You might get to a point in your musical life where you have to make a decision – Will you take the Keep Growing path, or the Stay Put path?
Stay Put is nice. You learn about three hours worth of popular cover songs and work the local bar scene. You are the go-to band for local weddings and holiday events. You have a full repertoire of Christmas music at arms reach at any given time, and you’re a pro in the studio for the odd recording gig. You probably play for more than one band and you can make a comfortable, albeit hectic, living as a musician.
Once you’ve chosen Stay Put, touring sounds too difficult and you have a mortgage and a big dog that gets carsick, so you’re not taking that kind of risk. But hey, don’t feel bad about it; having a bed, a fridge, and a kitchen are really underrated these days.
Keep Growing is a dangerous path. How much will you abandon for your ambition as an artist? In Keep Growing, you become a gambler. An educated gambler, one who knows the odds are stacked heavily against you, but a gambler nonetheless. You know that less than 5% of bands and DJs actually make a living making music. You know that 91% of bands are considered undiscovered. And you know that, even if you sell out 6,000-cap rooms, you might still end up working a day job back home.
You will play countless empty houses and bars laden with apathetic patrons and gigs where you have to remind the bar owner how much they agreed to pay you. Keep Growing demands that you live out of a suitcase. It demands that you get creative with food and budgeting and performance. It demands that you learn all those cover songs, too, but instead of having a built-in audience, you’re risking your covers on totally new crowds every night.
Not deterred yet? Okay, let’s Keep Growing.
Master your local scene and move on as a Weekend Warrior.
Are people coming to your local shows? Are you the hot talk around town? Are local venues reaching out to you, and paying you for your work? You might be ready for Keep Growing.
It’s important to get solid at performing locally. Be well-known as a helpful, responsible, hard-working band around town. One thing my partner Wobbles and I try to do is provide as much set-up and tear-down help as we can with local groups that we play with. We also use this time to polish our marketing and promotion skills, to test out new merchandise, and to get really good at organizing events and shows locally.
When you start reaching out on a larger scale, you’ll need to be able to do all of these things. Venues might want you to build a bill, promote all on your own, and bring your own equipment. They have these expectations because other bands can do these things for them. Don’t be the one who has to turn down a gig because you don’t know how to set up a PA or you don’t know how to reach out to bands in those markets, especially if that gig pays.
There’s a big step between mastering your local scene and hitting the road for long tours. That step is the Weekend Warrior. Before you quit your entire life at home, start traveling shorter distances to scenes near your own. This is easier said than done in some states, but if you can take two days off of work in a row, you should be able to use that time to travel to a new city, play a show or two, and head back home. Do you live in Illinois and consider your local scene to be Chicago? Head north to Wisconsin and play in Milwaukee or Madison. Get to know bands in other cities. Connect with other performers. Make as many friends as you can – this is where the real enrichment of touring comes from, anyway – and offer to host them in your city for a show. These relationships are vital.
Weekend Warrior tours are very telling of your ability to stay on the Keep Growing path. If you find these shows exhausting or boring or can’t book gigs that will pay you, odds are, long-term touring isn’t going to do that for you, either. There are plenty of people discussing what recipes work best for Weekend Warriors, so make sure you do your homework.
By the way, this is also a great time to figure out how much you think your show should be worth, and a great time to enforce that rule with venues whenever possible. This varies from person to person and from bandmate to bandmate, and, in the end, it might come down to how much your scene is actually willing to pay. But remember – you’re providing a service to a venue. If you bring a big crowd, it’s time to negotiate payment. That will be another blog for another time.
Keep people drinking.
As a newbie touring artist, bars are by far your biggest supporters. They’re often willing to give you a percent of the door or a flat rate – if you can bring them what they want. What do bars want? Cover songs. Lots of ‘em. Sometimes as much as three hours worth. Get your three 45-minute sets tight and clean and full of cover songs. That doesn’t mean you can’t play originals – but you should stick to the ones that fit and sprinkle them in here and there within the set. The bar sees your job as keeping people drinking. If you can’t keep people at the bar, it’s likely they won’t ask to have you back.
You’ll start to learn tricks as a Keep Growing artist that encourage people to fill their drinks. A local favorite of ours, Casey Frazier, has mastered the skill of bringing repeat customers by learning the songs they want to hear and involving them in his set with sing-alongs, fun banter, and lots of cheers that keep the beer flowing. There is a science to interacting with your crowd that engages them; it’s a science I’m still learning every day. It becomes easier with practice. There are plenty of blog writers out there that have written about this at length; I might add my own two cents at some point. Suffice to say, read as much as you can and practice these skills. The bar will notice, and patrons will come back because they enjoy being a part of the show.
