The Carrots of Empty Nothing
I have been playing guitar for 35 years man and boy (did I really just use that expression?). In that time, I have played and written music with a large number of people, both as an amateur, semi-professionally, and professionally. I wanted to write a little about a certain type of 'musician trap' I have been lured in to many many times, and hopefully give some advice to young musicians, in the hope that they might avoid this phenomenon at least more often than not, as well as learn to take the positive out of a bad situation.
First some set-up:
If you took up an instrument in your teens, the chances are good that you also joined or formed a band, or many bands. I certainly did. The most significant and well remembered to anyone in my circle back then would have been the Prog Rock band Kid Gloves (terrible name). This band was typical of the species, in that it was all mates together, playing covers of music we loved, trying to pull girls and dreaming of being famous without actually doing anything proactive to make that happen.
The point being that this kind of band generally consists of young people all essentially at the same point in their lives, and to a certain degree with a common purpose.
Things can change a little once at college/university age, but the dynamics are still closer to school days than anything yet to come.
Later on of course, after your school and college years; things can get a little more complicated. You might join a band where some people are already holding down jobs, or have wives, partners and even children; while others are classic itinerant young musos, footloose and fancy free (I speak from experience there).
This can lead to conflicts in priorities, as well as differences in availability and/or willingness to undertake some of the typical 'learning curve' experiences young bands trying to make their way in the business often have to do. Frictions can ensue, especially if (like me), you were a lazy bastard in your twenties, and had no idea the efforts and sacrifices others around you were making in order to do what you were too damn lazy to.
Like yours truly, you will hopefully learn from these experiences and get your shit together.
Later still, you may reach a point in your career where you have achieved a modicum of 'standing' amongst your peers, gained lots of experience and some understanding of your own worth in the market at large.
So, what is this trap I mentioned?
Well, it goes something like this (and please excuse the very broad strokes I am about to employ in this summary, I understand and appreciate that real life is always more complex and nuanced).
It is at this point that the carrots of empty nothing really can begin to dangle in front of your face, and take a serious toll on you if you're not prepared.
So enough scene setting, what is...the carrot?
In a nutshell, the carrot of empty nothing is what someone dangles in front of you in order to get you to work for nothing. It is different from pure 'Exposure Money' but certainly occupies a similar territory at least in terms of hard working musicians giving their all, for little or no recompense.
As a working musician, you have two basic ways to approach what kind of projects you invest your time and effort into, and most of us seem to adopt a blend, rather than be completely polarised one way or the other.
Firstly, you can be a hired gun i.e. you focus on work that will guarantee you a paycheck. This can take many forms: 'dep' spots in working bands for instance, and of course 'being' full time in a working band, or maybe a house band somewhere. Touring with an established artist, or perhaps even making instructional videos for an equipment company. Private tuition also comes under this catch-all area, the list here is practically endless. They all have one thing in common however, and that is that there is a reciprocal understanding of service provider remuneration.
These things are paid positions i.e. you, as the musician are providing a service, solving a problem and being paid to do so. How much you get paid, and how much work you get is a variable that can only improve by your own hand over time and gained experience (and talent/ability of course).
The second thing is to donate your time, effort and expertise for nothing.
"Why would you do that?" - I hear you ask.
Well, there are actually many reasons; some of them very worthy. This would include include performing free for good causes, charities etc. or volunteering in a musical capacity (for example, kid's music workshops etc), and yes; much as we like to pour well deserved scorn on the concept of 'exposure' - there are times when a freebie appearance in the right place at the right time, can lead to something worthwhile.
Where the carrots come in is with a certain type of situation that has happened to me so many times, I felt compelled to write this blog.
OK, let's get all imaginary for a minute.
