One of the great privileges of being a long-term professional musician is that, if you plan and prepare properly, you will get the chance to perform in other countries. There are many blogs, magazines, and books that explain getting the proper work visa, finding contacts, booking clubs and son. But this initial legwork does not prepare you for actually being overseas and what happens on the ground when you are in the middle of it all.
From Estonia to Israel, Iceland to Việt Nam, I have been extremely lucky to have performed in many countries (multiple times in many of them) thanks to the opportunities I capitalized on while actually there, rather than trying to just get gigs in foreign countries via the Internet and phone, all while residing in Canada.
(It is rather amazing how long hours of hard work and years of preparation creates “luck”)
As I am not skilled in business, marketing, or social media use (and learnt all this from experience long before the Internet and social media), I have discovered these DIY methods are more effective and time tested, guaranteed to work with proper preparation. This ground level, old school social action means you have to manage your health, reputation, and time carefully in order to do your best. So whether is a quick hop over the border to Michigan or a very long hop over the ocean to Ghana, international performance is as challenging as it is exciting, and there are four essential actions you must do (beginner or professional) to capitalize on your travels and create opportunities upon arriving: flight preparation and health, time zone management, hotel booking, and social networking.
First, you would be really surprised at how ill prepared even many so-called professional musicians are for the actual flight(s), like flying is merely getting on a plane and just sitting there. Since there is a lot more on the line as working musician in this case, you must manage yourself like a road manager manages a full band on a world tour. All the best laid plans mean nothing if you arrive at your gig jet lagged, hungry, sick, lacking luggage, or exhausted from flying. And in some cases, a lack of preparation will land you in the hospital. For example, a young professional drummer I know did not get up from his seat on a long flight to China and developed a blood clot in his leg (deep vein thrombosis) that not only completely crippled his leg but also nearly killed him by moving towards his lungs and heart. Even after emergency intervention he still had to take pills and watch his health for months after. So first rule of international performance is to take your in-flight health management seriously. Know your itinerary and have several physical or electronic copies of vital paperwork (visas, hotel reservations, addresses, etc.) available in case you lose any of it. I always e-mail such things to my various e-mails so I have them stored off of my laptop or mobile devices in case of loss, theft, or malfunction. And be doubly sure you get the proper visas and forms completed and approved in plenty of time before leaving. You don’t ant to spend your trip frustrated and confused in foreign airports because you assumed that you had everything in order.
Then, make sure you drink plenty of water, stretch your legs and walk the plane’s cabin at least once every 80 minutes when you are awake. Eat healthy on the flight and avoid alcohol to stay fresh and energetic. Ask the stewardesses for hand sanitizer to avoid picking up any potential illnesses. Most importantly for your career, study the time zone differences, and prepare to sleep as little or as much as necessary on the flight to arrive at your destination already adjusted to the time difference. If you leave Toronto at 4 pm on a Wednesday, and immediately sleep a full eight hours on a 13-hour flight, you will be awake from midnight on until you arrive at 5 am Thursday in Beijing, and will have a very long day ahead of you. If you don’t put any consideration into flight time and time zone alterations, you will find yourself at a major health disadvantage, especially if the smog in Beijing is as it usually is, at extremely toxic levels. And the quality and cost of emergency health care varies widely from country to country, and your health insurance may not cover what you think they cover, meaning you could be sick, not receiving proper health care, and thousands of dollars in debt rather rapidly if you are not careful. So, even these rather obvious tips save you a lot of grief and money if you follow them strictly.
(Tip: if it is at all possible, try to get upgraded to or outright fly first class, e.g. if you are being sponsored, on an overbooked flight that is not vital in getting you to your destination by a certain time or day, are offered an excellent deal at the ticket desk, the first class section is mostly empty on a connecting flight, and so on. Not that economy class is necessarily always “bad” but first class is of such quality that it almost guarantees you arrive rested, healthy, relaxed, and happy at your destination. This may not be possible on your first of hopefully many trips, but setting affordable first class flying as a career goal is a valuable strategy long term. Luckily, on the first trip I ever made to Japan, I ended up in first class and, after seven hours of flying across a rather major time zone change, arrived energized and happy, and ready to perform on arrival. When your soul is joyous, there is very little you can’t overcome on an international trip.)
