Many years ago, my brother made a statement that went against everything I believed in. He was a very successful actor and had much more experience in the entertainment business than I did. But during that particular period of my life, no one could tell me anything. If a concept didn’t fit into what “I” determined to be true, I’d consider it fallacious and absurd. I, like most artists, had set a course for my music career that was not about to be altered, especially by someone who didn’t do what I did. I didn’t realize how all of these truths and rules apply regardless of your field.
So when my brother casually exclaimed that "’No’ is the most powerful word in Hollywood," I thought he’d lost his mind. How could "no," the most negative part of any exchange, possibly be considered powerful? "’No’ is a counterproductive response," I thought, "which stops you from getting things done." And so I set about the business, as so many siblings do, of proving my brother wrong. It took me 20 hard years to understand the “concept” of "no." It took almost that long to understand the concept of "one day at a time." Both concepts are simple. Both are very difficult for the hard-headed to grasp.
When I discuss "no," it’s in the context of "No, I cannot," as opposed to "Yes, I can." Some examples:
"No! I cannot work this gig for the door, I’ve got to have some sort of guarantee."
"No! I can’t drive 200 miles to do this gig without some mileage consideration."
"No! I can’t cart the whole band and PA equipment up four flights of stairs (unless you can include cartage in the contract)."
"No! I can’t do the gig without a contract (I’ll send mine if you don’t have one)."
All of these answers initiate negotiation.
This is not “no for the sake of saying no,” but no to things that keep you from progressing in your career. It’s a declaration of what you stand for and, when used correctly, will signal that you are a musician who not only performs, but takes care of serious business.
When you begin to use the "No, I can’t" instead of the "Yes, I can" response, expect a transition where you outgrow various relationships. If you’re a leader, many musicians may question your sanity for passing over a gig that doesn’t pay much, especially on a night when "nothing is happening." If you’re a sideman, many leaders may resent the fact that you have your own personal scale. But bands and musicians have to set parameters as to what they will and will not play for, along with goals for what they think they should be earning. Of course, those scales and goals must be realistic.
The weird thing about "yes" in our business is that many people perceive that response as a sign of weakness, much like kindness. A quick "yes" indicates that you’re eager to take the gig, that you’re hungry and have nothing better to do. A quick "no" indicates that you’re not anxious to take the gig, that your plate is full and that you must be busy doing other things; in other words, that you must be in demand. More often than not, this business would rather become involved with a group that’s in demand than a group that’s not doing anything. Wouldn’t you? As superficial as this illusion may be, it can put you in a better position to negotiate upward. Usually, if a client gets past the "no" and asks what it would take to make you say "yes," an open, honest, courteous response will probably get you a better deal.
The tragic thing about "yes" is that it will lock you into a rotation that may not be good. If you say "yes" to pay-to-play or play-for-the-door gigs, that’s what you will be perceived as being worth. The pseudo-logic used to get bands to play for less than they are worth is: "This is a dead night, you’re not working, you might as well take this gig, it’s better than nothing." And then, ironically, musicians turn around and use that dumb logic on themselves. But what we forget is that what we get paid is no secret. When you take a casual for $400 (even as a favor), anyone who wants to book you can easily find out what you charged. That’s the rate they’ll have in mind when they call you.
When you decide to move to a better level, you’ll have to do it yourself, the business won’t do it. When I decided that I needed more than I had been working for, my gigs slowed down to nothing. It was a very difficult period. But then, most transitions are. Slowly, those scale gigs were replaced by calls from clients who knew what I’d cost and were willing to pay. It took time, but I make a better living now with fewer gigs and fewer hours.
"No" is not for the squeamish. It’s like working out in the gym: it may hurt a little now, but you’ll not only look better, you’ll feel better–later.
Originally posted 2009-01-09 03:08:45.