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April 2016
The Difference Between Being a [Musician] and Being a Professional [Musician]

Paul talks Hunter Hancock and Roger talks Bach.

 

Paul:  Well the short answer would be one gets paid but that’s not the whole story, I have known many fine musicians who were not professionals. I myself did my first paying gig when I was 18 years old at the Whisky a Go-Go, with an artist who, after the two-night stint, decided to leave Los Angeles, so just like that I was out of a gig. I then had to work as a bus boy and waiter for 4 years until I joined Little Feat, so in fact, I was both a pro and again, not a pro. During that time I was in a garage band in Laurel Canyon, and we would practice from noon to five, 5 days a week, rain or shine, trying to break into the business. It was fun but we never broke through, had a few opportunities but didn’t take advantage of them. Then I got asked to join Little Feat, and in reality I made more money as a waiter than I did in those first couple of years with a professional band.

I have sat in living rooms jamming with folks who were not professional musicians, who could play rings around many folks that I played with who were professionals. The joy of music is that you are playing music, PLAYING for the love of the music and the art, and to turn that into a career is a whole other enchilada.

As I think back to my youth I think of the organist who played at the Hollywood First Methodist Church, they have quite a grand pipe organ, and he was fantastic - I wish I could remember his name. He would play the old hymns and then a piece by Bach, and he did that because he loved playing. And then there was the choir director, Hunter Hancock, generally recognized as the first West Coast disc jockey to play Rhythm and Blues on the radio, as well as one of the first to spin Rock and Roll.  Hunter Hancock was an early white hipster whose affinity for the music and impish sense of humor, captured Los Angeles area listeners from 1947 until 1966. So was he a professional musician, well no not really, but he loved music, and gospel music was a passion, hence he led the choir.

Being a professional musician has been a blessing to me. It has given me a comfortable life and stability to raise a family, enjoy a few rare moments traveling the world, filled with memories of gigs, from playing for 5 paying customers to 80,000 folks in Atlanta for the Olympics, riding around in vans and cars, to luxury busses, and private planes. Playing for American soldiers on USO tours, opening for some of the biggest names in the business, to headlining arenas, and the lesson I have learned from that is, that’s what you get paid for, the traveling, hotel living, being away from your family for weeks on end, the music we do for free. The joy is in the doing, a wise man once told me.

 

Roger:  The main difference between the two really doesn’t have a whole lot to do with music.  You can’t say that a professional musician is better than a person who just plays music because that’s all opinion based anyways.  It doesn’t really matter who knows what on chops – if you play music, you are a musician in all senses of the word.  It seems that the main difference is you spend a lot more time as a professional musician having to fight for more time to play music because you’re always having to deal with the business side of things – the licensing, the paperwork, the contracts, and who does what, where’s it getting released, how to promote it – all that chaos really doesn’t have anything to do with being a musician, that’s business.  People will walk up to you after a show, or during a record session, and be like “Yeah, you know it’s really cool, I play guitar (or drums or whatever), but I’m not a musician, I just do it for fun”.  Well, that is a musician.  Doing it as a professional musician means that you spend a lot more time getting a certain sound to try to brand, or making sure things have a certain thread.  Frankly, some of the best in the world are in their basement or living room just playing music – you’re not going to hear them, or see them in a magazine, but they are, in all senses of the word, a musician.    One of the best examples to me is Bach.  Obviously he’s known as a phenomenal musician, but he never actually made a living doing it, he always had a job while doing music.

So that’s really the major difference between the two.  It’s not music – it’s one person has to deal with a lot more details that at times, makes it harder to enjoy playing music.  You’re always so involved in the business side of things, whereas the other person gets to truly enjoy music, which is what it was for.  I think it’s a misconception that people have – that a professional musician is a better player that a person that just plays music – there’s nothing true about that, it’s completely based on opinion.  You might have the biggest artist in the world and not like his stuff vs. a friend down the street that just plays a few chords and you love it, so you see, there’s no correlation between the two.   

It’s kind of a funny thing, it’s one of those things I’ve always found humorous when people try to make a distinction between the two.  I guess a professional musician would obviously spend more hours paying attention to arrangements and how well the performances are put together because it’s going to be recorded and put out and be there forever, whereas a person that plays for fun, they might shag a few notes here and there but it really doesn’t matter because they are doing it with a smile and they’ll do it again the next day.

How The World of Music Has [Changed]

See how Roger and Paul think the world of music has [changed] over the years.

