This is Going to Piss Some of You Off
UPDATE: I wanted to clarify something…in this article I refer to my friend “Jeff” only based on the sentiment his Facebook updates – this article is NOT about him. There were some harsh attacks on Jeff in the social media responses to this article, which I feel were unfair. I know for a fact that Jeff works very hard to promote his shows and definitely does not go about his business with a sense of entitlement. I used his comments as a springboard to the ideas covered in this article. I too have shared the sentiment in Jeff’s FB posts in the past, and I know that many other musicians have as well, so it’s definitely a relevant topic. I just don’t want to give the wrong impression of my man “Jeff”‘s overall attitude or work ethic, since a good number of my readers know who “Jeff” really is. That is all.
As most of you know, this website is built on how-to articles as well as product reviews. But with this article, I’m going to do something a little different and offer my personal opinion on a topic that affects just about all musicians looking to receive money in exchange for live performances.
“You want me to do what!?“
This article was spawned by a series of Facebook status updates that a musician friend of mine (let’s call him “Jeff” for now) has been posting over the past week. In this series of posts, Jeff complains about a request made by the promoter of a club where Jeff was booked to play. The club owner basically asked Jeff to promote the show to friends and fans in order to maximize turnout at the gig.
And this did not sit well with my buddy, Jeff. It was Jeff’s position that it’s up to the club to get people in the door. Now, I will say that Jeff ranks highly among the most talented musicians I’ve ever known. I also think that he would probably agree with a lot of what I’m sharing here. But his Facebook posts got me thinking about the division of labor between club owners and musicians when it comes to promotion, since I know that there are a lot of musicians who would respond very positively to the aforementioned Facebook posts.
But as someone who’s both a musician and a business guy, I have a perspective that you may or may not agree with, but I’ll throw it out there anyways.
“F-you, pay me.”
-Ray Liotta in “Goodfellas”
Do you know why jazz A-listers like Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea really play the world’s biggest concert halls and jazz festivals?
No, it’s not because they’re some of the greatest musicians in jazz history.
It’s because they sell tickets.
As brilliant as Sonny Rollins is, if his shows didn’t generate many thousands of dollars each night, you can bet your Bb7+9 that he wouldn’t be playing those top venues.
Simply put, Sonny Rollins is a safe bet for the competent club owner or concert promoter.
It’s Not All About You
But what about the other 99.9999% of the music world, that massive pool of artists who don’t have legendary status?
Of course, they deserve to be compensated generously for the value that they bring to the venue. But the venue needs to be compensated as well, otherwise, there is no venue, and one less place for musicians to actually earn money doing what they love.
Most full-time professional musicians are under a lot of pressure to keep themselves out of the red each month. But a club owner is also under a ton of pressure. They’ve got a lease constantly hanging over their head. They’ve got a kitchen and a bar to stock. They’ve got employees whose families are depending on them in order to make ends meet. They’ve got all sorts of miscellaneous fees, taxes, and other expenses that non-club owners such as myself have no clue about. In many cases they’ve got investors who are eagerly expecting a return on their investment. And after all of that, they still need to bring home enough money to keep themselves and their families financially afloat.
Of course, there are many club owners who are indeed greedy bottom-feeders, and maybe this is the type of club owner that my buddy, Jeff was dealing with. But in many cases, the club owners are just as passionate and generous with what they do as are the artists that they support.
Hosting Live Jazz – The World’s Most Devious Get-Rich-Quick Scam!
No matter which aspect of the business you’re coming from, jazz is a labor of love. Do you think that club or restaurant owners book jazz acts to make a mountain of cash? In some cases (such as a very expensive restaurant that needs live quiet background music to justify their prices), sure, but in most cases, I highly doubt it.
So while I definitely think that the club owner is responsible for as much advertising and marketing as they can reasonably afford, I also think that it’s fair to expect that the artists do their part to support the venue that’s taking a chance on them.
Take Your Destiny Into Your Own Hands
This doesn’t mean that artists should have to go out and pay for ads in magazines and high-traffic websites. But I do think that it’s in everyone’s best interest if musicians get aggressive about promoting their gigs and bringing in an audience – preferably an alcohol-purchasing audience (ie: folks other than broke fellow musicians) to come check out the show.
