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How do I earn a living playing bass?

Discussion in 'Ask Steve Lawson & Michael Manring' started by Brian456or10, Apr 9, 2002.

  1. Hi Steve,

    I know it must seem like an over-generalized question, but do you have any advice for an above average bassist looking for paying gigs? Here's a rundown of my situation...

    I've been a part-time player for over 19yrs, and I can play just about anything (within reason) by ear. I've got the BIT version of music theory under my belt, although I know I'll probably need to brush up on it if I want to go pro. While I can simulate many styles, my forte is rock, and I play in a band which I'd like to keep as my main focus. The band makes some money, but not enough to live on. I lost my job as a video editor, and I'm seriously thinking about jumping into the session scene to try and eke out a living doing what I do best -- playing music (I play guitar and piano too).

    I'm totally naive about what paying gigs are out there, and how to get them. How far can I get with a great ear and somewhat clunky theory? Where should I start? Should I approach a talent agent? I live near Chicago.
  2. Chip


    May 2, 2000
    just an additive to this question
    my friends guitar teacher is in about 3-4 bands, is this normal, a great way to make money, or not very smart?
  3. Steve Lawson

    Steve Lawson Solo Bass Exploration! Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2000
    Birmingham, UK
    Hi Guys,

    Going pro, yes or no? who's to say... :oops:) I guess there are a few things that help - firstly, you've got to know that being a great bassist will never get you a gig... it will keep you a gig once you get it, but you get the gigs by being in the right place at the right time, by bumping into a band leader just when he's thinking about replacing his bassist, but having the wherewithall to start your own band, basically by getting lucky...

    However, being a great bassist will KEEP you the gig once you get a chance to try out... :oops:)

    Of course, you can shorten the odds on making one or more of these things happen - you can find out where musicians hang out, and start going there. If there are any music venues near you that focus on local guys, go down and introduce yourself between sets, say you like what they do and would love to jam some time. Hand out business cards like your life depends on it (cos it does!) - smile a lot, be friendly... The surest way of getting something happening is to start it yourself, and the fewer musicians you use, the more chance there is of making some dough on a gig - if you play jazz, find a pianist or guitarist who are up for forming a wine bar duo - get photos done and a real book, work on some signature material (pop stuff that you've re-arranged or whatever) and go round clubs/bars/restaurants with your CD... Don't be tempted to undercut everyone else just to get work - we all need to make enough to live on, so join the union and stick as close as you can to their rates...

    Try and land some project studio work - even if it's only for expenses or whatever, just to start building portfolio of recordings, so people can hear ahead of time what your bass playing sounds like on tape. If and when you do 'free' gigs, let the band leader know, gently, that you're helping him out, and that they owe you one - swap favours, get guys to play on your demos in return etc... we're all in this together, so it's not hard to find people who want to swap skills...

    I've no idea what the scene is like where you are - London's quite a hard place to break in, as it's just too big... I've got a few contacts for different things (in the last two days I've done a top 40 hip-hop session and a singer-songwriter project for EMI, but they don't come along that often...)

    The buzz words are being motivated, friendly, versatile, out there, and enjoy it - no-one wants to work with a guy who when things are a little hard just goes on about how hard it is to make a living and sounds all bitter. I've done gigs with people like that, and nothing on earth would induce me to hire them! It's the best job in the world if you can make enough to pay the bills... :oops:)

    it's certainly worth having lots of projects on the go - rarely does one band provide enough to live on...

    good luck - let me know how you get on


  4. Steve Lawson

    Steve Lawson Solo Bass Exploration! Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2000
    Birmingham, UK
    ...on the subject of agents - they've got to earn their money. Managers and agents are great when they are getting you work, but if you get signed up, find all your own gigs and still have to give them their 20%, that's not good at all. Check personal recommendations first, and see which managers are actually coming up with the work for their players.

    FWIW, I've never had an agent, though I've got a friend who acts as my promoter occasionally, who is a manager for some other acts, any may well end up representing me in someway in the future...


    www.steve-lawson.co.uk (new CD available here now)
  5. Thanks a lot for the advice Steve. It is much appreciated. :)
  6. JMX

    JMX Vorsprung durch Technik

    Sep 4, 2000
    Cologne, Germany
    Most pro players I know teach, either on the side or as a main source of income. The studio and sideman scene in Germany is pretty small and hard to get into.
    I guess teaching always a good thing to fall back on, if you don't want back into a day job. Probably helps your own playing as well.
  7. Steve Lawson

    Steve Lawson Solo Bass Exploration! Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2000
    Birmingham, UK
    While I can see what you're saying, JMX, and whilst there is certainly no conflict with teaching and doing sessions or whatever (the actually compliment eachother quite well), going into teaching because you need the extra dough is about the worst possible reason for teaching... People are laying down a LOT of money on teaching (even the cheapest of teachers are still charging not inconsiderable sums of money for their services) and students deserve to find someone who is dedicated to what they are doing, someone who is continually seeking to become a better teacher, whos attitude and desire is to enhance the playing of the student, not just to prevent themselves from getting a day job... There's no reason why teaching and sessions etc. can't sit side by side (I submit myself as exhibit A, your honour...) but there are way way too many people who teach to pay the bills, not to share the information. And a good player does not make a good teacher, as many of us have found out to our detriment, having taken lessons with a fine player or two and discovered that their attitude, manner and approach to imparting knowledge wasn't worth a tenth of what they were charging... In that situation, you're better off buying a CD by them and learning what you can by ear... :oops:)

