At the end of year, you may have noticed that Craig’s List turns into a hotbed of musician postings: old people looking for new projects, young people looking for “working” bands, neophytes demonstrating first attempts at networking with poorly worded ads. Plus lots of ego, enthusiasm, ADD, and cynicism clearly worn out on the sleeve. But the common denominator is that everyone is searching for something new.
In some ways, this is similar to the craze every weight loss and fitness center experiences; lots of people coming out of their caves, mid-winter, to try to shed some pounds. In January, they sign contracts in droves, packing the treadmills, and then dissipate by the end of February. So too with many musicians…and here are some of the main reasons behind the spike in activity:
Our Winter of Discontent
In Colorado, the dark, snowy months mean retreat to warm houses. Social activity is generally limited to the “social networking sites” and people forget they are living in bubbles. The term for this in the mental health world is “Isolating,” and it’s not at all healthy. This is the time when people start talking to themselves more and more, listening to others less and less, creating self-delusion and convincing themselves that the grass is greener somewhere else.
If a person feels powerless with their role in the band, they might amplify that victim mentality without a proper sounding board. If a person thinks they know better than anyone else, they might stay up all night replaying arguments, creating victory in a parallel universe, or at the very least, getting sleep deprivation that will surely cloud future judgement.
This is also a time of year when people switch jobs, have stressful obligations (also known as “Forced Family Fun”), and get seduced by the boob tube. Add to that a lack of vitamin B and an extra contentious election year and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
Magnetic Poles and the Strong and Weak Forces of Nature
A band is a clump of matter. And all matter is basically maintained by gravity, electro-magnetic fields, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. There could be other energies at work as well, but at this time that’s about as much as scientists can wrap their head’s around. We are all subject to gravity, but take a look at the other influences…
Betchya remember this from grade school: like poles repel and opposites attract. When you encounter a band mate that you’d love to run away from, or punch in the face, remember that you are probably looking in the mirror. Every weakness you see in another human being is most likely a flaw you know exists in yourself. Take that to the negotiating table when it’s time to talk turkey.
The strong and weak forces are harder to discern – even our best scientists can’t get a good handle on them. But in band life, it’s good to remember that every member is a force of nature, with aspirations, dreams, goals, likes, dislikes, triggers, and personal agendas (we’ll talk about this more in a moment). All of these forces are interacting and developing subtle bonds. This is how new matter is created.
Now let’s go back to gravity – we know for certain that it takes a lot of energy to attain orbit. The term for this is Escape Velocity, and every human being on the planet is trying to escape gravity’s pull, to reach their dreams (effortless effort out in space). But another word to think of for gravity is reality. Gravity pulls matter together and ultimately destroys it, creating black holes. A band will need to work extra hard to beat this force.
Interdependency = Maturity
In Stephen Covey’s famous book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, he describes the first three habits as efforts to bring a person from a state of childlike, victim mentality (dependence) to a more grownup mentality (independence). But then the next three habits stress the amount of maturity needed to move from Independence to Inter-dependence.
If a band is nothing else, it is a product of Inter-dependence. The whole is without question greater than the sum of its parts. But people forget.
And that’s when they get on Craig’s List. They might think it’s easier to find new projects than maturely talk it out with old band mates. They might convince themselves that they won’t repeat the same old habits with these brand new strangers. Yes, people forget.
One last reason for discontentment comes in the form of Deadly Hidden Agendas (or DHAs). Make no mistake – everybody’s got ‘em. The truth is, every musician is a perfectionist in one way or another and everybody has a dream. And so ultimately, everyone has an agenda. This can be very, very bad for a band. Or not.
Once recognized or acknowledged, a DHA is no longer hidden and can be talked about. More often than not, you may find that your agenda could actually help the band better achieve orbit. Or perhaps you’ll find that your agenda does not match the band as a whole and you’ll realize that you were not honest enough with yourself (and others) when you signed up for the project. That’s on you.
So the take-aways are: 1) evaluate your discontentment, 2) don’t make decisions in a vacuum, 3) history does indeed repeat itself, 4) band mates are mirrors, 5) seek first to understand then to be understood, 6) be kind – because everyone is dealing with demons (or perfectionism) in one form or another, and 7) own up to your DHAs. Good luck out there!