Yes, I know, Bird and Trane didn’t have to collect email addresses and maintain websites. But rather than lamenting the fact people nowadays are too lazy and ignorant to dig jazz, I believe that musicians have to face the reality and wear the entrepreneur hat along with their musician hat.
And the truth is, it’s cheaper and easier than ever to figure out who your audience is and then build a relationship with them.
For any musician out there who isn’t getting good turnouts at their gigs, or isn’t getting any gigs at all for that matter – have you done the following in an effort to find fans who are not your friends or family?:
- Put up a website using a point-and-click mobile and tablet-friendly non-Flash website solution such as WordPress.com, Squarespace, or HostBaby (And kindly skip the intro pages and auto-playing music while you’re at it).
- Create an email newsletter using a free service such as MailChimp.
- Set up profiles on social media platforms such as Facebook, Soundcloud, YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc (you don’t need to be on all of them, but I would say pick at least one or two to be fairly active on).
- At your gigs, talk to people who offer you compliments on your performance. Do you know what about your performance that they liked? Do you know what they didn’t like? Do you know what kind of music they listen to? Do you know what clubs they frequent? How about what they do for a living? These are things that can be gleaned in a casual conversation, and you can even tell them that you are asking these questions in an effort to get a better sense of your target audience.
- Survey your email subscribers (using a free tool like Survey Monkey) and social media followers asking them the same questions that you ask admirers at your gig.
- Post 3 or so recordings of tunes on a web page and ask people to pick their favorite.
Who knows, maybe you’ll discover that your ideal fans like fine wine (yipee for the club owner!), or cigars, and that they frequent “The Blue Room” and love your uptempo tunes. Regardless, I think it’s great to get inside the heads of the folks upon whom you’re counting for at least part of your income.
“But don’t you know, I’m an ARTISTE!”
Now, you might be thinking – isn’t this the epitome of “selling out”?
It depends on how you look at it.
There’s more to performing music than simply playing the notes, rhythms, and harmonies that you want to play. I think it’s also very rewarding to “play the audience.”
Of course, you can block out the audience at your gigs in the hopes that they happen to respond to what you’re doing. But when you’re making a conscious effort to be aware of the audience’s “energy” (manifested as clapping, vocal participation, dancing, and/or an overall “vibe”), then you can engage in a conversation of sorts, and as many of you know, this is one of the most exciting experiences you can have as a musician.
And if you still think that’s selling out – then I say, what’s the harm in compromising a little bit every now and then in order to build up an audience that will fund those musical endeavors which involve absolutely zero artistic compromise?
Look at folks like Michael and Randy Brecker, Snooky Young, Eddie Gomez, Bill Watrous, and the legions of other jazz titans who played on countless “unhip” commercial jingles, pop tunes, and entire concert tours in order to have the financial freedom to play “the hip stuff.”
What’s wrong with having a little bit of extra cash to put on that jaw harp and saxophone atonal duet concert that you were going to rent out that photography studio for?
It’s also nice to have a larger following in general, since out of that following will be a subset of folks who are open to your more adventurous stuff, so the bigger your overall audience, the bigger the pool of sophisticated listeners you’ll have to choose from.
Wait, what were we talking about?
Anyhow, I’m getting a bit off-topic here, but my point is, getting people to show up to a gig is a responsibility that should be shared between the performer and the club owner. I suggest that musicians focus on collaborating with those club owners who are honestly doing their best to be fair to those of us on the bandstand, and for musicians to consider dropping the suspicion where it’s prudent to do so.
Therefore I don’t think it’s unreasonable for the club owner to check with the musician to make sure that they are doing what they can to get people through the door, since everyone benefits from a packed house.
December 4, 2013 @ 6:17 pm
Truth! I tell all young musicians I meet to do two things while still in school.
1. Take a few business classes
2. Learn how to live on less than you make
Managing your debt and income, in my humble opinion, is one of the biggest keys to being able to pursue the music business as a full time endeavor…at least that’s been the case with me.
If you don’t, you will work at Burger King in addition to blowing your horn.
By the way, I’ll be at the Iridium in NYC on January 16th and I’ll be communicating that to the world at large on multiple platforms for the next 30 days. See you there!
