Strange Days - Coping with a Pandemic as a Musician - Adapt and Keep Going
Updated: May 17, 2020
It is a very strange time to be a professional musician.
Yes, I have always dreamed of being a big time studio musician, which means being in a recording studio with no audience. I studied briefly with Mark McDunn who was at DePaul at the time. He used to say that you knew if you really made it as a musician if you made your money while at home in bed. He was referring to residuals and royalties, of course, but but his point was clear enough. Being a studio musician removed the musician audience interaction from the picture.
I achieved my goal to a certain extent. For a brief period of time I was on call for some of Chicago's jingle producers. Jingle production (radio and TV commercials) were the mainstay of the Chicago studio scene in the 80's and into the 90's. I was a bit on the fringes and was developing work, though one had to be very careful with the very delicate socio-political waters baked into this work (not to mix metaphors). However, with the advent of new tech, this work all but disappeared. I've written about this elsewhere, but that is not the point of this blog.
I also made my living jobbing (referred to as "casuals" in markets outside of Chicago), playing weddings, trade shows and corporate events. I had the opportunity to work for many world class acts in this context (see my bio for a partial list). At one point in my career I worked as many as 300 total performances a year.
As with jingles, jobbing was also impacted by technology. A year with 100 performances, including bar door gigs, would be a big deal these days.
This just sets up a bit of history for context. I am a baby boomer. As a developing musician I hung out and talked with folks older than I was in order to learn my craft. We have all heard the "back in the day" stories. The point is that each generation of musicians seems to have had to endure their own individual challenges to the way of life of a performing artist. This is just the way of things.
Also, each generation has had to figure out ways to work around these challenges. Whether it was the Great Depression, WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, the 60's, tech development destroying work, on up to now with a global pandemic threatening everything, music as a way of life has survived in some way. Adaptation has been a key to this survival.
For example, in talking to older musicians when I was a kid I learned that there was a time when every bar had a band. Every TV show had a band or orchestra. Recording technology hadn't evolved, yet. Once it did, all of that live work started to quickly dwindle. The Musician's Union developed a process of residuals to make sure musicians who recorded music, thus eliminating the need for live bands, were paid for the use of the recordings to make sure they didn't destroy their own livelihoods. This seemed a good idea, except for the fact that this did create an environment where a very small group of musicians could co-opt a great deal of work and income, hence the delicate socio-political situation I mentioned earlier. The title of studio musician was a coveted and carefully guarded position and newcomers were not particularly welcome.
Then came the tech and brought that all to an end. Jobbing became the coveted work, but tech came around to that as well. Musicians had to adapt, yet again.
The internet seemed a way to level the playing field. More and more folks were putting their music online. Personally, I used sites like mp3.com to make money with playback royalties. Even Youtube has an advertisement structure that allows users to make some income. The problem is that by virtue of file sharing and streaming services and the total ease by which folks who aren't even skilled hackers can lift the recordings off and listen for free, the ability to really derive income from online music is all but gone, even for the heavy hitters who get millions of plays.
So, the position of being a performance artist has required much self evaluation on the part of most musicians. I do a podcast and interview professionals from all walks of life and the idea of a day gig keeps returning to the discussion. This actually isn't all that new. Many free lancers take on quite a few students, and this constitutes a day gig.
Personally, I opted into a dual career lifestyle. For a variety of reasons, I opted into a day career of high school physics teacher and night career as professional trumpeter. I never stopped working as a musician - never skipped a beat. It was exhausting - 10 hour days as a school teacher and coming home at night to practice 3 or 4 hours and play gigs. Sleep deprivation was a problem I had to deal with. However, this dual career life style did allow me to continue to work as a trumpeter and still hold up my half of the bargain with my wife and kids. I did this for 25 years, before retiring from high school physics teaching 3 years ago.
When I went back to playing trumpet exclusively, I was thrilled to be starting a new career/life. I felt like a kid again as, with all of the strange new developments in the music business, I had to all but start over. I had to redevelop my jobbing presence in an environment that is not known for being kind to senior citizens. Most trumpeters my age are thinking about retiring from jobbing. The music biz is driven by the visions of youth. Yet, I was blessed with the chance to work work with new folks who, while a generation behind me, were willing to look past my gray hair and see the decades worth of experience I can bering to the gig. I have to be grateful for that.
The jazz and big band scene started to open up more for me. Now, there is not much money there, but getting to play on your own terms is priceless.
I bring this all up not to "toot my own horn" but to make the point that ANYONE can pull this off, if I can. We do not have to go quietly into that good night.
