Building a Career Beyond Just Playing Your Instrument (part 2)

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What was one of the most important lessons you learned from Berklee?
“It wasn’t anything music specifically but it was the work ethic. Being here at Berklee and seeing the standard and the quality of the other students calibrated my work ethic and it taught me that there were kids two years younger than me who could play 10 times better than me and if I wanted to operate on their level (which is just to really bring my head to the top of the water; then, if wanted to get my head out of the water and really breathe and do something original and I only had to match their quality and level of operation, but then find something on a higher level of my own.) So I think being here among students, teachers like Hal Crook who really push you — it was about calibrating my work ethic and my focus was the biggest thing I learned.”

How did gigs post-Berklee with Mike Stern, Jojo Mayer and other people come along?
“Well, I moved to New York and location is a huge key I think, when you are starting/pursuing a career that you surround yourself with the people you want to work with and the style of music you want to play in is huge. I met Jojo in New York very early on; he’s very open-minded and we are now very close friends, which we have been for 15 years now. New York turned into the adult version of Berklee, where you build another network where we weren’t paying to go to school but paying our dues. Mike, I first contacted in 1998, when I sent a demo to him. I was working for this producer in London and he said, “You would sound really great with Mike Stern, so let’s make a demo and send it to him, because I know the guy.” Mike called and he loved it, but that was in 1998 and I didn’t start playing with him until 2004-2005 — so it took some time;  you are looking at Anthony Jackson, Lincoln Goines, Jeff Andrews and all these other bass players that played in Mike’s band. Those were the guys and who was I? It takes time to work your way into the mix and to have a sound and reason that you become a necessity and not a luxury to these people. It’s all about time.”

Janek Gwizdala Band 
Janek Gwizdala Band part 2
Mike Stern with Anthony Jackson
Mike Stern with Lincoln Goines
Mike Stern with Jeff Andrews

How did you prepare for these gigs?
“Mike is very unique, but I will say with every gig I have ever done I have been preparing for it since I first picked up the bass 20 years ago. Just spending time with the instrument is massive preparation for any gig you do. There are obviously specific details for any gig you do: for instance, if you are on a merengue gig you have to figure out some stylistic things, but in terms of just spending time with the instrument, that’s preparation enough for most gigs. With Mike, I was a huge fan and he was the first guy I ever transcribed and I knew all of his music. The first time I went to his house to play with him, he said, “Let me dig out a chart” and I said I didn’t need it unless there’s something new; that is what drew us together and we started working together because I understood the bass player’s role in his music. It’s not the same for every gig. You are not going to play the same way with Willie Nelson that you do with Mike Stern, Shania Twain, or Michelle Branch. I really understood the role of his music, which made that relationship really strong, really quickly.”

You have published some e-books where you talk a lot about how to make a living in the music business.
“It’s to me all about being multi-dimensional and adapting to what is now. That book came out about three years ago and needs an update, since things updates so rapidly. In terms of the whole business model and how I’m making a living as a musician: I’m not one-dimensional, not just trying to play bass as a sideman with big famous names. That happens from time to time and is great — and sometimes it’s not. I’m just open to other methods of not having to spend 365 days on the road to make a basic living. I studied a lot of marketing, business and entrepreneurial skills by the power of Google, Wikipedia and online courses. Everything is there at the touch of a button, YouTube can teach you pretty much everything: you want to know how to make French toast, reupholster a chair, tie a Windsor knot, and how to mix an album? OK — on some of these things you probably need to speak to an expert, but if you need something basic and generic it’s there and then balance that with some direct contact with some gurus (people who you can talk to and who have experience) who you can go one-on-one with and you got a recipe for success.

The biggest element is that there has to be necessity in your life to be motivated to go out and do that. I have sold how ever many copies of that book. Say it was a 100 copies I sold; still, there is only one I know who has actually taken the time to do all the work and become successful in the business, because some are not prepared to do the work. So for me, it was necessity. I didn’t want to go on the road anymore, didn’t want to make a MEGA living, and I wanted to continue playing music, because that’s what I love. My hashtag on everything is #NoOffSeason, because there is no off-season. As soon as you take the foot off the gas, someone else will rush by you. Not that it should be a competition with other people, but I just like to create and be busy, active, and looking for new things.”

Tips for younger musicians?
“The number one most important thing is to be open-minded. Two things are equally important: to be open-minded and to be having fun at the same time. As soon as it becomes a chore or when you don’t like it, my thing is to move onto something that’s way more fun than this. There are elements of it that are a grind, that you have to pay dues and have to practice, but if you really are passionate about the outcome and the goal, those things don’t become chore-like anymore. Stay open-minded and have fun. I try not having any regrets.

This is very specific for Berklee students: make use of this facility. This facility, which is 20 times what it was when I was here. It was already amazing when I was here, although it looked like a wooden hat in the middle of the dessert compared to what they have now. You have the greatest recording facilities, mastering and mixing opportunities. Take the class that teaches you how to do your taxes as a musician. Don’t be held in on your major. Find the stuff that will help you in the future. Look forward 10-20 years. Do you want to be a teacher at some point? Take use of that element at Berklee and make use of the network. You might be able to come back in 20-30 years when you are done being on the road and you want to teach and have benefits, settle down, be stationary and giving of your knowledge. Many older musicians (45-50) say that they have seen everything and have done everything on the road. Berklee offers so many options I didn’t look into when I was 18-19 years old and I wouldn’t expect myself to have done. I don’t expect anyone unless reading an article like this to say, “Oh yeah I should do that!” I guess my biggest piece of advice is when looking ahead always have fun and really make use of the facilities.

There are so many ways you can be unique as a musician, especially if you want to write or record your own music. Use this facility to do it now, because recording studios are not cheap once you are not going to school. There should be some kind of business and some kind of language communication class that should be mandatory because music is 5% playing and 95% dealing with people. If you don’t have a personality and can’t string words together and not be the asshole in the room, then you are going to have a problem making it as your career. Everyone knows that guy or girl and they go, “Oh no, not this person!” If you don’t know that person, then you are probably that person. It’s good to be cool, being able to be in the mix and not be sticking out too much.”

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          February 10, 2018