December 4, 2013 @ 10:24 pm
Haha, way to hustle my friend, thanks for the kind words. And who knows, maybe we can get blowing our horns at Burger King – now *that* would be some innovative marketing. :)
December 8, 2013 @ 12:00 pm
I agree with your article. I would like to comment on your referring to people who don’t appreciate jazz as lazy and dumb. Jazz musicians are struggling economically because the music isn’t popular. When jazz was popular, it was dance music, the bands swung hard, and the solos were short. Jazz has since become complex and, I would even say, mathematical. Parker and Tristano turned mainstream jazz into high art; into classical music. Add to this a jazz education industry that churns out thousands of 10,000-hour jazz musicians every year.
December 9, 2013 @ 1:10 pm
Oh, I’m glad you brought that up Steven! Sorry if it was unclear, but I was referring to the *widespread viewpoint* about the general public being too lazy or ignorant, I wasn’t saying that this is what I *personally* feel. I agree with what you say about jazz’s transition from dance music to high art, it’s a great point. I like the reference to Gladwell too, when you say, “10,000-hour jazz musicians” – some of these kids coming out of school are indeed amazing. Anyhow, thanks for chiming in, great stuff!
December 9, 2013 @ 2:41 pm
Safford Chamberlain retells, in his biography of Warne Marsh, that when a young horn player heard Marsh for first time, he (the youngster) cornered Marsh after the set and asked Marsh how he could learn to play like that. Marsh said, “practice for 10,000 hours or 10 years, whichever comes first.” So the 10,000 rule pre-dates Gladstone (2008) and K. Anders Ericsson, who I think was the first to popularize the rule (in the US at least) in 1993.
PS. I think your website and the jazz materials you publish are excellent and have helped me a lot.
December 5, 2013 @ 1:33 pm
I think this link is worth reading:
December 5, 2013 @ 2:55 pm
Cool article. I think that for a club owner to set a mandatory number of audience members for the band to bring in is going a bit too far. It should be on a case by case basis. I mean, what if a band brings in 100 buddies who just buy two drinks, and another band that brings in 50 folks from a wealthier demographic who buy dinner and a bunch of expensive drinks? In the latter case, the band with the smaller audience is going to be of more benefit to the club, so I agree, the mandatory minimum is uncool. At the end of the day, the question is, is the club owner paying the band fairly based on the profits earned that night, or is the owner hoarding a bunch of cash and not compensating the band for the proceeds that they brought to the club? Sometimes the band gets paid peanuts, but so does the club owner. And that goes back to the issue of making jazz more palatable to a larger audience, in which case many of these problems would be solved. But that’s a whole other issue…
December 5, 2013 @ 5:16 pm
I think your 1/2 right I believe most musicians/band leaders already try to promote their shows/gigs as much as time,and money allows that’s the 1/2 part!.. as they don’t want an ’empty’ house either, talk about empty house ‘fun’….some of the issue is when you bring the clubs posters/flyers/ counter cards that all cost money to make! and they don’t put them up, the staff doesn’t even know anything about ‘your’ event and if they did they never mention it to the customers after all the more people they bring the more tips…it’s not our job to stay on top of what the club is doing as far as promos and working with the staff some of them don’t want some ‘broke ass dumb musician trying to tell them (Mr.big shot business man) how to run their dying club.. on top of all that you forgot to mention how much it cost to get to the gigs… gas/tolls/parking and time!…then add it up at the end if there’s anything to add you might have made working a 6hr shift at Mcdonalds at least they pay minimum wage… in addition people don’t go out like before with DUI’s. no money, ‘live’ music is not there thing, too far to go, never heard of that place, and such.. things are tough for everyone but we still need to get paid fare
December 5, 2013 @ 8:59 pm
I agree, many musicians work very hard at promoting themselves, and yes, I agree, there are many costs associated with live performance, and my heart truly goes out to performing musicians, this is a very bad business model from their point of view. But I believe that in some cases musicians bury their heads in the sand with the “book it and they will come” attitude, and get angry at the reality of the situation instead of finding creative ways to deliver financial benefit to the folks that they’re asking for money from. In my opinion, now more than ever, one’s music career needs to be handled like a business, and musicians need to stretch their marketing minds beyond flyers and asking friends and family to come out to the gigs. You need to locate those strangers who would like your music and who also enjoy going out at night, and finding ways of engaging with them. And if you’re not reaching anyone aside from family and friends, you need to modify your music or your branding to gain a wider appeal, or get a day job until your uncompromised musical vision catches on (which very well may happen at some point, it’s just much more of a gamble and a waiting game).