Thus, after strategically preparing for flight, you can now “stick the landing”: arrive healthy and fresh, and ready to start capitalizing on another tip for international travel, the art of booking a hotel from the airport. All decent hotels have an airport phone and offer great deals for the arriving passenger facing dozens of options. The saving can be rather spectacular, as I discovered at Keflavik Airport in Iceland, finding a fantastic bed and breakfast in downtown Reykjavik for $30 a night, while all other lodgings cost at least $200 a night. This tip applies to most of the world, though it is not advised in countries like Viet Nam or Thailand, where the taxi and hotels scams are becoming increasingly rampant and sophisticated.
This tip also relates to an extremely important secret about getting gigs locally or globally. The most powerful, important people on the planet are maids, secretaries, janitors, flight attendants, taxi drivers, waitresses, and any other job that society deems more menial than being a lawyer or doctor, etc. These people work hard and deserve as much respect as anyone else (often much much more!). They also know what goes on behind the scenes, and have very significant access to networks and people that you would have to spend weeks tracking down or setting up meetings with. Building sincere, respectful friendships with them is not only fun, but gives you the opportunity to benefit their life as much as they may yours. So do your part to keep your hotel room clean, be polite to flight attendants, tip the waitress more than standard, and so on. You will be happier, they will be happier, and don’t be surprised if the hotel clerk accepts the free tickets you gave her to your gig and she brings her brother, who just so happens to work for Sony Music.
Case in point: while at a conference in Athens, Greece I was literally given the opportunity to perform at a soirée at the British Ambassador’s residence, a gorgeous palatial home with lush gardens and a spectacular night view of the Parthenon. The performance was fun, the food was unbelievable, and the opportunities to schmooze, makes contacts, and get more work were endless, as the guests were all extremely well known Athenians well connected in business, politics, and the fine arts. Plus, I ended up falling in love with a gifted Polish pianist, whose own government had brought her to Athens for that very performance! Thus, I was gifted this amazing opportunity because I had made friends with the concert organizer, who also happened to be a teacher at the school where the conference was being held. And the reason we became fast friends is because I had asked the conference organizer to billet me at a local home (the teacher’s), not only to save money, but to learn more about Greek life and culture, and use the money I would have spent on a hotel to buy groceries for the family and so on. And, because I was living with the teacher and her family, I became friends with all of them and even got to visit the grand parents in the town of Marathon, and have one of the best traditional dinners of my life, falling into an almost supernaturally pleasant sleep on the couch while listening through the window to the waves crashing on the shoreline.
So, because I had tried to become more engaged with and contributory to the local citizens, I unintentionally was given access to some amazing career and Life experiences I could not have “achieved” ever no matter how hard I tried. This also relates to another important aspect of international travel for Canadian musicians in particular: our international reputation.
Thanks to our country’s past and present effort to be a positive, non-imperialist force for good in the world, Canadians are welcomed very openly and enthusiastically all across the world. We have a well-earned reputation for being polite, environmental conscious visitors, and continuing that tradition is an important legacy for all of us. Taking personal responsibility for maintaining this global bonhomie is not only our duty as Canadians, but also a social and career advantage that can be utilized without exploitation. We are a diverse and openminded nation, so demonstrate this through getting to know the culture of the country/countries you perform in. Even a sincerely spoken word or two in another nation’s language shows that you care enough to try and understand them on their terms, which is good all around.
It is also true that most people know very little about Canada or our culture, so what better way to make friends and business connections by bringing little souvenirs for anyone and everyone you meet on your trip? Having done your research on what is appropriate gift giving in every country you visit, you can then always find cheap, decent quality knick-knacks to potentially hand out to your audience, hotel staff, and so on. Once again, this local gift giving should come from the heart with no thought of reward… but there is nothing wrong with also unintentionally benefitting from it, as the case may be. And everyone loves a free T-shirt!
Another case in point: on my previously mentioned trip to Iceland I learnt from a flight attendant that, due to the prohibitively high cost of various whiskies in Iceland at that time, most people just drank beer or cheap vodka. Thus, if I wandered into the airport duty free shop, bought a couple bottles of something, and held a hotel room party for the musicians I was to be working with, it would be deeply appreciated. Thus, since I had saved so much money finding a B&B for $30 a night, I made duty free “investments” in the Bushmills and Jack Daniels corporations, and soon held said party. Within a day or so, my performance itinerary expanded almost exponentially, I made several permanent friends, and Canada’s reputation as a producer of generous, friendly citizens remained intact. One random comment from a flight attendant, and one act of sincere generosity later, my career was greatly enhanced.
So these previously mentioned activities, as obvious as they seem, are truly serious steps towards building a sustainable international career. And, after having performed internationally for nearly 40 years across 19 countries, I can very confidently assure you these activities will virtually guarantee your own even greater success as an international musician.