Questions can open doors.
Every gig I ever got was the result of someone asking a question.
These are either gigs I got because:
- someone asked, “Is there a guitarist who can play this stuff?” and they were directed towards me (for example the video game soundtracks I played on, John French, Glenn Branca, The Bentmen and gigs I had to turn down (like the Grandemothers of Invention.))
- OR gigs I created (asking people to play and creating gig opportunities with people like Don McLeod, Butch Morris or Sahba Motallebi)
This second category is one that bears more investigation.
In retrospect, one HUGE advantage to growing up pre-internet in a small town is that the responsibility of discovery was put squarely on you. There were no venues to play shows – so if you wanted to play shows you had to create your own opportunities.
As I’ve mentioned in prior stories, we’d organize our own battle of the bands (which got other people to organize their own battle of the bands) and talent shows to have the opportunity to play. This didn’t mean much at the time but proved invaluable years later when I’d have to hustle to make things happen.
When I tell people that when I was growing up that buying ANY kind of music beyond top-40 (which I could usually find at Ames department store) required a minimum 45 minute drive each way, they typically don’t believe me – but it was true. There were a handful of specialty music shops and going there to get music became an event. It also gave each music acquisition it’s own tale and solidified my attachment to it.
It’s easy to loose that ability to ask as a call to action as you continue to play.
You get comfortable. You find players you like and use them on every project.
Another secret advantage I have, is that I moved – A LOT – as an adult. This eliminated the ability to play with the same people consistently and forced me out of anything resembling a comfort zone.
I realized the other day that I had approximately 20 different residences in Boston. Then I moved to LA and had 3 different residences there followed by a move to New York City (1 residence there) and then a move to upstate New York.
When I left Boston to go to CalArts – all the people I played with in Boston were either gone themselves or still there entrenched in their own projects there and not able to work on something via email. This meant I had to find all new people to play with.
When no one knows who you are – that (typically) means you need to be the one asking to create playing situations for yourself (unless its a Craigslist ad for a cover band or something similar).
When I got upstate, I was looking for people to play with. I had advertised for a percussion player but didn’t get any responses. I went to a Persian Film festival in The Electric City – Schenectady, NY (that I’m now an artistic director for) and saw Farzad Golpayegani playing and saw enough of a thread in what he was doing that I thought we could work together. I asked him if he wanted to do something and I think initially he wasn’t that interested but then he saw some videos of me playing and got interested.
We played as a duo for a while and I found a business card for a tabla teacher in a local Persian Restaurant and the player turned out to be the same town as me (it turned out that he lived 4 blocks away from me! 2 years of looking and there was a guy in walking distance!). I lost the card and then found it again and finally contacted Dino Mirabito and asked if he wanted to play with us. He checked out a show and was playing a gig with us a month later.
Had I not asked those 2 questions – KoriSoron never would have happened.
80 – 90% of the gigs in my life came from opportunities that I created by asking a question. I think that unless you’re a successful sideman that goes on the road with different acts all the time this will generally be the case (and even in those cases those players hustle A LOT to create opportunities for them to play).
For example, the gig Carmina Escobar and I did with Mia Mikela (Solu) at USC’s Vision and Voices lecture/concert series. For those of you who are not familiar with her work, one of Mia’s many art endeavors invokes film editing as ritual and edits short films in real time in front of an audience (See some of her amazing work here!).
Some live audio captured on a ZOOM H4 for posterity’s sake:
How did I get us on that bill?
I asked her.
I saw she was playing a show and was familiar with her work. I did some research and saw that she was doing student workshops at USC and that a performance was part of her her overall event there. I sent her an email and asked if she needed any music to accompany of the student films. I explained that Carmina and I did live improvised music and that that style of accompaniment might be engaging for the audience and for the films. I sent her some links and she really liked the music and suggested that we do something together live.
So asking questions can help but there are a few “hidden” rules to asking the questions that can help create you own opportunities.
- You have to know that asking a question is an option. This was my single biggest failure at Berklee. I didn’t know I could ask for things and I didn’t know I could ask for help when I really needed it. It turned out that there were resources for me that I could never utilize because I didn’t know they were there (or then how to ask for them – Shades of Kafka’s “Before The Law”!).
- Asking is location based. You have to be in a situation where you can ask. This is a BIG lesson for me that I’m still learning with regards to booking. Up here – people need to know who you are to book shows. That means they need to put a name to a face and most of those deals are worked out in person. I sent a lot of feelers out to people via email and never heard back from anyone. To get a gig up here people have to know you. That means going to shows and events. The catalyst for KoriSoron thing only happened because I went to the Festival Cinema Invisible (FCI) event and saw Farzad playing. If I just sat at home, that never would have happened. This is a difficult one for me because I spend a fair amount of evenings teaching or practicing which makes getting to shows difficult – but that’s MY thing to continue working on.
- Before you ask ANY question – you must ask the question from the stand point of, “What’s in it for them?” That’s not a Robert Green / Machiavellian angle of deliberate sleight of hand (As in “appear to address their interests but serve yours”) you need to REALLY be looking for how what you’re asking can benefit other people. (Check out this old post on altrustic action and selfish motivation!) With Mia, I was fully willing to go to USC and accompany films for free. I figured that if nothing else, I might find someone who liked what we did and was willing to work together in the future. That was what was in it for me. It turned out that there was something in it for her as well. (some past articles of mine (see this or this ) address this topic more specifically from the standpoint of networking).
- Never ask something that you are reluctant or not willing to do. See the previous point. Don’t offer something if you aren’t willing to do it gladly with a smile on your face. If you feel like you’re being put-upon that will show in every interaction you have with other people and spoil whatever good will you are building.
- You have to have a skill set to provide something valuable to other people and provide that thing without drama or inconvenience to others.
This is a BIG deal.
You can get the gig by asking but you will only keep the gig if you can follow through.
- Do NOT oversell what you can do.
- Eliminate any barriers that people may have to work with you.
- The indispensable player who adds more to the show than is needed is the last one to get let go (and usually the first one on retainer).
- Get to the point in a sincere way. It’s good to build a little rapport (“I got your name from so and so”, “I’ve been following what you’ve been doing with x”) before your ask but don’t go into some ten minute “this is all the awesome sh*t I do” rant. Make a polite and concise introduction, ask for what you want, explain how it can help both of you and what you can bring to the table. Be clear on what you want, what you are asking for and what they can expect from you.
- You have to let people know that you are looking. I had a conversation with a friend of mine the other day who said (about himself and paraphrased here), “If you don’t let people know that you are looking to gig and available to gig you can’t complain about not having the gig.”
People will only refer gigs to you if:
- they know that you’re available
- if they know your playing will fit in what other people will work for
- if they know that you are easy to work with.
- You have to be willing to have people say no to you and not be bitter. I have seen people ask for things not get a response (or get a no response) and then fly off the handle. (“F@ck that guy! He’s dead to me!”) If he wasn’t before – he certainly is now. Bridges are easily burned. Don’t make it easy for other people to do so.
- You have to be willing to follow up. People are busy. If this opportunity doesn’t work out – keep moving forward and present them with other opportunities in the future. Sometimes you just need to be in a better position for people to realize that they want to work with you on something.
So don’t be afraid to ask other people to create opportunities – just make sure to make it a win-win for both of you before doing so.
Okay! That’s it for now. I hope this helps and, as always, thanks for reading!