This week I'm excited to have my friend and fellow Nashville musician DJ Phillips write about what he looks for when hiring pro musicians for his cover band, The Downtown Band.
DJ is someone I admire not just for his quick wit, crazy guitar chops and robust business sense, but also for his uncanny ability to hire and retain top level music talent in a town where it's difficult to hire top talent. My first gig with the band was subbing in for their keyboardist who was currently on tour with Brett Eldridge, and most of the musicians in the group are playing or have played with major acts during their careers. With over 100+ top level musicians in rotation, I don't know anyone better at identifying and hiring successful musicians.
To find out more about Downtown Band, check out their website at http://thedowntownband.com. Without further ado, here's how DJ recommends landing a great gig:
I am not famous. You have very likely never heard of my band. But I make a living playing music and so do the 100+ musicians that play for us. We play corporate events, weddings parties, you name it and we’ve gotten good at it! I get to make music every week, help people celebrate and I get to pay other musicians to too. This is the work of the dance band (or event band or cover band or GB “general business” band or whatever you want to call it) and it’s great.
Here are some things we look for from new people we hire.
1. Learn the Material
This might seem obvious, but learn the songs that you’re going to play. Cover bands are all different, but the recorded versions are always a good place to start. Knowing the intricacies of the original recordings and your parts therein will get you at least 90% of the way there and make handling any potential curveballs (Quick! Take a solo!) all the more palatable.
2. Have your sounds/tones ready
Part of learning this material is knowing what sounds/tones to use and being able to pull them up quickly and seamlessly. If the band is waiting for you to pull up your patch or hit the right pedal—that’s not ideal. You don’t have to have every song dialed in exactly like the record, but a bit of homework on this goes a long way. Know your own gear inside and out and don’t wait for anyone to tell you what sound to use if it’s already iconic from the recording.
3. Ask questions
I don’t want to speak for other bands, but I love it when musicians ask me questions! I’m the band leader—that’s my job! I’d rather have you pepper me with 1,000 questions the week before a gig than you not know what’s going on when we get there. Confidence on stage is the absolute best thing you can bring to a gig and that comes with preparation, so don’t be afraid to ask for help!
4. Lock in
When you’re learning a large amount of material in a short amount of time (which is almost always the case as a sub in a band like this), it’s very easy to stay focused on your instrument and trying to remember your part. And yes, that’s absolutely essential. But, don’t forget to listen to the rest of the band. You must be a part of the overall ensemble and lock in rhythmically and harmonically.
If you’re on stage and you’re playing a part that you know is right, but it keeps clashing with what the guitar player is playing and he’s just not changing to conform to you, FIX IT. It’s OK to sacrifice a little bit of accuracy to make the song sound good in the moment. Talk about it later! “Hey, you were playing a #9 during the chorus, but on the record, it’s a b9. Should I switch to a #9?” A lot of times it’s a mistake or the band has been playing the song so long he/she forgot how it went! Or maybe they’re doing it on purpose! But work it out later. Make it sound good first. No one in the audience cares if you played a sharp or flat 9, I promise. Except for that one guy. What’s up with that guy? What a weirdo.
5. Look good
We can’t all be Clooney. Trust me, I know. (Man, I’m getting old. Who’s a young handsome person? Harry Styles? We can’t all be him either.) But, you can present yourself well. Don’t show up in a wrinkly shirt, missing buttons on your jacket or with ill-fitting pants. There are lots of things you can do to maintain a professional appearance without dropping tons of cash on your wardrobe. Clean your clothes, iron them and get them tailored (Prices vary, but I just got a shirt, vest and pants tailored for about $25). And if you can get to a point where you’re comfortable spending a bit of money on high-quality clothing that fits you well, all the better. It will last you for years!
A big part of looking good goes beyond your clothing, too. Know the material well enough to look up from your instrument and/or charts. Smile at the audience! Laugh with the drummer because she nailed that amazing fill! Dance around during that 4-bar bass solo. Have fun! People love working with and watching people that are enjoying themselves! Making music is an absolute gift, so don’t forget to appreciate it.
6. Be cool
This is a common instruction for musicians, but what does it mean? It means that you maintain a positive attitude. It means that you don’t make off-color jokes. It means that you don’t talk negatively about other people. It means that if the rest of the band is napping and listening to their headphones in the van, you don’t wake them up and tell them about your cousin’s mishap at the dentist! (Or conversely, if your bandmate is telling you about his cousin’s mishap at the dentist, you don’t put your headphones in while he’s mid-story.)
It’s not about changing who you are. It’s about reading the room. Sometimes you’re going to jump on with a band it’s going to seem like you’ve been friends since middle school. And sometimes, the vibe just isn’t going to click. Both situations are totally common and equally survivable. Sometimes a sub is just a sub and you’re not going to be the new everyday player for them. That’s OK! Just take the gig, knock it out of the park, collect your check, say thank you and move on to the next thing! Not every gig has to be life-changing. Sometimes you just need to pay the rent.
7. Don’t be afraid to follow up
If you liked the gig and felt like you did a good job, follow-up! Let them know you liked the gig and you’d want to do it again! Ask them what you could do better! A good attitude and top-notch effort goes a long way, even if the performance wasn’t perfect. (The first one rarely is.) I’d rather have someone excited to be there and willing to put in the work than a grizzled pro who can nail the “Beat It” solo but would rather be anywhere else. Once you’ve cleared the bar of competence and confidence, it’s all about attitude and perspective.