A few years back, I responded to a wanted ad for a “vocalist/keys player” position in Washington D.C. At the time, I was piecing together an income from various evening music gigs, construction during the daytime, etc...grinding it out, but not succeeding in any one area on a significant scale. I had relocated from Chattanooga, TN a year or so prior and was still learning to navigate the new professional landscape. Anyway, fortune favors the bold, so when I saw the ad, I didn’t hesitate. I banged out a quick email and hit send.
Roughly 5-10 minutes later, a response came back and filled in the gig’s particulars. From the way the ad was worded, I’d gotten the impression that I’d be filling a player position in a local artist’s band, but that wasn’t the case. This was a steady cover gig at an upscale restaurant, and the pay reflected the prices on the menu. I was stunned. This was SERIOUS money...enough for me to quit all the peripheral jobs I was juggling and focus on the projects that I really cared about. Enough to change my life.
The next night I walked in at 6:30pm to audition for the regional talent manager that had flown in from Las Vegas. This was the nicest restaurant I’d ever seen. Off to my left, a table of Congressman and Senators were discussing the day’s work over cocktails. To my right, a server was uncorking a pair of $5,000.00 bottles of wine in celebration of someone’s 60th birthday. Crazy. I’ve never felt so underdressed and insecure in my life. But, I swallowed the nerves, stepped up and nailed the audition. Day = won.
So, with the two-year anniversary of that night coming up in May 2018, I’ve found myself reflecting on the whole series of events a fair bit lately. It would be hard for me to overstate how much my life has changed in the wake of it. To give a little perspective: including corporate gigs, private parties, original shows, and special events I played roughly 230 shows in 2017. I had two stints of 7 nights in a row, one stint where I played 9 gigs in a week. I spent 900+ hours on-stage performing. My income more than tripled in the space of a year. And that barely scratches the surface. No doubt, the uptick in performance earnings was a game changer, but the light-bulb moments and lessons I received while learning the gig amount to something much more valuable. Ultimately, steady cover gigs offer the artists that master them a number of advantages:
1. GRADE A practice time: practice hours under pressure with an audience that you have to look in the eye, in an environment where your mistakes count and you get fired for being boring or singing out of tune.
2. The opportunity to figure out both what works on stage and who you are as an artist.
a. Great performers all have one thing in common: they have the ability to sculpt a powerful, unique experience for their fans in the context of their concerts. Being a great performer is related to a person’s capacity to charge the emotional atmosphere of the room in intelligent, intentional ways. Performing regularly at long-form cover gigs lets you see how different styles, musical textures, and rhythmic platforms affect the mood of an audience. Long story short, when someone comes to you and says “Hey me and my 200 friends want to party our faces off for 6 hours on this date, here’s a pile of money.” You’ll know what to do and you’ll get invited back to play again, which means you get even more GRADE A practice.
b. When you are constantly processing and trying out new music on stage, you find that some material sticks to you and some doesn’t. When enough material has stuck to you, you can begin to understand who you are and where you fit in the broader community of songwriters and performers. The simplest way to search your soul is to constantly struggle against the work of other great artists.
3. Regular visibility and access to REALLY high paid performance work (as in $1,200.00+ per night for private parties, corporate parties, weddings, etc.)
a. Most musicians terribly undervalue the services they provide. If you hone your performance skills and people can count on you to ALWAYS deliver, you get to tell people what price is fair to YOU, instead of them telling you what their budget is.
4. The chance to connect to venue owners and entertainment staffing professionals in your area (i.e. the people who keep musicians working).
5. For the aspiring original artist, it offers a chance to really get your finger on the pulse of the modern music market, and that kind of knowledge is an incredibly rare commodity.
So, especially for the original artists out there, if you’re feeling uneasy about taking on gigs like the one I described above, don’t. No, you won’t be playing your own songs at these shows, but playing them will turn you into a well-oiled machine. Then, when you sit down to write your next album or plan your next big, ticketed show, you’ll bring an array of well-honed instincts to bear on the task and THAT will set you apart from the pack.
For those reading this, thanks for stopping by. To my fellow artists, keep working. Catch you next time.