One of the luckiest breaks I ever got in my music career was when César de Anda hired me to be the lead singer of his classic rock cover band The Black Sheep in Puerto Vallarta. I say it was lucky not because I made so much money (I didn’t) or because it moved my music career forward (it didn’t), but because of all the lessons I learned from César about how to be professional working-class musician. Here are the top three:
1. Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable. Mexicans and musicians are both groups that are not really known for being on time, but César was one of the most punctual people I’ve ever met. And the way he did it was to require everyone in the band to arrive at least an hour before the show started. In the four years I worked with him, we only started the show late once (by about three minutes), and that was because I was running late. I’ve since adopted this habit for my own gigs – I plan out my day to arrive an hour and a half before the show starts, so that way if I’m a half-hour late, I’m still an hour early. Hell, I could be an hour late and I would still arrive half-an-hour early. Always shoot for early. If you miss, you’ll still be on time. The stress of being late, or even thinking you might be late, is not worth the time you saved by leaving the house later.
2. If you want to get paid like a professional, you have to look and act like a professional. One time I showed up at César’s house to carpool to a gig and I was wearing shorts, planning to change after we arrived and got set up. César said “No, change now”. He knew something it took me a while to figure out: you’re on stage from the moment you arrive. People are watching. Whenever we would set up for a gig, all the bags and guitar cases had to be hidden behind the stage. He wouldn’t even let me have a water bottle next to the mic stand if it looked cheap and tacky.
3. It’s not (just) about the music. Officially, The Black Sheep was a classic rock band, but we only played classic rock about 60% of the time. We also played funk, reggae, jazz, country, disco, and even a couple of songs from Grease. If there were a bunch of kids in the audience, we’d bring ‘em all up front and lead them in a song called Pajaritos a Bailar (sort of a Mexican version of the chicken dance). César knew that no one was hiring us to play “classic rock”. They were hiring us to put on a show and keep people entertained. To be a successful musician, you have to let go of your own ego and do what it takes to make people happy.
César has been very successful and makes a full-time living as a drummer and band manager. He’s expanded the Black Sheep into a sort of franchise; on any given night, there could be as many as three bands in Vallarta performing as The Black Sheep, and all of these musicians know to follow César’s rules, even if he’s not there. There may be some musicians out there who wouldn’t think of that as “making it”, since he’s only playing covers and not touring, but he’s making a full-time living and supporting his wife and kids doing what he loves. That’s pretty successful in my book. Meanwhile, all of the too-cool-for-school, I-don’t-do-covers-man “artists” I meet in Seattle still have day jobs.