Starting from scratch as a freelance bassist

Discussion in 'Band Management [BG]' started by juggahnaught, Aug 14, 2018.

  1. juggahnaught


    Feb 11, 2018
    Seattle, WA
    Hey, all. I'd created a similar post to this a little while back, here (Creating a "bass player" music portfolio) but the question was kind of unfocused. Since then, I've been able to clarify my goals a little more.

    I want to be a freelance bassist in my city. This means that I want to make my services available for session recording and fill-in positions for live shows. I want to be paid for this. I've been speaking to my bass teacher, and he seems to think that I'm more than technically skilled enough to do this. (I really appreciate his opinion and I really try to reference it when I look at how good other professionals are.)

    The problem I'm facing right now is this: although I'm capable of marketing myself through business cards, a website, etc etc, I don't have any "press" material to show. Many players that I've seen online have videos of them playing with existing ensembles, and they also have press kits (official photography, features in print media, etc) as well as their calendar of availability. I'm basically starting from scratch here; I don't have any footage of me playing in a band, and the music that I have recorded with other people is not professional and it's not something I'd want to showcase.

    Freelancers on Talkbass - how did you attack the formative months/years of breaking into the freelance market? How did you create a portfolio of work and what pitfalls would you avoid if you did it again?
    jfh2112 and BOOG like this.
  2. sean_on_bass


    Dec 29, 2005
    While marketing materials are a good thing to work on, you really just need to get yourself some gigs to start building the resume and have experience under your belt. Most folks that freelance are very experienced and good at what they do, which enables them to do it in the first place. Many, i'm sure, had to pay some dues and do some less than desirable gigs or be with a band long term. Have you thought about auditioning for a more professional group to build yourself up?

    What is your experience level at this point in time? What kind of gigs do you plan to try to get specifically? What styles are you able to play?
  3. I don't know - because I'm not in the position by any stretch. But - from what I've seen in my local fairly rural scene - it's not necessarily what you know but who you know. You have to network network network. Be unfailingly available, polite, friendly, and easy to work with. Have no ego. Technical skill on the bass will probably be one of the least important (although hardest earned) elements of the skillset you need.
  4. juggahnaught


    Feb 11, 2018
    Seattle, WA
    Yeah, it feels a bit like the chicken/egg situation. Need gigs, but why choose me over someone else with a proven history? Auditioning for a professional group isn't a bad idea. I'm not sure where you find that stuff, though. Where I currently live, it seems to be a lot of originals bands and maybe some tributes. Unfortunately, I know I'm not good enough to be in a jazz group or a wedding band or pit orchestra or something of that nature (I'm lucky to have a good ear and know theory, but I can't sight-read).

    Experience level - I've been playing since about 2007, I believe? I played guitar before that and I grew up in a family of musicians, mother was a pianist (that's where I learned a lot of my theory). I play decently but I haven't had a lot of professional experience in the music industry. (I am a working professional in the tech industry, so some of the soft skills may carry over.) I'm able to play different styles - rock, R&B, country, pop, and I can do afrobeat and latin. Styles I can't play well are jazz and gospel (walking basslines and gospel chops, man, I've gotta get better).

    Gig-wise, I'm open to almost anything that I can play. I want the professional experience, and I also want to expand my horizons by working with different people and different styles of music. If I were to join a band right now, I would want it to be a working cover band that gigs more or less every weekend. Originals projects are great, but I don't think that's where I need to be right now.
    Seanto likes this.
  5. Bassbeater

    Bassbeater Guest

    Sep 9, 2001
    Make a very simple advert.
    "Professional bass player for hire"
    Be ready to play over the phone every time you call about an advert.
    Good attitude, no ego, NO NOODLING!
    Ask the group how they want you to play.
    Dress like the band.
    Show up 15 minutes early.
    Put bass player for hire cards with an email and your phone number on guitar amps and mixing desks at rehearsal spaces.
    Talk to everybody about it.
    Good luck!
    getbent, basscapes and design like this.
  6. eJake


    May 22, 2011
    New Orleans
    Good stuff above. I'd add that if you don't have professional materials, hire someone to come out and film you at a jam with a good house band.

