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The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide

Eric Normand, the author of The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide gives a sneek peak at his new book!

I’m here today to tell you about a book, a book that I believe every musician or aspiring artist should read, “The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide.” The book is a street-level perspective of the music related jobs in the Nashville music industry and has been 2 1/2 years in the making – a labor of love, borne out of my genuine desire to help musicians navigate the rough seas of the music industry. As a professional freelance musician working in the Nashville music industry over the past decade, my experiences here have been an education as much as anything else. But long before I came to Nashville, I was sitting in a classroom learning music theory, and moving to Nashville, let alone writing a book about this place was the furthest thing from my mind.

When I walked out of the learning halls of Berklee for the last time, back in the spring of 1989, I had no idea what my future would hold. Although I was fairly proficient on my axe and armed with vast theoretical knowledge, at that point I didn’t yet have the much-needed street experience a musician can only gain from years of pounding the pavement – the endless stream of nightclub bands and gigs, years of teaching private lessons in a 6 x6 cubicle, driving two hours to play a gig after working all day as a salesman in a music store, maintaining a PA system, and the delicate juggling act required to successfully wear all of these hats and still keep my sanity.

By early 2002, I had experienced almost 15 years of this life of a working musician, one not unlike that of countless others earning a living from music while chasing their dreams. But this “working musician street life” was not anything Berklee had prepared me for. My Berklee education, while preparing me for many of the musical challenges that lay ahead, didn’t deal with the practical side of being a working musician, or the mindset or people skills needed to navigate these waters. I had left college with the utopian mindset of “I just want to play guitar and be creative,” “it’s all about the music,” and “I’m going to ‘make it’ in the music business no matter what it takes,” but it wasn’t really working out that way. At times I felt more like I was pool hall hustler than a musician and I was beginning to feel even further from accomplishing my dreams than when I left Berklee on that warm spring day in 1989. And while I did have many great musical adventures over the years, I often found myself lying in bed at night wondering “what lies beyond the borders of New England…what else is out there?“

“Why not check out Nashville?” were the words spoken by my wife on a cold winter day in early 2002. Little did I know at that moment that this simple statement would ignite an entirely new phase of my musical existence. I called a friend who had moved to Nashville in the early 90s and, upon his recommendation; we drove down to take a weeklong vacation to check it out. We fell in love with the place from the get go, there was so much musical activity, live bands playing all day and night, tours coming and going, paid recording sessions – yes, my friend had done quite well for himself and he was right in the middle of the kind of musical activity I longed for.

Three months later we made a permanent move to Music City, settled in, and went to work. Of course, work at first constituted more dues paying, and I would ultimately have to invest a bunch of time and money to get off the ground.

According to my friend, who fast became my Nashville mentor, “Going out and networking in the bars around town is how you will build a reputation for yourself and make the relationships you’ll need to succeed.” He also gave me other valuable advice like “Don’t join a band here, bands starve,” and what turned out to be one of the greatest truisms in Nashville and life “the people you are meeting today and the relationships you build with them are what is going to give you work five years from now.”

So I hit the clubs almost nightly, and this approach worked. After I built up a repertoire of “Nashville standards,” a list I compiled that I refer to as “the Nashville 100” I began to sit-in with some of these bands of ”hired guns,” many of who were fast becoming my friends. I started getting hired for some of these gigs, and although the pay wasn’t always the greatest (many Nashville gigs use a ‘base pay plus tips’ system), I was getting paid, and I was learning a new way of playing music while honing my chops and building relationships in the community.

About a year into this new life I landed my first road gig as guitar tech for the Toby Keith tour, one of the biggest tours in country music at that time. I landed the gig by a word-of-mouth referral from hanging out and sitting in at “The Fiddle and Steel,” a hotspot hangout for touring musicians. The tour was a whirlwind; hitting 90 US cities across all lower 48 states in a little over six months. Not only did I learn how to be a good guitar tech, I learned what it’s like to live and work on a tour and how to get along with others in close proximity. Perhaps because I wasn’t actually playing in this band I was able to view the nuts and bolts of a national level tour with more of a birds eye perspective – audio, lighting, and video production; merchandising; management; musicians; buses and transportation; sleeping while in motion; catering; interacting with fans – a lot happens on high-profile tours and about 50 people were part of this entourage ultimately deeming it its own unique, social entity. I would quickly learn that life on the road, even for the musicians themselves, was as much, if not more about cohesiveness and “the hang time,” then it is about playing music. I mean think about it, you’re only on stage for an hour or so a day. What happens during the other 23 hours?

