I’ve spent the last two months or so playing shows in the Caribbean to tourists from all over the world in my Caribbean bar band, The Garden Slugs. Here’s a short clip of one of our recent performances (that's me playing lead guitar):
I’ve had so much fun the last few months playing live shows that it inspired me to write a post about playing live and how it compares to pursuing something like licensing music. They are clearly much different endeavors and they each have their own pros and cons to consider.
Playing In Bands
I’ve been performing live since I was 16 years old. I played in a hard rock band in high school with three other guys that were all in their thirties and forties. This band played a handful of outdoor shows in and around Kankakee, IL where I lived at the time. This was my first experience playing in a band, rehearsing and playing shows and it gave me a glimpse of just how much fun being in a band and playing live music can be.
Since then, I’ve played and performed with probably a dozen or so different bands, duos and ensembles over the years. Some of my fondest memories as a musician have been hanging out and performing in bands. When everything lines up, nothing beats the feeling of being part of a group, working together to create a collaborative musical experience. From the rehearsals, to the camaraderie that develops as a result of spending so much time together and the experience of playing live shows, playing in a rock band, when it’s working, is the ultimate experience that can be had as a musician. For me at least. There’s nothing quite like it when your firing on all cylinders and things are going well.
Of course, things don’t always work out well and often times bands have a high turnover rate and a tendency to self-implode due to inflated egos, creative differences, pressure to earn money and so on. It can be challenging to get four or five people on the same page, working towards a goal that in many cases takes a long time to realize, if realized it all. They don’t always work in the long run, but when they do work, playing in a band is a great vehicle for creative expression, camaraderie and friendship. When a band works, you literally “band” together with a group of people, while working towards a common goal. Pretty cool.
On the other hand, when they don’t work out, there can be a sense of wasted time and spinning your wheels. I’ve spent years playing in bands that, in the end, abruptly broke up and went their separate ways, with little to show for our time together. That’s life of course, there are no guarantees. I used to feel really discouraged when things didn’t work out with different musical projects I invested time in. It was one of the experiences that motivated me to pursue licensing in the first place.
Over the years though, I’ve realized that each project was a stepping stone to the next one and although a project may end up not going the distance or achieving as much success as I hoped, there have been valuable experiences that I’ve gleaned from every band and project I’ve participated in. I’ve also found that with age and maturity, I’m either getting better at picking the right people to play with or I’ve simply become a more agreeable person, perhaps a bit of both. My last couple projects have been much less dysfunctional and just more fun in general, which is my main goal with playing and performing music.
Another great thing about playing live is that you get immediate, real time feedback. My current band plays both covers and originals. I love playing new originals live because it’s really easy to figure out which songs people respond to and which ones don’t elicit a great reaction. Most crowds don’t lie or pretend to like you in my experience. If you play something and it sucks, most crowds will let you know with a lackluster response.
But on the other hand, if you play something and the crowd is really into it, you can feel that based on their response. My current band has tried several of my originals and there have been two so far in particular that crowds seems to really love, so we’ve kept those two in rotation, while dropping a few others that didn’t seem to go over as well and we’re constantly trying new covers as we go, to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t.
This sort of immediate feedback you get when playing live is great compared to something like recording music by yourself while pursuing licensing opportunities. Often times it’s really hard to get quick, objective feedback while pursuing licensing opportunities. The process of writing, recording and pitching your music can play out over months, and it can take a long time to really figure out and get a sense of what’s working and what’s not.
When you play live, you know in that very moment whether people like it. This of course doesn’t necessarily translate to what works well in the context of licensing, they are two very different mediums. But to a certain extent, a good song is a good song and getting feedback on what people generally respond positively to, or not, is very valuable and serves as a good gauge in terms of whether or not what you’re writing resonates with people.
You Get Paid Instantly
One of the other great things about playing live is that if and when you get paid, you get paid on the spot. There’s no waiting around for months and months like there is with music licensing. If you’re playing a gig for money, you get paid at the end of the night. Well, usually, if all goes smoothly. Normally it goes smoothly.
Recording And Music Licensing
The process of writing and recording music is obviously much different than playing live. I love writing songs and the entire reason I’ve pursued writing and recording music is that I want people to hear my music and I want to present my music in the best possible light. I know that in order for my music to have the impact I want it to have, it needs to be “packaged” well in terms of the production and performance.
One of the great things about recording is that you can take your time and make sure each performance is the best you can get it. You can fine tune and edit things. If you record a take and you make mistakes, you can simply do it again. This is both good and bad. It’s good in the sense that it allows you to re-do things until you can get them as good as you can get them. It’s bad in the sense that if you’re not careful, it’s easy to get lazy and to simply fall back on things like auto tune, rhythm correction and so on.
There are some amazing production tools that we musicians have at our disposal these days, but they are just tools to enhance and improve our natural talents. It’s easy to trick yourself into thinking you’re more talented than you really are if you’re only confined to your studio, using plugin after plugin to make yourself sound better. Of course, production is a skill and an art unto itself, so it’s not to say there isn’t a certain amount of “talent” that goes into creating great productions, there clearly is, but it doesn’t necessarily translate to performing live and into other facets of the music business.
At this point in my musical journey, it’s clear to me that what makes the most sense for me is a combination of both playing live shows as well as writing, recording and licensing my music. It’s not an either/or thing. Also, live music is one aspect of the music industry that is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Although the internet had a dramatic impact on the recording industry and has decimated CD and download sales, the live music industry continues to thrive and is expected to continue to grow in the foreseeable future. (See: https://www.pollstar.com/News/the-growing-impact-of-the-live-business-138039)
So, to the extent that there is job security in the music business, developing and cultivating your performance chops will give you another tool in your toolbox when it comes to securing a career in music. While you’re waiting for your licensing checks to come in, you can be out playing shows making cold hard cash and having a lot of fun at the same time.
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The blog of musician and thinker of deep thoughts, Aaron Davison.