Spotify From a Musician’s Perspective

If you haven’t yet heard of Spotify, it’s a music streaming service that’s been making headlines in music industry blogs over the last year. Initially launched in select European countries in 2008, Spotify hit the US in July, 2011 and ever since has sparked a debate over whether or not their business model is healthy for the future of the recorded music business.

I recently shared some of my thoughts with David Rose of KnowTheMusicBiz.com. We decided to take our discussion online and each write our opinions of the service. For my part, I’ve been exploring how a service like Spotify can help me as a musician, but can’t ignore the potential detriment this convenient, inexpensive music service can have on my career and the careers of future generations of musicians.

How Spotify Helps Me as a Musician

As a freelance guitarist, huge part of my job is to learn songs and be familiar with as much music as possible. Spotify is a useful tool to this effect. When I need to learn cover songs for a gig, I can usually find it on Spotify. When I’m booked for a recording session and the producer tells me he needs a guitar sound ala David Lindley circa his mid-’70s work with Warren Zevon, I can find those recordings and familiarize myself with that particular guitar tone. In many ways, Spotify makes my homework a little easier.

Spotify also helps me nurture my own artistic development. When I want to explore a particular song, artist, or genre, I try to be as thorough as possible.

For example, I’ve been working on my slide guitar chops. In my opinion, there are few better than Ry Cooder, so I’ve been listening to a lot of his music on Spotify. His version of Blind Willie Johnson’s “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground” especially piqued my interest, so I followed that tangent and explored more music by Blind Willie Jefferson as well as every version of “Dark Was The Night” I could find. There are 15 versions by different artists on Spotify. Needless to say, I now have an intimate understanding of that song.

This type of exploring is incredibly important for anybody that wants to be a professional musician. Whatever instrument or type of music you play, you’ll play better if you understand its roots. That’s how you develop your musicality and personal voice.

How Spotify Doesn’t Help Me as a Musician

While Spotify makes it easier to listen to more music, it’s little more than a convenience. All the musicians I mention above, the musicians worthy of study, achieved their level of artistry and skill without the internet. That point bears repeating:

You don’t need the internet to become a great musician.

I’m not trying to sound like a dusty old timer telling “back in the day” stories; I use the internet as much as anybody. It’s a great way to find tools and resources that can point you in the right direction, but that’s only where the work begins. When I really think about my development as a musician so far, the lessons that took the most effort to learn have paid the greatest dividends.

Music is a communal, social activity. To be a better musician, to really learn about the craft, we must engage with other musicians.

One of my fondest memories of freshman year of college was getting together to listen to music with new friends. After class we’d have one of those “Oh, have you ever really listened to McCoy Tyner’s playing on Coltrane Live at Birdland?” conversations and make plans to bring a few CDs over to somebody’s dorm room. If we were lucky, somebody would score us some beer. We’d sit there listening in silence, and then geek out about what we heard and try to figure it out together.

We all went to great lengths to acquire and share music that was important to us, that we felt should be important to our friends, and because we had to borrow each other’s CDs, that listening time was valuable.

When virtually all the music you want to hear is freely available, how do you really know what’s important to hear? What’s the motivation to use each other as a resource for sharing music and our ideas about music?

Spotify is a helpful tool for working musicians, but it’s not a replacement for music discovery in the truest sense.

How Spotify Affects My Bottom Line

My music, like that of many independent artists, is available on Spotify via my digital distribution agreement with CD Baby. Every time somebody listens to one of my tracks, I make a little less than half a penny. Sometimes much less.

Scrolling through the 1,000+ rows of Spotify payments in my account, I found one instance from July 2010, a year before Spotify launched in the US, where one of my original songs was streamed 305 times. Total earnings for 305 streams? Twelve cents ($0.12), or $0.0004 per stream. In more recent reports, some streams have paid up to an entire penny!

Sarcasm aside, I’m happy to see my tune garner so many listens on one report in a country where I’ve never performed. However, at some point it would be nice to leverage that exposure into some sort of income.

