Obserations From Interviews With Top Musicians

sax4blues

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This last year I've been listening to a lot of guitar player interviews. Here are a couple points which every single player has related from their history. I know there will be an individual exception(that's why it's called exception), but I believe if you don't check these boxes you are probably not going to be playing the LA Forum anytime soon.

- Full time effort for many years. Music IS what they do. I can’t recall off hand any who have a four year college degree edit; Brian May, Jeff Baxter, or any other trades/professional significant experience, not including working for 2 months in construction or music store.

- Taking every opportunity to play. Lot’s of free gigs, lot’s of ****ty gigs, wide range of genre gigs.

- Moving to a music center; LA, NY, Nashville, London, etc… I can’t recall anyone living with parents past 16-18.

- Being held to an incredibly high standard. Top gigs with national/international stars perfection is expected. Kind of like professional sports, EVERYBODY is the very best person from their town/state/school, etc…

- It’s mostly who you know and timing/opportunity. The previous item, skill, is a given, the price of entry. The first three items are where you develop the inner circle. When music is all you do, you tend to end up around other people who do a lot of music. When you play gigs every night with every genre in every setting you tend to end up around other people who have gigs. When you live in the physical center of music you tend to end up around other music people, even at Starbucks and the grocery store.

These people almost never “audition” for a gig. They are recommended by people they know and have built relationships with. Again, with skill being a given, the primary question is often, “can I spend six months in a tour bus with this person”.
 
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aging_rocker

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...- It’s mostly who you know and timing/opportunity. The previous item, skill, is a given, the price of entry. The first three items are where you develop the inner circle. When music is all you do, you tend to end up around other people who do a lot of music. When you play gigs every night with every genre in every setting you tend to end up around other people who have gigs. When you live in the physical center of music you tend to end up around other music people, even at Starbucks and the grocery store...
Yep, I think you have put your finger on it there.

Their skills are often off the scale, but the 'hang' and 'timing/opportunity' is often what makes the difference, that and the sheer dedication, which usually involves a lot of sacrifice in other areas of life.
 

Bob Womack

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- Being held to an incredibly high standard. Top gigs with national/international stars perfection is expected. Kind of like professional sports, EVERYBODY is the very best person from their town/state/school, etc…
Gently now, it isn't a meritocracy. For years I mixed for some pretty big acts. What amazed me were two things: 1) How many of the musicians weren't exceptional... 2) how many of the really good ones are really normal, nice folks. Which leads to you next point:
- It’s mostly who you know and timing/opportunity. The previous item, skill, is a given, the price of entry. The first three items are where you develop the inner circle. When music is all you do, you tend to end up around other people who do a lot of music. When you play gigs every night with every genre in every setting you tend to end up around other people who have gigs. When you live in the physical center of music you tend to end up around other music people, even at Starbucks and the grocery store.

These people almost never “audition” for a gig.
Oh, I hear stories of auditions. Steve Lukather has some hilarious ones of being rejected or of choosing not to take gigs after auditions - and these are from after he was established. But to your point of music centers: remember that they are the graveyards of musicians and their dreams. As they say, there are ten starving guitarists better than you playing on every corner in Nashville. I got a shot at a contract with a label in the '70s and never worked in a music center. It was a chance thing, being seen by a label owner in a little town.
They are recommended by people they know and have built relationships with. Again, with skill being a given, the primary question is often, “can I spend six months in a tour bus with this person”.
That last point is really important and I hear it over and over in interviews. My point about it not being a meritocracy is to point out that a lot of success in the music business is actually out of the hands of the musician. Just being good isn't enough. You have to be seen by people who have the power to move your career along and you have to be able to represent yourself well at that moment.

I like what Joe Walsh says: "You just act like you know what you are doing and everyone thinks you do!" The first opportunity is so huge. Forty years ago I was given a shot. I was interviewed for my first job as a recording engineer while I was still in college studying recording, music composition, and electronic music. That tells you that I didn't have a lot of experience, even though I took every job opportunity. I was flown up to my prospective employer's studio and interviewed. And I fell backwards into the job. Think about the chance my employer took! I suppose I came across as smart enough and trainable because experience surely wasn't the selling point. Just like with guitar, I had to develop my chops from that point on until I became a fully-fledged engineer.

I'm still at it forty years later, having had a continual career. I'm up to my ears in music, guitar, and recording.

Bob
 

brookdalebill

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You’re astute!
It’s a serious commitment, dilettantes need not apply.
You gotta put in the time, and you can’t get too discouraged.
 

hnryclay

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I would add in alot of interviews mention has been made of always learning, and always working. Most people myself included play an hour or 2 a day at most. I saw both Steve Vai, and Pat Metheny say they practice 4-6 hours a day. That is now, not when they were starting out. That level of dedication is rare.
 