Working on that tour was an eye-opener for me, and I took that knowledge with me when I left the following year to play guitar on another tour. In Nashville, once you establish yourself and become a part of the touring industry, you’re in the club, and it becomes easier to maintain work in that industry. Ever since my gig with Toby I have been working in the touring industry, eventually winding up as lead guitarist, bandleader, and tour manager for country music artist and songwriter, Rhett Akins.

Although touring has been my bread-and-butter over my decade in Nashville, I also sometimes work as a session guitarist, playing on various songwriter demos and custom projects. And just as working on the tours of Nashville has been a learning experience, playing on Nashville style recordings has been every bit as much of a learning curve. Songwriter demos make up a large part of the paid recording work in Nashville, and there is kind of a Nashville way of doing things when it comes to these recordings. Not always, but more often than not, this music is recorded to a click track. If a solo section is longer than four or eight bars, it is often shared with a second soloist. Knowing how to read and write Nashville number charts is essential when working in the studios around town. And, of course, how you acquire this work in the first place can be every bit as mysterious. It can be very cliquey and, ultimately comes down to, you guessed it, relationships.

All of this only scratches the surface of what’s here in Nashville and what it’s like to work in this community. It’s highly competitive, and brings to mind something one of my Berklee teachers once told me. It was the first day of my first Harmony class and the instructor started out by saying “80% of you will not be here this time next year.” He wasn’t trying to discourage us, he was simply conveying that more people fail then succeed at a Berklee education, as it is very challenging and not what everyone expects. I think the same things could be said regarding people trying to succeed in Nashville.

I don’t know how things would have turned out for me if I had moved here and didn’t have the advice and guidance of a friend on the inside. I’m one of the lucky ones. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen come and go over the years – hungry folks with good intentions that show up with their U-Haul full of belongings yet know very little about this place, ultimately moving back home after a year or so, broke and demoralized. Seeing this struggle over and over is what prompted me to write my book “The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide.” It’s not only the culmination of all of my experiences, it’s also based on much of the advice and info provided by my mentor, who had already spent 10 years in the trenches of Nashville before I arrived. And it goes beyond that, at the heart of the book are several in-depth interviews including one with Rhett who is currently one of the biggest songwriters in town; one with UMG record company executive, EJ Bernas; a bus driver, an A-list session player, and others.

If you are going to move to Nashville to succeed in the music industry here, or if you’re already here, information is perhaps your greatest ally. That’s what this book is, information. Information I learned on the streets – lessons learned the hard way that can’t originate in a classroom. The knowledge I gained during my Berklee education has served me well over the years, it is part of my musical being. But being in Nashville over the past decade was like going back to school, and sharing what I have learned here is at the core of these writings. I believe that knowing this information should be the minimal requirement for the entrance exam to the Nashville music industry.

I had to move to Nashville to see what lay beyond the borders of New England, what else was out there, and what was behind the invisible wall that cloaks the national music scene. This place may not be right for everyone, but for me, Nashville has been the second half of a music education that began a long time ago in the halls of Berklee – now I know what’s behind the curtain.


Eric Normand lives and works in Nashville, TN. He has worked with many big name acts includingToby Keith and Rhett Atkins. Normand is the author of The Nashville Musician’s Survival Guide, a book dedicated to the ins and outs of the Nashville music industry.

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1 Comment

  1. Raul Coutinho

    Hey Eric , thanks for Everything you said here. You’re helping a lot of People. I’m a guitarist from Brazil.. And i’ll be in nashville on august.. Just to know the city.. I love country Music and is gonna be my first time. See you.

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