Overall, revenue from Spotify has been less than a drop in the bucket of my recorded music earnings, which are still an important part of my monthly income.

If you’d like to see a comparison of revenue from recorded music, check out this recent “Release Day Economics” post by Uniform Motion. Their numbers very similar to the margins I see for my own releases, and those of countless independent musicians.

Unleveling the Playing Field

Leveling the playing field. That phrase has been used time and time again to describe the shift in the music industry over the past decade, especially since independent musicians were able to distribute their music on iTunes in 2004. No longer did the little guys have to compete for physical shelf space or bulk pricing. If you could get people to buy your music online, retailers would pay you just as much as they’d pay U2 or Jay-Z.

With streaming services like Spotify, payouts with this many zeros to the right of the decimal point only add up when you deal in bulk. This is advantageous to record labels with large catalogs.

Major labels’ catalogs are so important to the success of Spotify that the labels required Spotify to make large up front payments, in excess of $100 million. Therefore if they never saw a dime from streams of their music, they still made money. If Spotify went out of business a week later, they still made money.

Additionally, the four major labels (Sony, UMG, Warner, EMI) and the independent label group Merlin have all been reported to have an 18% stake in the company, meaning they not only make money from the streaming of their music, but also from Spotify’s revenue. If Spotify stays in business and turns profits, that’s just more money for the major labels.

How much of that money actually makes it to the artists? While artist deals vary, the consensus so far is not much. Not that that’s a surprise, though. I can’t imagine Spotify’s ad revenue and $5 or $10 subscription fees generate that much to distribute. However, unlike iTunes where every artist knows that Apple keeps $0.29 per $0.99 download, we really have no idea how much Spotify keeps before paying the content owners.

Finally, major labels have been rumored to use their large catalogs as leverage to earn higher rates per stream. This moves the music industry in the opposite direction of the past decade, possibly to a much worse, unbalanced landscape.

For example, let’s say two songs are each streamed 100 times one day on Spotify. For all intents and purposes, they are of equal popularity. One of them is mine, and I make $1.00 for all those streams. The other song is by an artist on a major record label and they earn $2.00 for their streams. Where does the extra dollar come from? Is $0.50 skimmed off the top of my streams and given to labels with more favorable deals?

I can’t say for sure, but neither will Spotify who has yet to be clear about how they pay artists and labels. This isn’t fair to independent and niche artists, but it’s also unfair to fans who believe they are supporting their favorite artists by listening to their music.

For another artist’s perspective on how this unfair distribution is harmful to successful independent musicians, read cellist Zoe Keating’s post about Spotify on Hypebot.

Debunking the “It’s Better Than Nothing” Argument

It’s estimated that 95% of the music downloaded is done so illegally. In other words, the entire recorded music industry’s digital sales revenue comes from just one out of every twenty songs downloaded. A decade after Napster, to say file sharing and peer to peer networks has not had an impact on the music industry is to ignore the facts. Today, most people do not want to pay for music.

For those who want free music, Spotify is an alternative to illegal options, but you’ll be served ads and there will be limits to how much music you can play. For those willing to pay a $10 monthly subscription, you can listen to as much music as you’d like and even transfer it to your mobile device. It’s not quite like owning the music, but it’s close.

Meanwhile, the content owners are getting paid. Not much, but hey, it’s better than nothing, right?

No.

The term piracy is often misused in the free downloading debate. Music pirates make money off of other people’s content. The majority of people that share copyrighted content illegally typically have nothing to gain for themselves other than free music. Spotify makes money off other people’s content, and there hasn’t been much return for the content owners. I’m not saying Spotify is a form of music piracy, but it’s awfully close. If this is the wave of the future, we’re all in for some problems.

My concern, though, really has nothing to do with money. I’m well aware of the fact that selling music is not a viable way to support myself in the future. Should Spotify prove to be a successful business model, it will pretty much put a dam in that stream of revenue.

