“The Ultimate Guide To Being A Pro Musician”
The idea of moving to a music city like Nashville, New York, Miami, or Los Angeles can be daunting for anyone aspiring to work in the music biz. Reality is… after every ‘mountain’ you will have to overcome, there will be another ‘mountain’ waiting behind it. How does one move to a new city, find a place to live, find a job to pay the bills, know how and with whom to network, land an audition, get the gig, and keep the gig? Whew! It’s exhausting just thinking about it all. ThatsMyGig.com caught up with one of L.A.’s top bassists, Derek Frank, who just got home from a year of touring with the word’s best-selling artist of ALL TIME- Shania Twain. Derek was awesome enough to share his story, advice on where to live in Los Angeles, how to negotiate your rate, audition advice, and more!
By: Bri Blaire
TMG: What was your main influence in deciding to become a bass player?
DEREK: Honestly, and this is going to sound silly, but the very first influence that I can recall was MTV. Remember when it actually WAS music television, and they used to show music videos, concerts, and interviews with bands? Ok, maybe I’m showing my age here… but I remember when I first saw it, I was hooked. I used to watch MTV for hours a day, saying to myself, “One day, I want to do THAT!” After taking a few months of guitar lessons, I picked up a bass in my local music store, not really knowing the difference between guitar and bass. Once I had that bass in my hands, it was all over… it just FELT right, like I had an immediate connection to the instrument. I then started saving up some money, bought a used Kramer Duke bass for $180, and the rest is history! Of course, the influences became more and more varied as time went on, but that’s how it started.
TMG: How did your studies at the Arts Academy in Michigan help you in your career?
DEREK: Interlochen is a special place. You’re in the middle of the woods, surrounded by nothing but creative people who are there to do nothing but hone their craft and manifest their passion into a career. It’s inspiring to be in a place like that! All day long, you hear music, whether it’s people holed up in practice rooms, ensembles rehearsing, etc. Spending time with other like-minded musicians just pushed me to further explore music and my instrument. I would spend at least four hours practicing every weekday, and sometimes up to 8 hours on weekends, as did everyone else that I hung out with. So, I definitely feel that I improved my skills at a rapid rate during the year that I spent there, and it gave me a bit of a head start as I got ready to study music in college.
TMG: We understand you spent some time playing cruise ship gigs. Tell us about that audition process, and would you recommend cruise gigs to others?
DEREK: I always recommend cruise ship gigs to young musicians. It’s a great way to widen your skill set as a player, get to know lots of other musicians (I’m still very much in touch with a lot of the guys I played with on ships) save a bit of money, and see some exotic places. We played constantly, varying sets of music… 6 nights a week, and often would make time for jam sessions late at night after the shows. Or during the days. Playing in the “house band” for the shows, you get new performers on every week with new charts, so it really helps build the reading chops and gets you adept at playing lots of different styles. You also start getting a feel for how to deal with artists’ different personalities, which really helps once you get into the sideman touring scene. As for the audition, I’m not sure how it normally works, but here’s how it happened for me: While I was at boarding school in Michigan, my parents moved to south Florida. They knew someone that worked for Royal Caribbean Cruise Line, and when I came home for spring break, they set up an audition for me on one of the ships that was in port in Miami. I don’t think they normally do in-person auditions, but since I was so young, I think they figured that was the best way to tell if I could actually play or not. I was 17, but had to lie and say I was 18 in order to get hired. This was over 20 years ago, so I guess back then they weren’t quite as strict about checking ID or birth certificates! So, I went down to Miami, got on the ship, and played with a few members of the house band. You could tell that they were PISSED that they had to stay on the ship that day and play with some young punk! Normally, musicians would get off the ship and hang around Miami, it was basically a day off. Anyway, they had me read some charts and jam on some jazz standards, and it all went fine. I got the gig, and right after high school graduation, I spent the summer on a ship. It was fun being 17 and working with these guys that I referred to as “older cats”. Most were actually in their 20’s, but to me they were old. I’m sure that nowadays players are mainly auditioned via YouTube videos, websites, etc. I ended up playing on ships every summer break throughout college, and did a bit more of it during a year off from school, and a little bit after I graduated.
TMG: Speaking of your time at the University of Miami. What was the music scene like there and how does it compare to L.A?
DEREK: Well, there was definitely a vibrant scene down there at the time, but I don’t feel like I got as immersed in it as I could have. I was gigging while I was in school, but mainly with my own bands. There is a huge latin pop music scene in Miami, with a core group of musicians playing on most of the records that get made down there. I never really considered staying in Miami after school, as I wasn’t a fan of the city, so I left just a few days after graduation. Miami is just one of those cities that never really felt like home to me, but a lot of my friends and colleagues like it and have found success in the music scene there.
TMG: Tell us about your time in Boston. As a musician, how did you like it there and why did you decide to leave?
