Tuesday, February 26, 2019

The Paid Gig

There is certainly a lot of controversy surrounding musicians and bands getting paid for their performances.  Bluegrass music isn't known for its life-supporting income.  And many who would like to have paid, or better paying gigs, aren't really looking for something to solely support their life.

On the pro side of receiving more compensation for play, musicians spend a lot of money on instruments, equipment, travel (including gas money, food, wear and tear on vehicles, campers, etc.), lessons, strings, picks, and the list goes on and on.  They spend hours practicing, honing their skills individually and as a group.

But how many of these musicians and bands spend the same amount of time learning how to properly promote themselves?  They expect great music to give them great pay.  There are hundreds (and probably thousands) of really great musicians in Nashville that never make it.  They play for free or for tips.  For some, that may be all they want.  But for most, they would like more.

Great music does not necessarily equal really great pay.  Really great entertainment is where better pay starts to come into play.  You need something that makes people want to come see your "live" show.  If your audience wanted perfect music, they would pop in a CD or play an mp3.  They want something that puts them on the edge of their seats and makes them laugh, sing along, listen more closely, or simply takes them away from the daily grind.  Take a look at all the shows in places like Branson.  Why do people attend these?  It's not because it's the best music they have ever heard.  It's because they are being entertained!  Sure, the music is good.  Some of it is even outstanding!  But it's way more than that.

I have taught many students and many young bands.  I even help form young bands from my students so that they can learn to play with others.  In my opinion, that is even better than a jam because students meet with the same people regularly.  This allows them to play with others that are close to them in skill and age.  They develop friendship and a sense of responsibility.   I can teach them non-verbal skills and music etiquette, in addition to harmony, lead, backup, kickoffs, tags, and so on.  Who will I agree to teach as a band?  First of all, it has to be students that practice and are reliable.  (Notice I didn't say my "best" playing or most talented students; however, practice and reliability many times does make them the best or better than average.)

What is the next most important thing to me?  It is everyone's consent to play locally for charitable causes.  That means playing at churches, nursing homes, and local events.  Why do I require that?  Because it teaches young musicians how important it is to support those in their own communities.  It gives them valuable gigs where they can learn to connect with their audience.  It shows them that playing music is not just about being "good."  They begin to realize that mistakes happen no matter how well prepared they are.  They understand that there will always be someone better, but that they have to be the best they can be each time they go out.  It's not important to be the best.  It is more important to be prepared and give your personal best.  It shows commitment.  It teaches serving others with the talent that God gave you.

As I teach these young bands, most of them, regardless of how "good" they become, don't really want to take it to the next level.  Most probably wouldn't be looking to make this a lifetime career.  That's okay.  Over the years, I have taught several groups that were exceptional.  This is what I've learned...

To get good paying gigs, you have to be good at promoting.  That means getting the word out about your gigs.  People can't come to gigs that they don't know about.  If you are hired by a festival or event, don't just expect the festival or event to promote you.  They don't know your specific audience.  They may be promoting you through the musical genre, such as "bluegrass," but they don't know who your local followers are.  Do you even have local followers?  If not, you have missed out on the first important point of playing locally!  If you can't connect to your local audience, you won't have a cost effective way of playing all those free gigs that all musicians must play.

A subpoint on all of this is that your free gigs need to be your local gigs if you don't want to go broke "getting good experience."  They don't require you to spend lots of money on travel.  No excessive mileage on the car.  No expensive hotel rooms.  I'm not saying never play for free unless it's local.  I'm just saying that's where the majority of your free gigs should be.  If you are not drawing an audience, you are not doing something right.

Another thing I've learned in all of this is that the bands that get the following have parents and members that get the word out.  They all work together to help the band get gigs.  They work together to post on the Facebook page.  That means pictures as well.  They network.  Each family has the potential to bring all their family and friends together to help support the group.  They get business cards and t-shirts.  They make flyers for their gigs.  They make out set lists and practice them before gigs.  This list literally goes on and on, but the most important part of this is that they make their audience feel good!  It boils down to connecting with those they are playing for.  Period.

And while I am on that topic, I will also say this about fundraising electronically for band recordings or CDs.  I don't support Go Fund Me for recordings.  Why?  Because if you can't pay for your recording, you aren't connecting with your audience.  You don't have the amount of support needed to sell a recording.  I don't agree with the idea that you need the recording first to promote yourself.  Maybe you need that for professional promotion or larger gigs, but I still believe local support comes first and foremost.  Am I saying a group shouldn't record if they don't have a certain amount of followers?  No!  I am just saying asking for free money for that endeavor is like saying you don't think you are good enough to recoup your money.  Or that you don't want to work hard enough to figure out what you need for dedicated followers.  Record all you want, but let that be part of your learning experience.  Book local gigs that pay a little and save that money for that purpose.  Learn to connect with your audience.  Learn to promote yourself.  Don't expect handouts.  You may get them from time to time, but don't count on them.

What else does a band need?  They need to have smooth presentations.  The show needs to flow.  Musicians need to be able to tune quickly in between songs.  They need to play songs appropriate for their venue and audience.  Jokes need to be appropriate for the venue and audience.  Talk to your audience.  Look at them when you play.  Look like you are having fun!  You don't have to plaster a smile on your face for an hour while you play, but you do need to look pleasant and "into" what you are doing.  You do need to include your audience in your concert.  (And smiling does help!)

I know I have only skimmed the surface of this controversial subject.  I don't purport to know it all or have all the solutions.  I just want to share with you some of what I've learned over the years in working with young groups.  I understand all of this doesn't apply to every musician or every group, as specific genres, areas where people live, and individual sets of circumstances may make some or all of what I've said void.

So in summing this all up, I DO believe musicians should be paid for what they do, but I also believe that they need to do the work required to get them to that point.  If you can't draw a crowd, the venue can't afford to hire you.  It's that simple.

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