Invoking The Power Of Asking

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.   

  1. Do NOT oversell what you can do. 
  2. Eliminate any barriers that people may have to work with you. 
  3. 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:

  1. they know that you’re available
  2. if they know your playing will fit in what other people will work for
  3. 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!



Another Lesson From BuckMoon Part II – Opportunities Are Generally Made Not Found

Another Lesson Learned From The BuckMoon Arts Festival

For those of you who tuned in last time, this is the next in a series of lessons I learned from my involvement as a moderator of a series of Artists Panels at the BuckMoon Arts Festival.  (For those of you who missed the previous post, you may want to read part 1 of this series if you haven’t already.)  You can read about the panel discussions and the festival here.

Opportunities Are Generally Made Not Found

The BuckMoon Arts Festival had a series of panel discussions that were intended to bring up issues related to monetizing one’s art.  The second panel in the series was this one:

Promoting Your Art: Building An Audience and Building A Buzz”

Panelists: Bill Coffey, Mike Dimin, Yvonne Lieblein, Patrick Longo, Brian McElhiney and Mark Swain


Description: Online access to consumers has given artists more possibilities than ever, but how do you get your voice heard above the din?


In the panels, I’d ask a series of questions which would then be answered and discussed by the panel members and then I’d try to keep the ball rolling with follow up questions, related anecdotes and other miscellany and then open it up for audience discussion.


As part of this particular panel, we got into an extended discussion on the necessity of networking and making connections with other people working in your field and related fields.

I’m going to stress that again.  A key focus of this discussion was NETWORKING.


At the end of our time, the panel had an audience question.  The audience member was a costume designer who couldn’t figure out why she couldn’t get any work as a designer locally.  In response, every member of the panel spent about 2-5 minutes talking about strategies and options and trying to help this person.


While this was happening, everyone on the panel was excited because one of the panelists, Patrick Longo, was there to talk about how he had successfully kickstarted a project for a stage production of his original material at Proctor’s Theatre that was premiering this September.   Before the panel started, Patrick had introduced himself to EVERYONE in the room and gave them a card promoting his event.  So, even after the panelists introduced themselves at the start of the panel everyone there was familliar with what he was doing.


As panelists, we were all thinking some variation of, “This is great!  We’re actually going to be able to help somebody directly today!”  At the end of the panel I asked everyone to stick around for the last presentation and as we took a break between sessions the person who asked the question stood up, walked out the door and never came back.


We were stunned.  Patrick came up to me and said, “I’m so confused.  What happened there?  I NEED a costume designer.  Why didn’t she come talk to me?”


Unfortunately that response to that opportunity was the answer to that question .

In a profoundly over simplified math equation, opportunities are approximately 60% positioning yourself to be in the right place at the right time and about 40% having the skill set (and the wherewithal) to be able to capitalize on that.

You can practice in your bedroom forever, but you’re never going to meet other players / artists / likeminded people and/or people in a position to be able to help you advance until you go out into the world and meet them.

Related Story #2:

I was looking for a drummer.

Unless you already know talented players in your area or are in a position where you’re well known and making real touring money and can attract upper level professionals – this is always a nightmare proposition.

I reached out to a drummer’s group on Facebook, posted some video and audio and asked if anyone in the area was interested.  One person contacted me to say that he was interested but really busy and probably didn’t have time to play before he went back to the school for the summer. (I’m still baffled at the point of that correspondence).

Another second person messaged me with a contact information and I contacted him.  We played phone tag and finally talked about what I wanted to do and about getting together to play.  He wanted to hear more of my material (he didn’t have any recording of himself – which is always a bad sign) so I sent him some and then I never heard back from him.  So I sent a few followup emails that weren’t returned and about a week later, I called to see if he got the material.

Drummer (Sheepishly): “Oh yeah – I got the material….Uh you’re really good.  I didn’t know if I could play with those odd time signatures.”


Me: “Oh…that’s too bad.  If we had gotten together we could have tried it out and if it didn’t work I would have just played easier material to see if there was a decent chemistry and see if there was something else we could do.”


Drummer: “Oh!  Well I guess we could get together next week.”


Me:  “Sorry.  If you can’t follow up now at this stage, it just tells me that you’re probably going to flake later, and I can’t spend my time hunting people down to find out where they are.  Good luck though.”


That wasn’t said with any snark whatsoever.  I truly did wish him well, but I wasn’t willing to let him take up any more of my time.

A few takeaways

One thing that EVERY artist is guilty of at one (or many) points in his or her career is getting in their own way.  They’re often prone to second guessing themselves and being afraid to open the doors in front of them.

Here are two observations that I try to be mindful of myself

  • Opportunities are made not found. They are made by putting work into developing skill sets and positioning yourself (i.e. being conspicuous) so people can experience what you do.
  • Networking is based on sincere and legitimate connections to people.  I think of it as developing friendships instead trying to capitalize on something from the get go.  If you do have a internal question question when you meet people, make sure it’s  “What can I do for this person?” instead of “What can this person do for me?” and that’s because….
  • It’s more about who knows you than who you know.  My knowing other players won’t get me a gig.  Other players knowing me and knowing what I do (and more importantly what problems I can solve for them) is what will prompt any discussion between people that includes “oh hey let’s get that Scott Collins guy for this”

As always, I hope this helps!

Next time – I’ll talk about lessons I learned from mistakes that I made in setting up the panels!

Thanks for reading!


The Power Of Negative Example or How NOT To Network Part 1

The Power Of Negative Example

Years ago, I had helped some friends of mine organize a music festival at CalArts.  I was originally brought in because they “thought I’d be good with money”, but pretty quickly I ended up taking on a co-leadership role and helping to organize an event that had 40+ acts in three performance spaces for a full day.  It was exhilarating and exhausting and in many ways worth all of the work that went into it.