    I personally just used a biz card, word of mouth, and took every gig to start getting work but media is important too. If it is not pro quality, people will not treat you as such.
    lfmn16, Bassbeater and juggahnaught like this.
  7. sean_on_bass


    Dec 29, 2005
    The comment about networking was spot on. You need to get into some projects or participate in jams/open mic and increase your contact pool and get on peoples call list for when they need a sub. As for auditioning for an existing band, craigslist or other type of classifieds. I think trying to join a cover band is a great idea. Playing with a cover group for awhile will show you have a proven ability to play and gig, so others are more likely to hire you. Sort of getting your foot in the door.

    I am currently trying to do something similar to yourself and begin freelancing as a jazz bass player, doing standard rep. To build myself up, i joined some different projects as a regular bass player to get me visibility in front of alot of different players. One was a community big band with a deep sub me exposed to probably 30 different jazz musicians in the area. I am now starting to go to jazz jams to increase my pool even more.

    Reason i was asking about the types of gigs you want is that it can be useful to work backwards from the opportunities you want to receive. For instance, if you wanted to be a first call guy for cover band subbing, you need to work backwards from there. Doing that, it makes sense to join a cover band for while as a regular guy to build up experience playing in cover bands. Then, by having the proven ability and visibility, you are more likely to get calls to sub.

    For marketing materials, keep it simple. A business card and a phone number can go pretty far. A Facebook page/website can be a step further, then build examples of your playing into that. That sort of becomes your resume. But largely, you are going to get your work through meeting others in person and trading your contact info.
    gsquare likes this.
  8. lfmn16

    lfmn16 Inactive

    Sep 21, 2011
    charles town, wv
    1) Learn to sight read well. I won't say it's impossible to make a living without sight reading, but for the type of work you are saying you want to do, you have to be able to sight read.
    2) Spend some money. It's going to be really hard to get gigs without sound and video clips. Even if you have to hire good people to play with you, it's essential, particularly when you get started.
    3) Network, network, network. Go to clubs, go to open mics, go to any event that has musicians. Hand out your card to everyone. As the old joke goes, "Timid sales people have skinny children."
    4) Get an upright and learn to play it well. That will be something that will really separate you from the competition.
    5) Look at what your successful competition is doing and use what works for you.
    6) Take your successful competition out to lunch and pick their brain. Everyone wants to talk about how successful they are. Just sit and listen.
    7) Play with everyone you can, paid or not at this point. There is a lot that you need to know that you can only learn by playing with other people.
    8) Have professional grade equipment. Whether you like it or not, there are people out there that will judge you by what you play. As the saying goes, you only have one chance to make a first impression. You don't want their first thought to be, "How good can he be if he plays [XYZ] bass."

    Most important, do an honest evaluation of where you are at and fix your shortcomings. Seriously, would you hire someone you hadn't heard or seen, that couldn't produce a single sound file or video? You want to do studio work, but don't have a single example of the work you've done? You need to be brutally honest with yourself; this is not a game for the thin skinned.

    It's a tough road, but not impossible. Make sure you have a backup plan.
  9. You probably won't get too far by trying to market yourself with business cards and websites. You seem to already know this. Those things will be helpful as points of contact once people know about you. But, before that, they have to know about you. Make yourself a presence in your local music scene. Go see bands playing in the genres you want to play. Get to know the bands. Go to open mic nights and interact with other musicians. Play with them. If you're good, they'll remember you.

    The one thing you don't want to do, though, is come across as pushy ... because they'll remember that, too. Just be cool, but be there. It may not happen overnight, so be patient. Once people get to know you, and that you are available and adequate, you'll get the calls. If you are truly good, word of that will spread quickly through your scene, and you'll be busy before you know it.