Downshift

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Tom Petty said when they packed up and moved to LA as teenagers, they never had any inclination that they might not make it. A common theme.

And speaking of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, all of my favorite bands were formed of childhood friends. I think that's the only way to organically create a sound.
 
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RCinMempho

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I'd add that most of the career studio musicians or side(wo)men seem to be incredibly positive, friendly people. They're busy and make a good living because they're very good and people like having them around.
If you are NOT pleasant to be around, you are going to find yourself with no one around you to help your career.

If that's not your natural personality, fix it. Otherwise you will likely not go far in anything.
 

Fiesta Red

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I think “stardom” or “making it” (whatever either one of those terms mean to each of us as an individual) is a blurry and transient goal, at best. For two examples, both in the Dallas/Fort Worth area:

-Buddy Whittington
Amazingly talented guitarist, singer, songwriter, bandleader, sideman (shoot, his personal band is called The Sidemen), musical director in other people’s bands/tours (sideman-plus) and performer. He’s a contemporary of the Vaughan Brothers, ZZ Top, Steve Miller, Eric Johnson and dozens of other Texas musicians who “made it” world-wide, bands and performers. He’s played all over the world, and played with several legendary performers (most notably, John Mayall).

…and yet, 99.8% of the general public has no idea who he is.

Why?
My theory is, because he looks like a plumber, not a rock star. Although many/most rock stars are not necessarily handsome/beautiful, they at least have, (*ahem*) THE LOOK

The Look
of someone who’s a little off the beaten path, whether they look like a cowboy or a gypsy or a dandy or an alien or a biker or a pirate or…you get the point. They don’t look like Joe the Plumber—and I’m not talking just the way they dress, I’m talking their version of “The Look”.

I mean, take away Edgar Winter’s crazy costumes, and you still had a skinny long-haired albino who looked a little “alien”…same goes for his brother’s Alien Cowboy Look. Their look may not have worked well for a guy who worked at Best Buy, but it was great for a performer—because they stood out.

Even an (overall) normal-looking guy like Frank Beard got attention because he was standing beside Dusty (RIP) and Billy…so he had The Look by association.

…and Frank even stated that he was the fortunate one, because he reaped all the rewards of ZZ Top, but because he didn’t have the chest-ticklers, he could go to the grocery store anonymously.

Stevie Vaughan’s mother scolded him when he complained when people kept interrupting them at dinner, “Take off That Hat and nobody will notice you!”
That Hat was The Look for SRV.

-Dave Milsap
Take everything I just said about Buddy Whittington but replace “plumber” with “used car salesman” and “John Mayall” with “Delbert McClinton”, and it still stands.

The Look alone won’t necessarily mean you’ll have a career (although a lot of pop stars can refute that statement—Milli Vanilli, New Kids on The Block and Vanilla Ice, anyone?), but not having The Look can derail immense talent, ability and hard work instantly.

And before you point out people like Joe Walsh (who looks more like a hippie mechanic than a rock star), remember—the OP said there are exceptions to every rule, including this one.
 

Toast

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I suspect in the age of the internet there are far more ways, many probably still undiscovered, to create a music career for yourself or become a musician-celebrity. The old way of groveling before a captain of industry still applies, if you're into that.
 

String Tree

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This last year I've been listening to a lot of guitar player interviews. Here are a couple points which every single player has related from their history. I know there will be an individual exception(that's why it's called exception), but I believe if you don't check these boxes you are probably not going to be playing the LA Forum anytime soon.

- Full time effort for many years. Music IS what they do. I can’t recall off hand any who have a four year college degree edit; Brian May, Jeff Baxter, or any other trades/professional significant experience, not including working for 2 months in construction or music store.

- Taking every opportunity to play. Lot’s of free gigs, lot’s of ****ty gigs, wide range of genre gigs.

- Moving to a music center; LA, NY, Nashville, London, etc… I can’t recall anyone living with parents past 16-18.

- Being held to an incredibly high standard. Top gigs with national/international stars perfection is expected. Kind of like professional sports, EVERYBODY is the very best person from their town/state/school, etc…

- It’s mostly who you know and timing/opportunity. The previous item, skill, is a given, the price of entry. The first three items are where you develop the inner circle. When music is all you do, you tend to end up around other people who do a lot of music. When you play gigs every night with every genre in every setting you tend to end up around other people who have gigs. When you live in the physical center of music you tend to end up around other music people, even at Starbucks and the grocery store.

These people almost never “audition” for a gig. They are recommended by people they know and have built relationships with. Again, with skill being a given, the primary question is often, “can I spend six months in a tour bus with this person”.
I think you hit the Nail on the Head.
 




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