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Here Comes the Water!
By Dan Palladino

A guitarist buddy of mine phoned up the other day, sounding kind of defeated. It seems he was at the end of his rope with his day job and had been really depressed that his music career seemed to be at a stand-still. I suggested that maybe it was just time to look for a day job that was a better fit for him—sometimes, a change of scenery can change your entire outlook on life. Then he said something that amazed me: He didn't want a different day job, he desperately wanted to make a living playing music, but (get this) didn't want to play in Top 40 or wedding cover bands! Since I am the regional king of the cover gig, I found this statement to be astounding.

You're desperate to make a living as a player but you won't do cover gigs? That hardly sounds desperate to me. That sounds more like an artist, which I can completely respect. The late, great jazz guitarist, Tal Farlow made a living as a sign painter in New Jersey for thirty years. Wes Montgomery worked the first shift in a factory, while gigging nights in the bars. Countless musicians teach during the day and continue to gig at night. I totally respect anyone's decision to make a living outside of music, in order to play the music they love. However, if your goal is to make a living with music, I guarantee, that unless your dad is in the record biz, or you are independently wealthy, you WILL be doing some cover gigs.

When I was coming up, I wanted to be a combination of Frank Zappa, Pat Metheny and Jeff Beck. I was playing with Top 40 bands in hotel lounges, but I also had more experimental projects going as well. At one point, I had a nice jazz/rock trio going. We played a mixture of jazz standards, instrumental rock tunes and our own schizophrenic compositions with lots of odd meters and improvisation. Trying to book gigs for the trio was an eye opening experience for me.

Since we weren't really what purists call jazz, places that featured jazz groups wouldn't book us. We had no vocals and we weren't a dance band, so rock clubs didn't want to know us. That left dive bars, where you would work for the door. Once in awhile, you'd run accross a former musician who was now an agent, and we'd get a couple of gigs based on the "amusement factor". Unfortunately, the amusement wears off if you only draw ten paying customers to the place.

We were having fun though, made a good recording, got some airplay and reviews, etc. After awhile, all of the fun wasn't enough to compensate for the fact that we were making maybe twenty or thirty dollars each per gig. I was happy with the music we were making, but I was extremely disillusioned with the lack of a market for this type of band. I was married, our car was on it's last legs and we wanted to save for a house. Soon, I couldn't justify turning down better paying mainstream gigs and I decided to move on, a victim of economics.

That decision led me into bands where I could make some bread, but also study the music of all the blues greats, as well as James Brown, Bob Marley and Carlos Santana. Those experiences led me into more recording projects. Through the recording projects, I hooked up with a group of excellent musicians who were doing high paying banquet and corporate gigs. I used some of that money to finance a home recording studio, where I'm working on projects of my own. The studio doesn't generate much income, but I have the freedom to write anything I want--a combination of jazz standards, rock instrumentals and odd meter stuff with lots of improvisation.

Why am I telling you this? Because I want the younger players especially, to know that it's ok to take gigs that are outside of your musical interests. It's great to want to be the next Holdsworth, Vai, Satriani, Lynch or Malmsteen. If you can thrive playing that music, I'll be the first one to stand up and cheer. However, if you take a look around, you'll see that there is virtually no market to support that type of a career. Now that the internet frenzy has died down, we're all seeing how difficult it is to make something happen with a disk and a website.

In an era where even commercial recordings have very little value, I don't see things improving anytime soon. I'm not saying we should abandon the more esoteric musical forms—far from it. I just know that this cultural environment (or lack of it) demands a much more balanced, even stealth approach to achieving musical goals. We can no longer afford to sit in our rooms and practice, hoping to get the gig with Whitesnake when the auditions come up. Those gigs just don't exist anymore. Not only that, but the rock club cover gig, where you used to be able to practice that stuff doesn't exist either.

So before you scoff at the idea of playing a mainstream cover gig, stop and think. Maybe the drummer will want you for his neo-classical/funk/ska band project. Maybe the bass player produces music for TV and can really use someone like you. One situation can lead to another, and you can find yourself taking a long detour, but ending up where you wanted to be in the first place. If nothing else, you'll be playing your instrument and getting paid. Is that really so bad?

© 2003 Dan Palladino
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