In the course of posting content I get asked the same questions over and over so I figured it may be time to break down the basics of what it takes to be a working musician.
The one question that gets asked over and over is probably one of the most basic:
"What does it mean to be a professional musician?"
And look, there are a lot of schools of thought about this subject but I wanted to go ahead and provide my take on this question and what I think it really is getting to the heart of.
So let's break it down to the basics: In my opinion, a professional musician is someone who gets paid to perform music on a regular basis.
If your band plays out for more than your bar tab, congratulations! You’re a professional musician!
Some may argue that music needs to be your primary source of income in order to be called a professional but let’s not kid ourselves.
Even players that tour with big name artists don’t make their living solely by performing or recording. Nearly every musician I know has one or multiple other hustles they use to pay their bills.
This widens the population of professional musicians considerably, and I think that’s a good thing!
If more musicians looked at themselves through this lens, I think the musician population as a whole could be much more successful.
Now, that solves the internal struggle that I think a lot of players face.
We all know the damage that imposter syndrome can have on our mental health so rest assured that the barrier of entry has now been met!
On the other hand, I think there are some specific things that you need to do to be considered a professional musician by others.
This is primarily for musicians looking to join bigger groups or get established as a sub or hired gun in their local market.
Just like any other job, you need to be willing to do the following things to present yourself to the market as a professional
#1- You need to be competent on your instrument.
This means that whatever gig you take, your abilities match or exceed the material you are going to cover.
One mistake I see a lot of players make is they over promise and under-deliver when they volunteer for gigs.
For me personally, I am a solid rhythm guitar player, an ok lead guitarist, a solid rock bass player, and a very competent vocalist.
Any gig that crosses my path that doesn’t fit those skill levels, I will more than likely pass along to someone else.
My primary goal as a player is to show up and crush. If don’t think I can do that, I don’t take the gig.
#2- You need the right gear for the job.
You need to make sure what you’re using for the gig is up to the level of the act you’re playing with.
If they use kempers, you need a direct solution as well.
If they use live amps on stage, you need to also.
Also, just like your dad says, “Dress for the job you want”.
Make sure you’re not sticking out on stage with your instrument or outfit.
If you’re filling in for a country band, don’t bring your tribal BC Rich warlock to the gig.
And I know it seems silly to talk about clothes or fashion, but the fact of the matter is that live music is as much a visual medium as an auditory one and these things do matter.
On the topic of blending in, be aware of the other player’s performance style and try to blend in with that.
If the rest of the group is kind of laid back, and you’re doing hair windmills or standing in front of the lead singer, that’s gonna hurt your chances of being called back.
Do your best to look like you belong there, even if you don’t necessarily feel like you do.
#3- You need to know the material.
If you want to come into an established project or command a certain price as a player, you need to make sure you have done all the necessary leg work to do a good job.
That means not only that you work through the songs for the set list, but that you ask questions and make sure you know the changes a band has made to the song like endings, stops, and other special moments. An attention to detail is crucial for musicians who want to build a reputation in their market.
#4- You need to be easy to get along with.
Touching back on the toxic mindset post, your talent can only get you so far.
Personality and “hang” is equal to or maybe more important than how well you play.
Live music is a fluid, collaborative experience and you can either contribute to, or take away from, the vibe on stage with your attitude or personality.
That also should include the venue owner and staff, fans, and anyone else you come into contact with.
Someone put their neck out and gave you the opportunity, make sure you show them the courtesy of not being a jerk.
And lastly, #5- You need to do a good job
Preparation and personality aside, you need to show up on time or early, with everything you need, and perform your ass off.
You need to make sure you’re not stepping on anybody’s toes
That may mean asking permission before posting to social media about the show, or before recording yourself or the group at the gig.
That usually also means not getting carried away with the bar tab.
You should be clear headed enough to execute well, whatever that means for you personally.
Above all, the people who hired you should see you as consistent and reliable, and those two things are 100% in your control.
So do the work ahead of time, and make sure you see it through to the other side.
Whether you play 5 gigs a week, 5 gigs a month, or 5 gigs a year, that’s what it takes to be a true professional.
Well guys there you have it, 5 things you need to do to be a pro musician! Were there any things I forgot? Leave comment and let me know.
Adam and Dan play in bands. They're pretty good.