Money & Career, So You Want My Job

So You Want My Job: Guitarist

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Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable man jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

For this installment we interviewed, Dan Skidmore. Like Joe Cope before him, Dan proves that you can have both a regular day job and doing something you love on the side. Dan is a Ph.D statistician by day and a professional guitarist every chance he gets.  He really rocked out this interview for us. Thanks Dan.

You can read more about Dan and listen to some of his sweet riffs here.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Where did you go to school? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc).

I earned my Ph.D. in Sociology about ten years ago from the University of Connecticut. Since that time I’ve worked in government and the private sector in and around Washington D.C. More recently I moved back to my hometown in upstate NY. I’m currently a director of Institutional Research at a local college.

I’m also a single dad of two great girls and a professional guitarist. I’ve been at the guitar thing since my first high school band 27 years ago and have played pretty much everything imaginable at this level of the industry, from tiny clubs to 10,000-person festivals. (Note: you know you’re in a tiny club when the club mascot is a goat – a real live goat – and it’s walking around the bar.) Most of my work is in and around a metropolitan area of about 700,000 people.

I’m what some in the music industry call a “weekend warrior.” How can you tell if you’re a weekend warrior? If every time you need a long power cord to run your electric weed whacker you have to dig through your equipment bag from Friday night’s gig, you’re probably a weekend warrior. If all the 9-volt batteries have been removed from the smoke detectors in your house to run your effects pedals, you’re probably a weekend warrior…. You get the picture.

2. Did you ever consider trying to play music as your full-time gig? When and how did you decide to combine being a guitarist with a more standard day job?

I never saw music as a full-time profession. I’m one of four or five people in my family who performs regularly, or has done so in the past, and none of us have tried to make a living at it. Very few of the people I work with in the music business do this as their only source of income – and a lot of the cats who do are perpetually broke. For most, the economics just aren’t there.

My sister and I were talking about music at a family gathering last year. We were complaining to each other about what a pain gigs, rehearsals, practice, and other musicians in general are, when we both stopped and laughed at ourselves. Why bother, particularly when it involves so little money?

What we concluded was that – forgive me for sounding cliché – it is in our blood. If I were to quit everything tomorrow, within a week I would be staring at my calendar thinking: “Hey look. All my Thursday’s are open. I should call so-and-so and see who’s looking for a guitarist.” Sad but true.

3. Did you ever feel pressure from family and friends to give up your guitar playing?

I’ve received a lot of support from my parents and brother and sisters for what I do, and most of my close friends are involved in the business in one form or another. Everyone in my family has seen at least a few of my performances and helped me in other ways, like watching my girls when I can’t get coverage. I am extremely grateful for that kind of support. No one does this type of work without a lot of help from family and friends.

4. Are you a guitar playing weekend warrior for the money, for your passion for the music, or for some combination of both?

My equipment pays for itself, and this endeavor provides extra cash so that I can take the girls out to eat or to a movie, or pick up a bottle of wine for my special person (who is also a musician) and me, without having to stop at the ATM every other day. Guitar playing pays for one of my girl’s summer camp and a good share of the groceries. In contrast, I think about guys who pay thousands every year for golf equipment, fees, lessons, etc. I make thousands (not many, but at least a few) each year doing what I love. It’s the best part-time job imaginable.

As for the “passion for the music,” I go back and forth on this a lot. I spend most of my private practice time working up arrangements of standard jazz songs for solo guitar. This is the type of music that I find the most challenging and satisfying to play. However, the bulk of my performance time involves playing music in a club for people to dance to in between buying beers.

So there is a passion for playing music, but as a professional musician you’re frequently in a position where you are playing music that is selected by someone else. That doesn’t mean it is unpleasant or laborious. But it does mean that you better be passionate about “music” in general, and not just whatever small sub-genre speaks to you most. The money comes from a combination of performing, accompaniment, and teaching. You need to be flexible.

5. How did you go about building a following and finding paying gigs? Do you have any tips for finding work and venues to play?

If you are interested in this profession there are two things you need to understand. First, the music business is a business. For the general business (i.e. clubs, functions) bands I’ve worked for, we paid booking agents to go out and shake the trees. Agents use a promotion pack the group assembles that includes pictures, bios, references, and a CD. To secure my position as a church accompanist I went directly to music directors of local churches with my music resume and professional references in hand and arranged to play a service with them gratis.

Whether you are selling entertainment, ambience, program music, or, in the case of lessons and coaching, guidance, you are selling your musicianship. Just like selling anything else you need to maximize every opportunity you get to present your wares to paying clients. For example, if I don’t know you and you ask me something about guitars or guitar playing, you will walk away from me carrying a few of my music business cards for you and anyone you know who might be interested in my playing. Business cards cost practically nothing, and a one- or two-percent hit rate on a stack of 200 cards is two or three engagements or students you might not have otherwise had – and gigs and students create more gigs and students.

Second, this business is run on word of mouth and contacts. Practically all of the work I do comes through personal connections. In my small city there is some chance that at some point you are going to share a stage with any musician you meet. If you’re working with people you don’t know, be nice. Smile. Shake hands. Be professional. Keep your word. Make them want to work with you again. The same goes for club owners and hiring managers at facilities. Respect their property and their need to make money and there’s a good chance you will be on their call list. Burn them and you are done. Always always be professional, even if the people you’re dealing with might not be.

