Friday, July 24, 2009

Living the Dream

Gigs these days are mucho hard to come by. Should I dare make a few snide remarks in such an impoverished time?


Why? Because it's so damn funny.

Plus, I don't believe the general public has any clue what the real life of working musician is like. And, if there's any way I can discourage young people from going into this as a career, then I've done something good. Before we get to the story, I'd thought we'd outline some truths, ok? O-tay.

1. Most of us have day jobs. Yes, this is true. Those who make it are a micro percentage of those who dream of the world tour, groupies and million dollar mansions. Only a select few ever get close. Even fewer last beyond one album. This day job also gives us the option to turn down ridiculous ripoff offers from club owners, bartering brides who keep upping the ante while lowering the pay or to just say no to the endless freebies that every half-assed, self-named promoter tries to pawn off as "good exposure." The day job is leverage. The best exposure is word-of-mouth.

2. We are invisible. At any social event, you can count on the musicians being even lower in status than the caterer. In fact, I would bet that once the event is over, most of the patrons would not be able to remember any music at all. Such are my own powers of invisibility that I once was accused of not being at a wedding. That is to say, a friend of the family turned the matter over to a lawyer because they were informed that in fact, there was no guitarist at said wedding and charging for such was fraudulent. Ridiculous, but true.

Yes, I am the invisible guitarist. Come see me at The Copa.

3. Money is important. We were once hired by a law firm to provide the ubiquitous background music. At first, the young girl on the phone was pleasant, taking our fee in stride and seemed to accept the terms without qualm. Then the haggling began. And continued. Finally, after she had called multiple times, I got fed up and asked her: "Mam, do you allow your clients to set your fee?" After a few stumbles, she admitted that she was just trying to impress her superiors. Nay. We are professionals in a profession where fame and wealth determine success, talent and skill, but otherwise, if possessing none of those, we are not respected by the public at large. We are ditch diggers.

The common misconception is that musicians, happy-go-lucky people with their heads in the clouds, love to play so much that they will play for free. After all, playing before an audience is its own reward, right? Wrong-o, buck-o.

Some gigs you play for money, others lean toward the elusive "art." The best is when you can combine both.

4. We know what we're doing. I have played in 40 degree weather while guests were ushered inside to warmth. I have played in burning sunshine with sweat running into my eyes making the little black ants on the page seem to swirl while guests were told to stay on the porch. I have played under a tent while a lightening storm raged. I repeated the bridal entrance song (The Taco Bell Canon) so long I thought my hand was going to fall off. I have seen guests fight off swarms of bees and other insects in a scene so surreal that I thought I was watching an old X Files episode. I have squeezed into every tight corner you could imagine, trying in vain to dodge guests and catering staff who insist on trying to knock out my partner's teeth while she plays the flute.
At the governor's mansion one fine Christmas party, I was playing while dodging like a boxer while the cattle streamed steadily by me; unable to see me because I was holding a guitar. My flutist friend was once asked to play on a hill while lightning flashed above. Lightning and a mental rod? Not wanting to be reduced to ash so early in her career, she politely declined and played inside from a safe distance. I have had people stand with their backs to me and talk about me like I was something on the stereo. I am potted plant, not an animal.

In short, all these were the result of poor planning by the no doubt hyperactive "event coordinator" named Trisha or Pam. That is why, when we arrive, we tell you where the best place to set up is because we have been doing this for decades.

There, I feel better. Let's talk about the latest adventure for the Dynamic Duo.

You would figure that since we have done this gig each year and that the fact that the venue, circumstances, expectations are virtually the same each year, that the operation would have become streamlined by now.

No. That cannot be. We are musicians. Every gig is new, but deals with the same tired old practical ties. Plus, we are invisible. I have told you that.

Every year at this gig, we are greeted with looks that immediately suggest that no one has told them anything about musicians, where do they go, what they are doing or how to get them there. I was thinking that somehow this year could be different.

