I am currently on my third viewing of the amazing documentary called Hired Gun. For those who don't know why this is occupying my Netflix time I would suggest you get a peak at the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gfYbLXCHjBM
I really enjoy the movie because it lays out the reality of being a working musician in terms of what a musician has to deal with and expect from the outset. From P!nk treating her musicians like family to Billy Joel treating his band like brothers, until he no longer had any use for them, to the fact that gigs come and go quicker than a high school relationship. Aside from that it also shows how musicians who work in high profile settings rarely become famous themselves, usually get little to no credit on the songs that they perform on while not making as much money as one would assume they would make because they are not a fully invested partner in the projects they work in. This movie has it all as far as I'm concerned and so far I have learned something new at every viewing.
Stepping Into This World
My first taste of being a hired gun was in college when I was studying Music at El Camino Community College and working in my own original projects. Both of these experiences gave me the chance to meet a lot of musicians and before I knew it many of them would approach me from time to time about doing everything from session work to casual Jazz gigs. The best experiences I had was when I worked with older musicians because they pushed me to do better by showing me all that I didn't do well. It wasn't always the most comfortable experience but it let me know on the spot what I had to start focusing on both during my practice sessions and in terms of all of the other things I had to learn about being a working musician.
In my late 20's I then focused most of musical time on being a hired gun as I used that time as a way of earning extra for my now growing family. At this point I was doing much more studio work and live performances all over Southern California from big shows at places like The Viper Room to private parties in San Diego. It was a very busy time and a great way to make extra money.
Today I am very active in the Tucson music scene doing live shows in the Country Music and Jazz/Fusion scenes to studio work at multiple locations as I am lucky enough to be on call with a couple of local producers. So I guess you can say that I've done quite a bit these last several years and learned a bit about what it means to get around so to speak. So here are some of my observations that I can confirm and/or add on to many of the things shared in the film in terms of what one has to expect if they are going to work as a hired gun.
It's Business: Nothing More and Nothing Less
In the Hired Gun movie some musicians shared how the artist they worked for seemed to do a 180 degree turn on how they treated them. On a personal level it is always hard because the more time you spend with people the more you develop relationships with them. Your respect for them both as a great musician and as a professional cause you at times to have a certain amount of affection for them and there is nothing wrong with that since that is part of being human.
But...you MUST keep in the back of your mind that this gig is no different than any full time job that you had in your lifetime. Maybe it feels a little different because you're playing music but is still just the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the structure is not a band as much as it is a brand so once you accept that you will at least understand why you might be let go or be more willing to move on and do what is best for you.
Sometimes it's hard because the band you're working with is in the midst of doing well in the music business rat race and you are proud of the fact that you helped propel this brand into becoming a well respected entity. That and because the one in the group with the most leverage and/or management treats you well and even goes as far as expressing their gratitude on a regular basis. That's fine and I'm sure in most cases it's very sincere but again, this is no different than many of the employers we have worked for in the past. When business is good we are useful and even appreciated. The same can't always be said if business is bad or if something goes wrong and those in charge are looking for someone to blame. In other words, a musical brand is no different than corporate America.
The best advice I can give for this is to remember the truest statement that has been conveyed to musicians for years: always have your eye on your next gig. You never know what's going to happen. You might miss a few gigs and the sub they bring in works out really well. It is no different than a back up quarterback that fills in and does a better job than the starter. When that happens the team at times will ride to wave created by the replacement. It's not good or bad as it's just the way of the world.
Continuing with Business: Keep Networking
The last thing you should do is get comfortable with your gig. Again, anything and everything can happen so NEVER stop networking. When you're onstage, yes, you need to do your job and do your best for the band but you are still performing and representing yourself as an artist and you never know who is out there watching. Aside from that, keep up a good looking website and/or some type of music networking site that features YOU, not the band(s) you are playing in. This site is about putting your name out there so while you can refer to the bands you play in make sure the site is all about you in terms of what you are currently up to as well as other things you have done in the past.
Keep your business cards handy and pass them out to any musician, producer, recording engineer, promoter, etc. that you encounter. Be courteous and professional regardless of how others present themselves. There are certainly times when another person's attitude leaves a lot to be desired but at the end of the day you are representing yourself and people do notice how musicians conduct themselves. As the saying goes, personality defeats talent every time.
On a musical level, don't ever settle in to your gig and think it's going to last forever. Aside from working on material for the bands your are working for keep developing your other musical skills. Even though most pro musicians are diverse when it comes to playing different styles of music rust will set in if you haven't worked in certain genres in a while. Aside from keeping your chops fresh playing different styles of music on a regular basis improves a person in their totality so even if a gig does last several years your musicianship will always get better if you continue being a well rounded musician. Aside from that, since we can never predict when a door opens or closes one must be always be ready to deliver the goods.
Even More Business: Public Behavior
Even though I strongly encourage people to be as detached from emotion as possible when it comes to musical relationships I know that we will always take things personally when we are mistreated. It is no different than being treated like a product in the work force, which also hurts because most people put a lot of pride into their work and want their efforts to be acknowledged with more than a financial reward. Work is part of who we are and for many of us it can define us.
With that being said, yes, there are times when we might be fired, given ultimatums that we are not comfortable with or mistreated in one way or another. When these things happen continue with being professional in your dealings with others even though a big part of you wants to react differently.
The first thing you should NEVER do is air out your feelings publicly. Don't sit with your friends at a club and rant about the way you were mistreated. Music is a public business and you know that your words will NOT remain private. We all have trusted friends for a reason and if you're smart you'll share these feelings with your non-musical friends and a spouse or significant other who also understands the importance of keeping your feelings private. When people ask what happened be as vague as possible: It was time for a change, everyone wanted to go in a different direction, etc. And for God's sake, DO NOT post your feelings on social media. There is nothing wrong with announcing a change in your performance life but keep these announcements short and sweet. Thank the band and wish them well while also thanking their following but do not start with calling people out for anything because that is almost guaranteed to backfire in one way or another.
Musicians are a self-centered bunch and the most important thing you can have besides talent and a professional demeanor is a good reputation. And that is the thing you will lose faster than anything if you allow yourselves to react. This world is no different than the business world where human resources people will look at your social media pages while also being aware of your personal behavior and we already know what will happen if your behavior risks the company's good name. So, while you are an artist you are still a business person so it is important to act accordingly.
Gigs are fun and when you find a gig where the band has some serious chemistry it is totally unforgettable. But reality is not so kind, which is why I always see great moments like this as nothing more than just a moment in time. It's almost like looking back on a great day you had with some amazing people that brings a smile to your face before you nod your head and say, yes, that was a good day.
Band leaders can be finicky so changes are almost a given from changing song arrangements to members. Band members themselves are always on different paths so while you're locked in to a gig and enjoy each member of the band someone has an eye on something else and before you know it they are out of there and doing something else. It's just the way of it is so it's more important to accept that instead of trying to change it because it's never going to change.
So enjoy your moments and hopefully when you have a chance to look back you will not only have great memories but also know that you and your professional demeanor were part of what made those moments great not only for you but for everyone you worked with.