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When to say ‘NO’ to gigs (Gigonomics 101)

The Agony of Choice In spite of advances in modern technology, it’s still not possible to be in two places at the same time. As a freelance musician — or…

The Agony of Choice

In spite of advances in modern technology, it’s still not possible to be in two places at the same time. As a freelance musician — or freelance anything, come to think of it —you have to constantly decide which gigs and projects to accept and which to decline. Sometimes, it can be difficult to make the right decision and it’s not always obvious which choice is the right one.

This is where a helpful tool called ‘The Gig Triangle’ comes in; this appeared in a column in Bass Player Magazine some years ago (I’ve searched for the original article, but to no avail) and has stuck with me ever since. It’s also proved to hold true on every gig I’ve ever been on.

What is the ‘Gig Triangle’?

Every gig or project on offer contains a balance of three areas; music, people, and money. Let’s take a closer look at each side:

1. The Music

This is a pretty basic thing, but is the music bearable? I’m not talking about whether or not you like the music that you have to play, because part of being a professional is being able to make it seem like everything you have to play is your favourite music in the whole world. Everyone also has notions of musical credibility until it’s time to pay their rent.

The real question is: can you do the gig without feeling like your soul is being eroded with every note that you play, or wishing for some apocalyptic event that would mean that the gig would be brought to a swift end? In a decade of freelance work, I’ve had this happen three times and it has never been worth it.

2. The People

Who’s on the gig? Are they going to be a pleasure to work with, or are you going to have to share a 4-hour journey to the gig with that creepy keyboard player who lacks any sense of personal hygiene?

So little of the time on a gig is spent actually playing that this is a serious issue and often has nothing to do with the musical skills of the people involved. The gig is not the music – a vast proportion of your time is spent travelling, loading in gear, setting up, and then hanging around waiting to play. You don’t want to spend all that non-playing time surrounded by people who drive you crazy, so if we assume that there’s a basic level of musicianship and everyone in the band can play then the main concern is what will the hang be like?

3. The Money

Obviously, this is why you’re doing the gig, because you need to earn a living and doing gigs sure beats working in Starbucks. But this side of the triangle is not always about how large or small the gig fee is; your time is a valuable, non-renewable resource, so you have to factor in how much prep work the gig requires and how much time you have to block out of your day in order to actually do the gig.

The Golden Rule of Gigging

So we have music, money and people on the gig triangle, and the golden rule is that there have to be two sides of the triangle in place for a gig to be worth saying yes to, which leaves us with these three scenarios:

Option 1

Gigs where there isn’t not really much money, but you enjoy the music and the people are great; this is basically every original band project ever.

Option 2

Gigs where there’s a decent fee and there’s a good hang, but the music isn’t your ideal choice; this is essentially most covers bands, unless you happen to really love playing ‘Wonderwall’ or ‘Valerie’ every week for the rest of your life (and there’s nothing wrong with that at all!).

Option 3

Gigs where the people are not enjoyable to work with, but you enjoy the music and there’s a good fee – this is probably the rarest scenario.

In most cases, you won’t need to go into this level of analysis, but it can help avoid situations where you make spur of the moment choices that make you resent the gig that you end up on. There’s nothing worse for the audience, the band, or the music itself than having someone on stage who really has somewhere better to be.

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Received Wisdom: 3 Pieces of Advice I Should Have Listened To

Are you as terrible at taking advice as I am? While putting off filing my tax return (one of my favourite January activities) I did a few calculations:   Over…

Are you as terrible at taking advice as I am?

While putting off filing my tax return (one of my favourite January activities) I did a few calculations:


  • Over the course of 2015, I taught roughly 1200 one-to-one music lessons
  • That’s in excess of 600 hours spent telling other people what I think that they should do to improve their playing.
  • That’s the equivalent of 25 whole days of dispensing advice about music. 



Why is this important? It shows that the amount of time I spend giving advice is wildly disproportionate to that which I allocate to receiving advice from others about my own playing (or teaching). 

This got me thinking about important lessons that I’ve taken in the 15 years since I first picked up the bass and reflecting on the pearls of wisdom that have had the most significant impact on my musical development. 

The most worrying fact is that the most valuable pieces of advice are the ones that I’ve actually paid the least attention to.


