(Ed. Note: I first met Zoro when I was doing Gig Magazine way back in the '90s. He was drumming for Lenny Kravitz and did some great columns for the magazine, too. In our conversations then we discovered that he lived about a half a mile from the house where I grew up. We fell out of touch over the next decade but the connection came back around when we got a pitch from Alfred Publishing about a book called The Big Gig by… Zoro. It's great to welcome him back to the fold. The following is the first chapter from The Big Gig. You can buy the book at Amazon or for you iPad using the buttons to the left of this text. There's also a cool video.)
Like most musicians who started out during my era, I spent a lot of time in cover bands playing the top hit songs of the day. I also spent plenty of time playing "casuals." a West Coast term for weddings, parties and corporate gigs.
Like most other musicians who dreamed of making it big, I put forth significant effort into playing in original bands—nobody has ever made it big playing cover tunes or doing casuals. I assumed that being a member of some kind of original band would be my ticket to fame and fortune. All the musicians in those bands had high hopes for success; we spent hours talking about what it would be like when we made it big.
Unfortunately, I learned early on that I had very little control over the destinies of the other people in a band, and that I was only one voice in the decision-making process. Being in a band can be very frustrating. You invest all your time, energy and money in the group and then all of a sudden someone less ambitious decides to up and quit and you find yourself having to start all over again with another musician. It happens so frequently that you soon find yourself standing on shaky ground and your dream of making it big goes up in flames.
There are a zillion and one reasons why bands break up before they ever get off the ground, most of which are completely out of your hands. Things like band morale, camaraderie and chemistry, record label support and politics, radio airplay, tour support, management, public appeal, marketing savvy, originality, talent, and a plethora of other critical concerns determine if you "make it." After years of hard work, many groups break up just when they finally start to experience a little taste of success—all because of greed, ego and jealousy. Being in a band can be like one big soap opera. Before you know it, years of your life have gone right out the window.
Eventually, the drama of being in a band became way too much for me, and I realized I was wasting my time with groups that clearly didn't have what it took to make it. I learned that the only thing I could control was how hard I was willing to work for my own success, and I decided to put my efforts into becoming a freelance musician. I knew that changing my direction required a focused and deliberate course of action, and I was willing to take the next step.
With so many critical success factors to content with, making it in a band seemed to be the equivalent of hitting the Lotto. Not that making it as an independent musician was any easier, but at least there were far fewer variables completely out of my hands. If i didn't make it, there could be no finger pointing on my part—I would only have myself to blame and i could live with that. Besides, I figured I could always be in a band again if the right situation presented itself.
Life As A Sideman: A Closer Look at the World of the Freelance Musician
You Don't Have To Be a Star (To Be In My Show)
Now, before i can give you some reasons for becoming a sideman, I should first explain exactly what sidemen are and describe their role in the music industry. "Sideman" is a music industry term for a musician or vocalist who performs behind recording artists. There are many other terms that describe this select group of musicians, all of which have identical meaning: freelance musician, back-up musician, singer or vocalist, independent musician, independent contractor, hired gun, player, session musician, and studio musician. A sideman can be a studio musician who plays mostly recording sessions, a touring musician who plays mostly live dates, or both.
What mainly distinguishes sidemen is that they are not full-fledged, contractual members of the bands with whom they play. Subsequently, if the band is signed to a record label, a sideman doesn't receive royalties from record sales, Drumming legend Steve Gadd was a well-paid sideman when he toured with Paul SImon, James Taylor and Eric Clapton. So is bassist Daryl Jones when he tours with The Rolling Stones. The Stones first hired him to go on the road with them in 1993 when their original bassist, Bill Wyman, retired.
In contrast, Ringo Starr, who was the drummer for The Beatles, and Charlie Watts, who has been with The Rolling Stones since 1962, are not sidemen. They are royalty-earning musicians signed to the record label with the rest of their band mates. This entitles them to a piece of merchandising and concert revenue, licensing agreements, and any other form of monetary compensation the band is able to generate from newer technologies that consistently hit the market.
Think of signed band members as corporate shareholders, but in this case the company is rock 'n' roll band. The stock is divvied up between the band members based on the percentages that were set forth in the band's original agreement. Songwriting royalties, which go to whomever penned individual tunes, are separate.
Sidemen, on the other hand, are only entitled to an agreed-upon amount of money for their services. For recording work, their compensation can be a one-time fee, a per-song or per-day fee, or some other form of union scale as set forth by the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), fondly referred to as the Musician's Union. If you are a vocalist, your union scale is set forth by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). For live dates and touring work, compensation can be in the form of a per-gig or weekly salary, a flat rate for an entire tour, or any number of other financial arrangements. Sidemen are not shareholders who
are entitled to a piece of company profits; they are strictly hired guns.
If you are playing in a band and are not actually part of the contract the band signed with the record label, you are considered a sideman, a back-up musician, a hired hand, or an independent contractor. In other words, you are your own entity. With the exception of signed bands and individual solo recording artists, sidemen represent the majority of musicians around the world who are in the so-called “limelight” of the music industry. From recording sessions to live events and television—and everything in between—sidemen are used in just about every imaginable musical situation.