    Good luck on your quest.
  10. juggahnaught


    Feb 11, 2018
    Seattle, WA
    Thanks for the response. I'll address some of your comments.

    1.) I want to do session work, but I'm not really talking studio or pit work - I'm talking more about a singer-songwriter who wants to record a track and needs a bass player only for the recording. Alternatively, a DIY music group that wants to record some tracks but the bass player can't make it. (In Seattle, these aren't uncommon situations.) Your comment about sight reading is not without merit (and it's a skill that I'm working on, but it'll be a slow road) but I'm not really looking beyond my skill level in this regard.

    4.) I've considered trying to learn upright - it's a great instrument - but picking it up solely for the return on investment wouldn't be worth it, in my opinion. This would have to be a labor of love, not something I'd do to get more gigs. That said, I have considered voice training for backup vocals (I sang in elementary, middle, and high school) and I've also considered learning monophonic synth bass as a differentiator. Definitely a good point about offering things that others don't.

    5, 6.) I've spoken to my bass guitar teacher about this - he's basically doing now what I want to be doing.

    I do also have audio clips of me playing that I've recorded into my DAW through my audio interface - I've also done some composition, etc. I've always wondered if audio clips of original songs is something that I should use as material to promote freelancing, though. I've been a bit reticent to do this, because I'm not sure what it actually would prove. Thoughts?

    For what it's worth, this is something I'd like to do as a side hustle, not a primary means of income. That gives me a lot of leeway in what I can and can't do.
  11. Bassbeater

    Bassbeater Guest

    Sep 9, 2001
    For singer songwriter work you need to be creative and play very well by ear. Often they will only have basic chord and lyric sheets or nothing. I've had to play bass lines that were hummed to me or played by a guitarist or had not yet been written many times. I disagree about getting an upright, they are a huge PITA to maintain and transport unless it's "your thing". A fretless or an EUB might cover more ground.
    Network! You need to be a good salesperson and a "cool guy" more than anything else in my experience.
    Good luck!
    Don't let bad experiences or haters discourage you. You will have both good and bad times, enjoy them!
    EddiePlaysBass likes this.
  12. groooooove

    groooooove Supporting Member

    Dec 17, 2008
    Long Island, NY
    portfolio really isn't all that important.

    word of mouth is still the biggest driving factor in the freelance business. Yes, a nice website can help, and if there are abundant high quality videos I understand that helps when people are looking you up - but that word of mouth recommendation is really the only important part.

    before I had any content to share with band leaders that contacted me, all I had to go on was word of mouth from other musicians who'd worked with me. I never once had that be a problem. then sure enough, over time I gathered a collection of content to share - but truthfully I don't think that actually changed how often I work.

    just play as often as you can. with everyone. I can't believe some of the places I've played at, and some of the people I've agreed to work with - but it was all worth it, the experience and networking helps. also, networking is a skill. get good at it. it's more important than being the best player.
    gsquare likes this.
  13. First of all, we don’t know your actual skill level, so I’m just going to throw this out there first: not everyone who wants to be a session bassist and be paid to do it, gets to, just because they want to. It is a combination of versatility across multiple genres, technique, experience, luck, and knowing the right people.

    The most important tool to becoming a successful session player is networking. You’ve got to get your name out there in a positive way, to the best players. This is hard for most players. They aren’t good enough to hang in those circles, and they aren’t always positive.

    If you make a good impression on other studio cats, eventually one of them will suggest you when the regular guy can’t make it. Now’s Your chance. If you make a good impression on the engineer, you’ll be added to the call list.
  14. diegom

    diegom Supporting Member

    Where are you located? Is there enough of a "scene" already? Who do you know (professionals, other than your teacher?) Where are the most well-attended singer-songwriter showcases? (Coffeeshops, open-mics).

