Mindset of the Successful Independent Musician: The Peter Sprague Interview

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The Nov/Dec Measure for Measure, “Leap of Faith,” completes a trilogy of columns designed to help aspiring singer/songwriters. Here are the other two:

1) “Write a Road Song” (Sep/Oct 2016, Kris Kristofferson issue), provided a roadmap to writing a song in this popular genre.

2) “YouTube Revolution” (Nov/Dec 2015) showed how to get your song heard in the online environment. For ease of access, I’ve reissued this column as an e-book you can get by emailing [email protected] and typing “Request YouTube Revolution eBook” in the subject line. To get all “Measure for Measure” e-books (including the above), just type “Request Measure for Measure eBooks”.

If you find that uncertainty over technical aspects of songwriting is hanging you up, the e-books will help, along with past columns archived online (the count now stands at 28). The e-books are free, so don’t hesitate to email a request.

The trilogy makes up a plan of action: 1) Write a song, 2) put it before the public, and 3) rinse and repeat until you’re a pro. When we’re starting out on the musician’s path, we need heroes to emulate, and Peter Sprague, the subject of “Leap of Faith,” is as fine an example of a successful independent musician as one could find. An extensive bio is available on his website, petersprague.com, but a brief recap of his career highlights includes the following:

Called “One of the emergent great guitarists” by jazz pianist, composer, music journalist Leonard Feather, Peter has been a professional performing artist since the mid-1970s. He has done it all, from garage-band beginnings to restaurant gigs (group and solo), to sharing the stage with the likes of Chick Corea (with whom he has also recorded), Sergio Mendes, Art Pepper, Dianne Reeves, Hubert Laws, Al Jarreau, Stanley Clarke, Joe Pass, and David Benoit.

His awards include Best Local Musician – San Diego Reader’s Best of 1988; Musician’s Choice – San Diego Entertainer Magazine’s Best of 1988; Best Pop Jazz Group (Blurring the Edges) – San Diego Music Awards 1994; Best Jazz Artist – San Diego Reader’s Best of 2000 Poll; Best Mainstream Jazz Artist – San Diego Music Awards 2000; Best Jazz Artist – San Diego Reader’s Best of 2003 Poll, and Best Jazz at the 2004 San Diego Music Awards and Best Jazz Artist at the 2007 San Diego Music Awards.

PeterSprague.com lists 363 recording credits. He has performed all over the world with a who’s who of jazz artists. His teaching credits include GIT (now Musicians Institute), California Institute of the Arts, and jazz camps in Argentina (plus concerts in Buenos Aires) and UC San Diego. Currently, Peter has a 46-lesson online jazz guitar improvisation course (one of the best of its kind) at openstudionetwork.com. In addition to an endless schedule of gigs and traveling, Peter owns and manages SpragueLand, a busy recording studio. Thanks to SpragueLand, Peter has had considerable contact with singer/songwriters over the years, including producing albums and providing accompaniment.

Peter’s success is unarguable, but still a singer/songwriter might wonder, “What can I learn from a jazz guitarist?”

The quick answer is inspiration and practical wisdom. Just in case, I’ve distilled twenty general lessons that apply to all independent musicians. A few are stated explicitly by Peter, and a few are things I found written between the lines. Whether you’re happy with the way your career is going or not, you might ask yourself a simple question while you read: “Am I doing this or not?” And if not, why not?

Rules of the Road

1) You have to want a career as an artist, and want it bad. Everything flows from this.

2) Don’t trust fate. Have a plan for making your dream a reality and pursue it daily.

3) Emulate a model of success. Study the biographies of successful performers, determine a path for yourself, and follow it.

4) Go where the action is: Kris Kristofferson went to Nashville, Bob Dylan went to Greenwich Village, The Stones went to London, Graham Nash went to L.A.where do you want to go, and why aren’t you there already?

