Before I address what the behavior of a professional musician should look like, I’ll give a little background on myself and answer the age old question of - “How do I know if I’m a professional musician or not?”
I’ve spent over a decade of my life since the 90’s working with many different musicians on many different projects. Musicians... come in many shapes and sizes. From the eager yet inexperienced to the “Rock Star in their own mind” type. I’ve worked with people who treated the musical project like it was netting them a three figure salary (all the while making $20 for months of hard work) and people who treated it like they were doing the project a favor just by lending their name to it. I’ve seen it all and I have to say that even some of the very talented people I’ve worked with didn’t act like professionals even though they crossed over from amateur status.
So next, what is a professional musician? For many years I’ve researched that exact question a number of times and came across many different answers. I now have what I believe is the single correct answer… ready?
What makes a musician a professional musician?
If an artist gets paid to perform, they are a professional musician.
It doesn’t matter if you perform part time or full time, nor does it matter if you are signed or an indie band. And unfortunately, I don’t even believe a person has to behave in a professional manner. Once you receive money in exchange for performing or recording with your instrument of choice, you have crossed the line that divides amateur from pro.
So now what? For the sake of the art of musicianship let us all start acting like professional musicians. Here’s the short list:
1. Be on time or even early. We all get it - the creative types and their inability to know what time it is or even what day it is - it’s cute. With the invention of the smartphone, however, a creative person can SPEAK into a calendar app and schedule that next rehearsal time, the gig, the studio session etc. The app will actually remind you when you should leave to get there on time.
2. Help load in and out. Sure, you’re the next Jim Morrison, you know it, we know it, you REALLY know it but come on, are we not all trying to accomplish the same goal here? Being above the lowly task of lugging gear in and out of a venue or a studio will most likely deteriorate the morale of the players on whatever project you are working on and reveal your overall douchiness.
3. Prepare for the job ahead on your own time. Do not waste the time of the other musicians, producers or engineers by learning a song during a session. Learn the basics of the material long before you step into the recording booth or rehearsal.
4. Understand the copyright basics for music. I won’t go into detail here but there’s so much information on the internet that explains how to protect your work, how to co-write and how to perform on someone else's songs. A professional musician isn’t a copyright expert but knows enough not to act like a child in the middle of a session by freaking out because someone is “stealing their song man!”
5. Be a person of your word. If you make a verbal commitment to play a show, lay down a track, co-produce a song, etc. then stick to it. In this and all industries a person who is impeccable with their word will go far and people who aren’t won’t go far. Unless they are Kanye of course.
6. Back off the drugs and booze. Again, we all know you’re the next___(fill in the blank with someone uber famous.) If you want to abuse drugs and alcohol and treat musicianship like a great big party, you best have a gold or platinum album hanging on the wall that you didn’t spray paint yourself.
7. Bring the required gear to the job. If you play the electric guitar, bring picks, a strap, a cable or two, extra strings, your amp and your guitar. I can’t list the number of times I've had a guitarist turn to me at a show or in the studio and ask if I have a strap or a pick or something.
8. COMMUNICATE. Look, don’t miss a session or a gig unless you are bleeding out of your eyeballs BUT things do happen. Can’t make rehearsal, send a text, running late for your studio time block - don’t - but at least send a text. We all saw your post an hour before we all showed up so just minimize the Facebook app, launch the text messaging app and use these TWO words “Running late.”
9. Be able to do basic troubleshooting on your gear. Just like music copyright, no one expects you to be an expert but learn how to ensure that your giant pedal board full of pedals is all plugged in correctly.
10. Don’t be a dick to the people that work at the venue, the sound engineer, the studio engineer, the other players etc. These “lowly” people know people and they will tell their friends and peers who is good to work with and who is a complete tool. Which brings me to the conclusion of this post.
Why? Why do these things, why bother - I mean you’re the next Jim Morrison - remember? Here’s the deal… You may be crazy talented but if you behave unprofessionally word will get around. Bands, producers, sound engineers, talent managers and venues almost unanimously agree that they would rather work with someone who is consistent with these traits yet may not be the most talented musician than the alternative: A musician who can’t tell time, can’t lend a helping hand, lacks integrity, can’t communicate and acts like a duche.
But again, you are a professional if you’ve ever made a dollar with your art. You may just be killing your career before it even gains significant momentum if you don't behave like a pro.