    I intentionally play down teaching as a means of making money - not because I can't deal with the competition (hey, I live in a city of 10 million people, there are more than enough bassists to go round... and anyway, a lot of my students come from up to 200 miles away for their lessons... :oops:) but because the equation doesn't go 'need money, therefore, start teaching'. Instead it goes 'want to teach, am good at teaching, therefor need to make it pay so I have time to do it'...

    I've got a great relationship with most of my students, many of whom are now friends I meet up with for drinks, or whos gigs I go to or whatever, and are certainly people whos musical lives I'm interested in and invested in beyond the money they've paid me...

    So, please don't take this as a 'don't teach!!' rant, but please give other people the consideration you'd want from a teacher - if you were learning, would ou honestly want you as a teacher? If the answer is no, or you're not sure, DON'T TEACH!!


  8. JMX

    JMX Vorsprung durch Technik

    Sep 4, 2000
    Cologne, Germany
    You're right of course, but I only stated what I know about pro level bassists, who mostly have a music degree of some kind. I consider being able to teach (to a degree) as kind of essential for studio or sideman career.
    If you're not proficient enough to do at least a little teaching, you're not fit for a studio career IMO, cause most of the competition has the knowledge to do so, they know theory and playing technique and can communicate it at least in some way.
    If you're still learning the basics yourself, you're not fit for a studio career.
    Most pros I know could live without teaching, but they still do it anyway.
    Another example, when Kai Eckhardt came to the US, he did teaching until he got his working permit(?).
    So, all I said was that it's a good idea to maintain that option, if you have a knack for it. It CAN save your financial neck to some degree.
    You're right though, being in it only for the money, will hurt your students and yourself.
  9. Howard K

    Howard K

    Feb 14, 2002
    Hey Brian,
    I recently started having lessons with Steve on a monthly basis... and I asked him the same question in my first lesson. Trying to run before I can walk!

    I've been playing as a hobbiest for about 12 years, but in the last year or so I've realised that the world of commerce just doesnt inspire me (in fact it repulses me) and that if I dont TRY to change career now I'll regret it and be bitter & twisted for all eternity.

    I've decided to try and turn pro too ...and have a cunning plan!

    Part A) is to try and 'make it' in a band.
    Part B) is to learn to understand music in order to be an efficient musician. (Obviously this wouldnt work if I didnt want to learn anyway).

    I set the plan in motion by starting the lessons a couple of months ago, but recently I auditoned for a new band and got the gig.

    The reason I mention this is because the situation was pretty unique in pop/rock bands. The band leader has written, sung, played, recorded, mixed and produced and entire albums worth of material over the past 3 years (as well as written a business plan and grasped serious industry interest) and has now recruited musicians to play his music live (I'm the final member to join).

    In our first meeting I had to convince this guy that I would play exactly what was right for HIS songs... that my pride would not get in the way if it came down to him telling me what to play!!!
    I guess this might sound restricting, but it's actually quite challenging to not impose my style on his music - to play as a paid pro would. Kind of like an actor getting into charactor for a play or something(?)

    My technique for auditions/initial meetings is to understand exactly what it is the artist wants from me as a bassist before tailoring my response. Obvioulsy, my objectives have to come first in the decision to join the band or not, but finding common ground with the artist makes it so much easier to get the gig and to get into their music.

    I think you can gain respect by understanding their aims and being confident you can help them achieve their aims. I think they'll then respect you for actually listening and understanding them.

    For me the key is finding one tiny thing I admire/respect about the artist, their music or their achievement and focussing on it.
    In this case it was the fact that this one guy had put together this brilliant demo pretty much on his own- I felt that was such an impressive achievement that I would be lucky to work with him.

    To sum... I think it's attitude, respect for other pmusicians creativity, talent and achievement and confidence in yourself more than anything else that will get the gig.
    Let's face it we're expected to play quarter note roots most of the time anyway!


    PS. I can honestly say I've enjoyed the majority of auditions I've had (statistically that aint many!)
  10. Chip


    May 2, 2000
    something i've always wanted to know
    what happens in an 'audition'
    i've only been in 1 band, which is my school band, and im finishing up school this year so our school band will come to an end.
    anyway, do you just sit down, choose a key, and style maybe? and have a jam, or play a few covers or what??
  11. Howard K

    Howard K

    Feb 14, 2002
    Mine have been pretty varied.

    Mostly I've been given material with existing bass lines to learn - in which case I learn it literally note for note.

    ...or I've been given material without bass lines and have had to write stuff.

    I'm dreading the day when I dont get an audition and I just have to turn up and play for the first time! Scary!
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