By Zack Albetta
Last year, I was playing a month-long run of a musical. Before one of the shows, I went into the green room of the theatre in search of the coffee, cookies and candy that are typically on offer in green rooms. Tacked to the wall, I noticed a weathered-looking piece of paper that read “The Ten Commandments of Show Biz.” The list showed no date and no author. It was obviously geared toward actors but as I read through it, I realized how relevant it was to musicians. I took a picture of it because I knew each commandment would bear repeating, if only to myself, and that each could be expanded upon from the musician’s perspective.
1.) TAKE THE MONEY
If you want to be a professional musician for hire, don’t be too choosey about who you accept work from. You will get offers to play music you don’t like, in places you don’t like, for/with people you don’t like. Newsflash, most people don’t like all aspects of their job all the time. Ideally as musicians, we do what we do because we love it, but that doesn’t put us above doing it for money. My grad school mentor, Bobby Watson, always says that your skills as a musician are “both your offense and your defense”. You can use your skills to express yourself, but you can also use them to survive. There is no such thing as selling out, there is only selling. You’re either selling your skills or you’re not.
2.) EAT WHEN YOU CAN
As performers, our schedules don’t often cooperate with regular life. I don’t know about you, but my heart and mind aren’t really focused on anything I do (let alone drumming) if I’m hungry. Drumming is not only a physical activity, but also a cerebral one. Up to 20% of the energy your body expends is used to power your brain. Using the windows in your schedule to fuel up will optimize your physical and mental performance behind the drums. And of course, you should lean towards healthy food that will give you energy, not crappy food (cookies and candy in the green room notwithstanding) that will ultimately rob you of it.
3.) NOTHING IS IN THE BAG, SO DON’T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB
No gig lasts forever. Tours get cancelled, venues go under, productions go belly up. Once in awhile, a gig comes along that allows you to quit whatever else you’re doing and never look back. But more often, the transition from the job you hate to the career you love is much more gradual. Ideally, you will be able to quit your day job, but don’t let a busy season or a gig that looks like it may have some longevity fool you into doing it before you’re really ready to rely solely on music.
4.) DON’T MESS WITH THE STAGE MANAGER
Stage managers are the gatekeepers and the key masters of the live production world. Everything that happens before, during and after a show goes through them and they have the power to make just about anyone’s life difficult at just about any time. As musicians, we don’t have as much occasion to deal with a stage manager as actors, but many of your gigs will entail some level of cooperation with non-musicians. So take this commandment to include not just stage managers, but any non-musician who may hold sway over you in a given situation. Anyone from a party planner to a sound engineer to a lighting technician could choose to mess with you on the gig if you give them a reason to. Musicians can have a reputation for being high-maintenance, cranky, standoffish, or prima donnas. So just be nice.
5.) NEVER TURN YOUR BACK ON A PRODUCER
In essence, never burn a bridge. For musicians, this is most applicable in the recording world, where producers develop long-standing relationships with musicians and use them for different projects. Producers are ultimately the people who sign the checks and if you make an enemy of one, it could cost you a lot of work. But like the previous commandment, this one is good advice for pretty much anyone you work with/for, not just producers. It almost never pays to antagonize bandleaders, musical directors or your fellow musicians. Even the largest musical communities are pretty small when it comes to word getting around about someone, for better or for worse. You’ll probably encounter situations in which you feel mistreated or cheated, and telling someone where to get off might feel good in the short term. But it’s almost always better to be polite and professional, and send them off with a reason to recommend you.
6.) LEAVE YOURSELF ALONE AND WORK TO BE BETTER
Every day in the music business can bring an uppercut to your ego. Especially in this age of social media, it’s all too easy to see what any other musician, be it your friend or your idol, is up to. It’s equally easy to beat yourself up, wonder why you didn’t get the call for this or that gig, why someone younger than you seems to be doing better, etc. Don’t worry about it. As long as you can point to progress in your playing, don’t compare it too harshly to someone else’s. Part of that means figuring out what kind of player you want to be, which can take awhile. Your calendar and your income will have peaks and valleys. Don’t let short-term setbacks and discouragements distract you from a long-term upward trajectory. Set musical and professional goals for yourself, be patient, and don’t hold yourself to the standard of someone else’s goals.
7.) NEVER SHARE A VAST IDEA WITH A HALF VAST PERSON
It is invaluable to have people to talk with and bounce ideas off of. Setting goals, bringing ideas to fruition and working through dilemmas often require talking it out with someone. Make sure it’s someone whose judgment you trust, whose advice you respect, and who can keep a secret if necessary. Letting the wrong person in on an idea or a crisis could lead to trouble.
8.) NEVER FORGET WHAT THEY’VE DONE TO YOU, BUT NEVER SHOW THEM THAT YOU REMEMBER
Think of this as an addendum to the 5th commandment. If someone mistreats you, you have the option of never working with them again. But opportunity or necessity may send you back. It’s up to you to decide if the money, the music, or whatever the upside of a gig happens to be is worth reckoning with the downside. If the answer is yes, you know what you’re signing up for. As far as they know, you’re happy to be on the gig and would like to be on more. Don’t give them a reason to think otherwise. Be polite, be professional. You can always turn them down next time.
9.) NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE BAD TASTE OF THE ARTISTICALLY PRETENTIOUS
As a performer, the struggle between art and commerce is constant. It can be easy to adopt a mentality of holier-than-thou artistic integrity, especially in the early stages of your musical journey, when idealism is at its peak. It can also be easy to adopt the opinions of those who impress you, and whom you in turn want to impress. But don’t swallow everything whole. All art, not just music, has a mainstream and a fringe. Being on the fringe doesn’t make it deep, and being mainstream doesn’t make it shallow. Look for substance. Accessibility is just as much of an artistic virtue as abstraction. In fact, making something accessible usually takes more care and skill than making something abstract. Again, Bobby Watson put it best when, in the middle of an improvisation class he said, “Anybody can play something nobody understands.”
10.) FAME IS WHAT OTHERS GIVE YOU, SUCCESS IS WHAT YOU GIVE YOURSELF
Most people, regardless of their field, have a different definition of success later in life than when they were young. You may find that a goal you set was unrealistic, or that it is no longer your goal. You may find unexpected fulfillment on an unlikely path, whether you chose it on a lark or were forced down it for some reason. As everyone in the Working Drummer Spotlight Series will tell you, you don’t have to be famous to be successful. Most people who do amazing work do it in relative anonymity. Your definition of success can and probably should be subject to change, because you have the power to define it for yourself. Fame is bestowed on very few people, is not usually merit-based, and is almost always temporary. Success is the opposite, on all counts.