DEREK: Well, the main reason I went to Boston was because of a girl. I didn’t have a solid plan for how to launch my career after college, so I moved up there with my girlfriend and figured I’d give it a shot. I LOVE the city of Boston. It’s definitely a place that I felt I could call home, and I love visiting it now. Unfortunately, I couldn’t seem to make much happen in the way of gigs up there: Or at least gigs that paid. My perception of the Boston scene at the time was that you were either in a band that was working, or you weren’t. There didn’t seem to be much of a freelance gig or session scene up there, and also I think the general pay scale seemed to be low because of all the hungry students that were willing to play for pennies. It was definitely a low point for me. I can probably count on one hand the number of gigs I played while I was there, and I had to make ends meet by working crappy day jobs. I worked at Guitar Center for about 6 weeks, then quit and waited tables at Chili’s for about a month. I couldn’t take much more of that noise, so I then went back out on another cruise ship to play, make some money, and figure out what my next move would be.
TMG: Talk about your first year in Los Angeles. How did you spend your time getting connected, finding gigs, while paying your bills?
DEREK: L.A. happened in an interesting way for me. At the time, I had no intention of moving to L.A.; for some strange reason I hadn’t considered it as a place where I wanted to build my career. My parents moved here while I was in school in Miami, and I had only been here a couple of times while on breaks. After Boston, I came here to live with my parents, get a job and save some money, and then my plan was to move to San Francisco. I was really into the jazz and creative music scene, and I had some friends up there that were making a living playing that kind of music. Within the first two weeks of my being here, my college friend Anthony King (guitarist) starting calling me for jazz gigs. He had been here for a year already, and was pretty plugged in to the scene. As I did gigs with him, of course I got to know some other musicians, and things just kind of snowballed. Within the first month of being here, I seemed to be gigging around town with some regularity, and was seeing how alive and well the music scene was here. So I scrapped my plans to go to San Fran, and decided to make L.A. my home. As for getting connected and finding gigs, I went out practically every night to clubs like the Baked Potato, The Mint, and Cafe Cordiale to hang out. I introduced myself to as many players as I could, and tried to sit in with bands whenever I could, just to get to know as many people as possible. This was before social media, so I was also cold-calling musicians on the phone to introduce myself. Every now and then, someone I met would say, “Here’s this guy’s number, he’s someone you should know.” So I’d simply call him and say hello! We also had a thing back then called “Musicians Contact Service”, which was a phone-based system where bands looking for players would post voicemail job listings. I got my first cover band gig through that, which got me working steadily and making some money. Man, it was grim, though! We played 5 nights a week at the Commerce Casino, which is this shit hole of a casino right off the 5 freeway near downtown. And this is before the smoking ban, so I’d be spending 4-hours a night playing for a bunch of drunks in this smoke filled casino lounge. Man it was rough. But that got things rolling for me, and also made me realize what kinds of gigs I DIDN’T want to be doing. That’s what we call ‘paying dues’!
TMG: Those that have taken the plunge and moved to L.A. know that finding a place to live is a ‘mountain’ in and of itself. Tell us about your living experiences, what areas have you lived, and what areas do you recommend to gig seeking musicians?
DEREK: L.A. is such a huge city, with so many different neighborhoods. When I first moved here, I was fortunate to have been able to live with my parents in Century City for the first year. When my drummer friend Shay Godwin moved out here, we rented a house in Burbank. Eventually It came time for me to buy a house, and I decided to stay in Burbank. It’s safe, affordable, and convenient. Most musicians tend to live in the Valley (Burbank, North Hollywood, Studio City, Sherman Oaks, etc.). I think because it’s more affordable than the west side/beach areas, and closer to all the places we need to be. Most rehearsal and recording studios are in the Burbank/North Hollywood area. A lot of people think they need to live in Hollywood when they first move here, but it’s definitely not the first place I’d recommend. Sure it’s close to a lot of clubs and whatnot, but it’s overpriced and can be pretty shady. Practically everyone I know that has lived in Hollywood has had their car broken into at least once! Silverlake, Los Feliz, and Atwater Village are cool areas with a lot of great restaurants and bars. I love Pasadena, but it’s a little further away from all the action.
TMG: Did you ever consider trying out New York or Nashville?
DEREK: Well, like I said, I kind of ended up here by accident. But L.A. has always felt like home to me. Aside from L.A. having such a thriving and diverse music scene, California just suits me. I’m an outdoorsy, active guy, and California has so much to offer someone like myself… mountains, beaches, woods: we have it all here! And the weather’s not too bad either. I do love visiting and working in NYC and Nashville though, as both cities have great stuff going on, but L.A. will always be home.
TMG: How did you get the gig on Dancing With The Stars?
