There are few more challenging paths in life than that of the professional musician. While many other careers offer a formalized ecosystem—replete with obligatory education, a well-defined ladder toward success, and an evolved infrastructure for job hunters—musicians (with a small exception for some classical players) are mostly left to fend for themselves, to carve out a living in a culture stonewalled against rewarding its most creative citizens. Musicians are paid poorly, are often exploited, and must constantly defend their choice against social skepticism and the pressure to “succeed” in the way it’s commonly and collectively defined. To be a professional musician is to volunteer for a life of financial insecurity, and it requires a nearly enlightened level of awareness and strength, lest the inevitable failures erode one’s self-image past redemption.
Why do it? After years spent speaking with professionals and becoming one myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is simple: because you have no other choice. Unless you feel that your life’s purpose is fundamentally defined by music—that if music weren’t the center of your universe, you’d experience a kind of death of the spirit—you simply will not persist in the face of the obstacles above. Anything short of that and the headwinds will get the better of you. So, before I examine the professional’s myriad obligations, ask yourself if this paragraph aligns with your own relationship to music. If so, read on.
The most important thing I’ve realized about being a professional is that in these times, it isn’t enough just to play your instrument well. We can all intuitively accept that being a rock star is as probable as winning the lottery, but I frequently talk to younger players who are just learning of our instrument’s in-the-trenches icons (Carol Kaye, Will Lee, Anthony Jackson, Marcus Miller, etc.), and who imagine that with enough patience and practice, they, too, will find themselves in triple-scale recording sessions with top artists at some point. Unfortunately, that world—the world extolled so frequently in these pages—is no longer. Sure, there’s a small handful of up-and-coming players doing lucrative sessions, but the days of moving to New York or L.A. and plugging into the session scene are long over. To be a first-call session musician in an industry town is basically now as improbable as being a rock star.
Given that reality, what does it mean to be a professional? To me, it means making the vast percentage of your income from music and the music industry in some way. That means shedding yourself of the mythological notion that the only two ways to make money in music are in performing and recording. There aren’t enough opportunities (or money) in those arenas any longer, and any player so enamored of their “integrity” to deny this is a player living off someone else’s income. So, the first task for a nascent professional is to consider carefully what kaleidoscope of musical hustles will aggregate to pay the bills. Take me, for example. Yes, I play and perform music—but I also write for BASS PLAYER, run a recording studio, produce, teach music privately and at multiple schools, and basically say yes to every income-generating musical opportunity that comes my way. If I didn’t, I’d be homeless or deeply unhappy in a day job I hated.
Once you’ve identified and invested in refining your skill set to maximize your income, the next step is considering carefully how you comport yourself. There are a few essential things you must know to work consistently:
● Be reliable. Do what you say you’ll do, and be on time.
● Have a positive attitude. Be an infectious person to be around.
● Learn how to read music and write great charts.
● Have a basic fluency in music technology, including your signal chain and the basics of recording.
● Get excellent and appropriate tone. Don’t be too enamored of super-expensive boutique-y basses. They have their place, but they’re not always the right tool for the job.
● Learn styles and idiomatically appropriate lines. Steal like mad. Transcribe and practice as much as you can.
● Be organized. Keep a calendar, set reminders, and minimize ball-dropping.
● Constantly strive to spend time with musicians who are better and more experienced than you.
● Go out and meet people in your city. Be a part of the scene. Contribute.
If you do the above and have the essential precursor—a relentless need to play and be involved with music—your chances of success increase. If you don’t, you’d better hope your bandmate writes some hit songs.
Bass Player Senior Contributing Editor Jonathan Herrera is the magazine’s former Editor-in-Chief. An accomplished player, Jonathan is now a full-time musician and producer. His latest endeavor is Bay Area recording studio Airship Laboratories. Catch up with him at jonherrera.com and at airshiplaboratories.com.