In the cover band world, a group starts to transcend hobby status when sidemen enter the picture. Sidemen, aka freelancers, aka “guns for hire” or session musicians are contracted on a temporary basis for their chops, and their ability to fill a hole quickly. Of course, an original band can obtain the same benefits when this flexible mindset is embraced. And all you need is money…
The session musician can sit in for a recording, stand in for a gig, and even join a tour. Imagine what that could do for your original tunes. Your needs and (again) your billfold are all that stand between you and quality musicians.
Making the best use of session musicians
You may have noticed that when you take the time to record your songs, it becomes faster for a new band member to learn his/her part. That’s because they are now learning to “cover” a song. A session musician will expedite that process ten-fold, because this is their bailiwick. Record early and often (and copyright, of course).
Ask your session musician to dress the part when being compensated to perform on stage. This goes with the territory of solid, live performers and you should receive little argument from a pro.
Back to recording – hiring a session musician for your initial recordings will not only add quality to these tracks but also set a high bar for future session musicians.
Check their references. Any session musician worth their weight should have a reasonable list of projects to cite. Verify those projects with a few quick calls or emails. Particular to Denver, there once were many bassists roaming the front range, claiming to be the first string for Katrina and the Waves (of “Walking on Sunshine” fame), back when her band was called Mama’s Cookin’, back when they served in the military, before the internet, when it was a little harder to vet the BS.
Many session musicians are also multi-instrumentalists. This will give you more flavors and may inspire you to add that violinist or xylophonist permanently.
Where to find the pros
Recording studios are a great place to start your search – the more professional the studio, the better. If a studio owner can’t give you a good lead, they can probably at least connect you with pro bands that have a stable of decent performers.
Other networking includes: The Denver Musicians Association (local musicians’ union), Denver Performing Arts, and any professional music venue in town. Anywhere that teaches music will also fit the bill: think Swallow Hill for your acoustic players. Set your sights high. And if you go on Craig’s List, you’d better remember that you’re rolling the dice…
Some last words…
Your session musician should come with no baggage or drama of any form. If you notice any sharp edges, blunt (or defective) instruments, lollygagging, dictator-esque language, chaffing, punctuality issues, or non-work-related behaviors, box them back up and send them on their way. Zero time should be spent drawn into their likes, dislikes, political or religious leanings.
If hired properly, session musicians should provide quality, flexibility and reliability. They’ll help you grow as a musician and maybe even lead to a few songs sold. And isn’t that worth it? It’s what the pros do…
“What’s your following?” That’s right – what’s the following of your music venue? Isn’t that a fair question? Bands get hit with that one occasionally, and sometimes often. But seriously, you opened this business, with the intention of providing music to the community. So again, what’s your following?
“We count on the bands to bring their following”
That’s completely foolish. Musicians aren’t marketing pros. The average musician doesn’t possess an MBA – many good ones have no college degree whatsoever. And ideally, any waking hours a musician has should be spent honing their craft, trying to create a jaw-dropping display of talent and/or entertainment value, not walking around with a sandwich board.
Do you realize how many hats the average band has to wear just to get off the ground? Someone has to write the songs. Someone has to learn the songs. Someone has to learn the songs better and replace the people that weren’t playing them so well. Someone has to record and copyright the music. Someone has to handle social media, and graphic art, and alcoholism, mental illness, and marriage disputes. Someone has to book the shows and someone has to follow up to make sure the show isn’t double or triple-booked. Someone has to coordinate (or be) the “street team” and…that’s your venue’s marketing strategy?!?
Lastly (and many thanks to L.A. musician Dave Goldberg for this insight), if you are counting on bands to supply clientele, you will never have a consistent cash flow. You will be dependent upon the bands to bring the customers every single night. In the business world (and you are in the business world), that’s the equivalent of having to rebuild sales from scratch…every single day. Good luck with that.
Is there possibly something wrong with your joint?
Have you reviewed your business in a while? Maybe there are a couple very good reasons why you are not known as a music venue with a following…
- Poor customer service tends to top the list in any business. Is the wait staff making your customers wait? Does the owner bother to walk around to gauge quality control? Or is the door guy basically in charge?
