The Proactive & Positive Musician

by Jason on August 15, 2009 · 11 comments

in Business, Gigs, Marketing/Promotion, Thoughts

NOTE: This post started as a reply on a thread at Trumpet The thread was referencing Terry Teachout’s Wall Street Journal Article “Can Jazz Be Saved?”, which I wrote about here. After posting my reply to the rather long thread I thought it deserved a post of its own. I hope this is the kind of information that working musicians and aspiring working musicians will find useful.

happyhouris9to55_html_m12da416bYou’ve probably heard the expression “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free”, right? Well, why would a bar owner pay a musician to play when he can find 10 other musicians who’ll do it for free? He won’t. That’s the reality of the situation, sad though it may be.

So, what do we do about it? More often than not, musicians sit around steaming about it, belittling the one’s that will play for free, berating the club owners and just adding to their own misery. I know, because that’s exactly what I used to do. But what did that get me? Nothing. Zip. Nada. I didn’t get more gigs, I didn’t make more friends, I only created more angst for myself. It was only when I decided to stop fighting the reality of the situation and look for alternatives that I had a great epiphany: Those gigs don’t matter! They are not worth my time and energy, especially when that energy is largely negative.

Don’t Fight a Losing Battle

Rather than fight a losing battle with the club owners/musicians who don’t value us/themselves, I decided to market my services as something that is much more than those other musicians could offer. I actually raised my rates, and promoted my band as a professional entity that could offer a polished performance, show up on time, play a killer show, dress appropriately and help the bar/club/business owner grow their business in ways the freebies can’t. I looked for places that weren’t offering music and convinced them to let me create a music series that would draw people in. I went to wine bars, restaurants, hotels, wineries, anywhere I thought there was space for music and it made sense financially for the business. I talked in terms of partnerships and “what can I do for you?”, not “what can you do for me?”. A new business even sprang up out of my efforts, and now my business partner and I help other musicians find these kinds of opportunities (J&J Music).

My friend Thomas Marriott, an amazing trumpet player and super nice guy, made some great points in the same thread, including this pearl of wisdom:

Something to consider (and I think this goes back to the original post) – when a club decides to book “free” bands, generally they get what they pay for. If you believe you deserve more money to perform, you must be sure you are giving more value to the club owner (and audience). If you can provide something no other person on the scene can, they will pay you to do what you do. If you intend to play what everyone else is playing, or to provide an average service, a club isn’t going to pay for that.

We’re not going to convince the club owners to operate differently until it’s in their best interest to operate differently. We have to show them why they should book our bands. And it has to make sense for them as well as for us. As Thomas says, we have to bring all of our skills to bear on the situation, and then we can expect the clubs to do the same. It is this type of partnership that is the only way we will succeed. The “us vs. them” mentality isn’t serving anyone.

Opportunities Abound

But keep in mind, club dates are only one option for the working musician. Casuals, weddings, corporate work, nursing homes…there are SO many opportunities for the musicians willing to put in a little work to find and cultivate them. Not to mention all the ways we now have to record and sell our music via the internet.

As I’ve stated before, as 21st-century musicians we need many different skills to survive in addition to our musical skills. The modern-day musician has to be player/booker/marketer/internet guru/salesman/bandleader/schmoozer. If you employ these skills and do it with a positive attitude you can find work.

Thomas echoed these thoughts as well when he said:

[W]e all know lots of ridiculous musicians who aren’t working in our communities for a variety of reasons. And in many cases the best musicians aren’t the busiest. It takes a lot of diligence in and out of the practice room to stay busy and the folks who put in the time usually succeed. But you have to be your own manager, agent, producer and a musician as well.

Focus on the Positive

So my advice is, don’t worry about all the opportunities you don’t have, just concern yourself with those that you can have. If you want to play for free, so be it. There will always be those opportunities too. But if you want to make money, or even make a living, those aren’t the gigs you should concern yourself with. Search out those venues and opportunities that will appreciate what you will bring. They are out there. You just have to take the time and put in the energy to find them. Instead of being the person who is sitting around dwelling on the negative energy, be the person that is proactive and positive. I guarantee you will see the results!


P.S. – I should mention that I, too, sometimes play gigs for little or no money. There are situations where other factors outweigh the money – a cool group I’ve wanted to play with, a great project (like the Birth of the Cool Tribute I’m involved in this month), even just plain fun. But I NEVER play a gig for “exposure”. That’s a fallacy propagated by the club owners to try to add value where none exists.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Twitter: arodjazz
August 15, 2009 at 10:42 am

Great post, Jason. My own relationship with my music changed dramatically when I took a broader look at my relationship with it, and what my strengths were.

For me, that meant bringing in the “nonmusical” aspects of my career in college — ethnomusicology, writing, work at the college radio station, jazz advocacy and organizing — into my considerations for how to make a living centered around my love of jazz. At Rutgers, I’ve found a way to cultivate my playing in a context where I am also practicing writing, teaching, audio production, journalism and intellectual discourse about jazz.

That’s really important to me, because my interest in the music lies beyond only performance contexts. Previously, my attempt to ignore those other resources within myself led not only to a lot of missed opportunities, but a less successful playing career as well!

