Musicians come in all shapes and sizes. They normally fall on a continuum between being primarily a live musician and being a studio player. In the lifetime of a musician, they can certainly be both. But each major category has its characteristics. One of which is accuracy. When you see a live show, if the lead guitarist misses a note, by the third song you may forget this and be rocking out to his encore at the end of the concert. In the studio, time is money and the more accurate the better.
Improvisation certainly links the two categories. Talented musicians who can creatively express the melody will always be entertaining on the road and lend a cool sound to a studio project. The ends of the spectrum do come with different lifestyles. Some people like getting up driving to work and being home at night to enjoy their family and favorite tv show and others like the thrill of the road – travel, uncertainty, and the roar of a live crowd. For the people who would rather be a touring musician, it is hard to know where to start.
I had the chance to ask Frank Michels, a veteran “sideman” in Nashville, about his time on and off the road. He has played for such entertainers as Brenda Lee, Tanya Tucker, Ronnie McDowell, and currently, Michelle Wright. Hopefully you will gain some insight from his experiences:
How did you get your first Artist gig when you came to Nashville?
When I first came to Nashville in 1984, there were still bands playing in Holiday Inn lounges and bars all around the area, and I got a job playing lead guitar and fiddle for a local country band. I also hung out in the bars that had jam sessions in order to meet other musicians. I got my first major audition with Brenda Lee when her bandleader called me after seeing my info card down at the musician’s union. They liked the fact that I sang and played other instruments besides guitar, and I was hired. A couple weeks later I was on a tour bus headed for Lake Tahoe, Ca, and a two week gig in a casino showroom.
What advice would you give to young musicians coming here today?
It doesn’t matter how good you are if no one knows who you are. Most artist gigs are filled by word of mouth, so you have to make it your mission to meet as many other musicians as you can, by hanging at the jam sessions, doing little gigs even if they don’t pay much, and introducing yourself to the players in the honky-tonks down on lower Broad Street. If you leave the impression that you are reliable, talented, and easy to get along with, sooner or later you’ll get recommended for an open slot in a band, if you can ace the audition.
How important is it to belong to the musicians union?
If you intend to try and break in to the world of session musicians, I would say it’s essential. But for road work, it has become much less important than it used to be. For some, it can be a place to develop contacts that lead to gigs, but for most non-studio players, it can seem like a place that collects dues from you, but doesn’t help you very much. If you get a job with an artist that requires union membership, you can always join then.
How much does appearance matter?
Just like any other job interview, the way you present yourself can mean the difference between getting a job or not, unless your playing is so incredibly great that it doesn’t matter as much. Today’s country music singers spend much of their time connecting with fans through TV appearances and music videos, and they don’t want someone who looks like a homeless street person in their band. If you have a scraggly beard, trim it. If you are overweight, go on a diet. On more than one occasion I’ve seen a female artist hire a sideman against the advice of her other band members, just because that person fit into the image she wanted to present to the public.
What about equipment?
You should have professional-quality music gear appropriate for the instrument you play. Drummers should polish their cymbals, stands and drums so they look good on stage. Guitarists need to have both a Fender and a Gibson-style electric guitar, plus a good quality acoustic, and enough effects pedals to get any sound you can hear on contemporary radio. Keyboard guys need a basic great piano sound, plus another keyboard for organ, strings, etc. Bass players should be comfortable on a 5 string, and for some groups, stand up bass.
How much money can a sideman make?
It all depends on how successful the artist is that you land a gig with. Most folks don’t become musicians because they want to get rich, there are a lot easier ways to do that. If you play with a singer whose best days are behind him or her, at dinky county fairs on weekends, you can make about $20K a year. If you back up a star at the top of the charts, you might pull down $100K…but most sidemen I know have other things going on the side. For instance, I have a demo studio in my house and do song demos in between road gigs.
Frank’s experience makes his practical advice hard to find and history very fun to listen to. Hopefully his story will encourage you to get your game face on and put a more realistic yet professional foot forward. The road is calling your name, but you have to know how to find it. Leave your comments below if you have questions or additional advice for musicians eager to be in the band of an artist.