Subbing for Other Musicians

As I’ve already mentioned, I’m thankful for bands that need a sub now and then. On the flip side, I also stated that bringing subs into a bands performing line up too often can hinder good branding. On the upside, subbing as a musician is a great way to add paying gigs to your calendar.

Reasons a band might contact you for a sub can vary, but the reality is that sometimes, the regular guy or gal can’t make a gig. Maybe they’re ill or have a personal schedule conflict. Whatever the case, subbing is a great way to fill your gig calendar. Like with other facets of getting gigs, you’ve got to let it be known to your fellow musicians and local music community that you’re open to subbing. Nowadays, I know enough musicians, that I need only put the word out to my inner circle, and the calls usually come. The next easiest way for me to let my peers know I’m looking for extra gigs is via Facebook. Then there’s Craigslist. Here’s a sample ad.

Pro drummer with pro gear looking for paying gigs. I currently have a regular gig, but am interested in making myself available to sub for other bands. Hear my demos and see my videos at [Link to your website’s demo page].

I recommend listing your  geographic preferences. In my case, I’d add something like, “South San Francisco Bay only. No travel.” If you’re willing to travel, just say so in your ad. Ads with images and good font formatting will always outperform plain text ads with no images. That said, unless you’re in a super competitive market, a plain text ad with no images will work, provided it’s well worded.

Open mic nights and pro jams can also be a great place to let people know you’re available. Let other musicians hear you play in these environments. Play well and you’re likely to get inquiries about your availability. Just remember to be your best at every opportunity. You never know when some great musician might be in the audience. You wouldn’t want to come across as  unprepared or unrehearsed.

Another great thing about subbing, is that one gig will almost certainly produce recommendations for another gig. Now let’s look at the cons of subbing.

The Cons of Subbing

It can and almost certainly will involve a lot of prep work time on your part. Unless a band you plan to sub for plays a repertoire that you’re already familiar with, you’ll need to budget some hours to learn new material. Even if you know it, you’ll need to budget time to make sure you really know it. As with your regular gigs, you want to go into a sub gig well prepared, and prepared to be your best. If you take on one sub gig a month for four or five months straight, all with different bands, you’ve also signed up for lots of prep time. If you already have a regular gig, maybe two regular gigs, plus a day job, plus a family, you’ll want to do some careful planning. Otherwise, somebody’s gonna be disappointed, and you’re gonna find your self very frustrated.

Scheduling can obviously get tricky if you’re subbing with any regularity, on top of gigging with a regular band. I recommend using a shared calendar with your regular bands, not only to list gig dates, but also blackout dates (i.e. dates when members are unavailable.) Google calendar is arguably the most pervasive sharable calendar. Few calendaring systems are perfect, so good communication is the most important skill requirement when juggling regular gigs with sub gigs.

SLA Snare courtesy of Cedric Pilard | www.cedricpilard.comAnother potential downside of subbing is, even with the best of intentions, you may not be interested in subbing for a particular band more than once. I know that there’s rule for gigging musicians that says we should never turn down a gig, but I turn down gigs all the time, and for various reasons. Here’s the thing with sub gigs. On occasion you may wish you hadn’t take a sub gig; and you might be asked to do another one with the same band. This makes for an awkward situation. Reasons why you may not want to sub for a band more than once include feeling that it’s not the right gig for you, the musicianship isn’t up to your preferred level, the music isn’t what you’d hoped, the venue was lame, or maybe you just don’t particularly want to hang out with someone in the band for which you subbed. Whatever the case, now you’ve got to come up with a tactful way of declining requests to sub for that band again. My recommendation, should you find yourself in this situation is to be honest, be considerate and be kind. I find that honesty is usually best; however, you may want to share your honest opinion with only those you trust. There’s no point in needlessly crushing anyone’s ego to preserve your own.

That’s about it on the downside. I love subbing for bands (in moderation). It’s fun to play with new musicians and to explore new songs and genres. It’s also a great way to meet a new fan base. You may also find that people from another band’s fanbase will follow you, as in they’ll become your fan. That’s an wonderful thing.

Creating Demand

To make yourself available for subbing, is to designate yourself as a musician-for-hire. As such, it’s wise to create demand for your talent and service. You may also want to create demand within specific genres. Maybe you’re comfort zone is jazz, but not so much hard rock. Whatever the case, it makes sense to work on creating demand with the type of acts that you find appealing, or that are within your proverbial wheelhouse. It’s important to be very specific when speaking with others about your availability, as well as when posting your availability on social media, Craigslist or other music specific sites.

