Career 101: Getting the Gig

There is so much talk about how to practice, what to play, and how to think about classical music that performers rarely, if ever, discuss how to formulate an actual career as a performing musician. Things have changed in the past two to three decades and 10,000 hours of practice no longer gets you to Carnegie Hall. (it does, but there are other ways…) I'm going to spend some time over the next few weeks blogging about how I've gone about formulating my young career and how I think my students and other performers can set forth on the path toward a successful life as a performing musician.

I am of the belief that young classical musicians do not need management to launch their careers. After all, the world is so hyper-connected these days with so much information available at the push of a button. From the comfort of my couch, the PlaneTrain in ATL, or a hotel room in Portland, I can find out much of the information that I need to publicize myself to the appropriate organizations, in hopes that they will hire me in the future.

A while back, on a blog far, far away, I posted a bit of a BRAGGY BLOG listing my accomplishments from a past performance season. I am immensely proud of each and every concert that I've played, but it's been quite difficult at times in the 'extra-musical' aspects of my career management. I will explain. Before I do, an editorial remark: after writing this blog and re-reading it, I feel like much of it comes off as downplaying the artistic aspects of a career in music. Please do not misunderstand - I would play every concert for free if that were financially feasible. Unfortunately it is not, and the business side of music is a necessary evil. I am not hard-headed in contract negotiations, usually only working to feed my family and pay my bills. It's hard to live in the United States (with student loans, rent, health insurance, and, ya know, food) without an income! But anyway, on to the actual blog!

An adult student of mine recently asked how I was able to afford to record CDs and play concerts (I assume they were referring to the cost of travel, hotels, cars, and other expenses related to performing). This is the first in a series of stream-of-consciousness blogs about booking, the negotiating process, remuneration, travel arrangements, etc. 

My personality has transformed over the past few years from a somewhat uncertain and confused music student to a confident and business-minded professional. This is not the easiest thing for musicians to do. We all have weaknesses and we've been trained to focus on these areas so as to fix problems. Unfortunately, when we focus on weaknesses, we tend to obsess. Eventually the obsession can become a major detriment! It's hard to come off as a confident, hirable musician when we are killing ourselves in our practice rooms! Looking past the practice room is the only way to come off as a self-assured performer. Sometimes confidence is perceived in a negative light, often as being a cocky jerk. Though I make efforts to not burn bridges, I operate under the "you can't please everybody" principle, but I try to learn from each situation. (sometimes it's a rough road, and try as you might, there always seem to be people who dislike you!)

Confidence and ability alone can't - and won't - result in performance gigs. A performer has to promote him/herself, via competitions, performance projects, or old fashioned PR. I feel very comfortable in my abilities in the PR area. About three years ago, I established my website, my little home on the web. The site features comprehensive information about me, including both my full-length and concise biographies, concert itinerary, audio samples, and social networking pages. But you know this, because you're here!

The website is my home base. Everything I do, all conversations that I have, all materials I hand out, will somehow mention my website. I write blogs - like this one - that drive traffic to my website and promote my performance and teaching. Audience members who attend my performances will find a program, notes, and publicity materials, each with a link to my website listed at least one time. I hand out business cards like they're candy. Again: website is listed.

Over the past four concert seasons, 2010-11 through 2012-13, I performed 105 solo and chamber music concerts and recitals all over the place. Of these, 47 were in 2011-12. That season, I played - best guess, I'm not checking records - about 20 concerts in which I received no pay. To be frank, it sucks when that happens. In these cases, I had to foot the bill for travel and lodging, food and transportation in the city I was in, and other menial expenses. That said, these 20 pro-bono, publicity concerts garnered at least 20 more the following season in which I was paid. And those 20 have led to other ventures that have been just as wonderful. Sometimes, as young artists, it pays to play for free. (and when you have these expenses, everything you do is a business-related tax write off...a different blog all together.) This isn't to say that you should de-value yourself and your craft. Creating a baseline fee is always a good idea. Consider the average cost of the expense of traveling and playing concerts and make an effor to always break even. As your professional profile increases, so will your fees.

So how to get hired? Marketing, marketing, marketing. What I've mentioned thus far - the website, business cards, playing for free - certainly help. But what else?! Create a electronic press kit (EPK). Tell the people you want to be hired by exactly why they should hire you. Explain your purpose, what sets you apart, and what you can do for them. My own press kit is a simple thing (designed by the too-fabulous-for-words KYLE HEMINGWAY) that explains who I am (via my confident bio page), what I do (recital programs, activities pages) and what I've done in the past (all of the above, plus my repertory list). An electronic version of this packet on your website makes it easy to link to it in an email so that presenters may download and peruse (and it also directs them to your website). But if you're old school (like me), put all of this information in to a folder (don't staple it!) with a CD sample of your playing and a business card. Ship it - to everyone!

