26 Oct 2013

Eggs: How to make a living as a musician

Somebody once said about art, "You can't make a living, but you can make a fortune." (If anybody knows what the actual quote is and who said it, I'd very much like to know.)

This is a pretty accurate description of a lot of creative jobs - artists, musicians, actors, writers... a jobbing actor will constantly be searching for the next mean-paying job, while Johnny Depp gets paid six zillion a film.  

And for musicians, spreading yourself about is par for the course.  There are good times, when the money is pretty steady; and there are bad times, when you're wondering how long you can last before you have to get a proper job!  So having your eggs in one basket is never a good idea - if all your money comes from function band work, what do you do in the quiet January-March period?  If all your earnings are from teaching, what about when everybody buggers off on holiday for the Summer?

So you need to have other sources of income to cover you for when your preferred source runs a little dry.  With me, recording was my main source of income, but when the 2008 recession hit, things started to get a little lean.  So that's when I beefed up the teaching side of things.  I took on more and more students, and meanwhile started getting more gigs with a function band for extra chunks of money at the weekends.  

Band work is a very funny thing.  Clients often think they're paying you to stand on stage for two hours and play some songs.  What they forget is that they insisted that you turn up at 3 in the afternoon to start at 9pm, and to get there you had to set off at lunchtime, meaning the 2 hours for which you're getting paid is actually getting spread over a 13 hour day.  And if you normally have students in the afternoon, you have to factor in the teaching work you lost as well...

And students come and go, of course.  For every committed, long-term student, you'll get three or four who say "I want to learn how to sing" when they mean "I want you to make me able to sing instantly."  These high-turnover students (which, I must stress, are no less deserving of your time, energy and professionalism - snobbery doesn't do anybody any good) mean that you have to have a constant stream of advertising flowing from your studio, on teaching websites*, Yellow Pages, in magazines and newspapers, and even cards in newsagents and music shop windows.  

Inevitably when on these teaching sites, you're asked what services you offer.  You tick the box marked "Singing tuition", but it occurs to you that since you've been playing flute every Sunday in a local wind band, why not offer to help out beginners with their flute playing?  And your main hobby since you were about 12 has been tap dancing, so why not tick that box, too?  Before you know it, you're earning money from more sources than you ever realised you could.  

Some people would say this is a bad thing.  Spreading yourself too thin distracts you from whatever ambitions you might have had when starting out.  I don't buy that.  If you really want to dedicate your life to writing music and nothing else, then you'd not need to spread yourself thin - you'd go on the dole, live in a squat, and eat nothing but stock cubes in tepid water.  But for the less fanatic amongst us, we need a few creature comforts, a decent place to live, and let's not forget the fact that if you're married or living with someone you'll need to pull your weight financially.  

Let's not be romantic about this: sometimes, being a musician has to be WORK, just like any other job.  We'd all like to just chill out with our pals and jam away in the studio all the time, but that's not going to buy the baby a new bonnet.  But the reason we don't jack it in when things get tough and become accountants is because we love music too much.  So how do we make the WORK periods seem as little like work as possible?  That's where diversifying your income really helps.  

I love teaching.  I really enjoy the excitement in somebody's eyes - even the most jaded and pessimistic of students - when they 'get' something they were previously struggling with.  And because I teach several subjects (singing; piano; theory; songwriting; production) my mind is constantly having to work in different ways, rather than having to hear myself harping on with the same lessons over and over again.  I play in several function bands all with different styles, each getting different types of gigs - so it's not so bad having to play friggin' Love Shack on the Friday because I know on Saturday I'll be playing Mr Blue Sky.  I also have my recording and production work ticking along - some bands, some solo artists, and some theatrical/stage companies, all with different styles and goals, needing a different approach.  Then there's songwriting, composing, and voiceover work.  Please understand, I'm not saying "Look at me! Aren't I wonderful for having so many strings to my bow?" Not at all.  What I'm trying to say is that over the years I have been forced partly by finance and partly by restlessness to spread out into different areas - and unless you're very lucky indeed, and have a hit single that pays your mortgage, you're going to need to do the same thing.

