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Tips Of The Trade: The Brand Called "You"

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I just finished reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Mother Night. In it, Howard Campbell Jr., a spy working for the U.S. during World War II, infiltrates the Nazi regime as a disseminator of fascist radio propaganda working for the Third Reich. Later, he’s convicted of crimes against humanity as a Nazi, and the U.S. will no longer claim him. He spent the majority of his life doing a very good job of pretending to be a Nazi. Vonnegut is warning us to be careful about what we pretend to be, because it ultimately may be what we become. Our actions – sincere or not – ultimately define us.

When you are promoting yourself, and building your brand, make sure you are confident and happy within the musical genres you are touting as your strengths. Not only will your feet be to the fire when you get the first call, but it may be a case of having to be careful what you wish for, because you just may get it – and nothing but “it.”

My goal as a musician has always been to be able to “speak without an accent” in as many styles of music as possible. No matter who called me for a gig, I could say yes, and feel confident when I showed up. Being a jack-of-all-trades got my phone ringing, but as time went on I found that no matter what I did people wanted to pigeonhole me as a certain type of player. There was a point a few years after moving to Los Angeles that I became the house drummer at The Hotel Café, a singer/songwriter hotspot in the heart of Hollywood, working there a few nights a week with various artists. I enjoyed those gigs, but I knew it was not really where my heart was. I felt stuck, and I think it started to show in my performances.

So I asked myself, “If I had to pick one musical style to play for the rest of my life, what would it be?” From that point on, I took control, and focused on selling my skills as the guy to call when you couldn’t clear an old funk or soul sample, or you needed something danceable.

Would I like an occasional singer/songwriter gig? Absolutely! But when we are in our element, and following our muse, it’s evident to everyone. This is how I ultimately landed the gig with Fitz & The Tantrums, and it’s really taken off.

In addition to being an authority on hip-hop history, The Roots drummer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson is widely known as the as “the human break beat.” Would he be the first call for a folky, female singer/songwriter? Probably not. Not that he is undeserving, or wouldn’t walk into any session and give the music exactly what it needs. But it’s obvious where his heart lies and with only so many hours in the day, I think he likes to fill the majority of them with his first love.

In short, be sure that the image of yourself you are selling is the one you want to live out and ultimately become.

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  • I can relate. When I moved back to the San Francisco Bay Area after playing rock my entire life, it just so happened that my first gig was with a blues band. Suddenly, I was pigeonholed as a blues drummer, and have enjoyed an active gigging schedule in the local blues scene ever since. But still, in my heart, I think of myself as a rock drummer.