Working on your chops vs. selling out

When I studied Music Industry in London (all the way back in 2010), one of my favourite subjects was called The Business of Music Performance and it was taught by a rad guy called Chris Banks. The subject was based around Chris' experiences as a fairly successful session musician (playing keyboard for the Sugababes around that time if I remember correctly), and the insights and skills garnered from his significant experience in this industry. We learned how to write resumes for session work, how to do invoices and do our own accounting, how to find performance-based work, and a heap of other practical stuff.

Despite all the practical skills gained from completing assignments and so on, there were two ideas that he communicated that really stuck in my mind. The first was:

"If you really want to be a musician, make sure you find a day-job that works on your chops." (Note: If you're unfamiliar with the word "chops", in the music world it just means "your technical abilities on your instrument")

Many musicians shy away from doing corporate/function band work because they see it as "selling out". But Chris told us about how when he and some friends were young, they got a job playing at a ski resort for the high season, and played the same kind of crowd pleasing music day in, day out. It wasn't the genre of choice for any of the band members, but once you've played the standard pop hits enough times, you get so bored that you HAVE to find ways to improvise musical parts, or to engage the crowd more, to pass the time. And if you find yourself doing this, chances are you're getting WAY better at your craft, whether you realise it or not. 

In fact, this is kind of what the Beatles did when THEY started out. In 1960 when they were really just starting out as a band they discovered that they could get a regular "gig" if they moved to Hamburg, Germany. So they all up and left and earned £2.50 per day, playing covers, for absurdly long hours. Each day they'd play 4 sets between 8pm and 2am on weeknights, 5 sets from 7pm to 3am on Saturdays and from 5pm to 1.30am on Sundays. “In Liverpool, we just used to do our best numbers, the same ones at every gig,” John Lennon said in Anthology. “In Hamburg, we would play for eight hours, so we really had to find new ways of playing. […] We got better and got more confidence, playing all night long. It was handy, them being foreign. We had to try even harder, put our heart and soul into it, to get ourselves over.” 

The second thing that Chris always said in our course was this:

"It's not the virtuosos that get the jobs. It's the people who follow through on their commitments, and are nice, reliable, and respectful that get the jobs."

Whether it's work in a live or recorded setting, many producers or artists would of course say they'd like to work with "the best drummer" or "the best violin player". But it just so happens that often the people who are the best at something, often have the biggest fees, and sometimes the biggest egos. And from a producer's perspective this combination could mean a waste of both money and time. Instead what they really want is someone who's good enough to play the style of music with a level of confidence, someone who shows up when they say they're going to, and someone who's nice and amicable when working with everyone else. This is the magic combination of skills that get the job done, every time. And as a musician, they make you super employable.

This advice is valid for people doing original work too! Some artists get tied up thinking they need to constantly upskill themselves before they can "make it". Like "if only I could play that riff, then I'd be good enough". Although getting better at your instrument will generate confidence, at a certain point it becomes not necessarily about your proficiency alone. The crowd want to see an engaging performance. The venue booker or promoter wants to see that you load in on time and that you know your way around invoices and APRA forms. The sound engineer wants you to remember their name, and not make life difficult for them where possible. And that's it. 

So... (TL;DR)

1. Don't worry about "selling out". Just go work on your chops.

2. Remember (for instrumentalists and vocalists alike) it's not JUST your technical skills that matter. Having plenty of performances under your belt is also time to demonstrate being a great performer and a generally nice, reliable human. These are all skills that will take you forward.


This article was inspired by a good friend of mine back in the UK, Matthew Rusk, who is doing awesome work at the moment with music teachers across the UK and Ireland.