Because being in demand as a musician is such a people-to-people business, it’s a useful practice to track your contacts in a database. Your email address book will work, but you can create demand and a gig pipeline more rapidly by being methodical with your list of contacts. Consider using a spreadsheet or a CRM. There are a few free versions of CRM products, such as Zoho, but if your contacts list is less than 150, a spreadsheet is probably your best bet. The information that you want to track is: contact name, phone, email, conversation details and follow-up actions. If you’ve never done this before, it might feel somewhat overwhelming, but it’s fairly easy once you get started and make it routine. I also recommend categorizing contacts. The three categories I use are: Musician, Venue and
Booking Contact. All three are important.

One other thing worth tracking are general notes for each contact. It can be extremely useful to note follow-up information, important dates, facts about the contact, etc. Open your database up weekly to figure out who you can email, call, and/or visit. This is all for the sake of keeping in touch, reiterating your interest in working together, and offering to return the favor. Turn it upside down and think of something you can do for your friend or venue contact when you contact them, rather than always asking them for a sub gig or booking. Maybe you can tell a venue about a great band or artist you know; or you could share venue information with another band. I’m often recommending other bands and suggesting to friends that they check out this venue or that one, when I think they’d be a good fit.

Other suggestions…

Contact venues at which you’re booked, and ask if they’d like to co-market your upcoming gig. Suggest that you co-promote across Facebook Pages. Ask if they have a press kit that they’d like you to reference when using their name, brand or logo in your promotional material. It shows that you’re serious about promoting your gig, and helping their business.

If you’re subbing for someone, ask the band if there’s anything you can do to help out on the day of the gig, perhaps arriving a little early to help with the PA setup, or perhaps asking if you should plan to set up a very specific time. This might seem trivial, but gestures such as these will help strengthen your reputation, and thus help you create demand for yourself.

At the end of the day, playing in multiple bands and subbing can really help you get gigs. As a student-member of The Mike Johnston drum lesson community, I have the good fortune of a connection to drummer and production assistant Nate Martin, also known as Six8Nate. Nate was kind enough to weigh in on the question of how much playing in multiple bands factors into ones ability to get paying gigs. Here’s what he said.

There is a direct correlation between playing with as many musicians as possible and your ability to get paying gigs. First off, people have to see and hear you play! Countless hours of shedding in the rehearsal room is great, but it’s the “on the job” experience that’s necessary in order to get paid. Playing in as many groups as possible will give you a much better idea of what’s to be expected, as well as how to react in various situations that will arise when working in a group setting. Therefore, your questioning should not be, “Why would I do this?” but “What can I learn from this?” The more you learn, the more you earn.

Nate is known in the Mike Johnston Live Lessons camp as the busiest drummer in the Sacramento country scene. I happen to know that he does rock gigs as well. The guy gigs often and is clearly in high demand.

Do you know a musician in your area who gigs a lot. Ask them to meet for coffee, lunch, or a beer, and ask them for tips and advice. I find musicians in my community are very giving and almost always willing to help one other. I’m acquainted with  many local musicians, and I meet new ones all the time. I make an effort to network with these people on a regular basis. In recent months, I’ve found that volunteering is a great way to network with other musicians. I happen to volunteer for the music program of an organization that meets monthly. I’ve become good friends with a great guitar player. As it turns out, we have mutual musician friends. That relationship has actually lead to a new project possibilities.  It’s actually quite amazing how networking with fellow musicians can lead to new opportunities.

When it comes to creating gigs, sometimes discussion of new musical projects can lead to more gigs. I recommend that when the opportunity presents itself, that you take the initiative to create the conversation. Here’s an example. The aforementioned guitarist I met at the volunteer gig has expressed mutual interest in exploring a trio music project. It was my suggestion. I took the initiative. We’ve both invited a couple of friends to the discussion and have scheduled a lunch get-together to talk music. This get-together is an opportunity for me and the other three guys–I know…four isn’t a trio–to exchange ideas and start the ground work of some mutually beneficial relationships. Notice how that word keeps reappearing (relationships)? This project may never get off the ground, but I can guarantee one thing. These guys are all going to learn a little more about my involvement in the local music scene. That’s likely going to lead to recommendations and referrals for other gigs. Who knows, maybe we’ll start a new band together. Again…more gigs.

To wrap this chapter up, I’ve discussed the pros and cons of subbing, and how to create demand for yourself as a musician. I also touched on being methodical in your relationship building, and I pointed out the common and recurring theme of relationships. As Nate Martin of points out, there’s a direct correlation between the number of musicians one plays with and one’s ability to get paid gigs.