But who to send it to? For me, this is the difficult part. Who wants to hire Justin Dougherty? (no more third-person narrative, I promise) It's difficult to say. Over the past two years, I've played more unaccompanied recitals than I have quartet recitals and significantly more chamber music than concerto performances (confession: I've played no concerto concerts, per se, as I don't have much interest in the genre. I have played major works with large groups, like John Tavener's Svyati with some big choirs.). Therefore, my concerto repertory is rather small, my solo repertoire - including cello/piano AND unaccompanied repertory - quite large and my chamber music, specifically quartet and duo rep, is somewhere in the middle.

I have found that the organizations that are interested in me are non-profits, small concert series', new music consortiums, and universities. As such, I have made a point of focussing on these for my current and future seasons. Getting paid to play after being hired can sometimes be more difficult. The Craigslist ad over to the right explains it all quite well (from both sides). Sometimes people just don't think they should pay for music and musicians. It's a "hobby" after all. If you rely on performances to pay the bills, it's hard to let a gig go, but if the venue is not willing to pay for your services, you have to weigh the value of a free concert versus one that will give you a paycheck. 

There are many ways to make money on a concert that you may not expect: charge for tickets at the door (a cover charge, if you will); ask for a cut of the sales, merchandise/food revenue; or take donations as you perform. None of these are nearly as secure as having a fee set in a contract. I have played a few concerts at some wonderful bars and independent bookstores where there is no admission fee for concerts. The "tip jar" is an easy way to make some money for these performances. In instances like this, or those where you are setting up your own concert and paying for a venue, the "pay-what-you-can" model is often more lucrative than the old "$20/ticket in advance, $25/ticket at the door." The old saying "the hardest ticket to sell is a free ticket," isn't so much true anymore. People want to hear live classical music. Sometimes those same people can't afford the cost of the symphony or the opera. But setting yourself up and peddaling your wares in an art gallery, bookstore, coffee shop, or bar will draw a large crowd and you'll be surprised how many of those people will drop 10s and 20s into the jar. Not to mention, this kind of performance is an outreach, showing how awesome classical music is. It grows the audience base for all of us!

If you choose to leave it to fate - collecting dollars at the door or via donations - for performance fees, then publicity is key. It's so easy to publicize for concerts! Posters at the venue and around town (above), press releases (right) to area news organizations such as daily or weekly newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations are an absolute necessity (check with the specific organization, most have deadlines for publishing that are well in advance of an event). 

The website ZVENTS and others like it are online calendar for events in specific areas, organized much like Craigslist. Often, when publishing to a specific Zvents page - say, San Francisco - the website will automatically publish your listing on other appropriate websites. In keeping with San Francisco, calendars for Marin County, San Jose, Oakland, etc. will also show your event. These calendars are frequented by a wide variety of people who may find your concert worth coming to! Newspapers tend to have their own online calendars. Publish your concert there as well!

You must network yourself. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn are all necessary and valuable means to let people know who you are and what you're doing. Post to them regularly! Set up a mailing list with a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly newsletter. You must keep a constant dialogue with people who want to see you. Place an iPad or pencil/paper at your concerts and ask people to sign up for your mailing list. Perhaps put this right next to the tip jar. Keeping an audience engaged is almost - if not MORE - important than playing incredibly well at your concerts.

With this in mind, I have to, again, say that music, besides being an inspirational artistic venture, is a business. Sometimes it's not about how good you are (I'm looking at you, American Idol contestants), but how relevant and hire-able you are as a musician. To step on to my soapbox: not everyone wants to listen to Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Some audiences don't want to listen to Harbison, Boulez, and Berio. Sometimes new music is the most relevant and interesting to today's listener and concert-goer while other times the warhorses reign supreme. Finding a niche market within music is important and can separate one performer from the clones around him/her. A performer doesn't need to be Lang Lang, Yo-Yo, or Itzhak to make a living in the world of performers. The performer just needs to be an intelligent marketer with something to offer. /soapbox

That's "all" for now. The next blog will be all about what comes after booking the concert, including talks about negotiating the contract. Stay tuned!

And hit me up on FACEBOOK and TWITTER and let me know what you think and what else you'd like to read about! (#marketing)