June/July 2015

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Is It Really Worth It?

by Thomas Goss

Building Blocks: Is It Really Worth It?

Cost / benefit analyses –– you’’re not alone if those words make your eyes glaze over. What do cost/benefit whatchmadingies have to do with music anyway?

The fact is that people always weigh the cost of something depending on how much benefit it provides. Is it really worth it? Should you go to the movies tonight if there isn’’t really a film on that you like? What kind of lunch are you in the mood for –– and what kind of lunch should you actually eat? Right now, is it worth it to read this article to the very end, or should you turn the page? (The answer to that last question is ‘read this article’ – because those who don’’t think about these things have less of a chance of fulfilling their career plans in music.)

At the end of last issue’’s Building Blocks article (Learning to Say ‘No’), I wrote “… you should be asking yourself, every time you’’re offered an opportunity, ‘Is this worth it?” Does the advantage repay your expenditure of time, effort, and artistic reputation?’’” The best way to figure this out is to be aware of the costs, but structure your efforts so that the benefits are very clearly defined.

You should never book a gig just to play, as if it were an automatic duty to perform. Always know the reasons why you’’re there, and make sure that it’’s clear to those you play with and work for as well. If you focus on those reasons, or benefits, then you can keep things moving forward even when they don’’t turn out the way you expect. So let’’s look at each benefit and weigh the costs against it, rather than the other way around.


I’’m putting this first, because it’s something that’s easy to lose sight of when your career starts to get serious. When a legendary musician leaves a successful band fans usually can’t accept the reasons, especially if it was a question of lack of fulfillment. But look at it from the other direction. Just about any other career pays more dependably than music. If personal satisfaction isn’’t part of the equation, then there’’s nothing left but ego, and you can’t make a career out of that – unless your manager does all the work.

How do you measure cost against enjoyment? In terms of hassle factor. The sheer number of decisions and problems to be solved in playing a single gig are enormous at first, and it’s easy to get buried by them. Players who make it through the initial break-in period of local, and then regional gigging, are those who keep their attitude positive and learn to laugh at complete stuff-ups. Anticipating all the challenges and outsmarting the problems can give you a real sense of pride and satisfaction.


If you’’re a new band, exposure means everything. It’’s practically the only thing that matters at first, because if your name doesn’’t grow then neither will your band’’s following. Even established bands may constantly worry about this. The stakes always get higher when the audience gets larger.

The real danger that you face at the start of your career is that the promise of exposure can be used to justify nearly any type gig, good or bad. The way around this is to decide what kind of exposure is good for your band. You may completely kill at rock competitions, or maybe you can pick up a bunch of fans playing at a skate park. Of course you’’ll make mistakes, but that’’s a cost that turns into a benefit if you learn from the experience.


The performing arts are different from all other industries because the product you’’re selling is YOU –– your ingenuity, inspiration, and sense of showmanship. That means you have to create the part of you that goes on stage. You write the songs, rehearse and present them, and each task involves a chain of creativity that must be solid in order to keep from breaking. Therefore, the costs involved are those things that work against you; doubts, anxieties and sensitivity to criticism.

When you put a precious part of your own thoughts and hopes on display, then of course you’’re going to take things personally if people don’’t react positively. The way forward is actually simple, you learn to deal with it and you try to improve little by little. That’’s ‘paying your dues’, and it’’s what makes you into a competent, experienced musician. But when egos are fragile then the reactions can be extreme – acting out against the audience and venue management, fighting with band members, even quitting.

Then there’’s perfectionism, in which the pursuit of professional polish is taken to ridiculous extremes. You may know bands that practice for months before going on stage, and then perform shows that are musically tight, but very tense and pay little attention to the audience. One legendary example is the band Boston who took nine long years to record their third album. It was finally released to a public that no longer cared for them, or their style.


This is a benefit that’’s closely tied to exposure, but it’’s not the same thing. Exposure is simply the process by which your identity becomes known. Reputation is how people react to that exposure. You want it to be sterling. Everything you do to increase the respect you receive builds on your ability to ask more from the world. A band with a great reputation gets the first call, because no one doubts their ability to deliver.

The way to weigh costs here is to make sure that they’’re always spent in support of that reputation, and never against it. You get a great reputation by making decisions on behalf of your audience, by helping build a local scene and by creating music that means something to the people who listen. But this type of dedication has its own costs. In building your reputation, you may lose time with family and friends, and fail to give other commitments your best effort.


This is the classic double-edged sword. It takes money to make money, and that’’s true from the moment you save up for your first serious gear. If you’’re a new act then obviously you’’ll need other sources of income just to stay in the game –– like a day job, family, and maybe even a credit facility –– because you’’re not going to make much at first.

Once you do get established the question of pay has a wonderfully clarifying effect on your decisions. If you’’re a working band with families to support, or money you need to raise for recording, then you have to book gigs that are worth the effort of rehearsing and performing. You’’ll notice an evolution in your mindset in which you see non-paying gigs as a type of work that doesn’’t fit the image of your band or your current goals as performers –– even when the monetary factor is removed.

At a paying gig, you can probably expect a certain level of professionalism from the house, as well as the kind of clientele that make for a successful night in which all the benefits above are checked on the list; income, enjoyment, exposure, creativity and reputation.

This last depends on one important skill though –– the ability to collect what people owe you. I’’ll cover that in the next Building Blocks article: Making Sure You Get Paid.

Thomas Goss is a producer, band coach, and composer/orchestrator with an international clientele that includes Billy Ocean, Melanie C, and Canadian jazz star Nikki Yanofsky. He is Education Composer-In-Residence for Orchestra Wellington, and his online orchestration course is available from macProVideo.