How To Find Musicians
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Acoustic Guitar Magazine.
You've been singing for awhile now, you've developed a technique and style that works for you, your confidence is high, and you just need one thing before you hit that jam session, stage or studio: other musicians! Finding musicians to play with is like finding a combination of the perfect job and the perfect mate. Finding someone you get along with can be hard enough, but to find someone (or ones) who shares your artistic taste, your vision, your dedication, and your schedule can be a daunting task. Luckily, the world is packed with musicians who are probably looking for you. If you can put the time and thought into your search it's probably just a matter of time until you find your musical mate(s). Here are some steps that can help:
Before You Start Your Search
• Get prepared. What are you going to say to the bass player you meet at Whole Foods who asks you what you do? Can you describe the music you like and what your abilities are in an easy soundbite? "I'm a belter and I want to put together an acoustic Nirvana cover band." Keep it simple. The bassist may not be right for you but a friend of hers might be, so you want something easy to remember. No one likes to pigeonhole themselves (we're all originals, aren't we?) but try to put yourself in a ballpark.
• What do you want? A guitarist at your level with whom you can jam? A band that is dedicated to getting a record deal? A once-a-week casual jazz gig at the corner coffeehouse? Get very clear about your goals. The clearer you are, the less chance you'll be sidetracked by musicians who aren't right for you.
• What can you offer? Musicians will play with you for a variety of reasons. It's pretty easy to lure musicians to a jam session (many are known to follow the scent of free beer and chips), but securing the level of commitment required for starting and maintaining a band is another matter. Some players have a "no pay, no play" rule. For many a struggling artist this may be a deal breaker. But paying your musicians does have a definite advantage: you get to be in charge. She or he who signs the checks calls the tunes. If you want musicians to play for free, however, you may need to offer them something else. If you write all the songs, are you willing to split future royalties with the band? Do you have a lead on a paying gig? Great contacts? Don't be discouraged if all you have is talent, vision, and drive - a dream and a well thought out plan can be very seductive. Be honest: I have voice students who have found musicians by saying something like "I have no track record, I've never performed, but I've studied voice for two years and my teacher says I'm great."
• Get Organized. The first thing that's said when two musicians get together to play is "So what do you know, dude?" Make a list of the songs you do. Get sheet music or chord charts in your key and gather them into a folder. Make copies.
If you're doing original music, record a demo of several songs if you can. A demo is also handy if you sing cover songs. Many musicians will want to hear your voice and/or your songs before agreeing to play with you. Think of this demo as your calling card, and post it online, pass it out or email it to any potential musicians. Don't spend too much money on this; a good guitar/vocal or piano/vocal demo will get your voice and songs across sufficiently, and many producer/engineer/musicians can help you record one inexpensively. If your songs aren't finished, get your lyric scraps together in a notebook, so you have something to show future collaborators. If you have the money and determination, another avenue is to record a more elaborate demo that more clearly shows your musical vision and abilities. You'll have something splashier to show prospective musicians, and you can use it to market yourself before you've found them. The world is filled with producer/engineers who have their own studios, and they usually have a stable of musicians they can use to record your songs. Lastly, make a list of any relevant contacts you have: photographers, booking agents, graphic artists, etc.
• Where will you compromise? Your dream band can readily be found...in your dreams. The real world usually offers up something less. Will you join a band that loves your singing but refuses to play your songs? What if you find the perfect band but they want you to only sing back-up vocals? What if that great guitarist can only rehearse Sundays from 3 to 5 o'clock? You want to be flexible without getting stuck in a situation that's worlds away from your goal. Know ahead of time what your limits are.
• Tell everyone you know. Everyone has a musician cousin, neighbor, friend, or employee. Get the word out.
• Throw a party, song swap or jam session. Invite every musician you know and tell them to bring every musician they know. If you are new to jam sessions, it wouldn't hurt to hire an experienced player (preferably a local name musician) to keep the ball rolling. Plus you'll attract more players if you can say "Yeah, and Joe Blow the Killer Bassist will be there." It doesn't have to be a music party, either: My husband and I used to have a monthly salon where we invited people to meet and discuss political and social issues. When we needed a bass player for our band we realized that we could choose from three bassists who were regular salon attendees!
• Online Musician Classifieds. It's strange dealing with strangers and you may meet with some attitude, but there are some great musicians out there using ads. Treat these as you would a personals ad: don't give out your address, check each other out online or on the phone. Consider placing your own ad. Read other classifieds to get an idea of what to include. You want to describe yourself, what you want and your goals with a minimum of words. For example, "Deadhead tenor seeks musicians/singers to jam with for fun only." "Pro level female singer wants to join deal-minded bluegrass band. Dedication a must."
