No question about it, we will all have to “break into” the business in some form or another, and those early days that I experienced can certainly serve as a source for some good advice.
I was telling this story to a student of mine today who is quite gifted, and I was talking about how I was so sure of myself at the age of 17 that I was playing with my own band and going up to Woodstock to play a lot there. I was in college still, (with my band living with me), and we would go up on weekends to get discovered. Bands would sometimes even let us play “between” their 2 sets at a given club, so we could use any opportunity to help us be heard. Of course, for me, what was happening was I was getting to be seen and heard by some of my heroes. People like Paul Butterfield and John Sebastian as well as members of The Band would not be uncommon to have in the audience, perhaps sitting at the bar while I was performing. I can remember one time overhearing Butterfield say ‘hey, do you hear what that kid is playing up there?!” That blew my mind, because here was the man who had players like Mike Bloomfield, Elvin Bishop, Buzzy Feiten and Amos Garrett in his band at various times, and he was certainly one very important musician at that time to get the respect of!
I quickly knew that Woodstock was the place for me to be found, and I was getting gigs, like with Happy and Artie Traum and Eric Andersen, but I was still so young and inexperienced that I barely knew what I was doing, and I was doing it all! Still, the experiences really started to pile up rather quickly, and with every good thing that happened, it always seemed like another good thing would follow. Of course, back then, there wasn’t a great guitarist on every corner like there is now, but I still had to really put myself out there to really be heard, and to rise above the competition. Let’s face it, the competition is really stiff these days, but so many players, although technically good, may not have what it really takes to be a sideman, or even a good band member, for that matter. I was so willing to learn, that I easily went from band leader to sideman in an instance. This meant a lot more work for me, and most of all, very valuable “building blocks” of experience I needed so badly.
Don’t ever let that shift in priorities shake your confidence, because nothing feels better than playing on someone else’s gig, and truly shining. It enables you to share the spotlight, but since it’s not really your show, you’re rather free and clear of any “deep”criticism. Not to mention, that you are gaining huge amounts of confidence and well-honed experience, both as a player, and as a person who’s interacting with others who are more deeply into the music business itself. Either way, it will all pay off in the end, and whether you become a sideman or leader of your own group, the foundational aspects of your early days will always have a lasting effect! Good luck!