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On Becoming a Full-Time Performing Artist.

On Becoming a Full-Time Performing Artist.

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.

Look at all that sweet, sweet budget data.

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.”

Eating Well on Tour.

Eating Well on Tour.

You’re broke. You finish a grueling gig, and your cut of sales is $15. You and your three bandmates have rumbling stomachs, morale is low, and the only thing open is Taco Bell. You order as much as you can and chow down, only to be greeted with that terrible bloated feeling that is the embodiment of fast food regret… And tomorrow night, you’ll do it all over again.

I hope this blog reaches you before you get to that point, because once you go down the rabbit hole of fast-food-diet on tour, it’s hard to come back from it. Eating like this is discouraged by healthy people everywhere for good reason – because it’s horrible for your stamina and a nightmare for your general well-being. I’m thoroughly convinced that unhealthy food habits on the road are one of the top five reasons why bands get so sick of touring.

Quit eating your budget and start saving the piles of cash you’re making on the road for the important things, like that vintage Gibson tube amp we all saw you drooling over. I swear to god if the rest of the band has to hear you talk about how much you want that warm tube tone again we might add you to the crock pot.

Eating out is expensive. Calorie for calorie, groceries are cheap, so even if health isn’t a huge motivator, your budget should be. Of course, you will often get food comps from venues where you perform, but when that comp is really just a discount and the only food available is deep fried, you’ll be able to fall back on something fresh, filling, and affordable.

I know it’s hard to imagine how we can eat better when all we have in our arsenal is a small food stipend and nowhere to cook. I want to offer some tips for preparing your own meals on the road, especially if you don’t transport a kitchenette with you and you’re on a tight budget.

Please note that I’m not a doctor. If you’ve been given medical advice about what to eat, follow it. Your doctor knows your dietary needs best, and I’m just a stranger on the internet. This is not medical advice.

Get a cooler. The best way to transport fresh fruits and veggies is with a little ice and some water-tight Ziploc bags. Depending on how many people you have in your group, you’ll need to adjust the size of your cooler and how much food you bring along.

Below is my list of fresh foods that transport easily, are cost effective, can be stored without too much fuss, and don’t necessarily require cooking.

Fruits:

  • Apples
  • Oranges / tangerines / cuties
  • Bananas
  • Grapes

Vegetables:

  • Carrots
  • Sugar snap peas
  • Fresh spinach
  • Cauliflower
  • Broccoli
    • Pro-tip: bring some salad dressing to dip the veggies.

Nuts and dried goods:

  • Peanuts
  • Almonds
  • Trail mix
  • Popcorn
  • Granola bars
  • Peanut butter
  • Crackers

Drinks:

  • Bottled water
  • V8 juices
  • La Croix or other low-sugar sodas
  • Bottled coffees or sugar free Red Bull if necessary

What to avoid:

  • Sugary sodas: grab a sparkling water instead
  • Jerky: high sodium and fat content will make you feel bloated
  • Candy bars: avoid excess processed sugars whenever you can
  • Cup of noodles and other ramen cups: these high-calorie, low-nutrient foods fill you up, but they really take a toll on your body.
  • Fresh meat, eggs, and tofu: coolers are great for veggies and fruits, but temperature fluctuations inside a tour van means you run the risk of spoilage. Canned meats like tuna are probably fine, but I wouldn’t bring along anything that requires consistently cold temperatures.
This bad boy can cook almost anything.

Get a multi-use cooker. On our first tour, we brought along an Aroma 20 Cup Digital Cooker.

This incredibly versatile little rice cooker can be used to slow cook, steam, and sauté rice and vegetables. Although you’ll get a lot of protein from nuts and broccoli, with a cooker you can include other high iron and protein items like beans and brown rice.

You’ll need a pretty hearty inverter to run a multi-use cooker like the Aroma 20 Cup, but there are also crock pots that are designed to run on your van’s 12V plug, which means you can cook your food as you drive to the gig. Check out this list of one-pot meals that are perfect for a latching crock pot. You can also set up any of these cookers on a hotel room outlet without the fire hazard of an exposed heating element.

Look at this adorable thing.

Camping stoves are a great alternative to multi-use cookers. Any camping supply store will have little portable propane stoves you can use to cook. You’ll need to supply pots and cooking utensils, but having a freshly prepared meal on a portable gas stove is worth the trouble if you have space. Just don’t use this indoors.