- Is the quality of music in your venue inconsistent and/or just plain terrible? Maybe your brother-in-law shouldn’t have first crack as the “house band.” It’s pretty simple: people have lots of choices these days and amateur music drives people away. Who’s in charge of quality control there?
- Does the sound system need an upgrade? Not having quality PA gear at a music venue is like not having a quality freezer in an ice cream shop. And if you don’t even have a PA, and you promote yourself as a live music venue…are you serious? Are you sure you are not just a bar?
- Is the sound too loud for the room? If you really don’t know the answer to this question, you probably won’t own this “music venue” for very long…
- Are the bands being treated badly? Double booking? Poor pay? No pay?!? Another little note from the business world: people don’t usually tell you when they’ve had a bad experience at your place…but they will tell LOTS of other people. Don’t underestimate the power of word of mouth.
- Are you killing your customers? Read here to learn more, but bottom line – when your customers are dead…they don’t usually come back.
- Are you a “Me too!” kind of venue? Is the owner so unimaginative that you haven’t tried to create something unique in the marketplace? So, you sell drinks and have live music – maybe you could draw more people selling drinks and playing Bingo?
- No advertising? This is one of the easiest things a venue can do. Are you waiting around for bands to bring you their precious marketing flyers? And how many shows have you gone to, based on seeing a flyer? Real advertising is a little more complicated than that.
You may notice that the one common denominator here is Quality, or lack thereof. A band needs to focus on the quality of their product if they expect to develop a following. Likewise, a music venue will never develop a following if they are ignorant of quality. We’ll take a closer look at music customer buying habits next…
This is the 4th year that the Colorado Music Business Organization (COMBO) has held a songwriter’s competition. Winners were recently announced and featured on a compilation CD that was distributed at the Durango Songwriter’s Expo, Omni Interlocken Hotel & Resort in Broomfield. COMBO is also going to showcase many of these songwriters on October 29th (7PM) at the Walnut Room in Denver.
All songs are judged primarily on lyrics and melody – less emphasis on production and performance as they are seeking to recognize well-written tunes. The songs are also submitted anonymously to a panel of judges to prevent bias. The highest score belonged to Rod Tanaka and the late Johnny Brown for “I Lose My Breath.”
Other winners included:
● “Back Page” – by David Henning
● “Mine All The Way” – by George Whitesell
● “Carry On” – by Kenzie Culver
● “Serendipity” – by Donnie Schexnayder
● “Colorado” – by Rebecca Folsom
● “Whale Mountain” – by Gordon Lewis and Grace Easley
● “Welcome to the USA” – by Donnie Schexnayder
● “Going to Louziana” – by Ghostman: Joel Ashmore, Felix Abram, Guido Valeri, Steve Fitzgerald, Doug Moe
● “One Day” – by Seina Soufiani & Dave Groover
● “Love Again” – by Kenzie Culver
● “Simple Girl” – by Traci Lynn
● “Catch Me” – by Adrienne Osborn
● “Come Find Me” – by Travis Smith and Ross MacDonald
● “Had Enough” – Peter Majekodunmi (a.k.a Zidane Majek)
● “Killin’ You With Time” – by Chrystal DeCoster
● “The Man In The Movies” – by Rob Roper
Kudo’s to COMBO as the Durango Songwriter’s Expo is an excellent opportunity for local writers to grab some national attention. Time to start working on next year’s submissions…
Apart from a halo, some wings, maybe a silhouette like Bill Gates…what do you think a patron of the arts might look like? And perhaps a better question: where would you find someone that might support your art? And how would you approach them? Let’s take a look…
Patrons are usually rich!
A supporter of this magnitude is probably going to have some significant disposable income – would you agree? Sure, the average Joe is a patron of the arts when they purchase a CD, download a song, or go see a show. But a patron that can help you produce your next recording session, host your next concert, or at least tip you well…probably lives in a swankier part of town.
Wealth by the Numbers
The easiest way to find wealthy folks is where they live – in affluent zip codes. You’re probably already aware of the biggies in the Denver Metro area: Cherry Hills (80113), Greenwood Village (80111), Castle Rock (80108), and there are some millionaires hiding out in Ken Caryl, Golden, the Pinery, and even Aurora. You can expand that search by taking a brief trip to your local public library. To jump start the effort, book a session with the Business Librarian (it doesn’t cost anything, and most libraries have one of these).
