I started to play guitar relatively late; I was a high school graduate before I ever picked up an electric guitar with the intention to actually play it, however poorly. Like most wannabe rock stars, I strummed clumsily on a cheap acoustic guitar on and off for several years inevitably putting it down in favor of the far easier pretend guitar, sometimes referred to as “air guitar” by lonely, socially awkward persons. Just a cursory glance at YouTube will bring forth an army of child virtuosity, each playing an instrument exceptionally but often with an air of bored detachment that brings to mind some forced pageant parent working furiously in the background. Give me the kid who posts terrible video of himself playing some equally terrible Korn song any day. That’s the kid that possesses the real potential to be an amateur professional.
I sometimes like to argue that I am a professional musician. Or at least I might unequivocally state that playing music is my second job; simply because I have been paid to play music. I have never been paid very much to play music; although I typically get paid more to play boring cover songs than I get to play original tunes. I also do not get paid for every gig as I will happily play for free in most circumstances. I am an amateur professional; I have never asked for money to play a gig, but I will certainly take it when offered. Yes, getting paid in beer and/or whiskey still counts as payment.
There are many great musicians out there who are able to make a living through music. There are also many very talented musicians who are not able to make a living wage from music and are required to take another job to get by. There are also piles of musicians who think that they offer the value of entertainment to the world and bemoan their lack of “breaks”. I do not mean to belittle these folks with my claims of amateur professionalism. Also, let us agree that some of these would be non-amateur professional musicians are boring, unpleasant humans in skinny jeans propping up an inflated self-image.
If we remove payment for the service of entertainment from the equation, how else might one determine if that particular musician is amateur professional or amateur amateur? The particular behavior that raises my hackles is when the band that is not playing last does not start breaking down and vacating the stage the moment they are finished. When you wander around listening to your mom and uncle tell you how much your band rules while the next band is trying to setup…you are an amateur musician but professional asshole. Get your gear off the stage and mingle like Jon Bon Jovi later.
When I was in college, I went to a gig at a bowling alley in Rutland, VT. The guitar player in the band was the buddy of a buddy. I did not know the guitar player or the band. As is often the case at these types of shows, the band was good and the night was fun. What my buddy found so impressive was that guitar player was drunk; he played the show; and at some point, vomited behind his amp but did not stop. He simply kept the rock coming. I did not know any of this at the time, but heard about it on the way home. My buddy called it the epitome of a professional guitar player. I might argue that playing sober is a touch more professional, but why quibble.
Last year, I played a gig with my cover band at a rather typical dive bar. Our singer has a killer voice and is really fun on stage. She is comfortable haranguing patrons who might be trying to sneak out the door unobserved and she is comfortable drinking Newcastle Brown Ale. At some point during the gig, she looked at me sort of crooked. While maintaining eye contact, she vomited up the big swig of beer she just drank. In my shock and awe, I screwed up my next part. She just went back to singing like the professional that she is.