House Concerts: The Cure For the Common Venue

Wondering where to book your band next? Why not try the living room of one of your fans?

Over the past few years, house concerts have grown in popularity for many reasons. According to the New York Times, house concerts provide a more intimate and less expensive alternative than large venues. They also appeal to artists because the audience is there specifically for the more relaxed and highly social experience.

And they are more predisposed to like the artist and buy his merchandise.

House concerts are usually set up by someone who has both a love of live music and a fairly large house or yard. Guests are invited to bring a potluck dish and to make a donation to the artist, usually between ten and twenty dollars. If the musical guest is on tour, and the house concert is a stop along the way, the host usually offers lodging for the night.

Read the excellent Times article here for an overview of the subject. To learn more about house concerts and how to host or book them, visit Russ and Julie’s House Concerts website. And, yes, yours truly will be happy to play at your home.

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How Bands Create Set Lists

Most musicians I know struggle valiantly against playing songs from The Uber Top 100 Songs Of All Time That All Bands Must Play (hereinafter known as The List), only to wind up playing some of them in the end. If you have ever wondered why many cover bands seem to play the same songs, the following video should help solve the mystery.

Self-Marketing for Musicians

23The hard part about being a musician is that most of us tend to shy away from marketing. Oh, we can put up a website or a Facebook page, but many times we just leave it at that. We don’t update the website, and it remains there – frozen in cyberspace and time, like some digital fossil. And when it comes time to actually talk to people and ask for gigs, many of us scurry off and try to find something better to do. Like visit the dentist.

I’m stepping up to the head of the line on this one. But fortunately I ran across an excellent article by Bob Popyk in a back issue of International Musician. (For those of you who don’t recognize the publication, it’s the official journal of the American Federation of Musicians.) In it, he gives 12 easy steps to follow that, if done consistently, should help you fill up your calendar. Some of the more essential ones are as follows:

  • Keep your website and social media outlets current. Update your bio, your set list, shows, and other news. Use Twitter search tools to find friends who like your kind of music and engage them. But beware: spamming is not engagement.
  • Start a blog and post to it regularly. It’s a great way to keep fans coming back to your site. (You’re reading mine now!)
  • If you don’t have business cards, get them. Nothing says “I’m a professional” better than a business card. They don’t have to be flashy, and you don’t need to spend a lot of money on them. But do have them professionally printed, and splurge on the heavier paper and gloss finish.
  • Make sure your voice mail message is clear and understandable. Return calls promptly.
  • Create or update your promo kit. It should contain a cover letter, band or artist bio, a demo CD, photos, press clippings, and a tour schedule. Make sure it looks nice and that the spelling and grammar are correct.

Bob has many other self-marketing suggestions in his article, but I feel his best piece of advice is reminder about attitude: keep it upbeat. “Remember,” he says, “you are in the entertainment business. You are in a fun business. Your attitude will very often get you as many gigs as your talent, marketing expertise, and sales skills.”

You can find out more about the AFM at www.afm.org.

Putting the Work In Working Musician

Jason Parker is one working musician. Really. I know this primarily because of his handle on Twitter, @1WorkinMusician, and because he’s written about it. His website even has the tag line “Makin’ It Happen – Livin’ the Dream – Payin’ the Bills.”

I remember reading one of his blog posts last year in which he celebrated his ten-year anniversary as a musician who makes his money solely from playing jazz trumpet. “When I quit my day job in 2001,” he reflected in his article, “I had no idea what my life would end up looking like, but I knew that whatever the outcome I’d be happier if I at least tried to build my life around my passion for playing music. From where I sit now, I can’t imagine it turning out any other way!”

So what must one do to get to where Jason sits now? How does one prepare to make the leap of faith from music as a hobby to music as a profession? Guitarist and author Cameron Mizell spells it out for you in his excellent article, “How To Find Work As a Gigging Musician.”

Before setting out to find work, Mizell advises musicians to take stock of their musical and networking skills. In short, understand your skill sets, reputation, and how the rest of the community sees you. Those two metrics will have a direct influence on what sort of work you get.

Making sure your musical chops are tight is fairly easy, though it does take dedication and work. In addition to ear training, Mizell strongly advocates learning how to read music. You’re simply more marketable if you can read, and you’re able to accept more diverse work, including Broadway. Finally, have a tune ready that you can play solo and at the drop of a hat. That way you’ll be prepared at an audition when you’re asked to “play a little something.”