December 5, 2013 @ 11:53 pm
as you said ‘In some cases’ what about the rest of the cases where the band it right and tight they did their part the club owner had already checked out the band didn’t want to pay much, didn’t get anybody in… is it still the bands fault? or do you blame it on the booking agent but that’s another story!.. sure the club may get chick correa sold out on Friday night but what for sat?and the rest of the weekends for the year? I bet chick (that’s what I call him)doesn’t take out ads, and ‘promote himself like crazy for every show he does that’s the promoters job and the venues job you bet they’d hype it knowing they have to come up with some big moola to pay chickey …these places would get a crackin if they had to pay a decent pay (I’ll write Obama make it a law!) anyway they’d soon find out how much work it is to bring in a crowd, with no help..the successful ones are doing it! how? by spending the money it takes radio, billboards, flyers, and hiring the good bands that are worth the money the club has to give people a reason to come to their club daily, after all it’s their club and they have to pay the bills… hiring cheap or uninteresting bands doesn’t ‘save’ them any money in the end
December 6, 2013 @ 2:48 pm
Go to http://www.chickcorea.com, and you’ll see how much he’s promoting himself. Of course, once you get to his level, you’re already a recognized brand, and you don’t need the same level of guerilla marketing hustle that an unestablished artist/band needs. I’m not saying that it’s 100% up to the musicians to promote their gigs, but if you as a musician want to be successful, you have to get *smart* about how you promote and learn who your audience is. That’s what successful companies do. Companies like, let’s say, Cadillac and Gucci, have used massive amounts of resources to identify who their target customer is and where to find them, either online, on television, on strategically placed outdoor advertising, etc. This is basic marketing 101, and most musicians are focused on making music, which is cool, but they also need to know this stuff. And it is indeed a good use of time for a musician, since getting a larger following means more gigs, which means even more artistic development. It’s like anything else in life, if you forget about what people (such as club owners) owe you, and instead focus on how much value you deliver, you will be extremely successful and not have to worry about those lame club owners because you’ll have your own sizeable following.
December 6, 2013 @ 3:49 pm
and what about the new start up bands that have no following yet because they can’t get a gig cause no one has heard of them, so they can’t make no money, cause the club doesn’t have a crowd to hear them, so thet still don’t get heard, so they can’t ‘capture’ a crowd that’s not there.. it’s endless my man good luck to all the musicians nowadays there are less places to play there aren’t that many good musicians around that can play the current styles of music people want to hear so that’s why the dj’s have taken over and they are making more then the bands in some cases…so you do good at a few local places to expand you have to go 25 or more miles for a new place to play not everyone is going to follow you all over the place again the club should have a large draw also or take the chance on an empty house again!…there are a lot of factors involved things can be hard if you don’t have the right mix of musicians, sound, places to play to keep the band interested, just a lot of things… you can say the band needs to be marketing 101.. true but that doesn’t always work either…
I have no answers…. I’m one of the decent musician that can’t find a gig
December 6, 2013 @ 6:19 pm
Pat, I totally hear you. And I can’t offer a solution to every problem you bring up, as that would be too extensive to post here in the comments section – it’s a whole massive area of study that I feel every musician needs to dive into. But I can tell you that there are things you can do to respond to every single one of the challenges you bring up. It might not be easy, but what I would say is, make 2014 the year that you dive headlong into learning everything you can about marketing and the music business, even if it means some time away from the horn. Learn about getting a decent website (doesn’t have to cost you a lot of money or any money at all), using social media, building positive win-win personal relationships with club owners, getting to know who your fans are, and much more. I would recommend you check out this book asap: http://www.amazon.com/Artists-Guide-Success-Business-Edition/dp/1608325784
Some education along with a conscious effort to maintain a positive outlook in the face of what appears to be a crappy circumstance (something I struggle with myself!) will go a very long way towards getting you where you want to go. There are no guarantees, but what’s the alternative? :-)
December 9, 2013 @ 12:42 pm
Doron – great post! I had the privilege of having some classes with Jackie McLean – his messages were clear; “…practice hard, book a gig, show up on time, play like you mean it, and with your first check buy a nice suit.”