DEREK: I actually never did the TV show, just the tours. They used to do a live arena tour after each TV season ended, with a similar set up. We had a 10-piece band backing up a lot of the dancers from the TV show, along with featured stars from various seasons of the show. Many of the stars were singers, so we played with them as well. I got called for that gig based on a referral from my keyboardist friend Michael Bluestein, who did the first tour but was leaving to join Foreigner. The bassist on that first tour, Jorgen Carlsson, was leaving to join Gov’t Mule… So they had an audition in L.A. for Keys and Bass, and luckily it worked out for me. We did three tours, and then they decided to stop touring.
TMG: When you first got to L.A. how did you address the financial side of taking a gig, i.e. did you have a set rate or did you negotiate based on each gig?
DEREK: Man, there’s such a sliding scale when it comes to negotiating rates. I wish I could just tell people that my rate is my rate, but it doesn’t work like that for most of us. Every budget is different. When negotiating a rate for a tour, I’ll usually get an idea in my mind of what I’d like to make on the tour, or what I think it SHOULD pay, then ask management for their offer. If it’s less than the number I have in my mind, then I’ll try to negotiate, but if it’s equal to or more than that number, which it sometimes is, then we’re good! When it comes to local gigs, I usually take the same approach. But I’ve found that every gig, whether it’s a tour, session, or local gig, tends to pay a different rate. I will say this, though… now that I’ve been here for a while, and have a few credits to my name, I can ask for higher rates than I could have years ago when I wasn’t quite as established.
TMG: What are your thoughts on playing for free and when is the time to start turning down gigs that don’t pay?
DEREK: I’ll often play for free if it’s a friend doing some recording or playing a show with his original material. Usually in that case, that particular friend isn’t making money, so I’m not going to ask him to pay out of his pocket if he doesn’t have the budget. A lot of us use the “barter system”, which I’m usually good with. I may play on someone’s record or show, and then call on him to return the favor at a later date. But if someone I don’t know calls me out of the blue and asks me to play for free, chances are I’m gonna say no unless it’s a charity event or something like that.
TMG: When you have had to audition for a gig, what has been your approach to standing out?
DEREK: Wearing ass-less chaps usually works… just kidding. But seriously, I tend to go pretty hard when preparing for an audition. I’ll learn the material they ask me to learn, but also learn a couple extra tunes… and during the audition I’ll ask if they want to play them (if time allows). I’ll also try to find live versions of the artist/band playing the songs, so I can catch any different intros or endings that they might do on their live shows. Aside from learning the bass parts, I’ll learn some background vocals, and really try to nail the tone and vibe in addition to just the notes. If I know someone who’s already on the gig, I’ll ask him/her what they liked or didn’t like about the previous bass player, or if they can offer any insight as to what the artist/band is looking for. I’ll also try to keep image in mind, and dress and perform in a way that gels with the artist and the rest of the people on the gig. Basically, I want to go in there and give them every reason to hire me and no reason not to… I want to make it a no-brainer. And in addition to all that, just be myself! If I’ve spent enough time preparing for the audition, then I’m going to go in there calm and confident, which people can always pick up on.
TMG: And for the gigs you have been referred to, what are the main reasons people have recommended you?
DEREK: Hmm, you’d have to ask the people who have recommended me! I think a lot of it has to do with how I handle myself on all gigs. I try to treat every gig with the same amount of respect… meaning, I’ll put the same amount of preparation into a low-paying local gig as I would for a major tour. I treat every gig as an audition, which it is… you never know who’s going to hear you. I always try to make as good of an impression as I possibly can in every musical situation. I think I’ve established a reputation as a guy who’s gonna show up on time, do his homework, play for the song, and have a positive attitude. All that goes a long way, and that’s whats going to make people most likely to recommend you for other gigs.
TMG: You recently completed Shania Twain’s 2015 tour. How did you land the gig with Shania?
DEREK: Getting that gig was kind of a process… I’ll explain. With almost every major touring gig that I’ve gotten, I’ve found that multiple factors come into play which resulted in my getting the gig. Usually it’s based on referrals from more than one person, and this situation was no different. So in January I got a call from Shania’s guitarist, Joshua Ray Gooch, to fill in with his blues band at a hotel bar. I had known Josh a little bit from seeing him at jam sessions around town, but we didn’t know each other well and hadn’t played together at all beyond the occasional jam. Again, I tried to prepare as best as I could for the gig, even though it was just a cheap little bar gig: Learned the tunes, showed up on time with the appropriate gear, etc. Anyway, we ended up having a great time playing together… one of those gigs where things just gel, you know? So he mentioned that Shania might be making some band changes for her upcoming tour, and of course I told him I’d be interested in auditioning if the opportunity arose. He called me a week later, and said that he had recommended me to Cory Churko, Shania’s bandleader, and that he wanted me to send in some web links, videos, etc. So I did that, which then got passed to Shania for her consideration. About a month later I got an email from Will Hollis, who was Shania’s musical director… and also musical director on the Dancing With the Stars tours that I had done a few years back. I had no idea that Will was now Shania’s MD, but BAM! Now I had two sources vouching for me. From all the submissions she received, Shania narrowed it down to 4 bass players and 6 drummers that she wanted to see at a live audition. So a month later, I did the audition in LA, and about three weeks after that… ended up getting the call from Will that I had been hoping for. So from the time I first submitted links to Cory until getting the gig, three months had passed. A long stressful process! But during all that time, I had been listening to Shania almost constantly, getting as familiar with her music as I could.