Below is my list of cost-effective foods you can add to the above groceries if you plan on cooking meals on the road.

Canned foods:

  • Black, pinto, garbanzo, green, and kidney beans
  • Hominy or corn
  • Coconut milk
  • Tomatoes (diced, stewed, etc.)
  • Soups and stews

Dry goods:

  • Rice (brown and white)
  • Oatmeal
  • Gallon container of water for cooking
  • Potatoes / sweet potatoes
  • Onions
  • Your favorite cooking oil (olive oil, peanut oil)

Utensils for cooking:

  • Cutting board
  • Knives
  • Soap and sponges
  • Tongs
  • Spatula

Pro-tip: bring a variety of spices, including salt and pepper, to add flavor to your road meals. Many of the slow cooker recipes above can also be made on a camping stove with a pot given patience.

Also good for dissolving bodies with lye if you’re a meth Kingpin.

Of course, bringing along all of these supplies requires space, which means you might have to get crafty with your road setup. Most bands should be able to fit a week’s worth of ingredients in a Rubbermaid Tote pretty easily. These totes are about the size of a kick drum but are much more conveniently shaped for stacking. Plop one of these on top of a bass amp and you should be good to go.

Refueling is simple when you’re getting groceries instead of take-out, too. Most cities in the US have 24-hour Walmart stores on the outskirts of town, perfect for those of us living most of our lives after dark. I’ve also visited a variety of farmer’s markets across the country, vegetable stands on roadside stops, and other local grocery stores at normal hours. Whatever your go-to is for getting hold of fresh ingredients, you should be able to find them wherever you go.

I could go into a lot of detail about preparing specific meals and breaking down ingredients for their nutritional value, but I feel like this gives you a good idea of how healthy eating on the road is probably more accessible than you’d think.

As a side note, don’t let the up-front cost of a multi cooker or camp stove deter you from getting one. Someone in the band should consider getting these things just because they’re so useful, both at home and on the road, which means these items pay for themselves over time. When you eat out, you don’t get any return on your investment. If you’re able to get a slow-cooker up front, the return comes back many times over. If no one in the band can supply a slow cooker or camp stove, see if you can borrow one from a parent or a friend.

Did I miss anything? Are there any points you’d like me to cover in the future? Did you find this blog useful? Let me know in the comments!

The Unrealities of Reality TV.

The Unrealities of Reality TV.

You’re a great singer! Have you ever thought about trying out for the Voice?

I’m pretty sure the judges of the voice pilot Voltron as a side job.

I think most singers and artists probably get this question at some point. Even with the death of American Idol and the falling popularity of shows like the Voice, I’m asked this question a couple of times a year.

Before I get too far into this blog, I want to say that I know the question is meant as a compliment, which I appreciate immensely! But this way of thinking about artists troubles me, and I’m always tempted to pass on my opinion to people who ask. I never get too far into it – usually I thank them and move on – but every once and a while, I’ll let a little bit of what I think about these shows slip out.

Long before I learned about contracting issues and other problems regarding reality TV talent shows, my instinct has always been that I’m not what they’re looking for. I’m an okay singer, by which I mean I have my thing, and it’s kind of a unique thing, but my voice is not exceptionally good in terms of range or pitch (being partially deaf in one ear probably has something to do with this). I’m working on it with exercises and my pitch is much better than it was even a year ago, but I wouldn’t say I’m Kelly Clarkson level of quality and consistency and range. These are all things that winners of these shows have in common.

They’re usually looking for a very specific brand of pop, which is also beyond my strength as a vocalist. Occasionally they’ll pick a winner that isn’t a pop singer, but even they don’t sound anything like me. They all seem to fit squarely in a vocal genre. They want people who can do crazy runs and/or are extremely marketable, inoffensive, and apolitical. That’s a whole list of things that don’t apply to me.

But aside from the fact that I don’t think I’d ever be X-Factor material, these shows are known for having some of the shadiest contracts in the business. Clauses often include their sole ownership of everything you ever create, past and future – even if you don’t win, which is a terrifying thought as an independent artist. Shows that rely on votes often manipulate polls at the producer’s whim. In other words, the ‘reality’ part of the show is a bit fuzzy.

