are small ads working for the musician?
Apparently, drummers are like gold dust, but never turn up, and all bass players are addicted to U2 and Simple Minds. How do we know this? Because we phoned them up and asked them.
Or rather, we phoned up the people looking for them. In the wake of our crucially fab feature on Auditions and how not to die (May issue), the thought occurred — how goes the slave trade in musicians, who's out there to be bought and sold, is the market ripe in keyboard players, or has the early frost impinged on their credentials?
We spent a happy few hours leafing through the classified ads of The Melody Maker, ringing numbers and pretending to be totally professional guitarists with dedication to form Christian jazz-fusion band, into Joy Division with a solid Afro-beat, male/female must have own PA, Hackney, no breadheads. This is what we found.
First off, whoever said rhythm boxes were going to put drummers out of business has not tried to form a gigging band lately. They're still the players most in demand. In one MM week there were 28 ads begging for drummers. Bass players were close behind with 24, but in many cases they were required as the second half of a rhythm section with the emphasis on percussion. Keyboard players were next at 12; guitarists nine; vocalists seven; sax players six.
Conversely in the musicians available column, talent was distributed more evenly — six drummers, eight bassists, eight guitarists closed off by three keys men, three saxists, NO vocal-types and an electric violinist.
But back to you drummsy-wummsies. "Really difficult to find", "not desperate for work", "not many of them", "don't bother to turn up". Not all the praise was so glowing, of course. General opinion among advertisers was that drummers were so sure of getting work they often blew out auditions or never bothered to follow up calls — there'd be another job around the corner.
The most difficult human beings to get to a rehearsal room, and frequently the greatest disappointment when they eventually materialised, growled the disenchanted.
There was some sympathy. Drummers do still have a lot of gear to shift came a kindly defence, and think about it; the acoustic drummer now has to work very hard to impress. The world and his plectrum can program a drum machine, knock out a rock solid beat, and come up with physically impossible rhythms by twiddling buttons. Against that widespread prejudicial knowledge, guitarists, bassists and synthists have the bluffs easy.
Response to our telephonic enquiries varied, but thankfully few calls rang on unanswered. We called all times of the day, invariably got through, and when the recruiter wasn't there, he'd normally briefed someone to take a message, or politely ask the inquirist to buzz back.
Questions ranged from "well, tell me about yourself" (I'm thin, how's that) to revealing probes such as "once you've put down the phone, which record are you going to put on". One bass-player-hunting manager claimed that so far he'd had 15 four stringers on the line and when asked to name their influences everyone had pitched their style as somewhere between U2 and Simple Minds. He was an extreme case, but a similar flavour (of the month?) flowed elsewhere.
One way of detecting professionalism in your potential employer involved spotting how much research he'd carried out on your subject. "Have you got a sharp wrist?", posited one voice over the wires. If you knew what he meant, you could be reassured he was serious about his interest in reggae; if you didn't, he could be certain you were not going to be another Sly Dunbar.
Wording of the ad can be essential. Three female vocalists seeking backing musicians mentioned they were needed 'to assist in forming a band'. The fateful word 'assist' got them as many would-be managers as it did musicians.
But 'Bass Players who favour Wal basses should not answer this ad', found the perfect response. Those in the right frame of reference recognised the unwanted whippet-of-the-digit style that seems attracted to such instruments.
Guitarists are plentiful, but come in a daunting breadth of standards. You've got a lot of weeding to do, six string searchers. Two clues from experiences told to us over the blower. Get them to bring their own instrument even if they're only visiting to hear your demo tapes. If it's dusty, badly kept, and strung with elderly cheese wire, an expensive audition might not be necessary. When you do get them together, try to avoid collecting half a dozen guitarists in the same room, within earshot of the rehearsal studio. If they can hear the previous 'patient,' they'll be tempted to outplay him (in the mistaken belief that's what you want) instead of settling into their own style.
True for most other breeds of musician as well, as are the ground rules laid out for songwriting. If you're the ad placer, writing material and know what you're doing, where you're going, and the image you want, then stick to your guns. Make it clear from the start that the new recruit is there to perform your songs. There's nothing wrong with considering one of the bass player's numbers if it fits your style but never be tempted to include one of his tracks in the set, just to keep him happy. You'll feel put upon, he'll never think you're giving his creations fair treatment and when the gig goes badly it will either be the first track to get criticised, or the one left out of the considerations for fear of hurt feelings. If it's good and right, use it by all means, but never compromise.
More tips for the advert answerer. Read the ad properly. One of the most common complaints was that respondents ignored stipulations about area. 'Must live near E.14' found himself putting off people from Glasgow. Okay, so you might be brilliant enough to convince him, and perhaps there are no bands worth joining where you live, but how long is the collaboration going to last when you pay four times as much as anyone else to reach the rehearsal, get there late and have to leave early to make the train.
And surprising how many ad answerers could supply pin sharp detail about how they played and who they liked, but were totally tongue-tied when it came to describing themselves... considering how frequently the phrase 'good image' appears in the classifieds, this is somewhat unprepared. Okay, so the music is of premier importance but what is your image, do you dance on stage or stand still... well, think about it, DO you?
But the encouraging news all round is that temperament and enthusiasm still count more than technical expertise. Sure, everyone we asked was looking for a competent instrumentalist with original ideas but it was globally understood that keenness and the ability to get on with the rest of the band would eventually produce better music.
And however odious it may be to explain your kind of music by comparing it to someone else's, it's much the fastest way of getting the message across.
What price pride if it loses you the right man and gives you 20 wrong ones to answer.
Feature by Paul Colbert
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