TMG: Shania has been touted the best selling female country artist in the history of country music. What has it been like touring with Shania and her camp?
DEREK: It’s been amazing… definitely the best tour I’ve ever had the privilege of playing on. Everyone… management, band, crew, etc., was extremely cool and great at their job. That makes a tour run like clockwork, and makes for such a positive experience all around. They’re not all like that! There’s usually at least one asshole on the tour.
TMG: What does your bass rig look like out on the road and how does it differ from your studio rig?
DEREK: Well it’s different for every gig. My first choice of an amp is an Aguilar DB 750 or 751 amp with 2 DB 410 cabinets. That’s the rig I bring out when I need to bring my own gear, or the rig I request when they’re backlining. I’ll also usually have some sort of pedalboard, which will contain various stomp boxes depending on what I need for that particular gig, and these days, usually a synth as well. I’ve been using Dave Smith Instrument synths lately, which have been awesome. The Shania tour is amp-less, which is seeming to become more and more common on tours these days… we all hear ourselves strictly through our in-ear monitors. So for her gig, I use a SansAmp PSA 1.1 preamp, with a different setting for each of the four basses that I use in the show. The SansAmp is midi programmable, so I can save my patches and they get switched via Pro Tools. I have two of those units with me, a main and a backup. I don’t use any pedals on this gig, as her music doesn’t require me to use any effects… just clean, fat, no-nonsense bass all the way! In order to “feel” the bass with no amp behind me, we put a sub underneath my riser and also attached a Buttkicker to the top of the riser. As for my studio rig, I have a few options of DIs, mic preamps, and amps that I use according to what type of sound I need for that particular song. The DIs I use are an Avalon U5 DI and an A-Designs REDDI. The mic preamps are Universal Audio 610 and 710, and the amps are my Aguilar DB750 head/DB410 cab, and a sweet 1965 Ampeg B-15 flip-top. I compress my direct signal a little bit using an Empirical Labs Distressor. I’ve used that Avalon U5 DI on tours also, and it’s great for both front of house and my in-ears.
TMG: Who are you currently endorsed by, and do you have a strategy for landing endorsements?
DEREK: My main endorsements are with Aguilar Amplification, Lakland Basses, and LaBella strings. I’ve also gotten some assistance recently from Dave Smith Instruments, Martin Guitars, and Tech 21 (those three companies helped me out with gear specifically for the Shania gig). As for landing endorsements, I’ve only approached companies for endorsements when I genuinely love their products and business philosophy. I would never endorse a company just to get free gear. I’ll only approach a company about endorsement when I truly believe in their products, and when I know that there’s something that I can offer them in return so that we can both benefit. Endorsements are a two-way relationship: the artist promotes a product by playing it on their respective gigs, therefore providing advertisement for that company. In return, the company gives the artist gear at a discount or sometimes for free.
TMG: Tell us about BassTracksOnline.com.
DEREK: Bass Tracks Online is a website I created to advertise myself as a studio musician who can work remotely. People from all over the world send me tracks, I play bass on them, and send ‘em back! These days, so many session players work remotely from home or the road… it’s just where the studio scene has headed.
TMG: How do you record when out on the road with Shania?
DEREK: I always travel with a mobile recording rig… I use an Apogee One interface, along with an Aguilar Tone Hammer preamp pedal and Aguilar TLC compressor pedal. This is a simple, easy-to-transport set up that has worked very well for me. I’ll get hit up for tracks from time to time while I’m on the road, and often I’ll end up recording in a dressing room, hotel room, or even sometimes in the back lounge of the tour bus.
TMG: Share 5 things every aspiring musician must do in order to have a successful career?
DEREK: In No Particular Order:
1) Always play for the song – support the music, not your ego.
2) Do your homework – always show up to the rehearsal/gig prepared.
3) Show up on time – if you develop a reputation as a guy/girl who’s always late, your phone will eventually stop ringing.
4) You gotta be in it to win it – If you don’t live in a city with a good music scene, move! And when you are in that city with the good music scene, get out and meet people, sit in, etc. If no one knows you, no one will call you.
5) Don’t be a dick. Sounds simple enough, but trust me, there are plenty of people trying to make it in the music world who don’t get this basic concept. No, I’m not going to mention any names.