Over the last couple of days there has been a rather vigorous and often quite heated discussion on one of the saxophone related groups I’m a member of on the subject of changes in the music industry and how it affects employment opportunities for musicians…..and of course, since it was a saxophone related group, how it affects employment opportunities for saxophone players.
Now before I go any further, here’s a disclosure: I have not played a gig for money or in public for over eight years. The reason for my retirement is that I have suffered two strokes which have left me with some physical disabilities which severely limit my ability to play. This is not to say that I am not involved with many different aspects of the music business all day, every day…..I’m just stating for the record that I do not play professionally or publicly, and have not done so for some time. Prior to my strokes, I typically played six nights a week, every week, and often played as many as three gigs a day.
Now back to the discussion of employment opportunities in the current music environment……I still have many friends and clients who today are working as much as I ever did, and for top dollar. Not just a couple of guys, but a significant number of them. I think this begs the question of “why are these players successful in a market where others fail?”……assuming for the purposes of this discussion that everyone on both sides of the argument has adequate musical skills, then what’s the difference?
Every saxophone player is essentially an independent contractor and business owner. Players fail in this industry because they do not treat their musical career as a business. For the purposes of our discussion here, let’s consider another type of business with which we are all familiar: a restaurant.
If you want to have a prayer of success in the highly competitive restaurant business, I think we would all probably agree that you have to offer a product that consumers actually want to buy, and that the product meets their expectations and tastes good to them. I think that if we apply these criteria, we can all easily understand why all spinach restaurants have never really caught on with the buying public: spinach may be extremely nutritious and good for you, but the simple fact of the matter is that most people just don’t like the taste, and given a variety of menu choices, very few diners will voluntarily order spinach.
This “taste test” applies equally to music. If the buying public does not like the taste of your product, or the sound of your music, then they will not buy it. You will then be forced to seek other employment.
It was alleged in the discussion that there was a vast conspiracy of lawyers, record company executives, media owners, and other un-named yet equally nefarious individuals who controlled which music was offered to the public and force fed certain formats, and prevented the distribution of music that was not approved by their conspiratorial cartel. Please don’t insult my intelligence by repeating this totally bogus argument…..in this Age of the Internet, you can easily distribute samples of what you have to offer…..if people like it, they will seek it out and buy it….if they don’t like it, they will ignore it. You don’t need a record label anymore. If your music does not have, in the opinion of the record labels, any commercial potential or demand, you can easily set up a web site offering your products for sale and attempt to prove them wrong.
I don’t want to come off as being totally negative on the subject of music being a viable occupation. It was very good to me when I was a player, and it is very good to me today. We also have many friends and business associates who are doing quite well in the current market. In every case that I know of, the musicians who are successful understand that they call it the Music Business for a reason, an d treat it as such. Here are some free tips on things I found that worked well for me……they’re not costing you anything, so don’t whine and complain…….
FIRST, PLAY WHAT THEY WANT TO HEAR……
I think this is the biggest mistake players make. When I played in Vince Vance’s band, Vince used to say that if you looked out into the audience and the crowd wasn’t singing along, you just played the wrong tune.
Musicians tend to forget why people come to clubs and concerts. They come to be entertained and to forget their troubles. If they wanted a musical education, they would enroll in a music appreciation class at the local junior college. Seriously, guys, playing Wayne Shorter tunes is a very bad idea in the vast majority of venues.
PLAY WHAT YOU ARE ASKED TO PLAY
I used to tell my employers that “if you’ve got the money, I’ve got the time”…..if you consider yourself far too cool to play a particular format, then you should learn to say “do you want fries with that?” Don’t ignore what your audience knows and likes…..they’re paying you, so they call the tunes…..if you want to create art, do so in the privacy of your living room
LOOK THE PART
The audience has visual expectations that you should not ignore. The crowd should be able to take one quick look at you and determine that you are not just another member of the audience. I think in the course of the discussion I was reading one of the jazz superstars was bad mouthing stage lighting, smoke machines, and pyro……bring ‘em on, says I……and raise the ticket prices accordingly…..it’s an important part of the overall entertainment experience…..I note with interest that the successful acts all make liberal use of it, but the posers and wannabe’s rarely do…..yes, I always used it on bar gigs……and yes, I always insisted that pachouli oil be added to the smoke machine so the stage smelled like hippie girls……hippie girls are well known friends to all saxophonists, but that’s another story for another time….
IT’S A BUSINESS……
Start on time, take reasonable breaks, do all the things you would expect a good employee to do…..
DON’T ASSOCIATE WITH OTHER MUSICIANS WHO ARE NOT WORKING…..
Seriously, don’t hang with people who play at blues jams, open mic nights, or in rehearsal bands. Don’t you DARE support any of the above! My rule is simply this: if whiskey is being sold, then I get paid. Don’t play for charity events unless EVERYBODY associated with the event is working for free. If the caterer gets paid, so do I……
DON’T EXPECT WORK TO JUST COME TO YOU…..YOU HAVE TO FIND IT…..
