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  • Writer's picturePhilip James

One Of My WORST Experiences As A Musician

Being ambitious is like being a pyromaniac. It's going to be a lot of fun building up a fire around whatever makes you passionate. The higher those flames get, the more thrilling it all becomes. But you WILL get scorched a few times- and some of those experiences are really going to sting!

So sit back, relax, maybe throw your feet up for a while, and let me tell you about an experience that metaphorically felt like the equivalent of getting kicked square in the testicles- right before rolling into oncoming traffic. I'm not talking about your average, "I had too much to drink, forgot a bunch of lyrics, and vomited on my friend's dog", kind of night. I'm talking about coming right out of the gate, HARD, and falling flat on your face. After all, there is no such thing as effort without errors and shortcomings. Feel free to comment below and tell me about a similar experience you may have had... Or don't. I don't blame you for keeping your secrets. That being said, without further adieu, let the story begin.

It was Summer 2018, and I was working at this new swanky spot that just opened up called OB Surf Lodge. It's a restaurant with a full bar, right on the beach, overlooking gleaming sunsets, and crisp blue waves. I was going to class at UC San Diego during the day and making great money at night serving tables and delivering cocktails. I enjoyed goofing around with my coworkers, striking up a conversation with patrons, or constantly finding new ways to hoard as much food as possible behind the manager's back. I felt happy most of the time but, not fulfilled.

I would march off to campus to learn new topics, study things like chemistry or calculus during all my free time, and come home just to prepare for work at whichever job needed me- sometimes even both! I enjoyed learning but I felt like part of me was missing. Through all the chaos and discord, there was only one thing that would bring me solace. Playing some good music at the local Open Mic Night. Even when I had a big test the next day, I would find comfort in picking up my instrument and running out to play a quick set. I made sure to keep every Monday night open, even if it meant taking the early shift and tucking my guitar in the trunk. Just so I could head out to my favorite spot, PB Cantina, or some other local venue to play some tunes. It was my home away from home.

After consistently playing around town long enough, I started making some good connections. Friends I had made playing out were inviting me to more and more gigs. Some of them paid, but most of them did not. I was fine with the lack of funds, but my employers were not fond of my lack of availability. I kept trying to give away my shifts and my work-life balance started to get completely thrashed. I was missing assignments at school, consistently falling behind at work, and barely sleeping to keep up with the pace. Something had to give or I was going to keel over from the stress. So I came up with a "Master Plan" and prayed that the gods of music would light my way.

Right above OB Surf Lodge was a Pub called Wonderland. This pub was known for hosting some pretty big local bands and I heard they even paid a decent amount of cash for a set. Since I worked right below them, I managed to get a word in with the booker for the venue. After showing back up at her door 5 more times, they promised me a gig. That night I went home and thought to myself, "If only I could get a few more gigs like this weekly, I could play music and not have to serve another table again". I showed up to work the next day and put in my 2- week notice, I reduced the hours at my other job, and I lightened my course load for the next quarter. I decided that I'm going to do what I love and prioritize other things less. It was liberating, it was satisfying, it was also... completely rushed.

I showed up to the gig at Wonderland pub wearing the nicest collared shirt I had owned and my best pair of shoes. As I started setting up all of my equipment a few of my coworkers came from downstairs to cheer me on. They took photos, posted stories, bought me drinks, and stood by to watch the horror unfold. I found the manager on duty to tell her I'm ready to plug in for a soundcheck. She proceeds to tell me, "Oh, the sound guy can't make it but we have the equipment. Let me show you where it is". She leads me to the corner of the room and points at this heaping mess of wires, haphazardly connected to a soundboard that looked as if it had been dragged several blocks tied to the back of a car. "You should be able to figure it out", she says as she smiles at me and then walks away.

I tampered with the soundboard for almost a full 45 minutes. My set was supposed to start about 15 minutes prior, but I was getting no cooperation from the system. The channel strips and effect labels were all badly worn and almost illegible. Some of the levels didn't even light up when you would plug them in. If I did get some sound to come through, it was badly distorted. There were several cables hanging from the ceiling which lead to 4 speakers I couldn't seem to control. At times only one speaker in the back would play and then suddenly all the speakers would click on and blast the audience. Things were starting to look pretty grim. I managed to get some sound to come out from the mic, but the audio was garbled and muffled. At this point, I had to do something. I set the levels the best I could and decided to try and play my first song. I turned toward the crowd and introduced myself.

I played for a total of 15 minutes. In between each song I fumbled around with the sound but never yielded any sort of positive result. After each one, the manager would come up to me and remind me that nothing was coming through very well on the speakers. I would try to reassure her, tweak the levels, and play another song. At one point I even tried to override the entire sound system and just play straight through my amplifier. By the time that idea had popped up, the pub clearly had enough of the live music. I looked up and could see a bar full of patrons that were just as frustrated as I was with the quality of music. The manager approached me with an envelope and paid me for the attempt, but asked me to pack up my things and leave. In my entire songwriting career, I had never been asked to leave halfway through a performance. It was nice that they paid me for the event, but no amount of money was going to buy back the pride I had lost that night. I had just announced to all my friends and coworkers that I was going to quit my job to pursue music, and now I was packing up my gear with my head down hoping no one would see me. I was so embarrassed about the event that I didn't show up to my old job for over an entire year. I felt completely defeated.

As much as I might have wanted for that to be the end of me, the reality of the situation is that I eventually bounced back. I learned to expect the unexpected. From that experience, I grew into a more dependable performer who discovered how to prepare for the worst. In some instances it is necessary to outright fail; it humbles you and refines your senses. After that night I eventually purchased my own equipment, including a PA, my own mix board, and a better microphone. I learned to have complete control over my tone with or without the assistance of others. At the end of the day, that is all you can bargain for: A lesson. Knowing that you are improving despite the constant setbacks life has hidden up its sleeve. After all, you can only do your best with what you've got.

~Thanks for reading~

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