As a professional musician, you want to be the first person that people call when they need (fill in the blank). With that in mind, you’ve probably been told that you need to do everything. If you can play rock, punk, jazz, soul, fusion, classical, latin, and Riverdance, then you will get called for all of that.
I’m here to tell you that that thinking is exactly backwards. If you want to be a successful musician, you actually need to focus on doing less. (Besides, the golden age of Riverdance is long gone.)
The Renaissance Man Myth
For a long time, our society has praised “Renaissance” people, those that can do seemlingly everything, and do it incredibly well. In reality the only thing that the Renaissance man truly excels at is mediocrity. While there are people that can do everything, they don’t do it all very well.
Just because you can’t do everything doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still do multiple things.
Do Multiple Things
We’ve talked about this concept before: in order to increase your chances of success as a musician, you need to do multiple things. Maybe you play live gigs, but you also teach. Or you do lots of studio work, and also have great chart making abilities.
Whatever your skills are, you need a combination in order to survive. Inconsistency is built into being a professional musician. Sometimes you have a packed month full of work (December), other times you’re barely scraping by (January). In order to make your income as even as possible, you need to do multiple things.
Don’t Do Everything
Do multiple things, yes, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you can do everything. There just aren’t enough hours in the day. No one can do everything with complete mastery. No one.
The Downside of Doing Everything
I once received a business card from a musician that listed his name, number, email and the following description of what he does:
“Guitar, bass, vocals, drums, keys, producing, songwriting, lessons, violin, arranging, film scores… yeah, I do it all!”
What do you think I did with that card? If you guessed, “ever called him” you’re wrong. If you guessed, “framed it and put it on my wall” you are correct!
The downside of the “doing everything” approach is that there’s nothing unique about you. There’s no defining thing that you’re truly great at. If you try to do everything you’ll get called for nothing.
Who Would You Call?
Let’s say you need a service. You need… a drummer to play on your acoustic singer-songwriter album. You think through drummers that you know and here are your options:
- A drummer who boasts that he can play “any style, any tempo, any time signature, Bro.” He has youtube videos of him playing complicated latin-infused-neo-speed-trip-hobbit-core. It has over 100,000 views.
- A drummer who plays lots of acoustic gigs, has recorded with multiple singer-songwriter artists that you know, and has a unique custom dual-cajon setup with a tambourine kick pedal.
Who are you going to call?
What About All Those Untapped Gigs?!
This may fly in the face of what you’ve been taught. “You need to be able to do everything! Play any style authentically! Be able to perfectly execute every style of music!”
Yes, you should absolutely study as many genres of music as you can (even Riverdance, if you’re into that). Yes, you should practice this stuff. Yes, you need to do multiple things. But you don’t need to (and shouldn’t) try to do everything.
For example, I am never going to get called for a true, honest-to-God Latin gig. Ever. I never have and I never will. You know why? Because I’m just not very good at it. Sure, I’ve played latin stuff many times, but the small subtleties that really make the style authentic and feel good just aren’t there for me. That’s not a bad thing though. I’m still playing gigs, just not those gigs.
Play To Your Strengths
Alright, it’s time to do some soul searching. I want you to write down the 2 or 3 main categories of pro musician work that you want to pursue. No more than that. Do you want to play and teach? Studio recording and composing? Audio Engineering and copy work? Pick your big categories and write them down.
Now, within those categories, I want you to write 3 or 4 (no more) sub-categories. Within “live gigs” maybe you’ll put “Singer-Songwriter, Soul/R&B, Worship.” Maybe under copy work you’ll write, “Basic rhythm charts and lead sheets,” as opposed to “full orchestral movie scores”. You get the idea, right?
Now, you have a maximum of 3 categories, and potentially 12 sub-categories. These are the things you need to focus on. Nothing else. Get really good at doing just those things. Like, exceptional. World-class. You want to be the guy that when someone says, “Who should I call to play guitar on my daughter’s bubble gum pop record?” They immediately think of you.
This idea of niche-ing down may seem counterintutive. “You want me to say no to gigs? What are you, crazy?!” I know the idea of saying no to a gig is scary and might seem foolish. But if you focus on honing your skills to just a few, you will become the guy to call for that skill. This is something Peter Dyer talked about in his recent podcast interview. I’ve always known him as the “Crazy synth guy” who has a room full of 18 vintage synths. The niche skill has gotten him tons of work and he’s toured all over the world with artists like Mariah Carey and Aloe Blacc because of it.
For me, one of my niche skills is upright bass. Electric bass players are a dime a dozen (guitar players right now are thinking, “yeah, I could do that, easy”) but someone who can play the upright bass really well is much less common. I’ve gotten lots of work because of this skill, not only from classical and jazz gigs, but acoustic singer-songwriters who want a unique sound. I’ve become one of the first names that some people mention when they say, “I need an upright bass player…”
If you want to become the go-to freelance musician, develop your 2–3 niche skills and sub-skills. Become so good that hiring you a is a no-brainer.
You should have your niche skills, but you don’t want to niche down too far. Becoming the “Late–13th century north-eastern Irish bagpipe player in the greater Tuscon area” will ensure that you get the call, but that call will come in, maaaaayybe once, ever.
You can’t do everything. So stop trying. But you need more than one thing to make it as a professional musician. Decide what those 2–3 big things are, and get incredible at them. Become the guy to call for that thing. And who knows, Riverdance could make a comeback, right?
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