By David Templeton | From the November-December 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
Violinist Dick Bright is a San Francisco Bay Area icon. In the early 1990s, he transitioned from a star-studded eight-year gig as musical director and band leader at the fabled Venetian Room supper club in San Francisco to a long career as the founder and front man for the hard-working party band Dick Bright’s SRO—once dubbed “the most over-the-top party band on the scene” by San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joel Selvin.
By Bright’s estimation, he’s played over 1,500 weddings; traveled around the world, working with “some of the biggest names in the history of show business”; and, to date, played his violin for an accumulated hundreds of thousands of people—including 40,000 baseball fans at game four of the 2002 World Series, where he played “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch.
Along the way, he’s learned a lot about being a working musician, picking up time-tested tips and tricks he now generously shares in his book, Workin’ for a Livin’: Makin’ It in the Music Business. A charming hybrid of first-person memoir, in-the-trenches storytelling, detail-rich self-help advice, and practical industry-specific information, the book features an introduction by the aforementioned rock historian Joel Selvin, several interviews with other musicians—some famous, some simply brilliant—and even has examples of the contract he uses when negotiating a deal to play with his band.
I recently visited Bright at his Marin County home, which is filled with memorabilia from his career, to discuss the book and the music business.
In Joel Selvin’s foreword to your book, he suggests that Workin’ for a Livin’ came about, at least in part, because the pandemic shut down live performances, and you used the downtime to pull the project together. Is the book something you’d been thinking of doing for a while?
I was originally encouraged to write this back in 2010 or 2011 when my party band, SRO, started to see gigs begin to dwindle a bit. My dad was a public school teacher and a professional musician, so I grew up with music, and I’d always wanted to pay it forward and put down in writing everything I know about the business to help young musicians who are starting out in the field.
I wrote about 150 pages back in 2012, but then I got busy again and dropped it. When the pandemic came around, I was very bored, as were most musicians. I reread what I’d written and got up the nerve to show it to Joel, who said, “This is a great idea.” But he suggested that, shall we say, my writing could use some work. He steered me to a professional book editor, who steered me to a professional graphic designer, who steered me to a professional publicist. One of the things I say in the book is that you have to invest in yourself. If you scrimp, people will know, so I’ve tried to do it right from the beginning, doing everything in as top-notch a way as possible. And it seems to be working.
From the beginning, was it always going to be a combination of memoir, celebrity interview, and how-to guidebook?
Absolutely. “Do as I Say, Not as I Did” was a chapter title I never used, but it was definitely a guiding principle. I have so many friends who are musicians, so I started calling them up and asking them questions. The interviews sprinkled throughout the book are, I think, the best thing about it.
I interviewed Greg Adams, the original trumpet player and arranger for Tower of Power. I talked to Jason Olaine, who at the time was booking Yoshi’s and is now running Jazz at Lincoln Center. To me, these experts are giving young musicians the tips and tricks they can use in their careers, a bit of a leg up. There are so many things that we can learn from these folks, a lot of them tips you’ll never find anywhere else. Like if you want to drink booze onstage, drink vodka because it looks like water. That’s something you will not learn from your junior high music teacher.
Here’s another example. I interviewed Mark Volkert, the assistant concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas. He was my favorite because I also am a classically trained violinist. He said, “You know, when you get to college or conservatory, they are talking as if you are going to be a big star playing concertos on fancy concert hall stages. But only a fraction of the working musicians in the world are big stars. Learn the Brahms 1, learn the Brahms 2, learn the Firebird Suite and the Mahler 5.” He gives a list and says that if you nail those, you will get a job in a major symphony. That kind of advice, to me, is gold, and there is a lot more like that in the book.
A lot of the best advice in the book is from your own experience. Especially useful and practical is the story you tell about the client who asked you to have the musicians there a few hours early to set up before the guests arrived.
And I said, “Absolutely, but you’ll have to pay for the extra hours.” She was shocked, and argued about it, saying that she wasn’t asking the musicians to perform during that time, just to wait a couple of hours until it was time to play. And I said, “If your boss asked you to start coming in at 8 a.m., though you don’t start work until 9:00, and don’t get paid until 9:00, and you will just be hanging around for an hour, you would probably go, ‘I’m not going to come in at 8:00 unless I’m getting paid starting at 8:00,’ wouldn’t you?” And she understood. It’s an important lesson, because a lot of us undervalue our work, and so I offer some hard-won tips on how to deal with getting what you deserve as a working musician.
The book really tackles the business side of things. Why did you feel that musicians needed a resource like this?
Because music schools don’t teach this stuff. A lot of great musicians graduate with a huge college loan to pay off and no real idea how they’re going to earn the money to do it. This is the music business. It’s show business. It’s business, and you have to approach it as such. Most music schools are not going to prepare you for the business side of life as a trained musician. They leave you to figure it out on your own.
Why don’t music schools teach these types of skills?
Well, maybe because no one has pitched it to them yet. As it so happens, I am beginning to talk with some Bay Area schools about having me come in and teach a class in real-world musician business skills. I’d love to teach an extension class or a workshop or a seminar. And Workin’ for a Livin’ could be the textbook. I think that would be fun.
You’ve said that there is a lot in this book that you won’t find in a lot of similar career-oriented books. What lessons are there here that are specific to you and your own career?
I think that—in addition to the stuff about contracts and agents, having good manners, and all that—probably what’s unique to me is my cosmic take on life. I’ve learned that there are people who understand that life is unfair, and people who just don’t get that and are always unhappy and stressed and angry about it. Once you make peace with the fact that life isn’t fair—and that is especially true in the worlds of music and show business—then you will have a happy, successful life.