Winter Is Rough For Musicians

Well, it’s never a surprise — January comes and with it: nothing. You wanted to be a musician, you live for the glory days of Spring and Summer when the gigs come hard and fast. When it’s warm and the days are long and you can stay out til three in the morning in your fashionable gig-clothes.

Hell, even Autumn is alright. Ordinary people come down off their summer high and settle back in to heavy-work. And you, you’re the musician! You’ve got the gigs that make the weekend worth working for! Besides, there’s Columbus Day and Thanksgiving, the Holidays and (right up to the cusp) New Year’s Eve.

But after the debaucherous night of the 31st, you wake up in a new year and it’s January and the gigs are slim. Practically non-existent. Maybe there’s that weird 50th birthday party gig you’re playing at someone’s house in the suburbs… and MLK Day gives us a three-day weekend where folks are keen to get out of the house and remember what living is.

Mostly, though, you’re going to be confronted with a lot of empty days and low-attendance nights. And, possibly worst of all, this is when you really have time to sit-down and ask yourself: just what the hell am I doing with my life?

Winter is rough for musicians. If you don’t know an eccentric billionaire who wants to fly you to Nice to live in their spare mansion and write songs about their best-friend’s yacht, you’re going to be spending a good, fat chunk of quality time at home. No gigs, no crowds, no commutes, no schlepping.

So what’s a plucky musicker to do with all the down time?

The first concern tends to be monetary. In my younger days, I would burn through what little bread I had stockpiled in the rush to take part in the Holidays (presents, Holiday blockbusters, and a, perhaps, over-zealous consumption of dark rum and egg-nog), to keep up with all the Holiday hangs (“let’s get dinner!” “let’s do brunch!” “let’s go to the fanciest coffee shop we know and drink espresso-drink after espresso drink and talk about Jeff Buckley for six hours!”), and all the Holiday drinking (see: New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day). So when January rolled around all I’d have in my pocket was whatever I made NYE and some crumpled fives and singles from a pick-up cocktail party somewhere in the whole mess. They were hard winters, those first few New York Januaries. Lots of microwaved Thai Kitchens and 99-cent Arizona Ice Tea.

These days I have a little more forethought. While I’m not living high-on-the-horse come the Jan-Feb drought, I tend to be a little more aware of what’s coming.

Still, it doesn’t do to simply penny-pinch your way through the cold season. You are a musician, after all. You didn’t get into this racket for the money — man, I hope you didn’t get into this for the money. That’s a whole ‘nother article there. No, you got into this racket because you’re an artist and you dig what you do and you know the world needs it and you don’t care if you have to suffer some slings and arrows to do it. That said: it’s only money.

One of my recent traditions is to spend January first mostly by myself. I queue up some of the movies I invariably missed while I was cavorting like a heathen in Summer, I dust off my raggediest sweatpants, and I order-in. Not just a meal. No. A full on FEAST. It is the new year, after all. One should celebrate such things. If there’s going to be a lot of solitary down time, get used to having fun with it.

The second major concern? Gigs. If you’re a working musician then your philosophy is probably something very much like: I gig, therefore I am. January puts a real dent in one’s being what with the paucity of gigs to convince oneself of one’s existence. It just, basically, sucks. If you do have some gigs — its fairly damned difficult to get civilians out to them. You may be in a rather successful musical outfit that can usually pack a room and you play a show in January: its you, the bartender, the bouncer, and a stray dog. Not great for the self-esteem or collective momentum.

So I say, why worry about it then? You can’t fight Mother Nature. Don’t expect a horde of people at your January 5th CD Release show. But you can roll with the punches.

Forget about your regular band. If people won’t come out to see the band that rocked their worlds last summer — put together a musical project you’ve always wanted to do but knew had no practical staying power. That Tom Waits / Michael Jackson mash-up idea? January might the time to trot that out. The war-songs you’ve been writing for rapper, classical soprano, and bassoon? Chances are that will bring more people out than some rock covers. Three tubas, flute, acoustic guitar, squeezed pig, the narrations of your quasi-sane downstairs neighbor about his time with the Canadian Mounted Police (that’s possibly a thing), and dueling tenor guitars? I would come see that. I might still be in sweatpants, but I’d be right up by the stage.

What I’m saying is: attendance is tough in January for what little gigs you might be able to secure. Why not do your French-language Mariah Carey tribute then? The worst thing that can happen is the stray dog digs it and you get a nice bootleg recording of something that is, inarguably, sui generis.

(Yes. sui generis. I said it.)

And finally, no matter what you do, you’re going to have some downtimes. If you live where its gets cold — its gonna get cold. Some nights, its really just too cold. But wherever you are, you’ve probably got your axe. And you’ve got hours upon hours of unstructured time. We always talk about shedding — but how much time can you really spend practicing when you’ve got gigs on gigs and rehearsals on rehearsals, and sessions, and charts to write, and you have to find your tuxedo pants (again)? Now you’ve got a sweet handful of un-busy days — why not get back in the shed?

I like to think I’m like Rocky in the montage scene. I’m running behind a bicycle (or was he pulling the bike?), I’m grimacingly walloping a speed bag, I’m punching meat in a freezer. Whatever. I’m getting strong now.

Of course, I’m probably playing octatonic scales or trying to get through a Charlie Parker transcription. Or trying play that one Debussey song that everyone knows but I’ve never learned and I’m a piano player and it’s embarrassing and once I know it I will probably play every time I sit at a piano.

Point is, I’m getting fit.

In a couple of months, the weather’s gonna turn. And folks will come out of hiding and start asking you, “hey, when is (insert band name here) playing again?!” And this cold, cold winter will be but a distant memory. But, if you’re plucky, you can make something out of this enforced hiatus. You can turn the drought into your 40 days in the desert. And come back from it uttering all kinds of dopeness. And telling people how great Ant Man was if you didn’t have to pay theater price. You’ll be better at your craft. You’ll be ready for the year.

And, when some drunk couple asks you to play Claire De Lune in a bar in East Podunk some night. You’ll just smile to yourself, nod to the band, and say, “let me see if remember how that goes…”

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