Is This a Bad Time to Be in Music?

With all of the negative news out there about the Great Recession, unemployment, gas prices, et cetera, it might seem counterproductive to consider pursuing a career in music. Wouldn’t you be inviting disaster? What if you failed? Shouldn’t you consider something “safe” instead?

The fact is that nothing is “safe,” and that any business can fail – music included. But there are a couple of good indicators that suggest there has never been a better time to be in the music business.

The first of these indicators comes in the form of “Why This is a GREAT Time to Be in Music,” a blog post by David Cutler. He notes that the floodgates have been opened by the internet and other media: we have more access to music today than at any other time in history – and in more formats, too. And while the deluge has diminished the role of the uber-mega-superstar, it has created broader musical tastes on the part of the consumer, thus opening the market to more people. Finally, social media has elevated the role of the fan from passive concert attendee to interactive artist marketing participant.

The second indicator is a story from the New York Times that reviewed earnings reports of selected entertainment companies. In general, the news is good: Netflix and Redbox have discovered that people still want to rent movies, and they’ve seen an uptick in profits (Redbox especially so). Viacom and Time Warner have also reported strong earnings from their Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and Harry Potter movies, respectively. And Sirius XM Radio, Inc. added over half a million subscribers last quarter. The overall message here is that people are still willing to pay for entertainment.

So, is it a bad time to go into music as a career?

Back in college, when I wanted to be a novelist, I had the good fortune to meet Jessie Hill Ford. I spoke to him of my ambition and asked him if he had it to do all over again, would he follow the same path. “Absolutely,” he said, “and I think you should, too. The sweetest money you’ll ever make will come from writing. And there’s always room for one more good writer, and there’s an audience out there for his work. It may be big, or it may be small. But it’s out there.”

Ford wasn’t speaking of composing or songwriting or performing, but his message is clear, regardless. Creative careers are tough, but no tougher than starting any other business. And at the end of the day, the measure of your success should be the satisfaction you get out of what you do, not the money you make or don’t make. The money will take care of itself.

A bad time for a music career? The time has never been better!

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David Cutler balances a varied career as a jazz and classical composer, pianist, educator, arranger, conductor, collaborator, concert producer, author, consultant, speaker and advocate. Dr. Cutler teaches at Duquesne University, where he also serves as Coordinator of Music Entrepreneurship Studies. His book, The Savvy Musician, is available here.

What Seth Godin Can Teach the Music Industry

Entrepreneur, author, and public speaker Seth Godin was recently interviewed by Ariel Hyatt of ArielPublicity. I found out about the interview from a tweet from Ian Clifford and Amanda McGowan over at makeitinmusic.com, and I thought it was awesome enough to share with you.

Seth’s premise is that the music industry – the industry of Neil Diamond, as he puts it – is dead, and that the music business paradigm has changed completely. His key points in Part 1 are

  • Do something weird
  • Even though the music industry is dead, there are more opportunities than ever before
  • Your job as a musician is not to fill a slot, but to lead a group of people who want to follow you
  • Give your music away for free

Watch Part 1 below.

In Part 2, Seth gets blunt about money in music. If you’re angry all the time about not getting paid what you think you’re worth as a musician, he says, go do something else. Don’t worry if folks play your songs for free. The problem isn’t piracy, it’s obscurity. Solve the obscurity problem, and the money will take care of itself. In other words, be remarkable.

Watch Part 2 below.

Steps to Understanding Notes and Intervals

Not my school, but you get the idea.

I teach piano twice a week to small groups of students at my middle school. Last week I began teaching them about intervals, and I noticed that I wasn’t getting the concept across in all cases. Nevertheless, I forged ahead with the examples in the book as though they were gospel, even as I made a mental note to research other methods for future lessons.

I still hadn’t thought of anything by lesson time today, when, as they were filing into my studio, it hit me.

“Come with me,” I said. “Let’s take a walk.”

We walked to the atrium, which houses two large staircases. They gathered at the bottom while I explained the game. I told them that these steps were the keys on the piano keyboard, and that we were working in the key of C. I announced the names of the “keys” as I dropped note flashcards on each step, starting with C and ending with G. I then told my students to stand on the notes that I called out.

That was fun! Some cried out as they marched up to F, “I’m winning! I’m winning!” Okay, I thought, this was going to work well.

It was time to try intervals. I asked them how many steps they needed to take from C to stand on G. One said 3, another 4.

“Well,” I said, “in music you have to start with the note you’re on and count it. You also count the one you end up on.”

“Oh,” one of them said, stepping off the interval. “One … two … three … four … FIVE!”

“Right!” I exclaimed. “Perfect!”

We went on like that. They counted up from C and down from G, and then they began counting up and down from wherever they were. A third down from F? No problem. A fourth up from D? Easy.

We then went back to the studio and worked out on mini whiteboards what these intervals looked like on the staff. I had them start with C and go up and down by various intervals. It was tougher than the steps, but they were able to get it since they had the concept. We then took our “compositions” back to the stairs and did some “sight-reading.” Finally, back to the piano to hear the piece.