Now, onto my recording work. Over the years, I developed the skills to record myself on personal overdub projects. As the tech improved, so did my abilities to produce and record my own solo and ensemble work. "Back in the day," this would be called vanity publishing. This was a derogatory term intended to diminish anyone not good enough to land a real publishing (think recording contract) deal.
I didn't, nor do I care if folks think less of my work because it is DIY. The internet and tech has, indeed leveled the playing field. So what if I was never signed by a major record company? So what if the demos I shopped on behalf of the Brothers Drozdoff were mostly thrown away by the A&R folks. I WAS NOT going be shut up by circumstances. I AM NOT going to be shut up by circumstances. So, I continue to record on my own and share it online. At least I can have a voice.
To balance all of the hard work spent in my basement (now rec room over the garage) studio, I played as many live gigs as possible - from jobbing to jazz to church work. This generated a modicum of income and the necessary human interaction all musicians really need to feel, well, human! Live gigs break up the isolation of the home recording studio. That last three years have seen considerable progress for me, and the next year was filled with expectation and hope.
Then along came the corona virus. March 13, 2020 was my last live performance for a potentially very long time. Nobody knows how long. Three years of hard work re-making myself as a professional musician, even trying to develop dual markets, just vaporized. Certainly the shelter in place and social distancing thing played a huge part, but the necessary caution required until this thing is beaten will most certainly totally change how live music takes place - indefinitely.
This was devastating to me. Depression and fear started to set. I was afraid of getting sick and departing this existence too soon. I was afraid of loosing all my work. I was afraid that the progress I've been making with my trumpet playing would all go to waste.
Lot's of stuff to be upset about.
Then I remembered something I learned many years ago. I had to LOVE my way through this. I had to look the challenges and find a way to "love" a solution into existence.
My first step was to start taking the hundreds of recordings I've made over the years and create video of them that aI could share online, thus preventing my voice from being silenced. This has been a joyful and fun activity. There is a learning curve involved, but that is part of the fun.
The next step is to make NEW recordings and create NEW videos showcasing the progress I've made. This was going to have to involve collaboration online as bringing sidemen over to my studio was out of the question. This is still in development, but a new development surfaced that is thrilling and fun. More on that later.
Brett Dean, the leader of the Shout Section Big Band reached out to me about doing a virtual band project with the SSBB. The idea was that we would create a click track on top of a dummy track that folks could play along with while they record videos of themselves playing their parts. Brett agreed to handle the video editing and I agreed to handle the audio. Both of us, by virtue of our own personal adaptations over the years, had developed skills with this sort of media development.
This was a HUGE undertaking. We have done three tunes this way. We did John Dorhauer's arrangement of "It's The End Of The World As We Know It," the old REM tune. Then we did Chip McNeil's arrangement for Maynard Ferguson of Let's Fall In Love. Finally, we just put up a video of John Dorhauer's arrangement of Daily Mail, a Radiohead chart.
The amount of work that goes into something like this is overwhelming. To take a uniquely unnatural way of performing and making it sound like a natural performance is quite daunting. I won't go into to the details of how we did it here. That is the subject of another blog, perhaps.
The point is this has been a labor of LOVE. I loved the hard work of editing the audio. I LOVED the chance to work with Brett as he helped provide an extra set of trained ears as my perspective started to drift away. I LOVED the way the folks in the band all started to rally and participate. The feeling of "we're all in this together" has at least partially lifted the sense of isolation that has bothered me as musician in all of this.
I'll drop the three videos in here for you to check out.
The first is the REM tune.
Next is the Maynard Ferguson tune.
Finally, here is the Radiohead tune.
Brett, the SSBB and I will be doing more of these, when we can. Brett is pleading for some financial support from our fans. We do hope that some of you can support as you would if you paid a cover charge or dropped some bread into a tip jar at a gig.
I will be doing some of my own collaborative projects superimposed on my overdub work under the umbrella of the Variable D Postulate Ensemble. My sax players and rhythm section will be contributing remotely.
This has so changed my way of thinking and working that I have shut down my live studio operation and have rebuilt in my new location totally dedicated to this new way of working.
It felt strange doing this last part, but I have decided to make this an adventure and love that aspect of it.
I don't know when I'll get a chance to work with my friends in person again. I will miss that, but I can stay connected to them this way. I can even make NEW friends from all over the world working this way! I just played third trumpet on a virtual band project for a band leader from Paris.
As I conclude this windy missive, I want to comment on the fact that I have seen not a few friends lamenting the state of affairs and actually letting it get them down. I get it. I feel it, too. But I WON'T let it get me down. I feel that love has found a way for me. It can for anyone. Don't let this all get you down.
Love finds a way.
Life finds a way.
Music finds a way.
If I can do it, ANYONE can do it.