• Print Musician Classifieds. Though the internet has taken over for connecting with other musicians, musician-wanted ads can still be found in some free local weeklies and music-specific publications. Look for alternative weeklies in coffeeshops and libraries. Also look in guitar and music stores for periodicals geared towards local musicians.
• Bulletin Boards. Old-school, but some still exist. They can be valuable, especially for finding musicians in your neighborhood. Look in instrument and sheet music stores, but also check out boards at your local coffee shop, grocery store, or in the music department of your local college.
• The Internet. Chock-full of sites where you can check out connect with other musicians. Check out CD Baby and Just Plain Folks, for starters. Set up a Facebook, Reverbnation, Bandcamp or similar web page where you can post your music so potential band-mates can check your music out. Just be careful, since you don't know who you are connecting with. Just like any first meeting with someone you've met online, meet in a public place at first. Don't give out your address or phone number until you have a good feeling about whomever you meet online.
Most of all, it's critical that you:
Get Out Into the World!
It's time consuming, sometimes tiring, sometimes fun—but it can be the best way to meet musicians (as well as potential fans, venue bookers, etc). Go to:
• Clubs and Coffeehouses: Preferably ones that play your style of music. When you find one you like, try to go fairly often, even if a band you don't know is playing. You'll feel more at home and be braver about meeting people when you're a regular. If you like a band or artist, approach them (but not when they are hurriedly clearing their stuff from the stage). Most musicians appreciate the attention, and you never know if they might be looking for new singers.
• Open Mics: Go whether you perform or not. Lots of solo artists are looking to be more than solo. I've also seen performers at open mics say things like "I just met this guy out back and he's going to sit in on this next song." If you're looking for other singers, you'll find loads of them at piano bars. If you are past the beginner stage, some clubs have full bands with which you can sit in: look for "Jam Night" listings in the paper. Some of these are open, some are invitation only. Often you can wrangle an invitation if you go and hang out several times. Open mics change continually: check your local weekly for club and coffeehouse listings.
• Professional Organizations: ASCAP, BMI, SESAC (all performing rights societies) and NSAI (Nashville Songwriters Association Intl) often have industry showcases and classes that are loaded with musicians. All of the above have regional chapters throughout the country.
• Music Festivals: Festival campgrounds are crammed with soon-to-jam or jamming musicians. Use common sense and good manners about joining an ongoing jam session, but in general you'll find loads of friendly players. Many musicians go to the Kerrville Folk Festival simply to hang out with fellow musicians and end up skipping the scheduled concerts. Not all festivals are conducive to campground jamming; I camped at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival one freezing June: people disappeared into tents at night and thawed out by day watching the performers. Staffers will know if their festival is jam-friendly, so contact them in advance.
• Guitar Camps and Music Classes: Guitar and music camps are incredibly fun as well as a great place to find musicians. If you're shy about singing with other musicians, this is the place to start; guitar camp staffers and teachers are notorious for their ability to painlessly ease you into jam sessions. If you're more advanced, you'll find loads of like-minded players who would like nothing more than to jam until sunrise. The camps are filled with smart, funny, nice people aged eighteen to eighty I've taught and been a student/camper at several camps and it's often the most fun I have all year. Go to one even if you aren't looking for musicians, you'll have a blast.
I've taken several classes where the people I met were the highlight of the class. You'll find musicians in theory, songwriting, and music business classes. Your local music store may offer classes, and also check out your nearest community college. Class listings can be found online, and in the back of your local weekly. If you're feeling brave, you can even call private music teachers to ask if they have any great students who are looking for singers.
One of the best things about going out is that you'll meet and befriend other singers. They may not all share your exact musical goals or abilities, but there's nothing like being part of a community of singers to keep you happy and on track throughout your musical search and beyond.
A final inspirational story: when I moved to Los Angeles years ago I knew exactly three people in town. I immediately sent my demo to the local music paper's demo review columnist, then waited eight months for a review to appear. During that time I went to every open mic and club I could find. (By the way, you'll meet more people if you go by yourself.) I met my future bass player at an open mic, and my future co-producer at a club. My demo was finally reviewed the summer after I moved, and I subsequently received a call from a producer/engineer who'd read the review and liked my material enough to offer me spec studio time to record my first album. While recording the album we formed a band, started dating, and later got married. You never know what great things will happen once you put yourself out there. So get motivated, get organized, get out there, and good luck!
© Susan Anders