Low Maintenance Gigging

I once asked a colleague I often work with if they’d be interested in being part of a project I was involved in at the request of another colleague.  My colleague declined stating they were not interested and only really wanted to take low maintenance gigs. This colleague gigs as often as, if not more often than I do, so I completely understood the sentiment as it’s one that I have when it comes to taking on gigs or new musical projects.

In my post about musicians wasting time, this can be one of the absolute biggest time killers. Building or creating new shows (often around an album); Starting new musical projects which often has high start-up costs (in time and money); or joining an existing musical project and having to learn a whole new set of repertoire–all these things take a lot of time with no (or very little) immediate return on investment.

As I’ve blogged about frequently here, cover bands on average make more money than bands that play original music (tribute bands often making the most). A significant start-up time costs is eliminated–namely writing new material. There are reasons why the biggest performing arts organizations (Symphonies, Operas, Ballets) constantly perform the old warhorses. The music is more familiar and requires a lot less rehearsal time than newer compositions/choreographies (not to mention the elimination of costs due to those works being in the public domain). Most of the biggest pop touring acts are artists that haven’t had a hit in 30 years. When I toured around with Ray Price intermittently for three years it was essentially the same songlist for the dozens of shows I played–even at the same venues we’d hit every year.

This just makes economic sense–and where Time is Money, any way to eliminate using time for anything can be an even bigger way to cut back on expenses.

Another way of doing that is to spend time learning a new skill, rather than a new piece. Say you learn a new piece that’s traditionally improvised (or has a significant component of improvisation. Sure, you’ve added a new piece to your rep which you may get the chance to play a number of times but if you learned how to improvise then you open up a whole new world of performing and a whole new repertoire of tunes rather than just one. Being able to learn a tune by ear can be another valuable skill, just as being able to sight read. These are big level skills that have far more use in the long run than the small level skills such as learning tunes on a one by one basis. It’s like the difference between memorizing lines in a play in a foreign language as opposed to actually learning the language. The latter has far more utility, and far more applications than the former.

I spend as much time doing gigs where I either have to improvise off the top of my head with no formal structures laid out to where I have to essentially sightread music that I may have never seen before and with which I might not even be familiar. Improvising and Sight Reading gigs are low maintenance gigs for me now (which is not to say that I can’t do things to do both of those skills better).

Same thing goes for musical styles and genres. I may be able to play a tune, say, Zeina – whether with sheet music or just by ear. But understanding the musical style–the tonal system (maqam), rhythmic system (iqaat); ornaments; and stylistic idiosyncrasies of Arabic music–means I can show others how to play it; how to ornament it; how to inflect the pitches for it; how to drum it; and how not to simply play an Americanized version of it.

When you’re a full time musician, you want to increase productivity, or at least minimize time costs, as much as possible so you can take some time for those less productive pet projects that are much more time intensive and may not necessarily have a high ROI. This might be the single most important difference between full-time musicians and part-time ones. You eventually learn ways of maximizing your time doing low maintenance gigging as a full-timer because that’s your livelihood.

Musicians with a day job have no such pressure. There’s little incentive (and time, for that matter) to increase ROI by acquiring new skills and eliminating inefficient musical activities. I imagine those musicians that successfully transition from hobbyist into full-time status slowly eliminate the waste while the vast majority don’t.


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