And on top of this, you must - must - make a little time for your own music.  For me, this is playing classical piano, improving my jazz piano, making horrendous noises with Fat Pigeon, and recently I've picked up the ol' saxophone again.  None of these things are earning me any money, but that means they're mine.  They don't belong to the taxman.  

So to stay afloat as a musician in tough times, I would boil this whole thing down to these two pieces of advice: 
  1. Diversify your sources of income, so you're not reliant on one thing. Apart from this making good financial sense, it stops you getting bored with doing the same type of work all the time;
  2. Make time for your own music.  For your own sanity and self-esteem, you can't dedicate every waking hour to paying the bills; and how depressing would it be if your piano became nothing but a money-making tool rather than a beautiful, creative, living organ?
That's my take on things.  How do you keep the wolf from the door in a creative industry?

* My favourite and most useful has been TheTutorPages.com

23 Jul 2013

Beware of "Creative" promoters and door charges... [Swearies]

This is a rant.  If you want the short version, click here to go straight to the helpful summary diagram

So here's the situation:

A successful cabaret and burlesque show is operating in a bar on a Friday night, with no cover charge, packing people in on a weekly basis and getting great reviews online and in the local press.  Meanwhile, the bar queue's always ten people deep and the cocktail money keeps rolling in.

Everybody's happy.

But then a new manager turns up.  A new manager who thinks he's creative.  A new manager who, when we first saw him, was in the chef's face saying, "EVERY DISH YOU MAKE MUST BE A WINNER! PEOPLE SHOULD BE THINKING 'WOW! I CAN'T BELIEVE I'M EATING THIS!'".

In short, a dick.

Yes, this is a man who has no interest in keeping the venue successful - this is a man who in his own words wants to "shake things up a bit", which roughly translates as, "I'm the new boss, and I'm going to show you exactly how my willy is bigger than the last guy's."

In the two weeks between him starting at the venue and us meeting him, at least half of the staff had left or handed in their notice.

Then he turned his attention to the entertainment.

First, he brings in a cover charge.  This was never going to work.  The clientele is made up largely of young people - students and graduates - who primarily want to get hammered on the venue's posh and interesting cocktails rather than to watch a show.  Consequentially, they're not prepared to pay a cover chargeThey'd sooner go to the bar next door or across the road and get hammered there.

Second, the show is to be spread out, with lots of shorter acts and longer breaks.

Third, the actual stage area (on which an all-singing, all-dancing cabaret show is supposed to perform) is cut down by 75% to an area literally smaller than my in-laws' dining table

On this last point, we had possibly the most frustrating debate I've ever had in my life.  It seems he wanted to fill the stage with tables, and for the musicians in the show to sit amongst the audience.  He wanted a keyboard player and a guitarist to sit in the middle of a rowdy, drunken, albeit good-natured, London pub crowd.  When we pointed out that this was simply unworkable due to some clown on a stag do inevitably jumping up on the piano crying "I CAN PLAY CHOPSTICKS!", his response was literally as follows:

"Hey, man, I got shit loads of money, I got a Gibson Les Paul at home, you know?"


So we eventually managed to get him to give us a bit more space on stage, but when it came to the actual show, the audience was, well, thin.  Very thin.  And because we'd been instructed to take much longer breaks in between sets, it was harder to keep the audience from leaving half way through.  The crowd that was there enjoyed themselves, of course, but it just didn't have the same buzz as a packed room.

The results:

He discovers he's losing money.  He's getting fewer bookings for tables and seating areas.  How could this possibly be?  He can't see any correlation between him starting to charge on the door and the bookings drying up. For every £5 he takes on the door, he loses £15 in cocktails.

But who gets the boot?

Yep, the performers.

So in the space of ONE MONTH this absolute lunatic has managed to alienate most of his staff, and completely dismantle a successful cabaret act.  In a few weeks, the venue will be closed down and refurbished.  Three months after its relaunch, it will be closed down again and sold.

What this all boils down to is a plea to venue owners, bar managers and promoters everywhere:


The chef knows what tastes good.
The musicians know what songs go down well
The dancers know what routines get the loudest cheers.
Manage your staff, and the entertainers. Suggest ways to improve things if they need improving. Encourage change and innovation where it's needed...


