“The Way Out....The Road Back” Home Page
Much of what appears on rhumba.com is dedicated to non-musicians curious about the musical life. But rhumba.com is also read by musicians, both active and retired. In their emails, the site's readers usually identify themselves as being a member of one of these three groups.
The non-players have various questions and reminiscences, the current players may trade a name or two, or compare battle scars. The retired-musicians relate fond memories of the road, one-nighters, touring chain hotels for weeks at a time, basking in the echoes of cheering crowds through the delicious filter of selective memory.
Generally, the emails reflect the site's main focus, the musician's life ON the road.
I am no longer on the road but I still play quite a few gigs. When I get to talking careers with the musicians I work with, their questions are quite another story. They focus on the day gig. They're interested in how I got OUT of playing full-time, and what exactly did I do to establish a new, different career.
A few ask about the career change out of more than idle curiosity. Growing older, they feel a gnawing sense of diminishing opportunity, and maybe even feel trapped in the unchanging life. They ponder, some jokingly, some tentatively, and indeed, a few seriously what might constitute a reasonable alternative to full-time playing, and how the transition might be accomplished.
This is about that and a little bit more. This is how I burned-out, got off the road, made changes, found a new life and eventually found my way back to music.
In 1990, I was midway through my 11th year as a full-time musician. On paper, things were going well.
I was on the road with The Assassins, one great rock and roll/rhythm and blues band. This group was for me the culmination of a decade's road experience, and two decades of learning to play. Our accumulated professional experience exceeded 120 years; our attitude of musical excellence was real, not self-important pretension. David Letterman Band bass player Will Lee (a cream of the crop session player) saw us at a party in New York City and was heard exclaiming "Man, these guys can really play..." The group had excellent arrangements, catchy originals and the kind of tight stage show acquired when grizzled veterans play non-stop for four years.
So I had every right to be happy, even deliriously so as when I landed the gig in 1986. In reality, the past twelve months had seen me growing increasingly unhappy, though I didn't know it. I never stopped to think about how I was feeling, or consider the fact that leaving for each weekly road trip felt increasingly torturous.
Then, I got fired.
Euphemisms don't apply—I got fired, plain and simple. They saw the writing on the wall and decided I needed a change.
They were right of course; it was obvious. I was bored and irritable, I had no enthusiasm for touring. I was increasingly worried about the dangers of inhaling large volumes of second hand cigarette smoke night after night, and my fears about being involved in another serious highway accident were surfacing in various ways, such as bolting upright out of a deep sleep in the middle of the night, fearful that the van's driver surely was falling asleep.
Worst of all, my playing was lethargic and uninspired. NOT good for a drummer in a high energy rock'n'roll band, the linchpin of so much of the group's energy and foundation.
I had even taken to engaging in trivialities onstage to ease the boredom. Like the time I counted all the backbeats (beats '2' and '4' in a standard 4-count measure of music) in one of the long Jimmy Thackery guitar solo extravaganzas, several of which we played nightly. There were nearly a thousand. For some reason, I found this depressing.
I suppose when I get bored I start counting. I was once on the road with a highly respected blues guitarist, a man whose good nature, integrity and musical excellence I to this day admire. But I had grown bored with the gig—my own musical immaturity to blame—and one manifestation was an increasing irritation with his seemingly endless stream of small jokes and one-liners, many of which were repeated day after day, week after week. They were harmless enough, but the endless repetition was driving me crazy! So I one day counted the jokes, from the moment we met to go to breakfast, to the moment we bade each other good night after the gig. Total: 154.
Anyway, back to 1990. The news came on the phone; a thunderbolt. I was devastated and depressed. Well, that night. Imagine my surprise when I woke up the next morning elated. I felt way beyond relief or stoicism: I was HOO-RAY elated. I kept waiting for the ecstasy to diminish; perhaps it was just an opposite swing of an emotional pendulum.
But it didn't, I just kept on being happy. I felt set free, not struck down.
I had to determine why. Had I really suffered major career burnout? After some soul searching, the answer came back, without doubt, yes. I had to admit that even playing in a skilled and respected group—something I'd worked years to achieve—no longer pushed all the buttons. I wasn't immune to wanting new things, including new challenges and personal growth.
