by James Stefanuk
How To Not Not Make It In The Music Biz

The Scene Unseen | September 13, 2017

| How To Not Not Make It In The Music Biz

Want success for your band? Feel like you’re spinning your wheels? Contacts go as fast (or faster) than they come? That’s ok. The first step is admitting there’s a problem. The good news is there are solutions. The bad news is there will always be new problems. But that’s ok too. That means you’re alive.

I’ve been devoted to the independent music business for almost fifteen years. I like to think I am successful by my own standards… we all have different heights we want to reach, and those change along the way. I would like to be remembered fifteen years from now. My (band’s) current status in our hometown of Toronto has reached a point where I can be very proud of our accomplishments. We can play any bar in Toronto, any night and any time-slot we choose. People come to see us. Considering the nasty complicated mess that this business is, I feel very accomplished. That being said, I am always reaching for more. Getting a taste of bigger stages certainly whets the appetite. But like a (drunk) Buddha, I am not expecting anything. Just reaching. So, first attitude right there: Try your best but don’t expect anything. EVER. It’s not you (it might be) it’s them. Expectations will smash you and your band’s spirits into smithereens.

I can’t make you make good music, or put on a good show. That’s up to you, and of course is highly subjective. What you can do is be professional. Treat it like a business when it is a business. That means: DON’T PLAY FOR FREE. Start with even a little bit. Get a portion of the doors, or preferably ALL of the doors. Have a friend or band members manage that. The sole reason that it is so hard to get paid as a musician is musicians working for free. Get your beers too, and food if it’s available. Don’t be afraid to ask. There are no exceptions. Every time you play for free you’re fucking all of us. This is work, talent is rare, and the tools cost money and the skills take time. Don’t allow the artistically uneducated to dumb music down. Exposure is not worth anything, and 99.9% of the time those promises come from sham companies stealing green bands time and money. If you ever get to open for a signed successful act, not only will you get great exposure; THEY WILL ALSO PAY YOU. And well.

Be kind and courteous to everyone. Be on time. Don’t throw temper-tantrums. Ever. Bring all your gear, unless backline is specified. Don’t be that dick who “forgot” his snare drum. Have an understanding of what breakables are. Always bring a little extra instead of a little less. Talk to the other bands. Watch the other bands; be there for their sets as much as possible. This is for you. When people notice you and your band strolling in right before your set and leaving right after, they will not invite you back. Contact lost. You will be left wondering. Make your show a big deal and plan to stay for the night. If you can’t handle that you are in the wrong business. Quit now. EVERYTHING in this business is based on relationships. Not everyone will like you, even fewer will love you, but they can all learn to trust you if you prove yourself reliable.

That’s just for when you arrive at the club. Da biz is full of egos, and you are trying to fit in one more… it’s like squeezing angry weasels in a box. You gotta be subtle. Pet the weasels. Sneak in there. Give ‘em a massage. You will still get bit. But the biting can be minimized, and it’s how one reacts when bitten that makes the difference. Pick your battles kids. Real life example: Booker is $100 short on the doors as promised. I know how many people came through because I paid attention. I can ask for more, and it will almost always be denied. So I may choose to be a little more annoying, or I may choose to say thanks and shake their hand and drop it. They can’t pay you more now, or they would be admitting to lying, so you’ve got that weasel trapped in the corner. Give him or her a way out and walk away, lesson learned. One of the truest statements in showbiz: YOU NEVER KNOW WHERE SOMEONE IS GOING TO BE IN A YEAR FROM NOW. You may choose never to work for them again, and you might be surprised a year from now when they are working for an agency and offer you an amazing, and well-paying gig. They will remember “I fucked those guys a bit and they were gentlemen/women about it. Guess I owe ‘em one.” Or so I assume. I can tell you that it happens. As always there are exceptions to every rule. Screw me for $100, I’ll shake your hand and secretly tell everyone I know not to work with your sorry ass. Screw me for $1000 and the baseball bats may have to come out.

No one will teach you anything, not intentionally. You have to learn. No matter how hard you try, you still might not make it anywhere. What’s your definition of success? Does it even matter? Depends on who you ask, but since you asked me, I’ll tell ya. Get done what you need to today. Always be true to your art. You don’t have to be… but if you didn’t hold that value you’d likely not have read this article. Passionate people work hard, the classic adage “labour of love”. We are harder to burn out. People looking for fame or fortune look for shortcuts. Just keep paying attention. Treat everyone as if they are the teacher and you are the student. When it comes to the night life, try to stay away from the hard stuff. REALLY try. It never goes well, and you are probably not the exception.

Always hone your craft. If things are ever good enough, why are you doing this? Must be one of the shitty reasons mentioned earlier. If a painter ever made the perfect painting, they would never need to paint again. They’d be done. So keep going. Better songs, better shows. Never forget that this performance art. It’s called a show for a reason. Flamboyancy, overacting, clawing blood from your chest, it’s all encouraged, appreciated and rewarded. Give ‘em something to remember for Chrissake.

I probably had more but you won’t remember anyway. So get out there and have some fun. Don’t forget to smile, but be yourself. Unless yourself is a terrible, ugly, smelly person with horrific scarring, bad breath and a Baskerville hump. Still, that might actually work. Be tough. Be pro. But be nice. Until it’s time to not be nice. That’s when you breathe fire motherfucker! Warm, comforting fire.

“Always bring a little extra instead of a little less.” ~ James Stefanuk

– James Stefanuk

You may also like

Leave a Comment