I think my students enjoyed the break in routine as much as the activity itself. They’re in school all day, and my studio is a small, unused office with a donated upright in it. I love it, but to them it’s still a classroom. Today they got to move.

But as much as I enjoyed doing this myself, I doubt I’ll use a staircase to teach glissandi!

Making Time to Make Music

My last post dealt with some suggestions as to how to become a successful musician, with defining success for yourself as the most important of those suggestions. In this post I’ll point you to “Artistic Efficiency: How to Create More and Get Out of Your Own Way,” a wonderful article by Michael Shoup. In it, he lays out the five steps that took him from touring his way into over $6,000 worth of debt (an event that almost derailed his music career) to ditching the debt, completing an album, starting a music marketing company, and booking an extensive, money-making tour. Briefly stated, those five steps are:

  1. Minimize. Shoup says that the first thing musicians need to learn is how to cut out all of the things that suck valuable time out of their days. Ask yourself what sort of things you do during the day, and then ask yourself what would happen if you just stopped doing them. Would you have more time to practice, to write, to record? Does that extra time fit in with your definition of success? 
  2. DelegateRule #1: Never ask anyone to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself. Rule #2: Always try to get someone else to do it for you. You get the idea. Likely there are some tasks that you may be able to stop doing yourself, but they still have to be done by someone. You may be able to hire someone to help, but if you’re like most up-and-coming musicians, you’re probably a little short about now. Tap into your network of friends. Perhaps they can help you free up some time.
  3. Prioritize. As a former trainer with FranklinCovey, I can attest to the fact that knowing your priorities and making time for them is the key to a happy life. When you minimize, you begin to realize that you can’t (and shouldn’t) do it all. Shoup makes a list of things he needs to do and then ranks the list according to what he deems most important. All of a sudden he’s focused on the things that matter the most.
  4. Automate. This step is closely related to delegation. What are some routine tasks that could be taken care of automatically, but without becoming too impersonal? For example, Shoup funneled his booking emails to an auto-responder that followed up and sent a press release without his having to get involved.
  5. Create. Shoup’s last step is actually the result of having minimized, delegated, prioritized, and automated. This is so important, Shoup says, because

[a]s an artist or content creator, this is what will actually make or break you in the end. This is what you should be funneling the vast majority of your time and effort into as it feeds your authentic ability to connect and engage your audience.

These steps need to be running in the background as you chart your path to musical success. Make them your operating system. Cleaning the clutter from your life is a good thing, even if you don’t yet know what you need to do to be successful. My guess is that you’ll figure that out during the creative time you’ve managed to carve out for yourself.

Visit Michael Shoup at his website.m

Performance Contracts: When Should You Get It In Writing?

Note: this is NOT our band. It's just an example of an average, outdoor gig.

I was once in a band that had been hired to do some outdoor shows at a local restaurant. The work was seasonal, and we were to play once a month for about 6 or 7 gigs (we were paid at the end of each show, and each of us got $75). Unfortunately, we missed out on about half of them because of rain. I suggested that we should use a performance agreement that had some sort of provision for rescheduling in case of rain. The bandleader disagreed, saying that the venue wouldn’t sign one and would just hire another band. I figured that since we were only getting about half of what we would have gotten anyway, we didn’t have much to lose by asking.

InnerRhythm director Kavit Haria suggests that it isn’t always necessary to get a performance contract:

… if you’re playing a house concert or a coffee shop gig, there’s no real reason to have a contract as it’s only you and maybe a few others, and a “handshake” or verbal agreement is good enough.

Haria’s article on contracts does acknowledge that there are times when an agreement is necessary, and that it’s “best to take it as it comes.” I take that to mean that he has a dollar figure in mind that serves as a cutoff point, and that’s not a bad thing. And it’s probably fair to say that most musicians who play the average Saturday night club gig work without a net, and they probably do just fine.

This is not to say that you never should work without an agreement. In “Performance Contracts,” author Keith Hatschek is quite clear about the relationship between contracts and service and money:

If you [have] a written performance agreement signed and in place, you likely [will] be in a position to negotiate all or part of your band’s payment. Without any type of written music contract, the chance of your getting any money is minimal.

To help ease the deer-in-the-headlights reaction when someone says “contract,” it’s useful to understand what the definition is. Hatschek explains that oral agreements are considered contracts. So are emails and simple written agreements, such as the ones you can download from the internet. These would probably do very well for most local acts, though larger shows may have several pounds of paper invested in their contracts. However, all of them are designed to spell out the following:

  1. Scope of performance (how long will the show be, breaks, etc.)
  2. Date, time, and place for performance
  3. Compensation (aside from the fee, are there other factors (free food, lodging, etc)?)
  4. Technical requirements (lights, sound, etc.)

Other things could be addressed, and Haria’s article goes into greater detail about them, but the main thing is to develop an agreement that works and use it when you book a gig. I suggest developing at least two: one for the coffee shop gig and one for a larger club. In either case, a simple email covering the 4 basic areas listed above should do just fine. (I would print and save both the email and read receipt.) Above all, be sure to present the agreement to the booking agent or owner in a professional manner.

