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December 11, 2016

How to promote yourself and get gigs when you’re a session musician

Following such a positive response to last week’s post – Can be be a UK session musician and not live in London, I thought I would talk about that thing that comes before getting work, something that I feel doesn’t really get taught enough in music colleges or spoken about in general…self promotion!

I should probably mention before we start, this is my limited experience from the last 6 years or so, and in particular I’m talking about promoting yourself for pop gigs.

Definitely the most common question I get asked about my job is “how do you get gigs”. If I’m honest, I don’t really know the answer – there really isn’t any formula for getting gigs, but I know that I didn’t just wake one day and have them. So the question really is, how do you get noticed?

Well, here are a few things a friend of mine called Spam Spirrow found out didn’t work:

  1. Posting a phone with your phone number on it and a post-it note saying “Call Me” to the head of a major label company…nope, doesn’t work.
  2. Stalking up and coming artists in their home town to just so happen to  bump into them and mention you’re a bassist and you’d love to work with them…nope, that’s both creepy and unproductive.
  3. Emailing an MD everyday for 30 days straight for a gig…yeah, also doesn’t work

Plot twist, Spam Spirrow is actually me, Sam Skirrow. Yeah, pretty embarrassing right – I mean, most of these things were nearly 10 years ago now, but I wish I had a blog about promoting yourself to read before I went ahead and did them!

So I think it’s fair to assume most people reading this will have a much more rational head on them and NOT do anything stupid like the above, so if you’re wondering what has actually helped me pick up gigs (and now you know i’ve tried more or less everything!!) then here’s my advice.

  1. Be excellent, all the time
    To be honest, I could stop writing this post now! As this really is what it all hangs on, whatever size gig or crowd, or whoever is in the band, always bring your A-game. Practice for those function gigs just as you would for those arena gigs, and respect the gig while you are on them. Why, because you never know who is watching and you never know who will call you.

    I remember being in a rehearsal for a gig a few years back that was paying very little (it was a agreed fee for 5 weeks of work – and it probably worked out at about £30 a day). But I played for my life during those rehearsals, in the middle of it, a guy came in from the studio next door, stopping our rehearsal and asked to get my number. From then on he started calling me for work which I’m still doing to this day!

    Don’t play to the size of the gig, play to the size of your potential <- sick quote I just made up!

  2. Use social media…but don’t spam people
    I probably don’t need to mention how good social media is for promoting yourself, put up videos of you playing, do the whole Facebook live thing and Instagram about what you are doing – it’s a great way to show people who you are and what you can do. I think there is a bit of an unspoken etiquette (at least, I think there is) when it comes to how you present yourself on your socials.

    Here’s what I think the unspoken rules are:
    – Don’t tag the whole world and their dogs in your videos!! Ok, every now and then it’s cool to tag people in your super sick drum video – but don’t do it ALL the time because people will get sick of you. Plus, let’s be honest, there are only so many drum fills or bass chops we can all take right?! Sometimes it’s nice just to have a bit of 2 and 4!
    – Don’t pretend to be on gigs you’re not, or endorsed by people you’re not…no one does that right 😉
    – Don’t troll on other musicians – these are your potential colleagues, if you’re going to gossip or hate on people you are burning bridges….basically don’t hype!

    Put out good quality videos and Instagrams and Facebook live’s and fan art till you’re blue in the face, but do it in moderation – be real and be humble.

  3. Don’t network – make friends
    I’ve always hated the word Network – it feels really cold and non-relational. One thing I’ve learnt in this industry is that you need friends not just a collection of phone numbers. Aside from the fact that people want to work with their mates and so you’re going to get called by people you get on with, it’s far more valuable to have people that you can call up for advise or encouragement when you most need it.So how do you make friends? I started meeting other musicians at jam nights (ahhhhh the dreaded J word!). I want to do another post on jam nights and what to expect at a later date, so for now my advise is this – go to them, lots of them, but don’t go expecting to get gigs. Instead, go to enjoy playing with other great musicians and meet people who are doing, or trying to do what you want to do.

    If you just want to go and show off your latest lick then no-one will care! Talk to people, buy them drinks, enjoy making music with them and keep in touch with them – it’s kind of like dating!

  4. Be friendly
    This point probably doesn’t need to much explanation. But I’ve found that just by being mildly sociable and texting or phoning people regularly you stay in the loop a little better and develop greater friendships.

    I don’t want to be patronising about how to be friendly so I won’t go into any more detail here – treat musicians as friends rather than potential leads to work!

  5. Develop your own musical identity
    This is a point I preach a lot, especially to musicians who are in, or have come up through music college. I feel like the music education system teaches us to try and be good at everything – I think that’s rubbish! I am never going to be really great at playing Latin music because it’s not in my culture or my upbringing, and also I’m just not that into Latin music! So why should I try and get good at it when I have other things that I’m naturally good at and that I enjoy.

    Know your musical identity because that is essentially what you will get hired for. I have always been very focussed on the style of playing I like and practice, even to the extent of turning down some great gigs because it’s not the route I want to go down. I remember a great friend of mine and utterly brilliant bassist called Si Francis passing on this advice to me – he was doing the whole 5-string bass, RnB/soul playing thing but felt like it wasn’t really him, so he sold his bass and embraced what he loved, great bass tone, 4 strings (although I swear I’ve seen him on the occasional 5 😉 ) and incredible skills at making sounds with effects pedals (and also smashing up Ableton and synth sounds too), and that is what got him called for the Ellie Goulding gig. The moral of the story, people will call you for what you bring to a gig – so find your sound and what you enjoy and master it.

Essentially, I’m sad to report, there isn’t a rule for getting work – everyone has a different story behind how they got their first pop gig. But I genuinely believe that hard work and determination don’t go unnoticed. If you work diligently, make friends and keep cool, you will (eventually) get work!

Would love to hear your thoughts on my thoughts – how did you get your first gig, or are you feeling like you’ve tried everything and not getting anywhere? Is there anything that has worked well for you or would recommend to other musicians? Leave us a comment below and give us a share on the old book-face.

Lots of love.