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The 5 best and worst things about gigging in a blues band (when you’re an academician)

For the last 16 years, I have been “supplementing” my day job as a professor by gigging in blues bands. There are advantages–that are also disadvantages–to the double life.

1. The Hours: Gigs are usually booked on weekends and evenings and don’t interfere with classes or meetings, but sometimes they run late into the night. In many college towns, the most popular drinking night is Thursday. In fact, I never saw as many students out and about in town as when I was packing up for a regular 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. gig in State College, PA. Students were everywhere, drinking, partying, falling down, and reveling, even in the snow. The down side to late night gigs is obvious: waking up early on Friday mornings when you get to bed at 2:30 or 3:00 can be tough, but there are unusual advantages to staying up late. First, you understand why your students have hacking coughs or fall asleep in class on Fridays and, therefore, are far less gullible about excuses. But oddly enough, Friday morning becomes the ideal time to schedule contentious meetings. Bleary and tired from playing until 1 and getting to bed late, Friday mornings I was often calm and patient, if slow to respond. I even deliberately scheduled a regular meeting of a senate committee I chaired on a sensitive, hot button issue at 8 a.m. Fridays because I knew that I would react slowly and keep my cool. As counterintuitive as it may seem, late night hours gigging can help productivity.

2. The People: Academics travel in restricted circles and don’t always have a chance to meet people outside of their regular orbits. Gigging forces you into unfamiliar circumstances that can be both beneficial and downright terrifying. On the positive side, you become aware of businesses (bars, restaurants, tap rooms) and how they function and connect with social networks in your community that you would otherwise never know about. You play county fairs, sleazy bars, fundraisers for bikers, as well as restaurants, tasting rooms, and popular drinking establishments. How else would I have ever learned that Alcoholics-Anonymous-style biker groups raise money for childhood burn victims (“send the burnt kids to camp”) or that winemaking is often a sideline for folks, like gigging is for me? The human connections include bandmates found on Craig’s List. Band members (and departmental colleagues) are like family members — you love them and you hate them. Problems with alcohol, pornography, anger, or a belief that you were abducted and probed by extraterrestrials all eventually surface. Meeting and interacting with a wider circle of people grounds me and, I believe, makes me a better teacher and colleague. At the very least, a little hardened by the road, certain looks of surprise and astonishment definitely cross my face less frequently in faculty meetings.

3. The Places: Gigs take me to areas that I didn’t know existed: small towns, remote areas, and sketchy sections of local cities. Traveling to new places can be rewarding: you learn about local festivals and traditions by being welcomed to entertain at events. Traveling can also be frightening. Scoping out a venue surrounded by strip clubs, with signs posted with warnings about carrying knives and guns, with a dance floor surrounded by chain-link fence, and giant subwoofers in the stage is intimidating. And sometimes you make the mistake of booking a gig sight unseen. I’ll never forget a western bar we played with a special room off the main bar. At the doorway to this room that was separated off by a curtain stood an ATM. Inside, there was a pole in the center with Naugahyde Barcaloungers arranged in a circle around it. At least it was empty.

Image provided by Julia Simon.

4. Being treated like the help: Academics benefit from certain privileges. We may not earn as much money as those with advanced degrees and professional training employed in the private sector, but we are comfortable and mostly don’t engage in hard labor. Gigging means you’re the hired help and this can be infuriating, but also serves as a healthy reality check. Hauling equipment — speakers, amps, instruments — is tough work. Some venues require the band to clear a space to set up. I remember restaurant owners who made us move heavy tables before every show. Sore muscles and aching backs are a good reminder that most academic work is far from the drudgery of manual labor. Sometimes gigs provide bittersweet reminders about social class. I will never forget an insurance office Christmas party we played. The boss had killed an elk hunting and was proudly serving it to his coworkers. When they sat down to the meal, the band (3 professors and an attorney) took a break and were invited to eat the leftover hors d’oeuvres outside (in December) on the patio. At least I didn’t have to eat elk.

5. Students think you’re cool: Some of my favorite moments playing occur when young people in the audience do a double take or crane their necks to check me out in the band. This is sometimes followed on the set break by a conversation that begins, “I think I had you for a class.” In the best of times, this leads to comments like “you’re bad ass” or “you’re f***ing awesome,” high praise indeed for a professor. The downside to being cool involves receiving emails that begin “hey Julia” (sic.) or being addressed in class as “hey dude.” I try to refrain from launching into an etiquette lesson (but I don’t always succeed) and attempt to convince myself that being perceived as cool might just provide sugarcoating for the bitter pill of higher education.

Of course, the best thing hands down about moonlighting as a musician is the inspiration and insight it has provided for my research in the blues.


Featured image credit: by Julia Simon. 


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