When I was a kid growing up, I was more fascinated by the musicians playing behind the big stars than I was by the artists. To me, the world of the sideman was far more intriguing. A sideman could play for countless recording artists as opposed to the recording artist who could only be themselves. A sideman is like a chameleon; the good ones often wear many different musical hats.
There are a number of reasons why being a sideman is the best gig in the music business. First and foremost, there is the matter of control. As an independent musician, you have complete control over your own destiny, or at least more control than musicians who are locked into band situations.
Second, you will enjoy far more musical variety as a sideman than you will as a solo artist or with a band. One of the downsides of being an established superstar recording artist is that for the rest of your life you will be expected to play your hit songs wherever you go. It’s almost like being handed a life sentence of repetition.
Sidemen, on the other hand, lead far more musically exciting lives, at least creatively speaking, and variety is the spice of life! One of the biggest complaints I hear from the recording stars I know is how bored to death they are with their own music, especially those who have been around for a while. Believe it or not, I have been around some world-class recording artists who were actually envious of their sidemen. Their musicians had ample opportunities to be employed by a variety of notable recording artists, and they were a bit jealous that others were seeking the services of their players.
No matter what you do to earn a living, there are pros and cons. I would like to share with you both sides of that story from a sideman’s perspective.
Advantages of Being a Sideman
On the Sunny Side Of the Street
Too many people in the world spend the better part of their lives working at jobs they don’t really enjoy. Perhaps the greatest thing about being a sideman is that you get to love what you do, which is to play music for a living.
Realizing how quickly life goes by, I would rather spend the majority of my life doing what brings me the most joy and what I feel I was put on the planet to do.
Success is not the key to happiness. Happiness is the key to success. If you love what you are doing, you will be successful.
As a musician, I have traveled all over the world to some of the most interesting and exotic places on our planet—and I get paid for it. Now that’s living!
The amount of actual work you do while gigging is small in comparison to the average eight-hours-a-day workload. If you are playing club dates or casuals, your total playing time for the average four sets a night is somewhere between three and four hours, tops. In all of the concerts I’ve played, I’ve rarely performed more than a two-and-a-half-hour show. Of course, we can’t forget to take into account the countless hours of practice it took to get there, but the hard work you put in early-on allows you the luxury of not having to punch the time clock later in life.
Playing concerts behind most “name” recording artists is usually the least amount of physical work because you don’t have to set up any of your gear or drive yourself to the gig. If it’s a major act, all of that is usually taken care of for you. There are always exceptions; the decisions about travel arrangements and whether or not technicians are hired to set up your gear are based on economic factors and the generosity of the artist. I know several famous jazz musicians who set up their own gear and drive great distances to get to their engagements simply for economic reasons.
A Quick Glance at the Advantages of Being a Sideman
FOLLOW THAT DREAM
• Self-Expression: The sense of fulfillment that comes from
knowing you are doing what you love to do and what you were
uniquely created to do.
• Purpose: The satisfaction of knowing that what you
do musically brings joy to so many around the world and
profoundly touches upon the hearts of those who listen.
• Variety: Work with different people and in different settings
on a regular basis. Work is not mundane or routine.
• Notoriety: Respect, admiration, and adoration often
accompany a successful sideman.
• Friendships: The opportunity to develop relationships with
interesting people from all walks of life around the world.
• Off-Peak Hours: No need to drive and run errands during
peak hours or on weekends.
• World Travel: Exposure to a vast array of cultures and
cuisine throughout the world.
• Preferential Treatment: Many people are star struck or
fascinated by anyone in the entertainment business. As a result,
you are often given special treatment.
• Complimentary Meals: Frequent meals paid for by
the artist, fans, record companies, promoters, agents, and
• Quality Time: Because of your unpredictable schedule, you
often have greater periods of time available to spend with
family and friends than do nine-to-fivers.
• Family Vacations: Sometimes you can take your family
along to exotic places while you’re there on a gig. The hotel is
already paid for and you can use your frequent flyer miles for
additional plane tickets, if necessary.
• Leverage: The opportunity to use your position as a
springboard to another side of the industry, such as becoming a
songwriter, producer, record company executive, etc.
Disadvantages Of Being a Sideman
Don't Let the Green Grass Fool You
It wouldn’t be fair to share only the pluses of being a sideman without at least shedding a little light on some of the minuses. Before you can even consider pursuing a career as a sideman, there are a few hard, cold facts you must come to terms with in order to make an informed decision.
Perhaps the first thing to understand is the public’s perception of a famous sideman. Most people assume that if they hear you on records, see you on television, in an advertisement, or in front of thousands of screaming fans, you are rolling in millions and living the high life. For the vast majority of sidemen, nothing could be further from the truth.
It’s true that you can earn a good living if you are a successful sideman—a better than average living, in fact—but it’s no easy task. Please don’t get me wrong; in the best of circumstances, this is an
incredibly rewarding and fulfilling job. Part of the job is being in the limelight, and one of the perks is incidental fame.