When I moved to New Orleans 20 years ago, I knew exactly two people in the local music business: my wife Sharon, who was a sound engineer, and Charles Neville of The Neville Brothers…..I spent weeks figuring out which venues were viable (meaning they actually paid what I was worth), targeting them, and then making myself known there. Don’t waste your time and business cards on sub-par venues…..you have to get out and solicit the work…..there are lots of guys who sit by the phone all night waiting for it to ring, or believing they are entitled to a gig because they can play Giant Steps with one hand tied behind their back ……seriously, kids, particularly if you’re new in town, expend a little shoe leather…….
DON’T BE AFRAID TO CREATE YOUR OWN EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITIES….
OK, just to give you some examples of things I did successfully to create gigs for myself…..here’s a couple:
I went to the local funeral home office, and offered to contract bands for funerals instead of the funeral home having to seek them out and employ them when needed. Trust me, I can get any and all of the “first call” players in New Orleans to come out and play four tunes at 11:00AM for a hundred bucks…..I charged the funeral home $1500, which they passed along as part of the cost of the funeral (that’s the going rate here, before some self righteous SOB accuses me of price gouging), they were glad to have a steady source of work, and I put the rest in my pocket….we did a LOT of this……
This is my favorite……I set this up with several different event planners…..if you have conventions in your area, you can modify this plan to suit local requirements and tastes:
Let’s say the American Association of Solid Waste Engineers is in town for their annual conference. Here in New Orleans, conventions often have a dinner cruise on one of our paddle wheel boats, going down the river, turning around, and coming back, all with a Dixieland band and an open bar. They get back to the dock around 10:00PM, and as they disembark on the gangway, there at the foot of the gangway is their old friend Plaunche Baptiste (one of my several registered stage names), his band The Creole Backsliders, and an extremely large breasted young woman in very scanty attire with a parasol……as the conventioneers come down to the dock, the band strikes up a lively tune and the large breasted young girl begins to shake her ass…..before you know it, we have almost all of the conventioneers in tow, and march them down the street to one of my favorite watering holes…..now if you are the owner of the aforementioned watering hole, are you glad to see your old friend Plaunche with a couple of hundred drunk conventioneers with gold Amex cards in tow? Of course you are, and you show Plaunche your gratitude by allowing Benjamin Franklin to shake hands with President Grant several times……after a while, Plaunche strikes up the band again, the girl begins to shake her ass, and the conventioneers are marched down the street to another watering hole, the owner of which is equally happy to see his old friend Plaunche……after an hour or so, you have to make a determination as to whether or not the conventioneers are beginning to speak in unknown tongues…..if not, march them to another bar….if they are, march them to their hotel, where old Plaunche puts out his top hat and the band plays a final couple of tunes……the hat usually gets filled with tens and twenties…….I charge the convention $700 and split the final evenings tips with the five piece band and pay them $100 each…..all the rest is mine
Once you get yourself established, you can do this sort of thing with disgusting regularity……unless, of course, you consider it musically beneath you…….
UNDERSTAND WHERE THE MONEY IS
One of the most amusing things flung against the wall in the recent discussion was the contention that there were only about 15 or less people actively touring with rock and country bands…..I’m sorry, boys and girls, but my tiny saxophone manufacturing company has more people than that under Endorsing Artist agreements, and the vast majority of them are doing very well financially, some of them exceptionally well. We know lots and lots of people who do this sort of playing for a living…..in fact, they are our primary market for our products. I guess if your gig experience is limited to wedding bands and Sunday Jazz Brunch gigs and CD’s you record in your living room and sell only on your website, you might not have a very good perspective as to what it means to be really successful in this business.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO PROMOTE YOURSELF AND YOUR PRODUCTS
One of the participants in the discussion complained that I had used one of the groups to promote my products. To this, I plead guilty as charged. If you don’t speak up on your behalf, don’t expect anyone else to do so……
CONTRIBUTE KNOWLEDGE FREELY TO THE MUSICAL COMMUNITY
We try to provide a continuous steam of information to the saxophone community about our research, along with plenty of historical information and other items we think would be of interest. If you know something or have some information, then you should share it. Although as a matter of disclosure I am a paid employee of The Saxophone Journal, we do consider our column in every issue about saxophone design to be a part of this outreach. We also are occasionally hired by other publications to contribute articles.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO CHANGE WITH THE TIMES……
One of the charges leveled at me was that it had been so long since I had played that my perspectives were not relevant. Well, if you don’t stay in touch with what’s going on out there, it’s very easy for that to happen. We try to make a point of adding young successful artists (Rob Ingraham, Vincent Broussard as examples) to our stable of endorsers in addition to the older established artists (such as Tom Scott, Ron Holloway, and Charles Neville) so we get the benefit of experience and fresh perspectives. You should use the same approach with your career. I think the only thing that is certain about the music industry is that it is constantly changing and evolving. With the exception of some nostalgia acts, you need to constantly evaluate the current state of the business, and adjust your approach accordingly.
THE BOTTOM LINE IS……
They call it the Music Business for a reason……if you choose to participate, then you need to treat it LIKE a business and act like a business owner, because that is exactly what you are!