My concern is that once we collectively agree that all of our recorded music is worth less than $10/month, regardless of how little the artists are paid, we’ll start to believe that artists don’t deserve to earn a living wage for their work. This sentiment already exists, and it shows disrespect to our fellow human beings. If something is valued enough to consume in limitless amounts, then at some point we have to nurture its creation and support its creators.

Spotify Will Not Save The Music Industry

I admit that Spotify is trying to create a huge change in the music industry, and I believe that their mission to offer an inexpensive alternative to free is well intentioned, at least initially. The offer a service that truly gives fans access to a huge amount of music for free.

Unfortunately, to do that they had to partner too closely with companies inept at creating a sustainable music business in the current climate. They fail to give an acceptable explanation of how artists are supposed to be paid.

If Spotify has a sustainable, long term goal, why don’t they clue us in?

Also be sure to also read David Rose’s article on Spotify over at KnowTheMusicBiz.com. Have your own opinions? Please share them below!

How To Find Work as a Gigging Musician

There’s a scene in the movie Inception where Cobb asks Ariadne how they came to be sitting outside a cafe in Paris. When she couldn’t recall, Cobb pointed out that we can’t remember how our dreams start; therefore she knows she’s dreaming if she can’t remember how she arrived someplace.

Sometimes I try to remember how I arrived at this point in my career as a musician and struggle to define when it even started. When did I become a professional musician? Was it when I got my first $20 weekly gig when I was 16, or when I told the IRS my occupation was Freelance Musician? Waking up every day and practicing guitar for work and not knowing how I got here… yeah, this is starting to feel a bit too much like a dream.

How does a musician find gigs?

Regardless of whether you aspire to tour as a sideman, play in a symphony, work in a Broadway pit, compose for TV and film, teach private music lessons, or more likely doing some combination of all these jobs, there are two factors that will directly effect the frequency and quality of your work:

  1. Your skills as a musician.
  2. Your reputation and ability to network.

First, you have to be a superb musician. Period.

That said, the best jobs do not always go to the best musicians. Most gigs do not require insane technical chops or mastery of the melodic minor modes. They do, however, require timeliness, cooperation, preparedness, and professionalism.

Finally, you need to learn about the people that hire musicians make an asserted effort to connect with them. It’s up to you to make the first inroads for your career.

Hone Your Skills

At the risk of offending some of you, one of the reasons you might have trouble finding gigs is that you’re just not good enough. Yet.

Music is a very competitive field with many factors outside our control. Our skill level is not one of them. Every outstanding musician went to great lengths to practice, practice, and practice some more. If you want to be a professional musician, practicing is your 9-5. Learn how to practice.

Growing up, I was fortunate to have a neighbor that played viola in the St. Louis Symphony. He outlined some of the basic skills I should start working on immediately:

  1. Ear training: Know what a minor chord sounds like compared to a diminished chord. Recognize the sound of every interval inside an octave. Learn the sound of music theory. Musicians communicate with these sounds, you must learn the language.
  2. Learn to read and write music. You don’t have to be the best sight reader, but if you really want to make a living as a musician, you can’t afford to turn down work because it involves written music.
  3. Finally, have a performance ready piece of music, that you can play by yourself, ready to go at all times. If you can’t sound great on your own, you’ll never sound great in a group.

That is some of the best advice I was ever given. I would have learned it eventually, but I’m thankful for being schooled early on, allowing me to internalize all of those skills.

In my experience, one of the best way to develop these skills is through transcription. Learn how to play exactly what the masters play. Teach yourself by ear, then write it down. Every great musician starts this way.

Honing these skills will help you learn new music faster.

To make a living as a musician, you’ll probably have to start by spreading yourself across many different gigs. Your private students want to learn new songs every week, the singer/songwriter you accompany just wrote three new songs for the gig this weekend, and you have to learn three hours of cover songs to sub in a wedding band. It’s a lot of work, but with practice, you’ll be able to learn music quickly and efficiently.