Paul:  Having now been a part of the recording industry for 44 years, there are so many changes I’ve seen.  Back when I first joined Little Feat and we recorded Dixie Chicken in 1972, records labels back then had true artist development departments.  Once an act was signed they had the opportunity to grow and develop their sound, that simply doesn’t happen anymore.  In today’s world, you have to have not only your sound, but a social media presence before a label will talk to you.  It’s not so much about the music as it is the dollars.  And now those dollars are shrinking for the artist as the digital age has made it possible to pirate the music in so many ways.

The recording process had already grown into the over-dubbing era, multitrack recording was the norm, as opposed to just a few years earlier when folks used 4 track recorders, now you had 24 to play with.  Mastering albums for vinyl was an art unto itself, the fewer minutes per side of a LP, the deeper the grooves you could get and thus a wider range of sound.  When the first digital recorders came it was amazing how easy it was to punch in and out making the editing process much simpler, not to mention the digital consoles that had programmable functions this keeping six people from leaning across the mix making fader moves manually, oh those were fun times.  Now, with full digital recording set-ups one can do as many overdubs as one would like to do, and then just cut and paste it into a single track, words can be broken down into syllables, guitar notes blended from one take into another, the pallet is so much bigger for the artist.

It is a whole different world in how music is made, but in the long run it still boils down to songs, and personal tastes.  There is so much more music to hear with so many more avenues to explore for getting a bite.  I just hope folks will always feast on the music cause it’s good for the soul.

Roger: I think one of the main things that have changed is that there is a serious saturation of material out there, it’s endless.  People have the ability to record an idea in their bedroom and then automatically sign up for a webpage somewhere and release it into the world and say ‘here’s my new song’.  Based on that, there’s just so much stuff that before, would never have made it that far.  When I first started it was multi-track tape, you only had X amount of tracks based on what you could afford for machines and went into a studio, so you spent a lot more time refining your demos.  Because of that you were able to have much more successful, branded bands and artists, because when they put something out it was done, I mean it was really something to listen to.  People would go to the record store and get their copy, excited to see what was next, as opposed to “Oh my God there is more stuff”. I am in no way saying that there’s all bad material out there - there’s a lot of great material coming out, but there’s such a saturation with all the internet middle men of distribution these days that who’s got time, or takes the time to sift through all that stuff to find an artist that really gets them?   So that’s a huge difference.  

There was always a school of thought of how things had to come together sonically and energy wise to deliver the message, if there was one, when they sat and listened to it.  I think a lot of the changes has come down to the fact that what it used to cost for a reel of tape,  you can buy a piece of recording equipment and put it in your living room and have as many tracks as your computer could handle.  So every time somebody finishes something it’s great, a lot of work, they’re excited and they release it just because they thought it was done.  Before you would really take the time to make sure everything was right.  You could go into a studio and get it done and then release it, which kind of kept a higher caliber of music coming out   at the time. 

On the production side it seems because of that same ideal of how simply you can put your ideas onto a hard drive now, the production side of things has really changed.  It used to be a producer was a person who had a really good understanding of all the instrumentation, the style of music, the recording process - the whole thing from the beginning of the process to release.  Now it seems people just hit the record button and they think it’s really cool but they’ve never had to really learn the fundamentals of how to capture audio because now you can just throw a mic on anything and hope it’s good.  In a world of mp3’s, who really knows the difference?  Labels used to create development deals for bands.  Once the band got themselves to a certain caliber, they would get a little help to get over the hump and have a place to work with people who are more knowledgeable at the time to develop into something that’s really brandable and   real, and creates an audience and all that but, it seems there’s no point in that anymore because there’s just so much material.  Now it’s like the band itself has to do every step that the label used to do, then all of a sudden a label will say ‘well that’s kind of cool, let’s take that on.  We’ll spend some money on that and hopefully we’ll get it all back.  Hopefully they will survive long enough, and if not, there’s another band right around the corner.”

The music industry is always going to be evolving, but it seems that as different generations of people get involved in recording and playing music, and even the people that are teaching them, each generation that goes away the next generation comes in learning less and less of the basics, the more dynamic seems to be lost in the overall sound of things.  I think that’s one of the biggest changes.  Don’t get me wrong, I love what technology has done - it enabled people to really express themselves without really having to spend $50k in a recording studio, plus tape, so not a negative, just changed.

