My entry about the hang 

Skinny guitarist dangling from vine, Kipu Falls
in Kauai, HI. My best hang ever.


Merriam-Webster online didn’t really touch it, and even my good cyberfriend urbandictionary.com didn't have it. But the hang - used as a noun primarily - is the most important part of my musical life. Every musician has a slightly different definition of the hang, but most people I play with give it a lot of importance. Off the cuff I’d define it as that good feeling you get with the people you play with. That may sound simplistic, but that’s really what I want in any playing situation. I’m looking for people who play, listen and interact on and off stage with a feeling of love and respect. (I’m going to shorten that to L&R - maybe it’ll catch on like R&B, TCB, TLC, or any other similarly cool soul-music acronym you can think of.) For me that means genuine L&R for the people you’re playing with, and for the music you’re playing.

 

A lot of musicians use the term “hang” as a verb linked to skills (e.g. “He/she can really hang with those folks,” meaning that his/her chops are up to the level of the rest of the band.) In that sense, I know there are players I can hang with and those I can’t.

 

By “hang” I usually mean something more fundamental. Beneath the chops and evidence of serious time in the shed, at music’s best there’s a hang that happens that’s more intrinsic: the love and respect I’m talking about that transcends musical ability. It starts on stage the way you listen and respond to one another, the facial expressions. For me it’s sometimes a quick smile, or (more often) an adolescent laugh. I’ve often been told that I appear too happy for my own good on stage (yes, even before the dynamite pills given to me by my roadie kick in). Because of that I will probably never be the critics’ darling (or that of some musicians), but I want me and the audience to have a good time. In this way, I want listeners to be part of the hang too. Entertaining people is part of my personality, so I’m going to enjoy as much of the on-stage hang as possible.

 

Since I’m a professional musician, I'm always aware of my bottom line. I know when business goes front and center. I’m never afraid to talk about the money piece with other musicians, with clarity and transparency (redundant!). But while I’m all for musicians earning their full market value at every possible turn, there are times when I want to get people together just to play for fun and pleasure, even when there’s no job on the calendar. Some of them ask, “Is it a paid rehearsal?” Since I’m straightforward, my answer’s usually a simple “Sorry, no.” And there are musicians who are legitimately busy with enough paid work, family obligations, etc. to turn down unpaid jam sessions/rehearsals. As long as we’re honest with each other, I have no problem hiring them for the next paid gig that doesn’t involve an unpaid rehearsal.

 

But there’s another class of players who expect every musical interaction to involve a financial transaction. Everything is quid pro quo. There's no room for doing anything musical without expecting something tangible in return. For whatever reason they can’t hang and play music on a non-gig night just for the hell of it. Most often, these are the people who are trying to appear busy/in demand with a chaotic schedule (on the surface, chaos can seem really cool for about 2-3 minutes), or they're operating under the twisted guise of “professionalism” (“I can’t take unpaid things right now,” when in truth they’re not gigging that much and could probably use a good jam session anyway). When a gig does happen with these people, they often turn out to be the most difficult people to play with. For those folks, the hang just isn’t there - and neither is my next phone call.

 

In high school, my musical career was nothing to write home about - I was awkward with a buzz cut, my school's band director sucked, and I probably used too much distortion - but the hang was there right from the beginning. Things were sporadic, but when we got together in someone’s living room, ran vocals through a Radio Shack high-impedance mic into a guitar amp, and recorded directly onto a boom box, the most important thing was the hang. You showed up with your solid-state amp and Turbo Distortion pedal and plugged in. Nothing was on the line.

 

There’s a great book by Seth Godin called Linchpin. His concept of gift-giving, mainly in business, but also in other areas of life, is very relevant to all of this. To me, in musical terms the essence of Godin’s idea lies in doing even tiny things for people in your musical circle, when it’s not in your job description. Not even going the extra mile - just an extra foot. Smiling at them. Adjusting your comping so their solo really slams. Putting down your iDroid during the break and asking them about their playing or career. You don't have to do any of this and you’re not going to get a bigger cut for any of it. Hanging is karma - the payday comes later in one form or another.

 

I’ve had great hangs on stage and off with people of wildly different musical abilities, tastes, and political and religious beliefs. In all those situations we’ve managed to find empathy and respect for one another in some way. And that hang always seems to find its way into the music.

 

Exposing oneself 

First things first: I know I’m not breaking any new ground here. Many other musicians have spoken out about this, more eloquently than I can. Yet I feel compelled to post. 

I recently got a call that I’ve received more times than I care to admit. This person ran a well-financed business and was looking for entertainment from some musicians who “want to get some exposure.” I instantly read between the lines but I didn’t need to, because a few seconds later it tumbled right out of his lips: he didn’t want to pay for it, or at the very most he wanted to get it on the very, very cheap.

His excuse for not wanting to pay the going rate? Paraphrased, “I don’t need someone with amazing technique who can play like (insert name of musician with great chops here). I just need someone who’s reliable, can entertain a crowd, knows tunes, and is an easy person to work with.”

He didn’t realize he had just stepped in it.

I explained to him that those qualities he was looking for are the very things that give a musician market value. Showing up on time. Having a car that runs. Giving a shit about the people you’re working for. Being sober enough to play well. Returning phone calls. This guy wanted all that stuff and, according to him, it wasn’t worth paying for.

He also suggested the idea of hiring some college student musicians - players who, according to his brand of logic, were “non-professionals.” Most college musicians I know play real-world gigs, have business cards and websites, are hired for recordings, and some who are half my age have started their own record labels. If that isn’t professional, I don’t know what is. If you’re hireable, you’re a professional. Period.

On the other hand, I know plenty of musicians with almost supernatural talent and practice-room discipline. Put the two of us head to head in a jam session on a difficult tune and they can walk my dog. But their lives are trainwrecks, they apparently don’t own watches or calendars, they can’t work well with clients or with people on the bandstand, or they’re otherwise unhireable. In the world of working musicians, they’ve got no real market value.

Playing music as a profession often involves some great joy, and we want our music to be heard, and the most exploitative would-be clients use this as a perverse excuse to try to coerce us into providing our services for less than their value. The same often goes for other artists, teachers, and anyone who has a deep emotional connection to their work. The musicians who are worth hiring are entrepreneurs with very real expenses - transportation, education, equipment maintenance, marketing and, often overlooked as a precious resource, time. But more importantly, they are providing a highly specialized skill and, at the risk of overstating it, their services have real financial worth in the marketplace.

If our wages are currently in a sad state, musicians get some of the blame. In a free market where everyone’s out to get theirs (and not necessarily what’s equitable), most potential clients won’t hand you leverage; you have to walk in the door with it in the first place. When musicians accept work for less than what’s fair, they drive down the pay scale for all of us and perpetuate the myth that it’s okay to compensate with “exposure,” or all-you-can-drink beer, or free burritos, or whatever other false currency one chooses. Try asking a licenced electrician, attorney, or surgeon for three hours of their time on a Saturday night in exchange for “exposure.” The next time you have a dinner party, invite over a CPA to do everyone’s taxes for free. “We won’t pay you, but you’ll be able to hand out lots of business cards and eat all the free dessert you want.” Let me know how that conversation goes.

Working with clubs presents one of the stickiest situations here. This might be material for a separate entry, but in the meantime here's a great essay about musicians and clubs

I believe all working musicians are ambassadors for their trade. Even though many of us would do our thing for free because we love it, we have a responsibility to all musicians to charge what we’re worth and negotiate terms so we create situations that work out well for everyone. Being an artist and a good businessperson don’t have to be at odds.