The 3 pieces of advice I should have taken on board


“Don’t party until you’re 25”


If (like me) you’re over 25, don’t panic – this can still be applied to a degree. Some readers will see this as a rather hardline approach, but for aspiring professionals it’s worth thinking about. 


The source: This nugget came courtesy of the owner of the only live music venue in the small town where I grew up. I was 18, and on the night in question I was helping out my teacher at the time as guitar tech for his band. I got chatting with the venue’s owner after the gig, and mentioned that I was getting ready to go to music college and wanted to make a career from music. The above was his only piece of advice on how to succeed. 


The meaning: Your teens and early 20s are when you will form the foundations of your musical identity. They are also the years in which you will (most probably) have more free time and fewer responsibilities than at any other age – devoting this free time to working on your musicianship will pay huge dividends later when ‘real life’ starts to eat into your practice time. 


Why it didn’t stick: I deluded myself into thinking that I was working hard enough and let other areas take equal priority over playing – the fact that the music college I went to was above a pub didn’t help matters… In short, I partied. 


What you can do about it: Sleep less. Watch less TV. Spend less time on social media. Have two drinks at the pub rather than seven. Stop wasting time reading blogs like this one and do some practice. This article by pianist James Rhodes is a wonderfully savage introduction to cutting out the rubbish in your life and getting back to what you love.


“Go after the sound you love”


The source: The venerable Richard Niles, award winning producer, arranger, guitarist and all-round musical übermensch. The quote itself is actually attributed to Pat Metheny, with whom Richard has worked with on frequent occasions. 


The meaning: Make the distinction between what you want to learn and what other people tell you that you should be learning. Embrace the music that you are passionate about and steal as much as you can from it – don’t shy away from your musical heritage. Don’t get distracted by people telling you that you should really listen to Miles Davis if the sound you’re after is bluegrass-meets-Squarepusher (I’d love to hear from anyone who is actually after that particular sonic equation). 


Why it didn’t stick: The short answer here is decision paralysis: presenting myself with too many options and failing to pursue any one of them to the level required to really absorb the sound into my playing. 


What you can do about it: Adopt the Helsinki Bus Station Theory (yes, really).



“If you have to practise* for the gig, you shouldn’t be on the gig”


*It’s important to note that I mean practise in the sense of developing mastery of a musical concept through persistent effort, rather than playing through new material that you might have to memorise for a gig. 


The source: Renowned bass educator (and No Treble contributor) Joe Hubbard


The meaning: Have the humility to realise that there are certain gigs that you should say ‘no’ to because they lie too far outside of your current comfort zone. Because of the many external (not to mention internal) sources of pressure that are present during any live performance situation, your musical ability has to be sufficient so that you can have a ‘buffer’ to absorb the distractions without your playing being compromised. 

Let’s say you have to learn a tune with a taxing unison line or ‘bass feature’ in it (‘Spain’, ‘Got A Match?’, ‘Sir Duke’ and ‘You Can Call Me Al’ are just a few off the top of my head) and you’re struggling to get it up to tempo in the practice room. There is NO WAY that you’ll be able to execute that same part at tempo on stage in front of an audience – you need a technique buffer of roughly 10-20bpm that will allow you to absorb distractions and still play the part properly. 

This isn’t just a chops thing. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is saying ‘yes’ to a gig which involves playing music that puts you out of your depth stylistically – if you have no real interest in listening to and studying jazz then don’t pitch up on a standards gig with iReal Pro on your iPad and hope you can survive the evening. Don’t say ‘yes’ to the progressive metal gig if you’re not comfortable with odd time signatures – there’s no shame in being honest about what you can and can’t do musically. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t be constantly striving to improve your playing and getting better gigs – there are plenty of opportunities to work on the performance aspect of music without being on a gig where the audience and the other musicians expect you to be on top form.


Why it didn’t stick: It’s easy to tell yourself that you’ll turn down certain work until you realise that you have to pay your rent this month. Learning how to say ‘no’ to work also takes time for both financial and psychological reasons – it’s an ego boost to be called for a gig, and you might not want to have to pass on work to other musicians for fear that you won’t ever get called for anything ever again.


Do you have any wise words to share?

If there’s a piece of advice that has really helped you in your musical development then why not share it by commenting on this post?


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