I felt no shame, and certainly didn't consider the last dozen years ill-spent. Quite the contrary, I felt lucky and appreciative: for the great players I'd been fortunate to play with, the travel, the camaraderie, and above all, the opportunity to learn how to play. Also—perhaps most importantly—no matter what happened I'd never have to wonder about whether or not I might have been a pro-caliber musician if only I had tried.
A bigger picture seemed to snap into focus, and I was... happy.
But, now that I realized how burned-out I was, how right it was for them to let me go and for me to let go, what was I going to do?
Now that I was out of a touring band and quitting playing music full-time, I needed to find work ASAP.
I did the natural thing—I tried to find work playing music. I mean, c'mon—it was all I knew how to do! Yes, I needed a new career, but for the moment, I needed to pay the rent. I needed to build a practice as a freelance musician.
Of course, being freelance is radically different than being in a touring rock and roll band. You need to know contractors and other freelancers who will hire or recommend you. You play different places (instead of playing only nightclubs, you're now working nightclubs, private clubs, hotels, conference centers, private homes—anywhere) and the dress code varies ... a lot (you go from wearing whatever you want, to wearing anything from casual to formal).
Getting paid is different. Instead of receiving cash nightly, you are typically collecting checks from disparate sources, sometimes waiting as long as 4-6 weeks. In fact, getting paid is one of the most frustrating aspects of being freelance.
Of course, most contractors are honest and reliable. But every freelancer has worked for bad apples who hold your money, lie about it, even stiff you. The bad contractor may be dishonest, or maybe just irresponsible. They're banking on the premise that musicians need work wherever they can get it, and will sit docilely by while being taken advantage of. I once foolishly waited until January for a lousy $115 for a job played the previous August! Finally, I threatened to write a formal letter of complaint to his client and got the check two days later. Good riddance to that sleaze ball.
Issues of how one get paid aside, here's the good news: many freelance jobs pay better than rock'n'roll "bar scale." And now the bad news: in a large metropolitan area with an abundance of good players, the competition is very keen. There isn't an open space for a new kid, even one with a dozen years experience, who one day picks up the phone and announces "OK, hire me!"
Establishing one's self takes time, anywhere from one to three years. And as I said, I still needed to pay the rent.
So aside from scooping up some scattered musical work, I realized I couldn't immediately support myself as a freelancer even if I wanted to. I needed other income, right away.
Musician had so far been my only professional job, but I did have a couple straws to grasp. Primarily, I'm fortunate to be a college graduate. This experience had imbued me with a few skills, notably writing and communications. To all you musician career-change candidates, I admit, education was key. For someone without a college, associates or even a high school degree, career counseling and going back to school are two of the most widely acknowledged options. One or both of these things may be necessary to make a successful transition.
Something else which proved invaluable was the purchase a few years back of an Apple Macintosh. I acquired the computer only because I thought it was cool, and likely could help me write. I logged a lot of hours and became proficient on a variety of programs, including rudimentary desktop publishing. It was all self-taught, and just a matter of time spent. It was more than worth it: in today's market, even basic computer skills are absolutely essential.
Even with my degree and a few computer skills, my glaring lack of experience guaranteed rough going in terms of finding work where I decided to look: in the white collar world. Considering my writing skills and desire for intellectual challenge, some sort of white collar, communications-oriented job became the long term goal. I knew however, this was going to take time.
By the way, it's worth mentioning that when I was fired from The Assassins, a couple of important life events were drawing near: the upcoming close on my first house—in a couple months—and preparing to be married—in about six months. Life's pressures were looking in, especially in the shape of a looming mortgage payment.
An obvious plan emerged, to follow three paths simultaneously: 1) Play music as much as possible, 2) look for a legitimate second career wherever and however I could and 3) get whatever work I could to help make ends meet in the short term.
That’s when things really got interesting.
What happened over the next twenty four months is best described as a smorgasbord of moneymaking activities. My mantra was "whatever it takes."
