Starting Your Music Career Without Being Top Fiddle

As a soloist, getting started as a substitute can be an effective launchpad for a career as a regularly performing musician. You already have enough practice under your belt so that you can hold your place onstage and you've mastered a repertoire of music that you can perform at a professional level. Now it is time to start getting some gigs.

Good old-fashioned networking is the process that will start getting word about available substitute gigs flowing to you. The adage, "it's not what you know but who you know that counts," is as applicable in music as it is in other professional fields. And while your ability clearly must be up to a professional level, your chances of getting gigs, even as a substitute are greatly enhanced by having a large network of people who know what you do and are willing to call on you.

If you are currently taking lessons from a professional musician, your instructor may know where the kinds of bands you want to perform with are playing, and when they need a sub.

If there are schools in your area, band directors and music instructors can also be potential sources of great leads. Be sure to tell all your friends and family members as well that you are serious about your musical career. Someone you speak with today may be in a position to eventually get you that first lead that results in a gig.

Your fellow musicians can also provide a wealth of information about the music scene in your area and who may need substitute musicians from time to time. Be sure to return the favor whenever you can to keep the gig information flowing.

In addition, every community has dedicated music fans that you'll frequently see at concerts. They can help you to get more involved in your local music happenings, and can even start connecting you with amateur and professional music promoters.

Venue managers at clubs, pubs, ballrooms, and theaters—places where bands perform—need to know that you are available—even on short notice—to fill in for performers who don't show. A local bar manager or DJ can only invite you to sube if they know that you are available. Go where gigs happen and introduce yourself to the people in charge. They are in a position to help you, and you will be helping them solve their booking problems.

Make it easy for others to find you. You're no doubt aware of MySpace and Facebook as places to promote yourself. Make sure that you use your pages to favorably showcase your skills. Include compelling pictures, up-to-date contact information, and sound clips that demonstrate your talents. Don't hide the fact that you are available to substitute on short notice—highlight it!

Rather than promoting your musicianship on Craigslist and running the risk of getting unhelpful or inappropriate responses, consider joining online music forums run by musicians in your genre. Learn about the people who post there. Contribute to discussions, develop relationships, and then promote yourself appropriately, especially to other posters who actually hire musicians.

Over time, if your experience is like others', you will probably get more value from offline promotion than from using the Internet. Still, having a web page to which you can refer potential bookers should be part of your overall promotional strategy.

Another offline promotion technique that is as valuable now as it ever was is passing out business cards. Give your business card out everywhere you go—you never know who will eventually receive it. Make your card easy to read and offer all the information needed to let others know what you do musically and how to contact you. Make all your promotional materials inviting, creative, and capable of standing out from the crowd—in a good way. Remember, you want to create a good first impression.

Consider creating a promotional package that includes photos of you performing, a resume of your musical experience, and the styles of music that you perform. If you already have had some public performances or music education, be sure to mention those. Think of your web page as a digital promotional package. In addition to photos, it's a great place to put up videos and sound clips that demonstrate your skills, range, and tastes in music.

Keep your promotional materials—online and off—up-to-date. Include demo recording if you can. As your career takes off, each time you get a gig, add information about it to your promotional resume.

Another strategy for getting gigs that is often overlooked is creating your own venue and your own gig. House parties where you let your guests know that you are available to perform where needed are a fun way to promote yourself. If you're a performer of more formal music, consider hiring an affordable recital hall and put on a concert showcasing you.

When you finally connect with a manager or promoter who expresses interest in you, be sure to behave professionally. Get as many details of your gig in writing as you can to prevent misunderstanding. Check out the venue ahead of time to avoid surprises. Find out what equipment you will be required to supply, such as a PA system. Bring any spare parts you can think of in case something breaks.

If you are lucky enough to attend rehearsals before you sub, consider recording them so that you can go over your parts as much as you need to before the actual gig. Find out if there will be any key changes before the night of the performance. You don't want to be changing keys on the fly at your first gig unless you're a master at it. If there is no time to rehearse, is it possible that one of the band members can give you an acoustic preview of how the gig will go? You'll have more confidence on stage if you do.

Have someone record a video of your performance so that you can add it to your performance page or handout package after the gig. Suitable video cameras with good sound aren't that expensive anymore.

Network the fact that you got that first performance. Post the dates and locations on your website and on event calendars in local print media. Thank everyone who helped you get that first gig and let them know how much you appreciate what they did for you. And be someone who helps others get gigs, too!