Getting to that audition in the first place may be the hardest part, however, and you’ll need to know how to network in order to keep your calendar full. Mizell mentions reciprocation, paying it forward, using college connections, and using the internet as excellent ways to reach out to those who can hire you. Following up an audition with a handwritten note or recommending one of your students for a gig are two great ways to make sure your name gets some positive circulation. Developing relationships through social media tools such as Twitter and LinkedIn, and maintaining a good, user-friendly website are also important to your reputation.

From there, Mizell runs down a list of key groups who hire musicians, music directors, churches, TV/film professionals, schools, and the military among them, and you should read his descriptions of all of them. (I have a few more possibilities listed here.) Making money with cruise ship gigs, in a Broadway orchestra pit, or with a military band may not be your cup of tea, but the point here is that not pursuing these gigs needs to be a choice you make for you, not one some limitation (like having no reading or networking skills) makes for you.

Keep working, keep learning, and keep doing, and soon you’ll find yourself ready to follow in Jason Parker’s footsteps by becoming one more working musician.

The F-Word (Free)

Warning! This post contains a word that is potentially offensive to musicians: free. If you wish to avoid exposure (oops, another expletive!) to this word, please click your browser’s return button.

I’ve written before on the difference between value and worth, the former being the price tag the market wants to hang on musicians in general, and the latter being the perceived value you have of your own talents. Most of the time there’s a meeting in the middle, and everybody is satisfied.

But I’ve never heard a musician say that he or she wasn’t worth anything. In fact, I’ve heard and read just the opposite. Don’t play for free. Club owners are just using musicians who do a gratis gig. You’re selling yourself out, and you’re selling out your fellow musicians. All of these are excellent reasons not to play a free gig.

So it’s always a bad idea to play for free exposure. Right?

Well, yes. And no.

If a venue is making money, then you should be making money as well. Club owners who try to get by on the cheap by offering “free exposure” (or worse, a percentage of the door) do musicians no favors , and players who take these gigs ultimately wind up hurting the community of musicians who are trying to make a living (or part of one) by selling their time and talent. No club owner would tell a vendor he would “try” his beer for a week, and that he’d pay for it if his patrons liked it. Yet musicians across the country get fed the same exposure line on a daily basis, and we’re expected to take it and be grateful?

But the club owner doesn’t want to get screwed any more than the band does. He wants to sell food and drink. He’s not a producer; he’s not interested in advancing anyone’s career other than his own. He doesn’t want to invest in entertainment that his patrons may not want to see and walk out on, even if they’re good. Musicians call him up every day and swear they have a huge following, a million Facebook friends, and that they can bring a mob to the club. Of course, he’s heard that one too many times before (face it, folks, we’re all guilty).  So he plays it safe, offering no promises beyond free food, drinks, and exposure. Maybe he offers the door, or a percentage of it.

That being said, I would strongly caution musicians against always saying never, as there are certain occasions when a free gig makes good business sense. Here are some:

  • If you’re a brand-spanking-new band, and nobody has heard you, despite the fact you have a killer demo, then take the gig. Use the occasion to get used to playing in public under stressful conditions (nerves, loud club, rude patrons, drunk patrons, repeated requests for “Free Bird” or “What a Wonderful World”, etc.). And bring a tip jar, but don’t expect people to rush forward with cash all by themselves. Let them know you’d appreciate their generosity. Mentioning that twice per set is not too often.
  • Play a charity event with 2 or 3 other bands, and go in with them to advertise it heavily. Invite all of the people mentioned in the suggestion above. My band has played two charity events this year and has gotten several well-paying gigs and valuable contacts from that work. (You may also be able to use this as a tax write-off. Check with your tax professional.)
  • Try out some new material or to launch a solo act.
  • Record a live album.

If you play any gig, but especially a pro bono one, then make sure you do the following:

  • Use the gig to add to your mailing list. That will pay off later.
  • Ask for testimonials or recommendations from the venue owner and people in the crowd.
  • Sell your merchandise, pass out cards, and give away demos to those that express genuine interest

But remember: always tell the owner that this arrangement is not a permanent one; better yet, express that in writing. Failure to mention this caveat can quickly derail the possibility of renegotiating the pay arrangement. “I just thought you wanted to do it this way,” or something like that is what you’ll hear.

You’ve practiced hard. You’ve written songs by the score. You’ve given up other things to pursue your craft. You’ve invested thousands and thousands of dollars in gear and a music degree. You’ve bought a van to haul it in. So yes, you deserve fair pay, and you should always ask for and expect it. But you should also always keep in mind that doing the occasional freebie might be a good thing for you. Businesses give away merchandise all the time in order to get new customers; are we not businesses as well? By putting an exposure gig in the proper context, you put yourself in a position to reap the rewards of networking, merchandise sales, and recommendations.

And never forget: there is no such thing as an insignificant gig.