In the Jazz world, image isn’t as important as it is in many of the other music industries, but appearance still plays an important role in the shape of your career. Having “been” in the jazz industry and working with or knowing other musicians who have been in it longer or have performed in other music genres, I have concluded that image is very significant – even if it is not in an obvious way.
Image can appear in a number of ways, it could be anything from being in an all girl band (image is your gender in this case) to dressing up in a suit just to respect the music and not look like a “bum” on stage. It is a matter of “looking the part”. However, your skill at your craft/instrument is also important – so you typically won’t get gigs based on your looks unless you are in pop music and look like a super model.
Image versus skill in some cases is important, and in others is not. Depending on the gig, you could get hired no matter what gender you are or what you look like if you have killer chops whereas another you might be hired over another person if you dress nicer even if they play better. It is important that you can be flexible with your wardrobe in a sense and be willing to look the part for a gig. Ideally, you want to go for the best of both – play well and present yourself well.
Sometimes your image, as far as gender, which you can’t really change, plays a role as well. From the female perspective, girls are sometimes hired or not hired solely based on their gender. Music is a male dominated industry, so music can be seen as a “guy” thing. Part of the appeal of a gig is the hang (also the money or the music) so guys sometimes feel like they can’t just “hang with the guys” with a girl there – which can be a reason they won’t hire a girl.
But at the same time girls also may be hired because of their gender. One reason is for image – a girl in a band creates gender diversity in the group. Unfortunately, she also is sometimes hired so she can be something to look at by the guys in the band or by the audience. Another reason a girl may be hired is because the bandleader may have a crush and is looking for more than just the girl’s playing (watch out for this one). Whatever the reason for a girl being hired or not hired is just another example of the role image plays in the shape of one’s career as an artist. Some of the scenarios are quite unfortunate, but they exist and it is important to be aware of the possibility of each one.
The importance of image as opposed to skill changes within each music genre. It is all about what the art is trying to do; if I may be so bold, how “authentic” the art is. Finding which shape your career takes is up to you and which direction makes you happy.
It is important to understand that liking pop music and wanting to play pop does NOT make you a sellout. If you like jazz, but you play pop music for the money, well, that is different, but a lot of people do it. Jazz is a selective industry, so it is very difficult to make money as a jazz musician. Sometimes, musicians need to find a way to supplement their income, and that can take a variety of forms, including what some might call “selling out”.
Try not to let the opinions and statements of others make decisions for you. Consider your own values and goals, then make your own decisions. You are the one that has to live with the choices you have made, no one else does, so make choices that give you satisfaction and will not cause you to regret your decisions later on.