Get good at budgeting.
If you don’t keep a strict budget now, you’re not ready for Keep Growing. There are resources out there to help you. The site that is solely responsible for my fiscal aptitude is Mint. It’s a fantastic resource for setting your financial goals, tracking incoming and outgoing funds, and making sure you’re not going over-budget on the items you spend money on. I imagine there are other, similar services out there to help you with this, too, if you prefer.
What I like most about Mint is seeing exactly where my bad spending habits were – $70 a month on clothes? $200 a month eating out? $150 a month on coffee?! – and being able to consciously decide to quit spending money in such a way by having an alert message on my phone whenever I got too close to my set budget. Doing this for half a year could leave you enough money for a down payment toward a tour van, or possibly even enough money to print your album.
Budgeting like this is useful not just because Keep Growing demands that you spend less on things you don’t need – and believe me, it does – but it also tells you how much money you need to be making to cover your normal expenses, too. If you need $1200 a month to survive and you’re only pulling in four $200 gigs a month, you’re not ready for Keep Growing unless you have a lot of money in savings to spend or are willing to make some major cuts to things that make your life comfortable, like the more expensive toilet paper or your cat that always gets sick or your entire apartment.
Use these new financial skills to build a fake tour. If there’s a tour destination you have in mind, figure out how far you have to travel, how much gas you’ll need to purchase, how much a hotel room will cost, and how much you’ll spend on food. You’ll use these figures to find out if your gigs will cover your costs. Many bands tour at a loss. Will you be one of them?
Get into business.
I know the rebel artist inside of you says your Keep Growing path should never be hindered by bureaucracy, but if you don’t have any business sense about your music as a lifestyle, your band will die a slow, financially draining death and you’ll wake up on the other side of it a jaded nihilist. Your band needs to be a business. Are you the sole proprietor? Is your band a partnership? What members of your band are owners? Are you copy-writing everything you’re making? What contracts do you have written up with your co-members? If you haven’t thought about your band in these terms yet but you’ve started making money, it’s time.
The process of becoming a business isn’t too difficult, but it varies state to state. The benefits of doing this are great – you’ll be able to write off countless expenditures, you can sign up for a business checking account to keep everything kosher, and you’ll be able to start writing up bigger contracts for your performances for colleges and universities. (Performing for colleges is another story for another day.) The biggest benefit to our music business was by far the
addition of a business credit card, which gives us cash back on gas and food, thus adding another level of saving – but also a level of responsibility. (If you can’t manage your personal debt situation as it is, owning a business could be the mistake that destroys your credit, so tread carefully.)
Talk to a tax professional or CPA in your community and pay for their advice if necessary. Having someone who knows your local tax code will save you a lot of trouble down the line if you plan on making a living with music.
If you’re willing to put the work into starting a business, ask your librarian if they have any Nolo guides for starting your own business. These legal guides can help you navigate everything you need to know about getting your music business off the ground, from licensing to writing your business plan.
Create a SWOT report.
The Complete Marketing Process by DiscMakers is a must read for groups looking to go full time. One of the best things I took from this piece by Bobby Borg is that it pushed me to create a SWOT report for our group. According to the Complete Marketing Process, “SWOT is an acronym that stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. The idea is to identify external needs and opportunities that match your internal strengths while also considering your internal weaknesses and the external risks (e.g. competition) that could impact your ability to succeed.” While writing up my own SWOT report, I had to face a lot of information about what we were capable of and what skills we were lacking as a group. Knowing what you’re good at and what you’re bad at matters.
By the way, if you want to learn a ton about marketing and getting these business-minded pieces together, try and find books like this one in your local library, or buy a copy and get reading.
These are just starting line suggestions to help you figure out how far along you are on your path to going full time. If you haven’t mastered these skills, you’re probably not ready to leave your local scene. And that’s okay! You will get as good as you want to get at all of these things. Remember, you are in control of where your music takes you, and the only thing between you and the life you want is the level of sacrifice – and the amount of hard learning – you’re willing to take. As Victor Wooten says in the Music Lesson, “There is only one reason that you ever fail at anything… and that is because you eventually change your mind.”