Think back to my situation I mentioned at the beginning of this article. Did the venue sign a contract? No. Did they expect us to play for a specified number of hours? Yes. Did they specify the location and amount to be paid if we played? Absolutely. Did they agree to provide other compensation and technical requirements (free food and a lighted stage)? Of course.

So since we had an oral agreement (or, in other words, a contract), how would a written copy of all of that have changed anything? The band would have more legal recourse with a written agreement had the owner refused to pay.

The bandleader in that situation was reluctant to ask for an agreement, fearing that the club would move on to another band. I would argue that such an attitude is more of an issue of self-worth; it certainly isn’t related to business, and whether you do it on the side or as a full-time occupation, music is still a business. And if a club won’t sign a written statement of what they said, you should probably think twice before you play that gig.

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Kavit Haria is The Musicians’ Coach. Kavit is the director of InnerRhythm, a company that prides on providing success solutions for musicians worldwide. Visit him at www.innerrhythm.org.

Keith Hatschek is a contributing writer for Echoes and is the author of two books on the music industry, Golden Moments: Recording Secrets of the Pros and How To Get a Job in the Music Industry. He directs the Music Management program at University of the Pacific.

Note that this article is not intended to serve as legal advice. You should seek the advice of an attorney if you have specific legal questions.

Becoming a Successful Musician

One of Sir Elton John's mansions.

The first step in becoming a successful musician is knowing what that word means to you.

Seriously. It’s that easy.

Most of us are led to believe that success is equal to fortune and fame, and it’s understandable how we have this attitude. But the good folks at the Live Unsigned Blog say that it’s a mistake to judge your own success by the standards of others. Make a plan, set small goals,  and don’t do it for the money are three sound bits of advice set down in their article, “How Do You Define Success as a Musician?” I strongly suggest you read and ponder it, regardless of where you are in your career.

Understanding Value and Worth

I used to work for a printing company in downtown Nashville, and I was on my way to work one morning when I noticed a man standing outside one of the city’s modest skyscrapers. He was well-dressed, and a smart-looking briefcase stood on the ground beside him. But what really attracted my attention was the sign he held: “Will work for $30,000 a year.”

It seemed a very clever idea. I asked him if he’d had much interest. “Loads,” he replied. He had a folder stuffed with resumes, and he said he’d handed out about 30 or so before 8:00 that morning.

While I never found out what happened with him, I always assumed he got a job by means of his unique marketing strategy. It was the mid-Nineties, and $30,000 seemed a reasonable starting salary for any number of entry-level professional positions.

This man comes to mind now because he had obviously done his homework. He knew his worth, but he knew his value, too, and he understood the difference between the two figures. He probably thought he was worth at least $60,000 per year, but he knew what he could reasonably expect in Nashville. In other words, thirty grand a year was what the market would bear, what the market said he was worth. Once he was hired and proved his value to a company, advancement would follow.

The same thing is true with bands or any other business. Pricing yourself or your band out of the market is an excellent way to stay in the garage, says David Lowry in this excellent article. “If you aren’t producing the kind of numbers (at your shows) that determine what you think you should be getting paid,” he cautions bands, “you won’t.”

Lowry speaks a sobering truth. I’ve known musicians who won’t even consider a gig for less than $150 per musician (or the worth figure). That’s all well and good, but those guys need to realize that the club doesn’t owe them a place to play. Moreover, there are other musicians who are a little more hungry and a little less proud who will take the $100 per musician (the value figure) the club is offering. They may be less talented, or they may not, but as I said in my last post, talent isn’t high on the list of what clubs are after.

That doesn’t mean that you have to take what a club is offering you. Think back to the man seeking $30,000 a year. He knew that amount would cover his living expenses with perhaps enough left over to pursue his passion (music, maybe?). Like him, ou must also know your operating expenses:  if it costs you more than your night’s pay to drive back and forth from the gig and to pay your food and beverage tab before leaving, then the gig isn’t worth it to you. Everything is negotiable.

On the other hand, if you’re trying to break into a new market in a larger city or another state, you might have to take a little less at first if you want to get in. Your band may have packed the house at the Smallsville Civic Center, but that’s a far cry from LA or New York. As Lowry says,

When you start talking to new markets about your band, don’t assume because you get $1,500 in one market, you will in another. Some venues will pay this, most won’t because they don’t know you, they don’t have any experience with you, and if you have never played in the area before, well then you won’t be bringing a crowd either ….

So be prepared to pay your dues. Do your homework before you visit your next club, and have in mind three figures when you negotiate the gig:

  1. What you want to get paid (your worth)
  2. What other clubs in the area pay (your value)
  3. The absolute minimum you must have (your squeal point)

Be willing to say no if the deal doesn’t make sense. But if you understand the difference between your band’s value and worth, you’ll probably book more gigs, and you’ll also be more satisfied than if you stayed at home and played in the garage.

David Lowry is the owner of The Lowry Agency, a full service artist management/development and promotions agency. Visit http://www.thelowryagency.com/ for more information.