Sociology of Musicians
A person is not merely a single subject distinguished from all the others. It is especially a being to which is attributed a relative autonomy in relation to the environment with which it is most immediately in contact. – Émile Durkheim
It is imperative that a new musician looking to work his or her way up the ladder in the commercial pop music industry understands his or her role as it pertains to the group which he is campaigning to be a member of.
Identifying the behaviors of a social group is a skill set that is pivotal in your development. I will explore social, body language, and mentality theories to help sharpen the skills you need to be a successful networking musician.
Émile Durkheim’s theory revolutionized as well as set the standard for basic sociological techniques. In his writing I find a great deal of similarities to group dynamics in the music industry. The Theories that Émile Durkheim presents in his works The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, while not originally applied to musicians, has validity in any industry or society which has its own characteristic behaviors and traits.
Émile Durkheim’s The Division of Labor determines how task are going to be performed:
* Mechanical Solidarity — The members of a collective believe in the same things and each individual performs the same task.
* The Organic Solidarity — This is a more complex society where members depend on one another to accomplish tasks, with different members being proficient at different task.
In Mechanical Solidarity there’s far less emphasis on individuals and more emphasis on the collective, whereas the Organic Society has more emphasis on the individual abilities of each member of the collective.
What I find riveting is that pop musicians belong in both categories. The Music industry, from the musician’s position, can be a Mechanical Solidarity in which most musicians are united by an understanding of musical theory which we use to communicate during the processes of musical creation. The parallel is that we also function in an Organic Solidarity as we must utilize the expertise of others to create that music.
What it takes to be a great sideman
A key example in the pop industry of the flux between Mechanical and Organic Solidarity is the sideman profession. Sideman refers to a musician that accompanies a major artist like Robin Thicke, Jennifer Hudson, or Justin Timberlake, for example. These “side” musicians are offering an expertise that the main artist cannot provide. Therefore the artist must rely on the skills of others to make his performance a successful one. This is an Organic Solidarity. The Mechanical Solidarity is the unity of the performance. In other words, all of us get on that stage and let it ride!
The networking musician
Find out what you’re good at and exploit the hell out of it. – Jimmy Owens
Organic Solidarity, in Émile’s context, is a complex society. This is also true as it pertains to the networking musician. The complexity is in your product. Let’s take for example the concept of agency to vendor. I recently did an audition for a local special events agency. During the audition process, which was more of a Q&A session, I was asked to look over the contract, which I’d have to sign before being considered for work. This contract kept referring to me as a vendor. It dawned on me at that moment that being a musician is no different then being a vendor. Therefore we must take great care in creating a product that will get us the type of jobs we want.
If you want to be a blues guitarist, focus solely on the blues till you’ve perfected it. If you are a twenty something trumpet player with little to no gigs but would like to find yourself doing “soulful” pop gigs, then practice the musical language necessary to relate to the genre. This will make your product very clear and distinct. It doesn’t mean you can’t partake in other styles of music, but it will let your employers know who you are and why they should hire you.
Most young musicians looking to enter the ranks of sidemen in the pop industry make the mistake of believing that all they have to do is become a virtuoso on their instruments for validity and success. This is far from true. In my experience each successful well-networked musician has what I term the “60-40 theory.”
The 60-40 theory
The “60-40 theory” refers to the percentage of which you need to be a great player and performer versus the percentage of which you have to be a great “hang.”
The “hang” refers to how well the society in which you dwell or would like to dwell gets along with you off stage. In my experience I find that the more important factor is the hang. A common thing for a musician looking to make connections is to go to a jam session. At some of the better events you will find the who’s-who of successful musicians hanging around. For them, their purpose is to continue to make their presence known as well as play a couple tunes for fun. These established figures also want to come out and see who the new great players are and maybe even correspond with them.
The Networking Musician’s purpose is to be a strategic networking ninja. Be prepared to play a song or two and try to put your best foot forward. The most important thing is that you have fun! Don’t try to play six tunes, as there are more musicians wanting to get up and show what they got. Your stage performance will pique interest from the other musicians in the room but will not be the deciding factor in your employment. The musicians in the audience will stop their conversations for a minute to hear you as you’re playing your tune on stage then they will zone out and talk again. It is pointless to linger on stage for to long. Put your instrument up after you perform, go get a drink at the bar, and see if you know anyone in the room that can possibly get you to meet other musicians or hang at the bar, and wait for your window of opportunity to meet other players. This is where the “hang” happens. So in other words, it’s 60% hang and 40% playing.
The 60-40 theory is also a big part of your product. Your personality off stage is crucial to your network-ability. Let’s take for example the fact that ASCAP has over 435,000 members and BMI has about 500,000 registered members. These numbers don’t include the thousands, maybe even millions of other musicians, amateur and professionals alike. Therefore, the question remains: what makes you different from the other thousands of musicians in the world? From a Social standpoint most musicians and music directors, also known as “The MD” in the commercial pop world, would rather deal with an individual that exhibits like social behaviors than a virtuoso with a bad attitude or some form of social handicap.
I graduated from The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music at the end of fall 2008. I had no clue if I was going to stay in New York or move back to LA. I decided that I would let fate decide. Two weeks after I returned home for Christmas, I got a call from a friend of mine, a friend that I had been contacting to practice with and he asked me if I could do this gig with Robin Thicke. Their trombonist could not do the required number of gigs, and my friend was called to sub but could not commit to the gig long-term either. He asked me if I wanted to do it and I said “Hell yes!” I ended up doing four gigs with Robin Thicke before the original trombonist was due to return. While on the road with the band members, I made it a point to communicate with all the guys in the band separately. I remember having breakfast with the bass player and hitting it off with him. It turns out that the band members were not pleased with the other trombonist socially, speaking of numerous confrontations within the band as well as people outside of the band. It wasn’t that the original trombonist lacked talent. The fact was, he lacked the crucial 60%.
In summary, keep in mind that you are a member of a society with a structure and hierarchy. The point in educating yourself to this fact is not to try to be something you’re not, but to make you aware of your surroundings. Put the 60-40 theory to work when you’re in networking environments. Whether you are working as an individual musician or a band, remember that you are a vendor. Whoever you are trying to network with and/or become an employee of is looking to you for a specific service or product. You must fine tune your product! For the local garage band this might mean an agreement between all members of the band to take weekly private lessons to ensure everyone gains proficiency on his or her instrument. For the individual musician the same applies. This is the 40% of your entire package but it had better be a good 40%. Be creative with your approach to networking. A good compliment on another musician’s playing is always a great ice breaker.
1. 1Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (London: George Allen & Unwin LTD, 1964), 240.
2.  Émile Durkheim The Division of Labor (Free Press, 1984),
3.  Jimmy Own’s is a great jazz trumpet player based out of New York. This was a phrase I remember him telling me and other students of his at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.
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[Image of backstage pass from Shutterstock.]