Musically speaking, I began taking any and every gig I could lay my hands on. The range was extreme, from the sublime—a concert tour with the great Danny Gatton, chronicled elsewhere on this site; to the absurd—playing a family's Christmas party with a pianist so bad she could only play "Jingle Bells" in one key, and had to stop the family, who had spontaneously begun in the "wrong" key; to the degrading—playing in a blues band run by an immature man whose difficult behavior made for a real test of my self esteem.
As far as day time work was concerned, at first I looked for literate-seeming jobs that assumed a dignified pretension (e.g. bookstores), but because the nation was in the throes of a recession, those jobs were locked-up and out of sight.
Looking hard and finding nothing, I ended-up scrabbling together a motley pastiche of things all over the map; lots of 'em. I was qualified for some (teaching drum lessons, freelance writer, proofreader), others, I wasn't (desktop publishing specialist). I worked retail (Christmas help at a major men's clothing store, counter help at a leather clothing mall outlet), worked at a blue collar trade (housepainter), did things too mindless to be considered a trade (grounds keeping assistant), and most radical of all, spent time doing something brutally manual (tree surgeon ground crew).
In the meantime, my attempted foray into a new, white collar career consisted of interviewing at temp agencies (where I thought a possibility existed I could land somewhere and get some real experience), to going on whatever interviews I could find. In reality, I was unable to get interviews on my own merits. I responded to classified ads by sending a crudely done, woefully short resume. Not surprisingly, I didn't receive a single call.
I did eventually have a few interviews, courtesy of good Samaritans acquainted with my sister or my fianceé. These people were sincere in their desire to help—and indeed, truly were helpful by providing critical interview experience.
I was really rough around the edges. I would show up wearing the one outfit I had that passed for shirt and tie, and also sporting the only footwear I had that wasn't tennis shoes: a pair of Tony Lama cowboy boots left over from my days in the Western Swing group, Cowboy Jazz.
I felt so out of place; I needed to buy a new uniform, and also look and feel comfortable wearing it. I sunk some of my proceeds from the Christmas gig at the men's store toward the purchase of the first real suit I would own since my Bar Mitzvah twenty one years before. I just hadn't needed a suit; my work uniform was T-shirt and jeans. If I wanted to "dress up," it was a polo shirt or turtleneck.
It was the interviewing at temp agencies that proved to be the groundbreaker. I attended quite a few. Generally, these amounted to typing tests resulting in phone calls to make photocopies for minimum wage. But I kept my eye on the classifieds and one day saw an ad calling for Macintosh-skilled help to temp at a large corporation.
I called and scheduled an interview for three weeks hence, but never made that interview. The agency called back the very next day with a panicked message: "Show up at MCI Telecommunications wearing a tie at nine AM tomorrow, and we hope you can do what your resume says."
After 12 months of hand-to-mouth employment, I had at last made some real progress.
It turned out to be a short stint doing simple desktop publishing and presentation slides. But I clicked with the people and more work soon followed. For this level of work, they weren't concerned about my pedigree, as long as I was literate enough to do the things that needed doing. In its glory days (before being swallowed by the ultimate telecom failure of a company, WorldCom) MCI was like that—a company founded by a maverick, run by mavericks, and not afraid to hire mavericks. The place was a whirling dervish of fast-moving assignments, corporate reorganizations and high employee turnover, it was the perfect place to get a tiny 'in' to a new career.
After a few months of intermittent assignments, I was offered a forty hour/week position. Not as an employee with benefits, but rather as a full-time temp, through the agency. I held this position for nine months before landing an actual full-time job, with benefits. I negotiated a reasonable entry level salary, and suddenly was making more than I'd ever come close to as a musician.
Even though I'd been at the company for nearly a year, making the transition from temp to employee was not a "gimme." The job I got was not my temp job transformed into a full-time job. That prospect seemed logical to me and I had pushed for it, but things don't work that way. Temp positions are temp positions, real jobs—"headcount"—are real jobs. The two don't intersect, no matter how much sense it might make.
But in terms of looking for a full-time position; being a full-time temp poses distinct advantages. You're on the scene, hopefully making a reputation as a hard working "team player" (gag), getting to know the hiring managers, and ultimately going through the interview process like everyone else.
