6 Things “That Thing You Do!” Taught Me About Being a Musician


Warning: the following contains spoilers for the movie. If you haven’t already seen it, you need to go watch it right this second. It’s not on Netflix, but go rent it on iTunes, I promise you’ll thank me. Also, you’ll get all the references.

After a long, tiring week, nothing soothes the soul quite like sitting on the couch, eating pho, and watching the 1996 classic, That Thing You Do! It’s one of my favorite movies for several reasons.

Lesson No. 1: You Are Replaceable

Within the first few minutes of the movie, the band’s drummer Chad breaks his arm trying to leap over a parking meter. In the very next scene, Guy is recruited to play drums for the band. Boom, replaced.

Pop quiz: what’s the bass player’s name? Crap, I already gave you the answer. If you look in the credits, his name is listed as “The Bass Player.” What happens when he disappears and goes to Disneyland? He’s replaced within an hour by “Wolfman” (much better name).

In both of these cases, the musicians in the band are replaced almost immediately. This is absolutely true to the life of a professional musician. If you go and break your arm, the gig must go on, no matter with who. If you fail to show up to the gig, that’s pretty much it. You are replaceable. So don’t be stupid. Don’t get an ego. Be grateful. Take care of yourself. And please don’t try to jump over parking meters.

Lesson No. 2: Your Significant Other Needs To Get It

Guy invites his girlfriend Tina to come see the band perform several times, and each time she’s reluctant to come, not excited, and generally doesn’t get what all the fuss is about. She ultimately leaves Guy for her macho dentist (She was annoying anyway).

Faye on the other hand (by the way, Tina & Faye? Coincidence?), gets it. She’s not only the band’s and Jimmy’s biggest fan (arguably to a fault), she goes on tour with them as the costume manager. She supports Jimmy, the band, aaaand then Guy at the very end of the movie (and there was much rejoicing).

The life of a professional musician is unlike any other. You work at night, sleep in, and get to do what you love for a living. Your boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse/lover/“buddy” needs to understand that. If they don’t, you’re in for a rough time. I was fortunate enough to marry a wonderful woman who not only supports me as a musician, but is a fantastic musician herself. We are able to support each other, even through the sometimes difficult schedule that comes along with being a musician. I certainly have a gal pal in her. We make a real cute couple, ya?

Lesson No. 3: You Have To Play At Villapiano’s For a While

Villapiano’s is the iffy pizza place by the airport that The Oneders play at after winning the talent show. It’s not a glamourous gig, and they know it. Tina doesn’t think it’s that great (should’ve dumped her in Pittsburg!).

What happens after a few Villapiano’s shows? Phil stops by, becomes their manager, and the band is taken to the next level.

Nobody wants to play crappy gigs. But you have to. For one, when you’re first starting out, you need as much experience as possible, and probably as much cash as you can get. Play the Villapiano’s gigs for the money, but also play it for the experience of playing at a crappy bar. When you move on to better gigs, you won’t have an ego because of your humble beginnings.

Lesson No. 4: The Gear You Have Is Probably Good Enough

When the Oneders decide to record their single (coincidentally named That Thing You Do!), they don’t go to a fancy recording studio. They hit up Uncle Bob and record a couple takes in a church. It wasn’t anything super high quality, but that record got them signed to Playtone Records.

One of my favorite things is when a musician feels like they have to have all of the bells and whistles available. They buy the pick holder for the mic stand. They have the weird X shaped guitar strap. They have everything that Planet Waves makes. That stuff is fine, but in reality you probably don’t need all of that.

For the record, I’m not saying you should be gigging around with your buddy’s old Adam Levine guitar he got at Target. Get good gear that works and doesn’t get in the way of you doing your thing. Here’s my general rule of thumb: don’t buy it until you really need it. I can’t tell you how many purchases I’ve made, excitedly thinking, “I’m totally going to get into this now!” only to have it sit on the bottom shelf, unused for months.

Gear is cool, but you know what’s cooler? Music. Focus on being a great musician, and be happy with your rig until you have the extra money to spend on new stuff. Having a Monocase isn’t going to get you more gigs. Sounding great on your instrument is.

Lesson No. 5: Cap’n Geech & The Shrimp Shack Shooters Pays The Bills

In a perfect world, we’d all only take gigs that were musicially satisfying, payed well, and were with our friends who are incredible musicians. Unfortunately for me, I don’t think I’ll ever get paid to play D’Angelo’s Voodoo with my new BFF Steve Jordan (I’m still keeping my fingers crossed though).

The reality is sometimes you gotta play in Cap’n Geech’s band. You look ridiculous, the music is awful, but it pays and the people are cool too. That’s 2 out of the 3. Jimmy’s response is to say, “We shouldn’t be here. When are we going into the studio. Also, I’m an idiot.” (I added that last part) Lenny on the other hand has his 2/3 so he’s happy. Though really, is Lenny ever upset?

Cap’n Geech & The Shrimp Shack Shooters may not be a glamourous gig, but at least you’re not still at Villapiano’s, right? (See what I did?)

Lesson No. 6: This Isn’t Your Last Gig

My favorite lesson can be summed up in one quote from the fictitious jazz pianist Del Paxton:

“Ain’t no way to keep a band together. Bands come and go. You got to keep on playin’, no matter with who.”

At the end of the movie, Jimmy quits the band, Lenny has run off to Las Vegas to get married, and The Bass Player is… probably still at Disneyland? But where’s Guy? In the recording studio playing with one of his idols. Guy hasn’t given up on music. He continues to pursue his passion, moves to LA, and eventually starts a Jazz Conservatory.

After The Oneders fell apart, it would have been easy to give up on being a musician (and 2 of the band members did). But Guy kept on fighting, kept working at his career, and got to play with some excellent musicians along the way.

If your gig falls apart (or should I say when), just remember this: This isn’t your last gig. The nature of being a musician is project based. Sometimes you’re working on an album with an acoustic singer/songwriter. Other times you’re on tour with a heavy metal band. And sometimes you’re playing for Weekend at Party Pier. But then it’s always on to the next thing.

That being said, regardless of where you’re at, enjoy it, because you may never be there again.

Wrap Up

Ultimately, be like Guy Patterson. He’s a great musician, kind to those he meets, has a good attitude, is grateful for where he’s at, and is passionate to keep pressing on no matter what. If you apply these lessons to your own life, maybe you too can have a career playing with great musicians, making money, and marrying the perfect spouse (minus the terrible pants suit).