All the musicians I know began their careers in cover bands. During my studies, I, too, spent a lot of time in wedding and event ensembles. I also invested a lot of time in my own projects, because I had a hunch that I wouldn’t be able to achieve the kind of success I wanted through cover music alone. Only with my own band, I thought, would I find a route to the big arenas and gain access to the major labels. Like me, all of my fellow musicians were waiting for their big break. We often spent hours talking about the “big time” over beer and fast food – and still, it didn’t materialise.
Starting your own band: Risks and things to consider
Unfortunately, I was forced to acknowledge early on that the interests of various band members are often as conflicting as their personalities. In addition, I had no influence over the eventual destiny of my fellow musicians, or their actual passion for the goal of a “musical career”. Ultimately, I was only a small part of the big picture. Because of all this, being a band member can sometimes be a frustrating experience. At any time, a fellow member can leave without warning, forcing you to start from scratch with new musicians. This is not only annoying because of the time, energy and money you have already invested in the project – it also means that the band does not progress as it should. Your dreams can dissolve before you’ve even had chance to put them into action.
7 reasons why bands split up
There are many reasons why bands split up – and many of them are things that are out of your control. In my experience, the following are the most common:
- Changing priorities of band members
- A lack of discipline and punctuality
- Band members are not team players (the majority of the work is done by one or two people)
- Change of record label
- No booking agency and/or no tour support
- Lack of marketing
- Worries about the effects of success when things “gets serious”
All these factors can play a role in whether or not your band is successful. I hear time and again of cases where, after years of hard work, bands split when once they’ve finally started making a name for themselves. If you’ve had this experience four or five times over, there can be no escaping the fact that you’ve invested a lot of time without getting any closer to your goal.
Being successful and getting paid as a freelance musician
Fortunately, it took me only three failed bands until I realised that my parents’ favourite saying – “Every man is the architect of his own fortune” – is more appropriate in this business than anywhere else. At this point, I decided to begin working as a freelance musician and producer. I knew that this decision would turn all aspects of my life on their head – and yet it was a very attractive option, knowing that success or failure would now be directly related to my own work and discipline. I wouldn’t be able to blame anyone but myself.
What was attractive about working as a freelance musician? Well, first of all, there was the independence that such a job entails. In contrast to a fully-fledged band member, sidemen or session musicians are paid as service providers. As a result, they are also not entitled to royalties, shares of merchandising sales or shares of concert revenues. Example of well-known freelance drummers are Karl Brazil (who tours with Robbie Williams, James Blunt and Joss Stone) or Oneida James (who tours with Joe Cocker). On the other hand, Will Champion (Coldplay) and Eddie Fisher (OneRepublic) are permanent band members who, like their bandmates, receive a share of the sales they achieve.
For freelance musicians, payment is usually issued in the form of a weekly or per-performance fee. Sometimes, a lump sum may be agreed for an entire tour, or you may receive another form of financial compensation, e.g. in the form of a “long-term position”. Whenever you become part of a band but have not signed a contract with the record company, you are working as a session musician or sideman. As a freelancer, you are a sole trader and have to calculate exactly what prices you can afford to work for.
The life of a sideman: No ordinary working life
Today, sidemen make up the majority of musicians who are active in the music business. From recording sessions to live events and television appearances – freelance musicians are used in just about every musical situation imaginable. For me, that’s exactly what makes the job so interesting: I can work for different artists and, at the same time, have a greater range of musical experiences than musicians who are bound to a particular band or genre. Besides, I’m doing exactly what I always wanted to do, and can say with conviction that I love my work. Why spend time doing something I don’t enjoy?
Speaking of time: All in all, my working time on stage is relatively short in comparison to the working time of a “regular” employee. This is because most concerts last a maximum of 2-3 hours. There is, of course, a certain amount of time required for travel and personal preparation – but even despite this, this lifestyle offers me the kind flexibility that I could never have guaranteed with a nine-to-five job.
Working with stars on the stage and in the studio: The matter of ego
Of course, those who talk only about the positive aspects of a sideman’s life are being economical with the truth. Over the years, I’ve realised that a session musician’s life is often misjudged by those who have no experience of the music industry. They expect you to make millions just because you’re touring with one or more major acts or working with them in the studio. Unfortunately, for many session drummers, this assumption is far from reality. There’s no doubt that you can earn a living as a successful freelance musician; however, the “fame” aspect (your own or that of the band you’re playing for) is just an added bonus of your actual work. If it doesn’t help you pay your bills, it’s not much use at all. It massages your ego and might impress a few acquaintances, but not much more.
Because of this, I’d advise you not to confuse fame with financial freedom. These are two very different aspects of your profession. In the worst case scenario, you may even end up in serious trouble trying to maintain a façade of fame and luxury that does not actually exist.
Earning money in music
For many people, it is not clear how money is now distributed in the music industry. There is a big difference between a freelance sideman and a musician who has signed a record contract, earns artist royalties and has other income (merchandise, advertising contracts, presenter work, etc.). In addition, you should be aware that most money is made by the people who own the intellectual property rights, including successful songwriters, publishers and producers. In a broad sense, this group also includes managers, agents and concert promoters. As in any other business, there are employers or clients who are fair and sincere, and others who are egoists, idiots or simply [insert swearword of your choice]. Once you realise this, you can go about pursuing this career without the risk of disappointment.
As I’ve written in other blog posts, there are far more financially profitable professions than that of a sideman – but there are also many jobs that are far less personally rewarding. Ultimately, you need to ask yourself what you want to do with your life and how you want to earn your money.
The secret to success as a freelance musician: Be good – and be reliable
As a sideman, you won’t have regular working hours – and as much as that can be beneficial to creative professionals, it also has its disadvantages. With most jobs, you can simply call in sick if you’re not feeling well. If you’re on tour as a support act or headliner, things aren’t that easy. Each appearance is based on previously-concluded contracts who the compliance is enforced with legal remedies, without of the consequences. That’s why you, as a session musician, are expected to appear without fail – no matter the circumstances.
I once fell ill unexpectedly during a tour, but had to play a show at K 17 in Berlin anyway. Just the though of sitting at the drums made me want to throw up: I had a fever and felt like my head was going to explode. Every shot on the snare drum was like a blow on my head. I was totally wiped. If there were ever was a moment when I would have wished not to get sick, it was now. Despite this, I had to go ahead and play the show: I had no other choice. The other musicians and the audience expected the performance they were used to. I can tell you now that performing in such circumstances is not easy. Nevertheless, it’s not impossible – and it shows you the tough side this business can sometimes have.
Now, it’s your turn. What do you want to achieve in your life? Is a career as a freelance musician a realistic option for you? Be honest with yourself and follow your heart as soon as you’re sure. What are your impressions of being a freelancer in the music industry? Do you already have experience as a sideman or studio musician? I look forward to your comments!