Mark Ross asks:  Is it just me or does it seem like female singers are more popular than male singers these days? Personally I love that women have finally made a big impact in popular music.

Regarding an increase of women in the industry it seems that every decade of music has had it’s influx of women who are predominately singers. In the 50’s there was the Shandell’s, the 60’s had Janis Joplin, 70’s Heart, 80’s Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, Pat Benatar, and so on… There is a lot of great female singers out there, then there’s one that gets over the top, and then opens the door for the sound for a couple dozen more until it runs it ‘s course and labels start looking for a new sound.  Now it’s become more apparent because before they were all in specific styles or genres where they could make their mark, now it’s become more cross marketing across genres, and be marketed to a larger fan base because of the internet.  

Musical [Influences]

Paul:  I’d have to say that the first influence I had was my father, who played all these old Dixieland jazz records of folks like Louis Armstrong. He would put them on and I was about 5 or 6 and I would immediately would feel happy. That was a felling I couldn't explain and still have a hard time trying to convey that feeling to some folks.  If it gets your good feeling feeling good, that’s just the ticket.

As far as playing the guitar, I think my first real influence was Mississippi John Hurt.  I remember I was around 13 and was into folk music and he was recommended to me so I went out and bought a LP of his work.  His fingerpicking style and the little slide runs he would play were classic, and from hearing him I got into Muddy Waters, and soon after Robert Johnson.

Last but certainly not least, was Jimi Hendrix.  He blew the roof off of my soul.  His style was something else, so melodic, and yet so forceful.  Over the years, more and more musicians caught my ear, Miles Davis, john McLaughlin, Charlie Mingus, Leroy Vinegar, the list goes on and on... 

I would be missing one of the folks who really turned me on with his music and that was Little Richard.  His songs and that shuffle beat.... all I can say is once I heard Tutti Fruiti I had to have it, so at the tender age of 11, I took the bus down to Wallach’s Music City, at the corner of Sunset and Vine, and bought the 78.  Took it home, got a verbal lashing for adventuring out like that on my own, but then went to my brothers room where the record player was and wore it out, the B side was Slipping and a Sliding, just unbelievable

Roger:  One of the musicians that influenced me was Victor Borgia, because he was a fully accomplished piano player and never lost his sense of humor about it.  He was hilarious - I mean, how many other classical players guested on the Muppets?!

James Brown is another because no matter what he did in his entire career, it was always 100 - everything was always completely stylin’ all the time.

Then there’s Randy Rhodes, because no matter how famous or how much notoriety he got for his ability to play, he always spent his spare time trying to improve and learn more about the instrument itself, having nothing to do with the glitz and glamour of fame.    

[Learning] from Others

Paul [learns] from Lowell, and Roger [learns] from Glen Campbell and Paul himself!

 

Paul:  One of the best lessons I ever learned was from Lowell George.  When he asked me to join little feat he told me that the rule number one is there are no rules, and that I should try to start to appreciate other kinds of music in order to play them and play them well.  I had come from a blues background mostly, and thus wrote rock and roll songs around that format.  It was funny that he chose me to join the band mainly because I was playing in what at the time, was a very avant garde rock band, but mostly limited to the standard 3 chord changes, root, fourth and fifth, and mostly minor. Without that input from Lowell there never would have been All That You Dream, or a country song like Missing You. He not only opened the door for me into the professional musicians’ world, but walked me through it!

Roger: One piece of advice I thought was great was from an article I read by Glen Campbell.  I thought it was a really intelligent way of looking at stuff.  Campbell said when you are writing songs, don’t expect the songs to do something for you right after it is finished.  Don’t throw away anything that you write, just keep them in a box somewhere because you will never know when might be the best moment to use it.  Songs you’re writing right now hopefully will work out in some fashion, but songs you wrote 5 or 10 years ago might be the ones that are working for you right now.  Everything, even if you think it’s old, is new to the listener,  so you really never know when a song will work. So don’t write based on that, just write to write and if it has a place, it will find it.

Another piece of advice has actually come to me over time from Paul.  Before I started working with Paul, the stuff I was working on was a much heavier material, more intense.  My whole school of thought with that kind of stuff was to keep everything right solid on the one, real punctual.  It worked good, it was really intense…  as I started working with Paul more and more, his whole approach was always sometimes if it is this way or that way and just swings a little bit, it feels better, so a lot of times pocket is better than  intensity to deliver something in a song.  I consider that as something that’s really shaped how I think at this point.