is, of course, a long-term investment. I’ve found almost nothing I can do to make the phone ring for a gig tonight. Instead, it’s about setting up the kind of environment where you have some expectation that the phone might ring, and who might be on the other end when you answer.

(from The Peterson Project)

There is a prevailing notion that the best way to get calls is to take free gigs. This is a dicey proposition, because it devalues the product. Why would someone offer to pay you to play when they know you (or someone like you) will play for free? Working for “exposure” is a statement that music isn’t “real work” and doesn’t need to be compensated with “real money.” You may well capture somebody’s attention with your playing, and they may well call you — to ask if you’ll work for free again.

There are a number of better ways to get people to notice you and consider you for gigs. I’m not very good at politics, so I’m speaking from the trenches here. These are some strategies that have worked for me, even if I’m less than adept at executing them!

Most obviously, you can pay people to listen to you. At first glance, this is less enticing than playing for free — who wants to pay to play? But this arrangement makes it clear that you understand the value of a musician’s time and are being professional about the whole thing. Usually this is done under the guise of a “lesson.” Take a lesson from a person who gets more gigs than you, make sure you play your best, and hope you impress them enough that they add you to their list. If you get any tips on your playing, that’s great but tangential to the true purpose of the lesson.

If you’re in a situation where someone you know fairly well has overflow work, you may be able to approach that person to “play duets” without paying a lesson fee. Just like in the lesson situation, you have an opportunity to demonstrate your qualifications to your acquaintance. In addition to your individual skill, though, you can also show your ability to blend and match style. Note that this is different than just hanging out; while it will feel more casual than a formal lesson, it’s still an audition, and every note you play must sound amazing. It may be socially appropriate to drink a beer or pull out unfamiliar music, but don’t let these distractions cause you to produce sounds you wouldn’t at a paid gig.

To make life more difficult, people give work to their friends, regardless of playing ability. In the best sense, this means that even fantastic players must maintain professional behavior; if they don’t show up on time, prepare in advance, etc., they won’t be called back. The other side of this coin is that people who are new to a city must integrate themselves into the right social circles in order to get calls, even if they sound great. When you’re new to town, it can be difficult to identify the correct social circles, and even more difficult to join them. But, there’s a lot to be said for buying someone a coffee. The face time will put you on that person’s radar, and listening to them talk should give some insight into the area’s political environment.

It is important to note that even if one of these strategies is successful, you’ll be added to the bottom of the list and only get called when no one else is available. That means that gigs will still be infrequent, and they won’t pay enough to attract anyone else’s attention. You won’t take most of these gigs for the money or the quality of repertoire: you’ll take them for the professional relationships you can make with the other people playing.

Overall, I think it’s important to analyze your career from the perspective of determining who is doing the most for you. Is there one individual who is helping you get most of your work? Is your teacher asking you to sub? Is a friend passing you gigs he or she can’t take? If so, you have a problem. It’s wonderful that this person is so helpful, but the person who should be doing the most for your career is yourself. Everyone benefits from (and requires) external help, but taking those leads and forging your own professional relationships is the only way to turn those one-off calls into regular performances.

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