Re: [Harp-L] Re: Music and the American Dream (Making a Living?)

This could be the biggest treasure that I have ever mined on harp-l (or anywhere for that matter). And who BETTER to cast such pearls before us swine.

On Apr 3, 2007, at 12:36 PM, Tom Ball wrote:

WVa Bob writes:

---For my part, I teach school to make a living; I certainly don't depend
on music to do more than supplement my income. Earlier in this thread
somebody opined that very few on this list actually made their living from
music...just wondering: how many of you do make at least the bulk of your
income form music? Anybody willing to say?


Well, I suppose I can plead guilty to that. For whatever reasons -- primarily a profound lack of ability to do anything else -- I've played music for a living for nearly 40 years. At a workshop recently I was asked how a working musician can make ends meet, which prompted me to think of a key word: diversification.

Young players -- ie players in their late teens and twenties -- are generally so happy to be actually playing music for a living -- touring, gigging, meeting people -- that money really isn't the main consideration. Not yet, anyway. A player that age probably hasn't bitten off a mortgage payment or begun a family, so crashing on people's floors, a diet of Taco Bell and 7-nights-a-week in bars are not only tolerable but actually rather exciting. But we DO all get older and personally I found that a revenue stream 100% derived from gigs can be dicey. What if you get the flu? What if a club goes belly-up? What if you need insurance? There had to be a better way.... So a few decades ago I looked around at other more successful players in my genre and noticed something: they all had other music-oriented sources of income, in addition to gigs. The key seemed to be in diversity.

I feel somewhat pretentious offering unsolicited advice here -- nobody really asked me -- but if there's one thing I can suggest to a young player it would be to diversify and create additional musical revenue streams. How? Ahhhh... let me count the ways. <g>

1) CDs. Yes, to an extent the Record Business is dead. But CDs, even with truncated sales compared to yesteryear, can still be a small source of income. The more CDs you can get out there -- all of them theoretically earning small royalties -- the better.

2) Write songs and keep your publishing. Start your own publishing company and register it with BMI or ASCAP. Again, a small revenue stream, whether they ever get covered or not. And if they get covered by somebody big: ching, ching, ching. :)

3) Record as a sideman on other folk's records. Make yourself available. Do every session offered. When you play a new studio, discretely drop off a business card with the engineer -- it might lead to another session down the road.

4) Commercials for radio and TV. These pay residuals every time the commercial airs. Film music too, if you can get it.

5) Teach. Take on an occasional student.

6) Double. If you can find the time to learn another instrument in addition to harp, your income will jump exponentially. And don't be afraid to sing -- even the froggiest voice can be developed and/or have charm (witness a couple of my heroes in John Prine and Dylan.)

7) Books. Sure there are already over 100 harmonica oriented titles available, but so what? Ever notice how many different kinds of peanut butter are on the Safeway shelf? Everyone has a different point of view and your's might be the one that resonates with a lot of folks. Books are like CDs -- the more you have in print -- all earning small royalties -- the better.

8) Have no shame. If the gig pays, take it -- even if it's a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah or something else you consider "beneath your dignity." Take it anyway. Their money's green. No need to worry that you're "embarrassing yourself" if another musician sees you -- hell, if they're a pro, they're playing gigs like that, too. :)

9) Assuming it's a cause you believe in, play the big benefit shows even if they don't pay at all. Not only will you feel better about yourself, but it's amazing how many good (ie good paying) gigs can sprout from such exposure.

10) Keep your overhead low. If you truly want to be a working musician, chances are you can't afford that boat, that trip to Tahiti or that cocaine habit.

11) Take advantage of today's technology. These days, with ProTools, it's possible to overdub a part on somebody's CD with a simple exchange of Emails. With Skype you can give an hour lesson over the phone for free. Set up a web site and don't be afraid to publicize it.

12) Never give up your dream -- you only live once (I think?) and you don't want to be an old geezer in a nursing home looking back on your life with a lot of "shouldda, wouldda, coulddas."

Now then. Apologies for the pedantic schoolmarm attitude of this post. I honestly don't mean to sound like a lecturer but I thought I'd pass along a few things that have enabled me to do what it is I love all my life. Thanks for the opportunity.

Best wishes to all and keep harpin',

Tom Ball
Santa Babs
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