If you’re noodling away in your basement wondering how to get from there to the stage, the first step is to get out of the basement and start working with others. Music is a social activity. Play with and/or in front of people every chance you get. Check your local Craigslist or musicians’ want ads for opportunities to play. Respect and learn from those who play better than you and from those who might not play as well as you do – I learn tons of stuff from my students simply because they are interested in music I might not otherwise look at. By taking these steps you cultivate both your musicianship and your connections.

If you’ve already got a band then get your materials together and go book a paying gig. Right now. Go. Gigs are the carrots and the sticks that keep a band moving forward. Without gigs bands tend to spin in foolish, self-destructive circles that waste everyone’s time and energy.

6. What is the best part of the job?

This will come as no surprise to anyone: the best part of the job is the rush you get when you are in the middle of playing good music for a good crowd. Besides that, I feel tremendously fortunate to be able to play with the wonderful musicians I play with. Additionally, I got a call earlier this year from a local producer who needed a guitarist to work a show that included a national act. A high-profile gig like that is the culmination of years of work on both musicianship and getting to know the musicians and producers in your area. My partner, who is also a musician, is a first-call accompanist in this region. She has also had calls to work for national acts because she is a fantastic player and she is wonderful to work with. It is immensely satisfying to receive opportunities such as these.

7. What is the worst part of the job?

The worst part of being a weekend warrior is the hours. Take last week for example. Between rehearsal, a gig, services, and my oldest girl’s soccer game (I coach), I came sliding into Sunday night on about twelve hours of sleep since the preceding Thursday. On top of this I was sick the entire weekend with a nasty sinus infection. But, because this job is the way it is, the show must go on – literally.

8. What is the biggest misconception people have about the job?

Without a doubt, the single biggest misconception people have about being a professional guitarist is that it is all about your technique on guitar – how many licks you know, how fast you can play, etc. True, you have to have a certain base level of musicianship to make music professionally. You need to know music – speak the language – and know your instrument. You need to play the right notes, at the right time, and do so in a musically-pleasing fashion. This is particularly critical when you are playing in an ensemble or accompanying someone. Those people are depending on you.

That said, notice that this is the first time in this entire interview where I have even mentioned musicianship. Unless you are Yngwie Malmsteen, being a professional guitarist is primarily about relating to and working well with other musicians. I bet even Mr. Malmsteen has had to say he’s sorry a couple times.

For example, one band I worked for was auditioning bass players. Following the auditions, we talked not only about each bassist’s skills, but also about what we termed his “potential jerk factor.” (We actually used a different word for “jerk.”) We would be spending a lot of time with anyone we hired. Is he pleasant to be around? Is he likely to show up for things on time? Will he do his share of all the work that goes into a gig? These considerations are at least as important as the musicianship. Any working musician will take a solid player with a good attitude over a virtuoso who is a pain.

9. You’re a single dad with two kids. How do you balance playing music with watching the kiddos?

You have to recognize that you only have time for a limited number of activities – there is no slack. You have to prioritize. I turned off the cable TV years ago. Last spring I took out all the landscaping on my lawn so it requires the barest minimum of attention during the summer when I am busiest. Why? Because watching sports and weeding the flower beds are not my highest priorities – being a dad to my girls, a good man for my partner, and a good guitarist are. Everything goes up against those priorities and is either made to fit or is discarded. These priorities are non-negotiable.

Logistically, most of the work I do with the guitar takes place after my girls go to bed. I schedule rehearsals, lessons and gigs for the two or three nights a week they spend with their mother. The upside of all this is, because I have eliminated a lot of the distractions in our home, we actually have more time to spend together. Weeknights typically involve a combination of homework, dinner, laundry, baths, board games, or maybe a DVD together (if it’s not too late). They get their whole dad the whole night. And after they go to bed, I go to my studio where everything is set to go so I can get through what I need to get through efficiently.

10. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

According to Music Trades magazine, about three-million guitars are sold in the US every year. You can’t swing a Stratocaster in any decent-sized town without hitting a few guitar players. What this means is, as a guitarist, you are the single most dispensable musician on the planet. Keep this in mind every single time you pick up the instrument to practice. Focus on practicing what you need to be able to play to get and keep the job. Remember, there are guys lined up behind you for every gig. I might be one of them, and, I guarantee you, if I want that gig then I have practiced my ass off for it. If you don’t have it together, that job will be mine before I take my guitar out of the case.

If you stay at it long enough there are experiences on this job that you will have nowhere else. One group I worked for scheduled a “mini-tour” every summer where we would line up a couple out-of-town gigs and stay in a hotel in between. One year we played a Fourth of July celebration for this municipality outside of NYC on a portable stage in the middle of a football field for 10,000 people. The next morning, after replacing one of the tour vehicles that died (another story), we started driving to a tiny corporate party at a retreat facility somewhere in the Catskill mountains. We got off the highway onto a secondary road. Then we turned off that road onto this little one-lane road through the woods that, after a few miles, turned into a dirt path. After a few miles of this the entire entourage (three vehicles, a trailer, 12 people) was convinced that we were actually hired to be the human sacrifice for the night. Well, we finally reached the place…, and it is fantastic. Open bar. Free food. Fireworks. A man-made swimming pond. A gorgeous retreat house. Everything, out in the middle of the woods. They actually built a pavilion for us to play in with a dressing room attached. And when we were all done we were tipped a couple hundred extra dollars over our already nicely-padded fee. Nobody gets that excited about what I do in my straight job!


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