Let's say you are Sting, and your management is putting together a new live band for your next world tour. The musicians who get hired to 'staff' that band, will become paid employees of the 'Sting' touring organisation. There will money in the budget set aside for this, and it is understood that you are a hired professional. If I am playing guitar in Sting's new touring band; it's not the 'new' Police, and I am not 'in the band' in that way. What I mean by that, is that the 'artist' is Sting, and he requires musicians to help him perform the live show he wants to deliver. Therefore he must hire talent to do so, and he hires me. As that hired talent, I have no creative say in anything except that which 'he' may or may not give me a say in. This isn't the sixth form school band any more, and one does not have a common purpose or equal standing with 'the artist' except to deliver the performance you were hired to deliver. It's a job, and one that is hopefully enjoyable, and well paid. I must also say, that in painting in the aforementioned broad strokes; I am missing potential nuance. One of which being the possibility that an artist hiring you might actually be looking for a specific degree of creativity, or lateral thinking from you. I would imagine that this would be rarer than the dictator/auteur situation however.
Right then, the flip side of this is when you are...let's say.....not Sting. By which I mean; you are perhaps an 'Artist' with a vision who is trying to put together a live band to help him or her realise that vision. Now let's say that at this person's standing; there is no budget to speak of. How do they get the personnel in place?
There's really only a couple of ways to do it. The first is to recruit from the widest eyed, most bushy tailed compliant talent source, which are the college students. What these wonderful guys and gals lack in experience, they make up for in enthusiasm and (some would say), gullibility. The other method is a little more nefarious, and involves convincing established musicians to get involved and donate their time, effort, and in many practical ways, financial resources too, on some ill-defined promise of future earnings. In some instances; there may even be an invitation to actually be 'in the band'.
What do I mean by 'In the band' this time? Some offering of membership, inclusion, or collaboration perhaps, rather than the clearly defined 'hired gun' described earlier.
The Sting analogy would go like this:
Sting asks you to play, but there is no money to pay you. You agree because he's Sting, and because he's talking about all the potential there might be in putting a new version of the Police together with you, and he's making a lot of noises like you're gonna be the new Andy Summers or something. He wants to write songs together and creates an artistic equality with you that actually doesn't exist, and can get withdrawn at the drop of a dime. So you do everything asked of you, including endless gruelling rehearsals, usually involving a ton of travelling at your own expense, all with that carrot of empty nothing obscuring a clearer view of the situation you're actually in. Which is that you are really only an unpaid intern.
Now, with the best intention in the world, this has only a slim chance of ever working out favourably for you in the way that the carrot describes it. That's not to say it can't pay dividends to invest yourself this way. It has been my experience (especially when getting involved with larger collectives), that at the very least you often make really worthwhile musical connections, and sometimes good friends. A fruitless carrot experience might in fact lead directly to the best gig of your life further down the line. You also leave with the experiences of doing it, both good and bad (all of which add to your distinctiveness).
However, be warned that the balance can easily tip far too heavily in the wrong direction, and you may find yourself being exploited, unappreciated, and out of pocket. You should also remember that our imaginary 'Sting' can wax lyrical all he likes about how 'in' the inner circle you are, but if things go south for whatever reason; it will be you who is suddenly 'not' in the band. Imaginary Sting will be talking to some other guy.
What happens then?
Well. you realise it was just another carrot of empty nothing and move on.
So what have I learned from being sucked in by the carrot a few too many times?
Well, on the plus side; the main things are that it can be good to speculate on someone who has a vision and would like you to participate despite there being no financial reward involved. Just don't do it too often, or to the exclusion of other projects (be they your own, or proper paid work).
Don't get jaded or bitter about any of it. Treat it as a learning experience, and absorb all the positive you can from it as you walk away, head held high. Yeah, shit happens, and everyone in the business is a shade of grey, not good or bad per se. You might end up getting fucked over, by someone who is merely behaving pragmatically, or amorally depending on your point of view. Don't be a victim, just move on.
Lastly, the thing I have finally learned from all of my numerous musical encounters with people (be they carrot shaped or not), is that there really is no substitute for putting the majority of your heart and soul into musical pursuits that are of your own making, and very dear to you. Because, when you do that; everything else you may take a chance on can fly or fall and it doesn't really matter too much.