I was a happy guy and I was working my tail off. Making each month's mortgage payment still seemed a miracle, but I was also under a lot of stress and putting in all kinds of hours. For the first time since I was a party-happy college kid, music took a back seat to my other life.
The day gig was such an enormous sea-change, new hours, routine, ways of communicating, work skills, tons of new people... it was taking all my energy. And, a different kind of energy and endurance was required, much different than riding in a van all day, playing a gig and driving home. It was some time before I could work the entire day without feeling thoroughly drained, but I did eventually develop the requisite endurance.
There was no choice but for my musical life to go on auto-pilot. I didn't stop gigging, for financial as well as musical reasons. But it was rough—I'd show up at gigs at the last minute, exhausted, change out of my suit in my car and load in. I wasn't playing poorly, but I wasn't inspired either. My heart still wasn't in it.
My musician friends were shocked that not only had I taken a day gig, but such a radical transformation—wearing suits no less! Occasionally I would run into musician acquaintances who flat-out wouldn't recognize me. Sporting a corporate-short haircut and wearing a suit, I short-circuited all notions of who Brian Alpert was and what he looked like.
I continued in this mode for about four years, from 1993 to 1996. Things were going well at MCI. I worked my way up from the original information specialist/desktop publisher job to manager, managing a staff of six other information specialists. I was acquiring boatloads of new skills, and more than once found myself in the water swimming, as the cliché goes, with the sharks. I continued to play music, but without question, the day gig was my primary focus.
Then an interesting thing happened. I got fired.
No, that's a joke; I didn't really get fired. But like many modern American mega-corporations, MCI is a swirling vortex of constant change and reorganization.
A corporate "reorg" usually comes with a certain amount of Reduction In Force—RIF's—layoffs. It is not unlike a child's game of musical chairs. During the secure times it's important to guard your position, stay close to your allies, and protect yourself from your enemies (or at least, those who aren't necessarily your friends). When the music stops, if you've played your cards right, you will have a seat.
I managed to survive quite a few reorganization/layoffs at MCI, but in the summer of 1996 circumstances was more tenuous. I was managing a now-smaller group for a less than supportive management team. In the Fall, the music stopped, and though I wasn't left standing—i.e. I didn't get laid off—I was relegated to a reduced capacity, staff disbanded. No longer moving forward, I was slipping back. It was a call to action; I took a severance package and said "Sayonara."
It was a most excellent wake-up call, and believe it or not, like my experience with The Assassins, I found myself feeling upbeat. I still look upon the experience at MCI as a crucial, force-fed growth spurt, ten years experience in four. In all it was grueling, but altogether positive experience.
My ability to acquire and keep a day gig was established; I now had a real resume.
The World Wide Web had happened and I wanted to be part of it; I got a new job in about five minutes.
What I did next isn't important for the purposes of this essay. What is important is that the change seemed to rekindle the dormant musical flame. Before I knew it I was on the phone spreading the word that not only was I more available to play, I wanted to play as much as possible, every weekend and then some, if circumstances permitted.
This was a reflection of another important lesson learned. If you're playing part time, you don't tell anyone you're playing "just" part time. If you do, the phone doesn't ring. Other musicians subliminally think (and perhaps they're right) that you're just not that interested. As soon as I put the word out I wanted to play more, more gigs started happening, including a lucrative wedding band that while not musically the most intense thing I'd ever done, had me up and running a LOT.
I began to grow musically, for the first time in years. My enthusiasm for playing was brimming and I was playing more musically, and with more energy and enjoyment than in a long, long time.
It has been that way ever since: working a day gig I find challenging, even thrilling given all that is so exciting about the Web and the new networked economy, combined with a healthy dose of playing as much as possible, which is usually four to six times per month.
The great burnout of 1991 is a long ago memory, and as with the sleazy freelance contractor, good riddance. Music is alive and well, speaking its honest truths and generously doling out its sublime energy, now sans the trauma of endless travel and exhaustion.
And—in addition to making a decent living, getting to choose with whom I play, playing as often or as little as I like—I'm happy to report, given today's trend in casual workplace attire, I needn't feel freaked out if I want to wear my Tony Lama's to work.
Authored by Brian Alpert on behalf of Rhumba.com
Presented by: Michael Alan Home Page