So my one word of advice to add to your mantra about being positive and proactive is to be holistic, to look at the whole of who you are to develop an approach and an angle to what you do. And whatever that is, value it to such a degree where you insist on being paid for it! Whether it’s a winery gig or a trombonist’s biography, it’s a gig, and you deserve to be paid for it.

icastico August 16, 2009 at 9:25 am

Indeed. Although I do think the value of the “exposure” that playing at a club gives varies depending upon where you are in your career, what type of music you play, and what your goals are…

A similar situation exists with recorded music these days. And again, there is a tension between free music and sales. Research on the topic of file sharing indicates, again, that it depends on where you are in your career whether it is a good ideas to give songs away. For artists who are not well known the research indicates quite clearly that giving music away increases sales. At some point, however, the curve flips and sharing hurts sales.

To me, that’s where licensing comes in…but that’s another issue.

Anyway, just found your blog. I’ll be coming back.

brandi August 16, 2009 at 9:40 am

hey Jason, first I want to say that I just got done reading yours and darrah’s interview on mel’s blog…ya’ll are hysterical!

I love this post because I’ve been there. I used to manage a band here in dallas and we would bang our heads against the wall in frustration over that very phenomenon.

But also, the lesson is one that we can all use. Thank you.

Jacob Stickney
Twitter: jstick86
August 16, 2009 at 12:26 pm

I kept thinking about D’Vo the entire time I was reading this. He, too, is a reminder of what can happen if you are proactive and positive. Thanks, Jason!

Twitter: 1WorkinMusician
August 16, 2009 at 8:27 pm

Thanks for the comments all!

Alex – great addition. I think this goes along with setting goals, which will be the topic of a future post.

icastico – thanks for stopping by. I suppose it is true that exposure means different things to different people, but I also believe that the decision must come from the artist, not the venue. When venues use words like that it is usually to cover up the fact that they don’t want to pay. And as for your analogy with recorded music, I think there’s a difference. When we play live, we are almost always in a setting where a few things hold true: there are other people working (servers, managers, hosts, cooks, dishwashers, etc) who are all being paid for their time and their services. In fact, it is required by law that they are paid to a certain standard, i.e. minimum wage. And while some of these folks are doing jobs that actively bring people in, some are not. However, musicians are often asked and sometimes expected to bring people in and yet somehow it is OK to ask us to play for free or well below minimum wage. This is a much larger issue, and one that I will tackle in the future. But it reeks of inequality and leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Brandi – I didn’t know you were a band manager! We’ll have to talk about that one day. I’d love to hear about your experiences and thoughts on the music business.

Jacob – D’vo is one of the good ones, in so many ways. 😉

Matt Rodela August 17, 2009 at 11:26 am

I agree whole-heartedly with your take on attitude and not playing the victim whehn when doesn’t get the compensation their looking for.

What is your take on venues that require the artist bring in a certain head count in order to justify paying them. There are many clubs, and even some restraunts, coffee shops, and book stores in my area that require the artist bring in 25-50 people (that wouldn’t otherwise be there) before they agree to payment. On the surface this sounds fair, a win-win situation for all involved, but it’s a catch-22 for those of us who are still trying to build a fan base, but need to play these kinds of shows in order to build that base.

Patrick McLaughlin August 19, 2009 at 12:03 pm

You mentioned a lot of great information in this post. I think one thing to stress even more (that you touched on a little) is that you must stay true to yourself. This industry isn’t one that you just stumble upon because you don’t know what you want to do with your life (as so many people end up in sales or secretarial work because they just don’t know what to do). We all got into this business because there was something about music that stuck out to us, and that makes it personal.

We often fret over practicing specific exercises, searching for desirable gigs, and falling in the rut that greats before us have established. But when it comes down to it, there are only so many Max Roach or Art Blakey transcriptions you can do before you have to start doing your own thing. All due respect to those individuals, but if you continually mimic what musicians in the past have done, you will never develop your own voice – and that is what people want to hear.

It is imperative that you don’t forget what attracts you to the art because when you loose sight of that, you loose all truth in your voice. When you’ve lost all truth in your voice, why would anyone pay to listen to you?

Neal - Sax Station August 19, 2009 at 2:17 pm

Cool article, I like the proactive approach. Have you read any of Derek Sivers (founder of CDbaby) articles? He had some interesting ideas too.

Twitter: 1WorkinMusician
August 19, 2009 at 6:53 pm

Hey Matt,

This is a subject that I talk about a lot with my colleagues, and maybe a future blog post! And I guess my answer has to start with “it depends”. 😉

If I’m booked in a jazz club or concert situation, I think it is reasonable for the club/venue to expect me to bring in an audience. Clubs can help promote, and some do have a built-in audience already, but mostly in those situations is is the band that brings the people along.

However, it irks me when restaurants and bars do the same. My feeling is that if your food/service/ambiance isn’t enough to bring folks in then no band can really help you. I’ve played places like that, and my friends/fans have come the first time, but if the restaurant is no good they won’t be back for a second show.

Neal – I dig Sivers! His blog is chok-full of great ideas!

Andrew Oliver August 21, 2009 at 10:08 am

Norman Sylvester said “A musician that plays for exposure exposes himself to poverty.” I always liked that one…

Although, all that being said, one must be careful with absolutes – I believe that there are situations where one gets, for example, a low-paying gig at a festival where there will be a thousand people, and such situations are worth the low pay. However, as you rightly point out, anyone who tries to hire musicians for a private function or some other such thing and plays the “exposure” card is just being unfair.

Nice post. Looking forward to hearing the recordings from tonight! Hope it goes well…

Twitter: 1WorkinMusician
August 22, 2009 at 11:20 am

Good point, Andrew. I was speaking mainly of the bar/restaurant/club gigs where “exposure” is offered up in lieu of payment. There are certainly some instances where there is true exposure to be gained. And as I mentioned in my P.S., there are other reasons as well to play for little or no money. I’m just sayin’… 😉

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