5) Immerse yourself. As in (3) above, find a milieu of songwriters. Also, study songs in-depth (“Measure for Measure” can be of some help in this area). Most good songwriters learn hundreds of songs well enough to perform them. There’s a great deal of difference between “knowing a song” and “knowing it well enough to perform it.” Even being able to sing and play the melody along, without accompaniment, is enough. The more you learn, the more the patterns embed themselves in your thinking. You can be systematic about it, if you likelearn all the songs Hank Williams ever wrote, for example, or 25 songs based on the “Heart and Soul” progression (I – vi – IV – V), or 100 country hits (recommend investing in one or more of the inexpensive but excellent Hal Leonard Paperback Songs series). Variations on this idea are endless, but pick one and stick to it. If you read Peter’s “Story” at petersprague.com, you will see that he learned an incredible number of songs early in his career and kept on adding at a brisk rate down to the current day.

6) Get organized. Peter is one of the best organized individuals I have ever met. When you look at his performing and recording schedule, it’s a wonder that he has any time left to learn new material, and yet he is constantly expanding his repertoire. His example seems to prove the old adage that the more you do, the more you can do.

7) Perform: Doesn’t matter if you perform for your catjust perform! Audiences are with you more than you would think, and they will overlook a lot (just like your cat). Sometimes things don’t go as planned, but avoid the temptation to apologize. It can be tempting, but if you do, you break the bond with your audience. Just keep going.

8) Establish a Web presence. Learn to use social media.

9) Be prepared for lean years. Your career may launch quickly or it may take a while. Learning to live frugally will give you more time to pursue your art. Read all you can on generating income with music. Digital media has brought about radical changes in the music business, closing off some of the old channels and opening new ones. Peter’s website offers many examples of ways for an independent musician to generate an income stream.

10) Avoid “either/or” thinking. Learn more than one instrument, for example. Get acquainted with multiple genres. Study song lyrics, but study poetry, too. If you’re a composer, learn to improvise; if you’re an improviser, learn to compose. Be adaptable. Peter, for example, was already leading a successful performing career when he branched out into recording. Not only did it provide additional income and allow him to spend time with his family, it brought him into contact with a steady stream of talented musicians, some of whom became performing and recording partners. Most of all, don’t define success in terms of “being a star.” See the interview for more on this.

11) Stay abreast of technology. Over the years, I’ve attended many of Peter’s gigs, and he’s always had new and interesting equipment. Check out his double-neck guitar, for example (at petersprague.com). One way to make the most of your time is to investigate articles about the stage setups of your favorite artists. Professionals invest countless hours refining their sound, and they have access to the best gear. You can take advantage of their investment by going direct to the result. And by the way, you can often find reasonably priced alternatives to high-end equipment.

12) Program your mental software: study music theory. You don’t need to go to Juilliard: Take harmony, counterpoint, and music history classes at a junior college. Peter discusses the lasting effects of going to Interlochen in the interview.

13) Avoid negative people. Hang with folks who share your dreams. Fraternize with the very best musicians you can find. You will learn things by osmosis that you’ll never find in any textbook. In my experience, the best musicians I’ve ever known were among the most self-effacing and modest (and genuinely so), while mediocre musicians were among the most critical and egotistical. One hour spent with a winner is worth a hundred hours spent with an also-ran. You will feel empowered and optimistic about your future. Indeed, it is best to avoid mediocre company entirely.

14) Don’t bemoan your “lack of talent.” Get lessons and learn to make the most of what you have. Think about the performances that have moved you: A song you wrote yourself delivered with real emotion is worth far more than a polished but insincere performance.

15) Get a songwriting partner: Lennon & McCartney, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, David Gilmore and Roger Waters, Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibbneed I say more? Peter had his brother Tripp as a partner when he took the leap into professional status. Every band is, or should be, a partnership. Partners challenge you, energize you, and fill in gaps in your capabilities. Partners can be competitive without being destructive; they will often bring out the best in you.

16) Know your audience. Connect with your audience and make it easy for them to connect with you (get out and perform and use social media).

17) Never stand stillkeep moving, keep evolving, keep seeking, searching, and finding.

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