Monday, April 26, 2010
You Wanna Gig? Join a Marching Band
By my count, every day sees between 70-100 postings in the "Musician" section of Boston Craigslist. Some percentage of these are ads from bands trying to elbow into the wedding circuit or offering up sedate cocktail piano. Some are venues "willing to provide free exposure" to bands. A few promise a direct line to cruise ship gigs or gigs in the exotic Far East. Others offer beats, videos, amp repair and a fair number, lessons (study with me and soon you too will be able to post an ad in Craigslist looking to start a band). The vast majority are people looking to start bands, and/or bands looking for rad bass players, rockin' drummers and smokin' guitarists. Occasionally there's a flame war about a rip-off studio or manager.
What are the odds any of these ads will lead to a musician putting a few bucks in his or her pocket? About the same odds our Mayor Mumbles Menino will be asked to coach dialogue in the next Hugh Grant movie.
But there is one set of ads that always pays money. I know it for a fact. These are the ads seeking brass, reeds and percussion for marching bands. That's right. Outside of the teaching dodge and the few high-end gigs perched precariously on the top of the function and nightclub pyramid, the one sure gig in this town is joining up with a rag tag marching outfit and waddling dis-synchronously down the streets and highways of Boston and suburbia. Until I came to understand the big fat profit the parade bookers were making off my sweat (and grew too lazy and decrepit ), I partook freely and came to know the circuit well.
Here's how it works: scores of cities and towns muster up their civic energy and pride to mark such events as Flag Day, July 4th, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, St. Patrick's Day, Armed Forces Day, Labor Day and god knows what else day. Whichever leading light of the particular polis is running the show makes sure the firemen and cops show up (they don't have to ask the pols, who can smell a parade a month away). They usually know someone who knows someone who's a clown or maybe can get a hold of a horse or two and, of course, no parade is complete without a band or two.
There are a few guys in the area who keep a stable of musicians they can call on to hire out and make the scene at $50 bucks a shot (re-stocking the larder with sporadic postings on Craigslist). When you get the call and say yes, you are directed to show up in white shirt and black pants. Then, when you get to the gig, you are told you are now a member of the "army band," "the navy band," or even "the marine band." The bands are distinguishable by the phony insignia on the undersized beret you try to stick on your head and by the noose-like ascot you are told to knot around your neck.
Usually, there is a boss or a straw boss, handing out this tatty gear, tossing you the music and telling you whether you are supposed to march behind the VFW and in front of the girls with the spinning flags, or behind the convertible chauffeuring Ms. West Peabody and in front of the Hibernian Society. In one case, the Tony Barrie Band, the ageless Tony himself leads the charge. As you walk down the street, Tony grabs all the kids watching, gathers up his musicians and leads the kids down the middle of the street as you play the Mickey Mouse Club Theme. If he manages to find someone with a birthday, the whole band rushes over to play Happy Birthday. For the most part, it's a steady diet of Sousa, with the occassional medley from the Sound Of Music.
The fact, is, while there is much to make fun of, there's something attractive about this ritual. People leave the house. They stand next to their neighbors and eat popcorn. They boo the politicians. The exotic sound of tubas and glockenspiels fills space usually inhabited by KISS 108. Musicians who love to play but can find no other niche in this digital culture have a chance to blow and be acknowledged as they grind their chops into tartare; maybe feel a little kinship with a hundred and fifty years of people who've done the same thing. And, kids love it. Shit. That's enough right there.