Working? Playing? What’s the Difference?

Bad Reputation

Bad Reputation, a Joan Jett tribute band and one of my favorite shows to see…

As a graphic designer, especially in the early days after graduating art school, I spent a lot of time at my desk staring at my computer monitor. To the untrained eye, it would appear as if I was just gazing into space, goldbricking on the owner’s dime; those with any experience with computer programs and large files, however, could tell that what I was actually doing was keeping track of the progress bar, waiting for my software to complete its job. On more than one occasion, at more than one job site, I’d have to point to my monitor at the bar/pinwheel and address the shop owner over my shoulder, “See that? That’s my computer chugging away. So if that progress indicator is working, then so am I.” Such honesty wasn’t always appreciated, but I also never mastered the ability to look busy while I waited for my files to load, transfer, batch, save or archive – when I was stuck at my desk at the mercy of my software, I was stick at my desk at the mercy of my software. I did learn a truth early in my career: a lot of people I was going to be doing work for would not understand the ins and outs of my particular profession – a lot of the practices they associated with a desk job wouldn’t apply to my career field, and a lot of the practices that did apply to my career field wouldn’t look like I was working.

The same thing holds true for Operation: Rock Star. A lot of what I do looks like I playing or just plain wasting time. That is just not the case.

Singing is the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on, and I love it more than I love anything else, but don’t be fooled – singing is work, especially if you’re doing it right and you’re doing all you can to give the audience the show they deserve: you’re utilizing your diaphragm; you’re breathing in all sorts of weird ways to maintain support of the song phrasing; you’re dancing around on stage; you’re coming up with stage banter or adjusting to equipment snafus on the spot; heck, just the being upright for the three to four hours of a show is tiring. If all I did was show up five minutes before the show and leave five minutes after the show, I’d still be exhausted at the end of the night.

But I don’t show up five minutes before the show or leave five minutes after the show – I’m at the venue the same time as the rest of the band for load in, two to four hours before showtime, even if the band leader has enough roadie help that I don’t have to pick up a single piece of equipment; I don’t leave the venue until all the equipment is loaded up, an hour to ninety minutes after my last song, even if our contract stipulated we’d be paid by check. I’m there with the rest of the band for a few reasons; if someone needs to drive to a store to pick up a replacement part or supplies of some kind, I’m available to run errands while the roadies finish setting up the gig; I can schmooze the bartenders, waitresses, venue owner, and/or patrons before the band’s first downbeat while everyone else is tied up making sure the lights and sound work; and most importantly, I’m a member of the band, not a prima donna lead singer – if the band is expected to show up at 7pm for a 9pm showtime, then I’m there at 7pm for a 9pm showtime. Showing up and leaving with the rest of the members of the band means that a four-hour gig 9pm-to-1am gig translates into a seven-hour work shift, not including drive time. That’s a day at the office.

Rock Theory

Rock Theory, my brother’s crew and the best classic rock cover band in Dallas…

That’s just my band’s gigs – attending other bands’ gigs is work, as well. Yes, I’m there to listen to great music while enjoying a beer or two, but that’s the least of what I’m actually doing: I’m looking at their lights and checking out their sound system, comparing it to my band’s set-up looking for a faster, cheaper, better way to put on our show. I’m paying attention to the music in their sets, watching to see what songs the audiences are responding to best and if it’s a good song to add to my band’s wheelhouse. I’m checking out the venue, judging how many patrons are bar regulars versus hard-core band fans, how the bandstand is situated within the venue, how the owners and/or managers treat the musicians, and whether or not my band would be a good fit for the location. I’m listening to the vocals, analyzing the harmonies and the delivery of the melody. I’m studying the front person, listening to how they vamp between songs, watching how they move on stage and interact with the other band members during the songs. I’m networking with the band leaders between sets, because you never know where a gig referral or fill-in vocalist opportunity might come from. Even the open mic nights my partner, David, has been hosting are work shifts. Every opportunity to be onstage is a chance to practice my stage craft, hone my vocal chops, network with other vocalists and musicians, and hopefully make new fans – receiving a comped brew because I nailed the bartender’s favorite song is just a bonus.

I spend hours at my computer finding and printing out lyric sheets, watching and singing along with YouTube videos of songs I’m learning. I spend hours creating band events and uploading gig photos to the band’s Facebook page. I spend hours designing and producing gig flyers and promotional posters. I spend hours researching other band websites. I spend hours listening to other bands and artists perform their renditions of cover songs. I spend hours on t-shirt designs for our fans the band still can’t afford to manufacture. Even writing this blog is me working – not only am I using social media to network with fans, amateurs and aspiring professionals, but I’m forcing myself to analyze every aspect of this journey to document what I can and should be doing better to become a full-time vocalist. The only difference between Operation: Rock Star and my daytime job as a graphic/web designer is I enjoy Operation: Rock Star much, much more.

Gotta get back to work – found an acoustic version of The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down I want to show the rest of the band. In the meantime, check out some of my favorite area bands: Bad Reputation  Rock Theory  Vagrant  

And here’s that acoustic cover I’m in love with: from the AV Club Undercover series:


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