Another way to find the wealthy elite: the donor list of any major nonprofits, a list of political supporters, a list of country club members. Be creative, and don’t forget about “the millionaire next door.” That guy with the humble abode and a boat and camper in the alley could be your new best friend. And think about it – everyone has a birthday at least once a year. But do you know how to ask?
Engage or Perish
Here’s a strong truth: Ask for money and you’ll get opinions. Ask for opinions and you’ll get money.
It’s that simple, really. Asking for money is akin to begging, while taking the time to meet someone in person, getting to know them and learning about what motivates them is an art form. Do you have the stamina and resilience to do this?
Sales guru Harvey MacKay had a brilliant model for this topic known, of course, as the “MacKay 66.” The gist is, if you can learn 66 thoughtful things about anyone, you will know them so well that you can turn them into a customer for life. It works the same way for patrons. Find out what is most important to them. What do they love (and hate)? Who are they voting for in the next election and why? What are their kids’ names? Birthday? Anniversaries? Favorite color? Come on – you could make your next album cover purple if they paid for it, right?
The Corporate Myth
Another fact, known to the nonprofit world, is that most money comes from the general public, not from corporations. If you are going to squeeze some money out of them, at least search for the privately owned companies rather than formal corporations with slow-moving boards of directors and heavy finance restrictions.
Now you might have some better luck asking for in-kind donations. Local Celtic-fusion band, Potcheen, once secured a sponsorship with Guinness – probably a lot of beer on that tour bus. Other in-kind donations might include music gear, hotels for the tour, a new web site, a little free dry cleaning? Cutting costs really does equal making income.
But back to Bill Gates. Microsoft, the company, doesn’t give out that much unrestricted money. Bill and Melinda Gates personally donated over 28 billion dollars to their foundation. You can bet they’ve also held their share of private parties. At least one birthday bash a year each. Maybe an anniversary party too. So start looking for your patron of the arts, get creative and get out there…
In the music industry, it would appear that there are the 1%-ers and then the vast, lower-middle class. The 1% is heard on the radio, is steered by very experienced managers and promoters and occasionally sell out stadiums and/or their singles go platinum.
The lower-middle class barely eke out a few hundred bucks per performance – maybe $100/man, if lucky these days. This seems to hold true across genres: from many jazz professionals to classic rock cover bands and indie touring bands alike. Often, the Sunday church gig or funeral will pay more.
If you’ve spent enough time in a “working cover band,” you’ll realize that these musicians are ultimately paid to move PA gear. And if they start calculating the hourly wage, most would make twice the income working for a real moving company. But it’s not about the money, right? Wrong.
It’s about valuing yourself, whether measured in dollars, pesos or French fries. If you don’t value yourself, you can bet that pretty much everyone else won’t either. And this may be the reason that the average wage for a “working musician” has probably declined and certainly hasn’t risen in the past two decades. Now really, how is that possible unless the average musician is mired in self-deprecation?
Supply and Demand
One reason might be a simple law of economics – in the context of original music for the greater Denver Metro area, there are roughly 100-500 times as many bands as there are established music venues. Odds of 500:1. Is it starting to sound like the race track? But that’s what it’s like for any company in the business world too.
Your band is going to be a bottom-feeder if you cannot demonstrate expertise at your craft, significant entertainment value, and/or some other unique selling proposition.
Now before you start getting all strung out or depressed, consider another way that you might be able to secure more value for your art, and for your band mates…
From the beginning of civilization, there has always existed a certain class of citizenry known as Patrons of the Arts. These were often the fat cats that appreciated good tunes, sexy drawings, or a quality, clinical study. The patron was the change-maker and had the ability to turn a $9/hour musician into a middle class wage earner, and maybe even into a wealthy celebrity.
The patrons of the arts are still among us today. But you’ll need to do some homework if you expect this kind of support. One form of patronage comes from crowd funding (Kickstarter, etc.) – you’ll need to be creative for this to really pay off. Another form is making the patron feel like a celebrity.
One local songstress recently created House Party Packages, where the host(ess) pays a more generous fee to have the house filled with live entertainment. Any number of details might go into one of these packages – free autographed CDs for the guests, maybe a few t-shirts, maybe an enhanced wine and cheese spread? A couple $1500 packages per month and you are well on your way to the middle class.