    I know enough professional, big-time musicians (people you prolly don't know by name, but who are touring and recording with international acts), to tell you that it is really WHO you know, rather than WHAT you know. Even better, it is about WHO KNOWS YOU! Get out there, jam, socialize, be known...

    Ekulati, TheBear and Chrisk-K like this.
  15. micguy


    May 17, 2011
    I play in churches. Yes, it's a volunteer thing for me, but..... I get pictures of me and videos forwarded to me of my work on a fairly regular basis - if I wanted to put together a promo kit, I could do it pretty easily. Do I need a promo kit? Well, in my case, no - the combination of reasonably competent, willing to travel, working for free, and a bit of word of mouth among a network of folks I've played with means at this point, I don't need to market my self much more than showing up well prepared and playing well with others.

    Anyway, the point is that your starting point may be to do things/gigs that get you contacts, pictures and videos to start, so you can develop a press kit of sorts for yourself, as well as a network of folks that know you and have had positive experiences working with you. Money doesn't flow from people that don't know you - you probably need to do some work before you start to get paid.

    Another way of looking at this: At most companies, you don't get promoted until you've demonstrated to a reasonable degree that you can do the next level job. Here, the job you have is...nothing, or a free player maybe. If you want to be promoted to paid player, show them what you're worth as a free one.
  16. TheMartianBassist

    TheMartianBassist Supporting Member

    May 30, 2015
    San Diego
    Listen to this advice. Straight out of Mel Brown’s book.

    Forget business cards, websites or any of that. A website and videos can help but it’s all NETWORKING and making yourself visible. Considering you have the necessary musical skills:

    Scout out the best jam sessions/open mics in your area. The professional ones. I live in San Diego and they’re all over the place.

    Go to them just to spectate at first. Look how the musicians are dressed, what the vibe is. Write down all the tunes they’re playing and go home and get those songs under your belt to the point you can play them comfortably. Continue doing this and start getting on the stage and making connections. If you’re good, and more importantly - a fun person to be around, you’ll start getting phone calls left and right.

    Another great tactic straight out of Mel Brown’s book, and this is something I did to amazing results - scout out the bands that you personally find interesting which are up and coming in your city/area. Get a hold of their music (iTunes, Spotify) and learn their entire discography. Start going to their shows and get to know the band members. When they realize you know their entire discography they’ll hit you up for sub work or reference you to other bands or sometimes you’ll even get the position of the bass player himself.

    At the end of the day, considering you have the chops and personality to back you up, it’s all about just making yourself visible. That’s really it.
    Ekulati, craigie and Munjibunga like this.
  17. Munjibunga

    Munjibunga Retired Member

    May 6, 2000
    San Diego (when not at Groom Lake)
    Independent Contractor to Bass San Diego
    If you haven't got video or audio to showcase your work, you're fighting a steep uphill battle.
    mapleglo likes this.
  18. I bought an uprigt bass last summer for the express purpose of more gigs, it’s just about paid for itself.
    TheBear and Seanto like this.
  19. mapleglo

    mapleglo Gold Supporting Member

    Sep 7, 2013
    phoenix, az
    This. If I were in you're position, I'd hire a videographer, a drummer, and a keyboard player, set up in the park, and make a few videos. Shouldn't cost more than a few hundred. A worth while investment, I would think. Or as an alternative, follow the want ads and see if there's a band looking for a sub. Even better as you'd get paid, instead of paying.
    Wisebass and lfmn16 like this.
  20. Pacman

    Pacman Layin' Down Time Staff Member Gold Supporting Member

    Apr 1, 2000
    Omaha, Nebraska
    Endorsing Artist: Roscoe Guitars, DR Strings, Aguilar Amplification
    If your teacher thinks you can handle this kind of work, why isn't he recommending you for sub work? That's how I've always started in a new town.
    pcake, dan1952, 202dy and 4 others like this.