My career as a freelancer for original acts
People who have followed my career have seen it take many twists and turns. The early NFS era. The solo Asbury Park era. The Gotrock era. The Big Danny/Vini era. The Chik-A-Boom era and of course the 20+ year Clearwater Festival era.
As Chik-A-Boom was winding down around the turn of this decade I found myself into my latest phase, when I played the part of a free lance musician for mostly original acts.
It all started when I began hanging around the open mics of my friend Cook around 2008. I was meeting a lot of singer-songwriters. Through almost no initiative of my own I found myself eventually performing with around a half dozen or so original acts on a regular basis, and altogether I was part of at least one or two dozen over the next few years.
I say “no initiative of my own” because I was not the one who inquired about performing with them, they approached me.
Well first of all, let me say it was an honor to be associated with some of them, and certainly an honor to be approached at all.
Some of the acts were some of the tops in their field, so I felt I was pretty successful in that phase of my career. Of course I knew I helped and even contributed to that success, though as we will see here, it wasn’t always credited to me. No matter, I did it out of respect and love of music, but again, read on.
Recently I have been rehearsing with a new cover band, and if it works out, one way or another, I will be completely out of that phase and once again playing cover music.
Barring any discussion of the merits of either scene (they both have their merits and drawbacks for musicians), I would like to relate some of my experiences and what I learned about the scene, its people and myself over those years.
So here it is, my career as a freelance musician for original acts, and what I learned from it.
1) No or low pay. First of all, keep in mind that unless you are strictly on a for hire basis (which many musicians are), being a freelance musician for the original scene is probably the least lucrative of all gigs. But even if the money is not great (even non-existent) you do get some other perks. You get a lot of recognition you would never get as a cover musician, for example. You get to be on iTunes and Amazon (sometimes), on the radio and TV, and you get to play some great music with some very talented people. For me all of those more than made up for the lack of $. And of course I was still performing with Chik-A-Boom and Mike And Al-Vis sometimes so I was making good money with them.
2) Expect to learn a LOT OF SONGS! The last band I played with told me initially that they only had a few songs with just a few changes each. That turned out to not be true at all. They had maybe a dozen songs and most of them had fairly intricate changes. I had to leave them, not really for that reason (I had learned most of their stuff by the 2nd rehearsal) but because I wanted to spend more time with my new cover band. That pretty much marked the end of my freelance phase.
Anyway, again, every band you play with will expect you to learn at least a dozen songs, solos and all. It is not an easy gig. These are not songs you have heard on the radio a million times (like they are in cover band) but some of them can be quite tricky. And a lot of the songwriters will tell you to interpret it your own way (which I don’t like being told, BTW, its a cop out and often isn’t even true- as they come back at you with: “you didn’t play this this way and you didn’t play that this way”).
3) If the time comes when you are no longer needed you will not be told usually. They will just stop calling you.
I could never figure this one out, no matter how many times it happened. Of course I didn’t expect to be performing forever with the acts- I was considered free-lance. But to not tell me and have me find out by seeing an ad featuring your new guitarist- thats kind of ungrateful and insulting. Yet it happened several times.
4) On the other hand if YOU decide you can’t do the gig anymore expect them to react quite selfishly and ungratefully, to say the least. Expect a lot of anger and angry words which you probably don’t deserve.
In fact, when one particular act ended this way, the songwriter (who I had performed with all over NJ, many times for free) told me never to speak to hear again. And her photog friend demanded that I remove all pictures of her that he took from my hard drives. I did so and also removed all pictures and clips of her no matter who took them- from all of my sites. I don’t need self-destructive idiots in my life.
From here onwards if it is necessary to refer to her (because I don’t want her threatening me with legal action, which did several times) it was be as the Wicked Witch Of The North, or WWN for short.
Of course, not all acts treat you like this. I have found in general (but not always), that the more talent and success an act has the better they treat you. Not really sure why but maybe they have gotten further because of something called “class”.