I’ve met people who have actually made appearances on these shows and have been dropped because they won’t or can’t follow the script. They manipulate the editing of an event to make you look great or terrible – whichever they think will get better ratings. They decide what the audience thinks of you. Viewers are spoon-fed stories and perspectives. Everyone involved in the show, from the cast to the viewers, are manipulated to a disturbing degree. But hey, that’s show business, right?

I’m also just a huge fan of being able to create my own work, and I take great pleasure from the process of writing, editing, and tracking my music with Eric. Maybe I don’t have the best producers in the world to workshop the hell out of my songs, but I do have the benefit of avoiding a system of creation that’s been described by its members as modern slavery. I love making my own art, and owning what I make. I love choosing who I work with. For example, we had a great time recording with our friend Steve on Aether, which you can see below:

Not having financial backing is the price you pay for independence, but these days, it’s more than worth it – and viable if you can manage yourself and your finances independently.

I also just hate waiting in line, almost as much as I hate being given a script that is not sincerely my own. If I want something in life, I’m not going to tack a number to my chest and beg people to judge me and find me worthy. I’m going to perform, and people will like what we do, or they won’t – but I won’t fade back into another life regardless, because being an artist isn’t just a dream for me. It’s a job, one that I do with great pride, careful planning, practicality, and realism. Reality TV is many things, but real and practical are, funny enough, not among its qualities.

So no, I don’t think I’ll be trying out for the Voice or any other reality show any time soon. But I’m happy to take the compliment, and keep my freedom.

Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome.

I find myself afflicted with imposter syndrome every time I try to write this blog. I feel like my experiences are so specific, and each tour so different, that I couldn’t possibly offer any words of wisdom that would be applicable to a wider audience when it comes to suggestions for making life on the road easier. I’ve sat down and tried on several occasions with no luck.

Here’s how this usually goes: I search for a coffee shop with good wifi. I order my coffee and find a seat. While my computer boots up, I glance around at the other patrons on their laptops, and I’m immediately struck with a sense of being out of place – these folks probably live in this town, they might be doing real work, and they’re dressed like they belong. Meanwhile, here I am with this crazy lopsided hair that I probably forgot to brush this morning, it’s been a while since I’ve visited a shower, my shoes are all messed up because they were soaked in gasoline from the generator, and besides all that I’m wearing these crazy garish tights and I have nothing resembling a ‘real’ job and suddenly I can’t bring myself to write because it seems so glaringly obvious that I probably couldn’t communicate with someone if I wanted to, let alone about something so personal and so specific. I can imagine what they’d say: Why would anyone want to read what you wrote, you weird vagrant hipster?

Coffee shop work day. Photo by our wonderful merch girl @petrichorest. #coffeebuddies

A photo posted by Lillie Lemon (@lillielemon) on

Just the simple fact that I’ve ditched a stable life in a beautiful coastal town for a semi-permanent life as an artist living in a van has come as a bit of a shock to a lot of people, myself especially, which furthers these feelings of being something of a fraud (what makes her think she can just up and leave life behind while the rest of us take responsibility for ourselves?).

I’d like to recognize that there’s some truth in this: in a lot of ways, I am a weird vagrant hipster. Much of what I understand about being a touring artist has less to do with music and more to do with thousands and thousands of miles and hundreds of hours behind the wheel of a 38 foot rig.

A photo posted by Lillie Lemon (@lillielemon) on

We’ve performed in nearly every state in America including Alaska, in every kind of weather you can imagine, down buttery smooth roads and down miles and miles of gravel and dirt and dust. There are so many things involved with this kind of mileage that I didn’t expect to be learning, and I hope I can pass at least some of that on to you.

I’ll also take a moment to point out that the way we travel as a band is very unconventional, and we are blessed with support from our families that allows us to be on the road for so long and still have a place to call home when we take a break.

I don’t want to pretend that there’s some intensely deep, philosophical thing I’ll be providing to the world here that you can’t get somewhere else from a better writer. I imagine I might have entire posts dedicated to specific topics, while others might be descriptions of certain personal experiences that I found poignant on one of our tours. I’ll also have a series of how-to posts that I hope other musicians might find helpful as they traverse the country. If there’s anything in particular you’d like me to write about, please leave a comment and I’d be glad to consider it. I do welcome feedback on these entries, and I’d be especially interested in hearing solutions when I mention issues we’ve had while exploring the USA.

Thank you for reading this far, and for taking this little journey with us. I’m looking forward to sharing more with you.

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