Is there a mission?
Many previous articles here have referred to having a purpose or supplying unique content. Have you thought lately about why your band is together or why you write certain types of songs? Is there a common thread or a reason for being?
Finding a patron might become even easier if your music/lyrics lend themselves to a cause or a specific mission. Counting down to a major event (like a national election) might lead to a series of shows funded by collective patrons. Can you imagine the Dirty Trumpettes, or a Hillary “Burning Woman” (effigy) party? Sounds like fun…
Rising to the musical middle class is certainly a challenge in this new digital age. But again, the patrons of the arts have always been among us and they are merely waiting for the most creative artists to present some novel proposals. And isn’t that brainstorming effort more exciting than just moving PA gear?
Have you thought about your status as a musician lately? Are you a hobbyist, a pro, or perhaps something in between? How you see yourself will have some dramatic implications for yourself and the music scene at large, so ask yourself a few quick questions…
- Have you been paid to play live or for a song you wrote and/or recorded?
- Have you been paid consistently to play live (or record, or write songs)?
- Have you made profit as a musician the past three of five years?
- Is music your primary form of employment?
Were you able to answer “yes” to all of these questions? If so, congratulations(!) – you are a professional musician. If not, you are probably a hobbyist. And that’s…OK. The vast majority of musicians are hobbyists, just as the vast majority of golfers are hobbyists.
The grey area is when you can pursue a hobby and still receive some income for this thing you love to do. But make no mistake – you are still a hobbyist. There are also hobbyist Astronomers, Fishermen, Gardeners, and Storm Chasers. But it’s probably a good thing we don’t have Brain Surgeon hobbyists.
So now let’s go back to those four questions. A lot of musicians can say that they have been paid to play, whether live or for a recording on CD Baby. Being paid “consistently” is a subjective concept, but if you are calling yourself a “Professional” musician, it might behoove you to earn to some form of payment on a weekly basis. Acid test: can you pay your mortgage with gig money?
The third question is even trickier and more significant. Have you made a profit the last three of five years as a musician? There are a lot of hard and soft costs (business deductions) associated with staying current as a musician.
Here are some hard costs:
Gear that needs to be replaced (strings, reeds, etc.)
Gear that is lost, damaged or stolen
Gas and car mileage
Lessons, to stay up on your craft
And some softer costs:
Being present at a venue for four hours…to play your 45 minute set
New shock absorbers…when the subs, mains and other cabinets ruin your suspension
Hiring a lawyer…when your spouse decides you’re not around enough to handle her/his needs
Hiring a therapist…if substance abuse becomes an unintended consequence of your craft
As you get older, might as well throw in Physical Therapy too…
Profit & Loss
All of those hard and soft costs, if deducted properly, could reduce your profit significantly. If you think honestly, the many costs associated with being a musician might realistically leave you in the red year after year, after year. And if so, the Federal Government has something to say about this as well.
According to the IRS, your business (band/musician) can be reclassified if it is not an activity engaged in for profit. To quote them exactly: “Generally, an activity qualifies as a business if it is carried on with the reasonable expectation of earning a profit.” But if you cannot demonstrate a profit for the last 3 of 5 years, the IRS can re-classify your business as a hobby.
Here are some other questions the IRS asks, if you intend on taking business deductions:
- Does the time and effort put into the activity indicate an intention to make a profit?
- Does the taxpayer depend on income from the activity?
- If there are losses, are they due to circumstances beyond the taxpayer’s control or did they occur in the start-up phase of the business?
- Has the taxpayer changed methods of operation to improve profitability?
- Does the taxpayer or his/her advisors have the knowledge needed to carry on the activity as a successful business?
- Has the taxpayer made a profit in similar activities in the past?
- Does the activity make a profit in some years?
- Can the taxpayer expect to make a profit in the future from the appreciation of assets used in the activity?
And now the last question: is music your primary form of employment? The government can’t penalize you for being a poor business owner. And if you only made $2 profit last year, that’s still a profit, right? And…a large number of musicians make less than the Poverty Level (currently $11,880.00 for an individual in the US). That’s just a reality. But can you live off of your musical endeavors? We’ll talk about ways to do that next…