Last week I wrote about musical success, which isn’t necessarily the same as having a career in music. This week, I’d like to offer some thoughts on developing and maintaining a professional performance career.

As we all know, there are basically three kinds of careers for acoustic/folk/traditional musicians; some do only one of the following, and many do a little of each:

  • Playing locally for restaurants, clubs, weddings, parties, cafes, festivals and occasional concerts.
  • Teaching
  • Touring

It’s amusing that no matter how well known you may be nationally or internationally, at home you’ll always be a “local musician” to those who assume that no outstanding professional could possibly live in their town. But local gigs can be good sources of income. There was a time when I toured several months of the year and did weddings when I was home. Before that, I busked between tours. (I lived in a tourist town, and it amazed me that I made as much selling my CDs downtown as I did on the road.)

I found a lot of humor in the music life. Not necessarily intentional humor, but hilarious just the same. Like the lady who heard me busking, looked at my CDs and said, “How do you get to have CDs?” And the fellow who looked all around my harp for the electric cord. And the brides at outdoor weddings who mess up their $10,000 gowns with grass stains around the hem. And on, and on…  laughter keeps one sane, even if it’s not out loud.

To successfully create and maintain either a local or a touring career, you need to be willing to:

1. Practice daily; develop real skills and be honest with yourself about them:

Many musicians have no idea how much work it takes to have a career, skill-wise and business-wise. Locally, you need to keep up with whoever else in your community is doing the same work. If there isn’t anyone else, you’re in luck! To get an idea about skill for touring, listen closely to the people who are nationally known in your chosen style. If you’ve got the right stuff, go for it. If not, don’t give up; keep working at it. (See my previous blogs on effective practice.)

2. Live for your music:

Spend your time on your music rather than on everything else. You might only get one life, so don’t waste it doing what you don’t love. Think about how you’ll feel some day on your deathbed; will you say, “I sure wish I had done what I wanted to do with my life”? No one ever says, “Gosh, I’m glad I spent so much time doing the laundry,” or “working for someone else,” or “I’m really glad I spent all my free time on Facebook.”

And ignore the nay-sayers! Ignore them when they pat you on the head and say, “sure, sure.” If they say “You can’t do it,” you can say, “Watch me!”

4. Create good promo materials, and do the work to promote yourself effectively

If you’re loathe to blow your own horn, don’t worry  –  promotional materials are written in the third person. It sounds like someone else said those great things about you (and in fact you can quote nice things that others say, as testimonials). In a future blog I’ll talk about how to create a good bio/promo package and website, and how to use them.

5. Do your own booking

Unless you have an experienced and dedicated promoter, doing your own booking is the best way to get enough gigs to keep a career healthy. Agents are notoriously ineffective. An agent who is already good at it usually has so many clients that you’ll get lost in the shuffle. One who has no other clients probably isn’t good at it.

In spite of the internet, we still have to do our booking the old way. You can send e-mails with links to sound bytes and websites, but the ease of this has created a flood of such e-mails to concert and festival organizers, so they usually get ignored. To stand out in the crowd, you have to send hard copy bios and CDs, and follow up relentlessly with phone calls.

One way to get gigs is to join The Folk Alliance and apply for showcases at their conventions. I have mixed feelings about this. It’s a good way to be heard by people who run concert venues and festivals; one showcase can get you a lot of gigs. Trouble is, there aren’t enough showcase spots for everyone, so acceptance is limited to a lucky few. It used to be that each promoter made his or her own decisions based on materials sent directly to them by performers; now the Folk Alliance does that for them, so anyone who doesn’t get showcased never gets a chance; in other words, who gets the gigs is determined by one small panel of people who in essence have supreme power on a national level. I think the Folk Alliance was originally well intentioned, but IMHO they are treading the line now between being good for the folk community and being The Folk Police. It severely limits how many really good performers actually get to be heard anywhere. I prefer to bypass the organization entirely.

6. Make a good quality CD to sell at your gigs

Pay for performances isn’t sufficient; you need CDs. You don’t have to get hundreds at a time. Find a duplicator who will do small batches, such as CD Baby or Disc Makers. It’s more expensive that way per piece, but less expensive than paying for a huge batch that sits there forever.

CDs are no longer viable to sell in stores. The market is too flooded. As more and more independent recordings became available, stores began to stock huge quantities of them, meaning any one title is perhaps 1/100th of their stock. You might get a check for $10 every five months. Not worth the effort.

At your performances your CD will sell not only by the music people hear you play, but also by its cover. The saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover” exists for a reason: because people do. Regardless of its content, a CD sells best if it has bold, bright, attractive colors and a simple, uncluttered design. One way to see how this principle works is to take a bunch of CDs with different covers and line them up, then ask your friends to point out, from a distance, which ones attract them visually. Most will choose the ones with colorful, simple covers.

Continued next week…