Another act jumped to all the wrong conclusions when I told them I couldn’t continue. They called me a bunch of names and made a lot of horrible accusations. Right, good way to end things, burn that bridge. I gave them several hours of rehearsal and learned all their songs. But again, the rule applied and by that time I had been in that situation long enough to expect it.
But here’s a little help for you original acts: If you are not paying your guitarist try to be nice to him and hear him out when he is honest with you and says he just can’t do your act any more. If you want to keep using that guitarist (or any others, because he is probably going to blog about you) later.
5) Musicians are some of the most egotistical assholes you will ever meet (and so are computer programmers, usually even worse). Singer songwriters are much worse and can act like some of the most entitled and spoiled brats you will ever see.
Just one example should drive this home. There was one award (which I was nominated for, in the category of Best Supporting Musician, 2 years in a row in fact) which is no longer given. I think it should be revived, if anyone has the time- certainly the scene needs it. It was called the “Jersey Acoustic Music” or JAM award.
A songwriter I had been performing with was in attendance and was nominated in several categories. Actually that was the high water mark of my experience and several very talented songwriters I had been involved with were in attendance.
At the end of the show this songwriter came up empty- no awards. I wasn’t shocked- some of those categories had dozens of nominees. But this person was so upset they left in tears, not saying goodbye to anyone.
Really. Over an award that had dozens of nominees. I could see being disappointed but to actually throw a fit like that I thought revealed a lot about that persons real motivations, which evidently included a lot more than just making great music.
At any rate, within the year I was discarded from the band without notice so the combination of what I saw that night and being bounced told me all I needed to know and I was more thankful than disappointed when I was let go.
6) Songwriters use structural cliches the same way soloists use “licks”. As most improvisers will tell you, a “lick” is a common tidbit, a group of notes that a player will use over and over, in different combinations.
Songwriters do the same thing sometimes. For example, one songwriter always put a Minor VII to V resolution in her songs (in the key of G this would be F to D). And another would always have a “climb” section, where the progression would go up from ii to iii to IV, for example. This made it a little easier to learn their songs.
7) Don’t always expect to be dealt with honestly, and even if you are, don’t expect to be given the whole truth. For example, if a songwriter has a cover project on the side, sometimes they will hide this info from you, or even lie about it. Not really sure why but it happened a few times to me. Another scenario is where a price is set for a number of pieces, so if the performer decides they can make more money without you they will. Not that money should figure into any of this, unless you WANT it to.
8) You will almost NEVER be asked to perform on any recordings. This is a given. Many singer songwriters have deals with producers who use their own musicians in the studio, so don’t expect to be on the singer’s CDs. If you are, don’t expect to make any money from it- I never have.
9) Never expect any of your hard work to be returned in kind. When I started my showcase Al-Vis and Friends I expected that at least some of the original acts I worked with (or even helped to push when they were starting) could be cajoled into performed even as a PAID FEATURED ACT. Almost none of them have even responded to my messages or phone calls, much less shown interest.
If it is returned in kind be thankful but then again, this is going to be the exception, not the rule.
10) Singer-songerwriters are just human. A lot of them have put large parts of their lives on hold or made other sacrifices. Many of them are very emotional, and this emotionalism can be construed as being self-centered. They don’t really feel entitled- they feel insecure and so they come off as appearing entitled.
None of this excuses some of the shitty ways I have been treated (or for those who were gracious and kind, explains this part of their emotional make-up). But it does explain it. It explains why they treat those around them in the music biz the way they do- as tools and commodities instead of as human beings.
And supporting musicians aren’t perfect either. We can be very unreliable, uncaring, aloof, ungrateful, forgetful and also come across as entitled.
The best advice I can give to both sides is just: Be nice. God gave you a gift, not a license to treat people like shit. If you perceive the gift(s) He gave you as being such then there’s this little thing called Karma, which I haven’t even gotten to yet here. Except- where is that singer-songwriter who took me off her CDs? And the WWN who told to never talk to her again? Where? Where?