 And breathe...

What happens when small venues operate a cover charge
Obviously I'm not saying that all venues should be free,
but where the venue is primarily a pub or a restaurant rather than a performance space,
people simply won't pay extra for the entertainment!

4 Jan 2013

Further adventures with noise limiters: warning and advice

Booking a wedding venue? If you're thinking of booking a live band you might want to check beforehand the venue doesn't have a noise limiter.

If you don't know what a noise limiter is, you might want to check out my previous blog post on noise limiters before continuing...

So on New Year's Eve I played a gig with one of my function bands. It was a wedding; the crowd was vibrant; the bride radiant. The venue itself was beautiful, with excellent food and impeccably-mannered staff...

But they had quite simply the worst arrangement for live bands I have ever come across in my life.

For a start, we were not allowed amplifiers. Guitar, bass and keyboards had to be DI'd [DI = 'Direct Imput'. This is where the instruments are plugged directly into the PA system, losing the character, tone quality and control you get from on-stage amplifiers]. As did the electric drums. That's right, we had to use an electric kit. They had no monitors [on-stage speakers which allow the musicians to hear themselves], and we weren't allowed to set up our own. They had no microphones, stands or leads, and this was the mixing desk they gave us for three vocals, guitar, bass, keys and drums:

Pathetic. Not only that, but everything then went through a very hard volume limiter at a level so low that there was absolutely no difference in volume when I started singing off mic. Seriously. There were three people having a conversation next to the area where we were set up, and we couldn't hear ourselves playing.

I started playing the tambourine in one song, and had to stop because it was drowning the band out.

The sound of the drummer hitting the pads was louder than the sound of the drums through the PA.  It was, quite frankly, an embarrassment for everybody concerned.

Now, the reason the venue gave for this situation was "The council have placed very strict limits on noise levels here."

So this may or may not have been the case. It's worth pointing out that the venue was a country house in the middle of several acres of land, out in the middle of nowhere... AND IT WAS NEW YEAR'S EVE!!! Who exactly was going to be calling the police at half midnight to complain about the noise, for goodness' sake?!

But leaving that aside for the moment, I think for a venue to take bookings for wedding receptions claiming they have the facilities for any non-acoustic live bands is disingenuous, unfair to the bands, and nothing short of conning the clients. For this venue to claim they can accommodate live function bands is like saying I can cater for a reception dinner because I've got a microwave and a frying pan. We are not a ceilidh band or a Lady Gaga tribute show, so would not take a booking from someone looking for an act like that.

This venue, like so many others with noise limiters, wants to take the money from every client they can, regardless of the fact that they are simply not fit for purpose. Of course the venue was beautiful, the food was superb and the staff were excellent... but when they're asked "Are we able to book a live band" they should make it clear they can accommodate acoustic acts, chamber music groups, solo pianists, guitarists, harpists, mandolin players... all sorts of wonderful and entertaining live music options, but not seven piece pop/disco/rock bands.

We did our best, of course, and performed with a good grace, keeping the crowd entertained as best we could, but due to the venue's live music situation, the guests were clearly disappointed by the frankly pathetic noise dribbling out of the PA, and the band were humiliated.

These buggers are after your money. They want your booking, and some of the more unscrupulous venues will say anything to convince you they can cater to your every need.

But if you want to book a live act, make sure they don't have a noise limiter at the venue, and certainly don't book a venue that makes bands put everything through the house PA with none of their own amplification. Any professional function band worth their salt will turn their volume levels down at your request. Putting it in the hands of a noise limiter is no fun for anyone.

If you're reading this as a member of a function band, and noise limiters are a problem for you, then make sure you ask the client if there's a limiter at the venue when taking the booking.  Depending on how far in advance the booking is, or how certain they are about their venue, you shouldn't feel bad about warning the clients of noise limiters - after all, the venue probably won't do it.

The original Noise Limiter article: http://pflog.blogspot.co.uk/2012/12/want-live-band-hate-music-get-noise.html

How to choose a first dance song for your wedding: http://pflog.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/first-dance-shorter.html
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