After the festival, one of the co-organizers way kind enough to say the following to me.

“You know I learned an incredible lesson from you.  I kept thinking about how we were going to do something and your approach was, ‘It’s fine that we want to do that but this is what I don’t want to have happen…’ and just making sure a few things didn’t go wrong made it much easier to get the things we wanted to go right done.”

Success can be due to a myriad number of factors but when things fail, they typically only do so for one or two reasons.

Therefore, if you set up the basic conditions for your desired outcome to occur and then actively work against things that could go wrong, it’s much easier to troubleshoot than trying to create all of the conditions for success.

In other words, the “don’t do this” list is usually much shorter and more actionable  than the “do this” list.

With that in mind, I’m going to detail some serious pitfalls that I’ve seen and experienced in networking.  Networking is a vital component to artistic survival in the 21st century.  If you don’t build communities with people you’re going to be relegated to creating things in isolation and for most people that’s unsustainable.

Look for the deeper lesson

My recommendation with this approach is in looking at what goes wrong with networking look for the deeper lesson and see what you can do right.

How NOT to network


1.  View networking as an end goal.

I could have also said, use networking as an intransitive verb.  “We are going to network with that person…” is something that I heard come out of more than one music business major’s mouth while I was at Berklee.

Networking is a process of building a mutually advantageous relationship with other people, not a way to manipulate people into getting what you want from them.

Go to a music business conference and you will see the people who are there solely to network a thousand miles away.  Everyone else will as well.  There’s a stench of desperation that will clear a room out faster than a pungent fart.

2.  Be insincere.

Some of the more Machiavelli-insprired readers may take a page from The Prince and try to “network” and hide their self-serving intentions.  I would advise you to just be honest and transparent when dealing with people, but even if you were approaching this from the most Machiavellian perspective, I would say that there is no advantage to being insincere. Most people are not good enough actors to pull this off, and there’s no reason to.  Even if you were to fool people at the offset, they’re going to figure it out eventually.

3.  Try to capitalize on a non-existant relationship at the get-go.

I had someone contact me out of the blue from CalArts who wanted me to help him promote his release.  He wrote the e-mail like we hung out all the time or had a personal connection and in truth, I only vaguely knew who he was from his dealings with another person.  If this was a really good friend of mine, or someone that I knew it would be fine but it just came across as shallow manipulation.

I never think of networking as such.  I think of it as making friends and acquaintances.  I ask people I know for favors, and give favors to friends who ask me for them.  THAT’S networking.  If you approach networking with the same approach as you’d have in making new friends it will take you much further in getting you to the end result.

4.  Make it all about you.

No one likes a parasite.  If you don’t have a symbiotic relationship with people they won’t help sustain you in the long run.  Also, being really needy and constantly asking people for things is another way to get people off your radar.

5.  Don’t pay it back.

Ask for a favor and then be too busy to help people with something when they need it.  See how long that sustains you in the industry.

6.  Do poor work.

This one isn’t so obvious but you have to have something to offer to a relationship.   If you don’t play particularly well and you’re billing yourself as a performer that’s going to be a problem.  If you’re a singer songwriter and you neither sing or play well there’s not going to be a whole lot of reason to recommend you.  Building relationships is easier when you are that person people go to for things.

7.  Be irresponsible and/or don’t follow up.

This one boggles my mind.   The number of times that people don’t show for things or don’t do what they say they’re going to do is astounding to me.  Those people tend to move to the periphery of the scene or become absent entirely.

Related to #6, if you’re the best at what you do people may cut you a little slack, but if you flake out on things, people just won’t deal with you.


An Illustrative Story

There’s a lot more about networking that  I’ll cover in part 2, but in the meantime here’s an illustrative story that will cover much of what I’ve talked about.

I got an email from a student at Berklee who read my bio and wanted to talk with me about being a guitarist in New York City and wanted to know if we could meet up.  Even though I never got any assistance from anyone (much less alumni) when I went to school, I thought I’d help this guy anyways by paying it forward even though I knew that this meeting would fall into a professional guitarist/life-coaching area that I am generally compensated for.

We met at a Pret A Manger.  He asked a lot of random questions about what I did and about the scene and wrote down all of my answers.  I was shocked at how little research he had done.  He had been in the city for 3 days and hadn’t even picked up a copy of the Voice to see what was going on.    I gave him the best answers I could and helped him identify a specific niche that he could serve for his teaching and gave him a number of contacts.  He had a small journal and took about 5 pages of notes.  I gave him a card (which he left on the table) and wished him well.  I never heard from him again.

The sad thing is that I’m sure someone in a music business class told him to try to network with people already in the scene and while it really couldn’t have gone much worse for him from a networking angle, I’m also sure he thought the meeting went really really well.

There’s so much to learn from the mistakes above!  But let me put the scenario in a different light that may affect how you approach networking in the future.

Other than a story, what do I get out of this interaction?

You have to give people something if you’re going to continue a relationship with them.  Even if it’s nothing more than a thank you or offering to get them a cup of coffee.

If he had bought a book, or directed people to my website, or even sent a follow up e-mail that simply said, “thank you for your time” it might have given me something.

Do I regret helping him?  Absolutely not, but that door is closed for him in the future.

I’ll never hear from that guy again and it’s too bad for him because if he had handled that interchange better, I could have really helped him get the pieces in place that he needed to relocate and do what he wanted to do.

The golden question of networking then isn’t, “What’s in it for me?” but instead is, “What’s in it for us?”

In part 2 of this post, I’ll talk about how not to network with regards to getting reviewed.

Hope to see you there.  As always thanks for reading, I hope it helps!