I had a long and good conversation with a drummer friend and sometimes band mate of mine that got me thinking about the difference between the artist mindset and professional musician mindset.
That’s not say that a pro can’t be an artist or vice versa. It’s also not to say that there’s a hard line between the two mindsets. You can certain have attributes of both. Heck, most of my accidental successes would never have gone anywhere if I hadn’t learned from the pro mindset!
The pro mindset says that we should minimize time (and risk) and maximize dollars earned. It doesn’t necessarily factor in things like personal fulfillment, taste or even quality. Lots of the language like that makes pros laugh. Things like “faith” and “artistic success” don’t pay their bills.
My first real memory of my artistic mindset directly clashing with someone’s pro mindset goes back to 2002. There’s a drummer in Austin who probably would’ve been a great drummer for The Invincible Czars but couldn’t get past the idea that we were willing to play for practically nothing. He was cool and good at his audition but if there was no money, there was no him, period. Not worth the risk.
A young ambitious band just starting out would never have played a first gig if we’d demanded a bunch of money. So we went with someone else.
Plus. I felt like he’d always have us by the balls. We were looking for someone to join the band. To share the risk. Someone who believed in what we were doing. More artsy language.
Three drummers and a year later, I’d changed my tune. I realized that if we wanted to play gigs and no drummer would join, all we had to do was pay someone $50. Cool! We’re booking gigs again! So I did that for a while.
That’s the great thing about the pro mindset – if your vision doesn’t seem worthwhile to anyone else, you can always pay them to make it worth their while!
But it’s also a curse.
It’s why you see some of the most skilled drummers in the world playing four-on-the-floor drum beats all night in pop and country bands – groups that play music people instantly love (cover bands are the best example) make more money… and in the case of drummers that music is usually very easy!
As soon as someone else offers that person more money, you either have to pay the higher price or find someone else. Suddenly you’re spending more time managing contract labor than making music.
Additionally, just because someone has a pro mindset doesn’t mean they have pro chops. There are plenty of mediocre bass players and drummers out there that are used to being paid $100 to play music they don’t even need to practice to play masterfully. If you want someone to play actual arrangements, the price goes up. There’re plenty of much easier gigs out there that pay better than learning a whole set of arrangements. They’re happy to just play Mustang Sally night after night.
To pros, the best gigs earn them the most money per hour spent. Individual prep time, group rehearsals, travel time and actual performance time all cut the value of the gig in their minds.
It’s hard to argue with that in our capitalist society. If the pay for this gig will be the same whether we give a C- performance or an A+ performance, why give an A+ effort?
But artist are dreamers. We have to have faith that what we’re doing is good, worthy and worthwhile. We have to have faith that we can get there – wherever there is. We make the kind of stuff that gives the pros their jobs and we love what we do so much, we will give an A effort for C pay (or even F pay).
BUT — Pro mindset people can help us learn when shouldn’t!
That year of paying a drummer $50 a show made me permanently much, much picker about what shows to take and how I use group time.
My biggest successes were riskier and more difficult and the practical pro mindset said, “not worth it”. The potential for C or F pay was high with both The Invincible Czars’ Nutcracker and silent film soundtracks. Building up an audience outside of Austin was very risky. Doing those things took time and sacrifice from me those who wanted to believe. Thank you to those of you who did and do.
Meanwhile, many of the pro-mindset players that were with me along the way are barely even in the music game anymore. I guess they finally figured out something that now renowned producer John Congleton told me nearly 20 years ago (and probably doesn’t remember) — if you’re in the music business to make money, you’re pretty stupid.
I want to end by saying that both mindsets are useful and if matched properly can keep your act on course both creatively and on the business side. I’ve had more good than bad experiences with pros. Sometimes I had to learn things the hard way with pros who took advantage or just wanted to belittle me. Thank you to the benevolent pros who’ve been willing to do what they do for fair compensation and who did what any real pro does — help pass the torch by educating and giving opportunities instead of just taking my money and delivering a half-assed performance.