Exposure, or Experience?

Psst… let me tell you a secret. One of the most loathed comments you can make to any musician (and every time I say musician, I include artistes too ya!) is this:

“Can you do this gig… the EXPOSURE will be good for you!”

Now unless you are offering us a spot on the Grammys or equivalent, I don’t think most musicians will be too flattered by the offer, neither will they get the exposure YOU thought they might. Chances are, the musician(s) will only gain a reputation that they are a cheap (or free) act, and from my experience, that’s a really tough stigma to get rid of.

That said, here’s what I think can be the right kind of ‘exposure’, and how I gained from the experience.

In the early days, my very first job was to work in a recording studio as a ‘junior musician/producer’. However, prior to that, I had an invitation by the studio owner to come ‘hang around’ at this studio. I was lucky, you say? Well maybe I was, but here are some ‘trade secrets’ that I’d like to share with you all… trade secrets that landed me my very first job as a musician.

Remember how I said I was invited to ‘hang around’ at the studio? To clarify, ‘hang around’ meant ‘no pay’, but I really didn’t care about that at the time. I spent the first few visits getting to know the people working there, and then started to make coffee/tea, and then little by little, started asking questions, learning about the processes, the equipment, while all the time observing how everything was being done. Much like an internship, but I was totally aware of my ‘place’ there. I was a mere visitor and was careful to not get in the way. Plus, at the end of each visit, I would ask if it was okay for me to visit again. I was still in college doing my A-levels then, so I had to juggle my time between studies and these visits to the studio, but I tried my best to treat it like a job… so organizing my time and letting them know when I would be coming again was important to me. Again, all this was done with no remuneration, but I committed to it as though I was getting paid.

Maybe times have changed, but I seriously doubt many young musicians will want to do that today. I’ve had my share of young musicians asking me to tag along with me, but NONE of them have had the persistence to just ‘soak up and learn’. Once, twice… and you never see them again. I’ve also had my share of interns who wanted to ‘do stuff’ when they were ill-prepared to. The thing is, learning by observation takes time and one really has to be patient, because often, work in the music world (especially mine) happens at breakneck speed and people really don’t have the time to stop and explain everything to a ‘newbie’. On top of that, mistakes can cause you to lose jobs, permanently! Thankfully, I have also had good interns who remain invaluable to my work flow till today!

This article isn’t about good or bad interns, though! It is really about the attitude of ‘wanting to learn’ and putting aside the money aspect for a little while. My experience has taught me that putting myself in the midst of people who know more than me (or people who do things different from me) has taught me more than what I have gained from formal lessons or books. Of course lessons and books have their place, they teach you the basic principles of what you want to learn but exposure with other musicians can teach you so much more! I’ll venture to say, till today, I still learn something every time I come in contact with other musicians, other artistes, and that’s what I would call ‘exposure’. This exposure has served me well, a lot more than that free ‘exposure’ gig that people keep offering musicians.

My rule of thumb? I’d forego the monetary incentives IF I was put in a position where I would be learning new stuff. Free exposure gigs tend to expose me to other ‘clients’ who expect me to do even more free gigs for exposure. It’s a vicious circle, isn’t it? Instead, I’d look out for the other ‘E’ word, the opportunity to gain some ‘Experience’.

Keeping Music Real!

Graphic borrowed from oatmeal.com. Check out their awesome cartoon about exposure!