Nay. Thou hopest againsth hope.

The young man behind the table was clearly trying to do his best, but he was out of his depth. He was enjoying the role of power, but was unable to discharge it effectively. I felt myself trying not to laugh as I explained who we were and why we were there. After all, it was hope against hope. I asked if a cart could be borrowed to transport our equipment. A blond, in a perfectly tailored black pants suit, paid close attention, making facial expressions of concern, consternation and confusion. She set about looking for "the blue cart." She clacked away on her shoes, returning only to tell us the mysterious blue mode of transport was nowhere to be found.

Is this a comedy?

Then, a gal appears with a dolly. She was, as LiLi describes, "struggling with her high heels." Had I noticed this, gentle readers, you would color me gay.

It is North Hall, a fairly large hall. Where to set up? Now, there is something very crucial in some gigs that determines where to set up the playing space. This is known in the trade as "The Scooby Factor." To scooby, means to leave with utmost discretion and speed. You do not want to have to break down while some suit is making their "brief remarks" and you most certainly do not want to have to sit through the speech if you are not being paid to do so.

Last year, we were stage left. LiLi, most wisely assessing the situation, realized that stage left meant no quiet scooby and its horrid implication that we would be trapped. Stage right was in the line of kitchen traffic. A huge mistake. We decided to set up close to the door. Now, I think you're getting it. Head in the clouds? Not us.

We waited as "wobbly in her high heels" girl told us to set up anywhere we liked; a fact we had already assumed. LiLi went looking for a maintenance guy and soon we had power.

We auto piloted our way through the same repertoire we've had for decades while waiting for the VIPs to arrive and be seated.
Wobbly came by and I asked, "How are we doing? It's not too loud, is it?" She had to stop and wonder what I was talking about, but the light came on and she gave an enthusiastic thumbs up. Lisa realized that I had just done this for fun and to be a devil.
After a brief brown nosing intro for the Guv, the all-too-not-brief remarks, the fumbling of index cards, a brief return to music while the entres was brought out.
Then more ceremony which was our cue to start packing up. Scooby, baby, scooby! Oh joy! Time to go home.
On the way home, Lisa stated the truth: "That gig is more about getting there, setting up than it is about actual playing."
You betcha, darling. We may not be living anyone's dream or fantasy, but we just played a paying gig for little hassle.
And that's just fine with me.
I think.


primalscreamx said...

You want invisible? I can do that one, too... right up to the point when I take out my little pad of paper, then suddenly everybody within a square mile can see me and wants to ask questions.

eclectic guy said...

But in your case, you become a person with your profession. In mine, my profession makes me invisible.

The Only Mister Ed said...

When I walk the nice doggies in their perfectly manicured neighborhoods, the rich people smile and wave. Unless they know I'm "the dog walker". Then I too am invisible, like the maid or the landscaping guy.

eclectic guy said...

This is all so true.

The snoots are amazingly blind to movements outside their tribe.

andywallen said...

No rant about the trials of gigging is complete without union shakedown thugs, the guys in cheap dark suits who show up to see that everybody has a card, looking like they're going to make us an offer we can't refuse, or collecting "job dues" on your $40 union scale gig, vanishing if you have a dispute with the club owner. Mike Westbury was a staunch proponent of this practice;if you ever wondered if he was a horses ass, stop wondering.

eclectic guy said...


I saw the union thugs only once at a gig; asking us all for union cards like we were illegal immigrants. We were popular, you see, and the union had had othing to do with that and it made them want to try to control us. I don't know if your union was as horrible as ours, but let me outline some similar characteristics:

If the client cancels, no recourse.
If club owner renigs, no recourse.
Giving jobs to favorites within the organization.
Never getting gigs for us.
Taking dues and paying shit.

I stopped paying dues years ago and will never join again. Although, our new union president is a fellow guitarist and a nice guy. I haven't had any business dealings with him.

I remain independent as all that has left me rather cynical.