I received similar messages from most of my teachers in both the classical and jazz realms. My colleagues here at the Dallas School of Music and dlp Music Books once had a meeting with Morty Manus who was then president of Alfred Publishing, he said “nothing comes easy and everything takes longer than it does”…which at the time made me giggle a bit, but now I know those were wise words indeed.
I feel blessed to be able to teach and play music for a living but it is a business like most others – just way more fun!
December 9, 2013 @ 1:13 pm
Thanks for the kind words! Yes, it is a privilege to get to make music your full-time profession in one way or another. But it’s also very competitive, so having a solid footing in the business aspect of it make it much more stable.
December 9, 2013 @ 3:07 pm
Steven, oh wow, I never knew that about the 10,000 hour rule, I guess Gladwell got lucky by being credited as the originator of that statistic.
Thanks so much for the positive feedback of the site and the materials I’ve published, it really means a lot to know that people are enjoying the stuff I and my collaborators are putting out. :-)
December 10, 2013 @ 1:37 pm
Even with all those suggestions, the truth is that it is getting harder and harder to get a good gig. Up to the late 80s you could gig full time, and now I know fewer and fewer people who can do that. That has to do with DUI enforcement and changing times. Also, if you’re not in the city (I used to be in NYC), and you are playing pop music I find that people tend not to travel outside their local area as they get older. People in their 20s or so have the stamina to party hearty. Of course, they tend not to have $$$$. So, the bands that play to the blue hair crowd do really well, and well, I’ll even play country but I HATE 50s. There are some well run, successful bands here. The Nerds. The Soul Cruisers. But they are the exception. I think the lessons are (1) Don’t play bars, play venues. (2) If you don’t play venues, play weddings/events. (3) If you don’t like either, have a day gig. Then you can do absolutely whatever you want and the only thing that matters is your opinion. I used to do 1 & 2. Now I’m much older, so I do #3. Lol.
December 10, 2013 @ 2:35 pm
Yeah, great points. It seems like in the end you need to provide an invaluable service that nobody else can quite provide in the same way you do, much like any business. So it comes back to you thinking of yourself as a business with a high-quality product. I know it sounds sterile, and of course as a musician there’s infinite depth in terms of how your “product” can be expressed, but if you are replaceable by someone cheaper, or recorded music for that matter, you may very well find yourself in the same boat as many factory workers as of late. It’s not easy, but I believe it’s doable and even fun, as it forces you to think of your craft differently and can ultimately make you a more well-rounded musician who can connect with others in a meaningful way.
January 10, 2014 @ 9:56 am
I think the article is a vary valid point of view. In the live music world we inhabit we need to at the very least be prepared to play different types of music in different situations, be part of a (band)team, contribute in a positive manner, dress appropriately and engage with the audience oh and play well, and also be a business person too. It is rare to meet a musician who has all these avenues covered and a joy when you do. It does level the playing field though where you get less able musicians who do well covering all the other things and consequently get loads of work – how often do you wonder how someone gets a big gig or opportunity when you don’t rate their playing often you need to look at the other attributes.
January 24, 2014 @ 9:19 am
If I were a rude person I would have some colorful things to say here. As I am not, I will say that I play for the love of music and I will happily play a benefit for free but if a venue intends to make money off my work, they will compensate me fairly.
If I am forced to do their job as well as my own, I will be compensated for that as well…meaning that I will take the risk and reap the reward. It is not a difficult thing to rent a space and find a person with a valid liquor license to serve YOUR customers. If you have done the work to build a following, etc., just take the next step.
August 26, 2016 @ 11:24 pm
Yeah ; I agree totally. Part of gigging is to raise your profile in the hope of getting to play the bigger venues to a bigger audience. Unless by chance you are insanely talented, then the vibe will spread like wildfire. At the same time, we all have to begin somewhere. If a club owner books you and you end up playing to twenty people, half of whom are chatting at the bar ? Well its a fifty fifty thing. Self promotion is a must. Without it, tantamount to a half assed effort. I think its fair for the owner to expect some effort. After all, it is he that is giving you the chance.