Build Your Reputation & Network

When I recently looked over the past two years on my gig calendar, I realized about 95% of the work I’d done can be traced back to my musician friends, either because they were already on the gig, or they recommended me.

In this regard, the best piece of advice I can give you is something you’d expect to hear from your mom:

Work hard, be a good person, and associate with other hard working, good people.

If you do this, you and your network of friends will get in on the ground floor of each others careers have a greater chance at becoming successful working musicians.

Reciprocation

My dad once told me that he would follow up interviews with a hand written note. People remember those kinds of gestures, and even if you haven’t asked for anything in return, there’s a good chance your thoughtfulness will be repaid.

This, he explained, is called reciprocation–the act of responding to a gesture with a similar gesture. People do this all the time without realizing it. We’re all programmed to keep balance in our lives.

I transferred schools my junior year of college. Being the new guy on campus I wasn’t getting very many calls for gigs, but I wanted to play. I set out to book as many gigs for myself as possible. I needed people to play with me, so I called the musicians I’d become friends with, paid them whatever I could, and helped us all get some more working experience.

Many of the musicians I was hiring were playing with other people as well. Gradually, the guys playing on my gigs recommended me to other musicians in town. The work I was creating for some was reciprocated through a job with somebody else.

Paying it Forward

This idea of reciprocation goes beyond the “I give you a gig, you give me a gig” scenario I just described. Musicians that have more established careers know the importance of helping each other out, and often pass work to younger players that they feel have earned a shot at more lucrative jobs.

Of course, these seasoned pros don’t necessarily go looking for their proteges. You have to be proactive and reach out to musicians who are doing the kinds of jobs you want to do. There are a lot of ways to reach out: go to their gigs, ask to sit in, take a lesson from them, or simply offer to buy them coffee and talk shop.

In turn, pay it forward as you become more successful.

College Connections

The core of my network happens to be friends I met in college. It’s been 10 years since I was a student, but I work regularly with musicians I met in college, including Brad Whiteley, the keyboardist in my trio, and Dave Hahn, my MusicianWages cohort.

If you’re undecided about whether or not to study music in college, I interviewed several pro musicians that majored in music for another MusicianWages article called Advice On Using a Music Education. Each of them felt studying music in college gave them an advantage after school.

There’s also a certain camaraderie felt among music alumni. I’ve worked with guys that went to the same school as I, but at a different time. Immediately, we’ve got some common ground.

Additionally, there’s credibility associated with going to one school or another. It assures other musicians that you probably know what you’re doing. It’s a thin veil, though, lifted as soon as you start playing.

How to Really Use the Internet

As I mentioned, about 95% of my work comes from my network of friends. The other 5% comes from my internet presence or being at the right place at the right time.

A good internet presence is important for musicians, but only because it reinforces the networking you do offline.

People you meet should be able to quickly find you online by searching your name and maybe the instrument you play. Once they find your site, make it easy for them to contact you, buy your music, etc. All this is possible with a well optimized website.

Similarly, social networking sites are a great way to stay connected with people you meet on the scene. Drummer Jeremy Yaddaw wrote an article about Facebook networking for musicians that describes exactly what I’m talking about.

Who Hires Musicians?

Let’s take a look at some of the people and places that hire musicians. Click on a list item to skip ahead:

  1. Music Venues
  2. Other Musicians
  3. Music Contractors / Music Directors
  4. Music Producers
  5. TV/Film Professionals
  6. Churches
  7. Schools
  8. The Military
  9. Event Planners
  10. Regular People

Music Venues

Public places that regularly book live music typically fall into one of two categories:

  1. Those that use live music to attract their clientele.
  2. Those that use live music to enhance the atmosphere of their establishment.

The Bitter End in New York, Hotel Cafe in LA, and The Basement in Nashville are all examples of places people go to when they want to hear live music. Since the music is the primary draw for customers, bookers or talent buyers are interested in artists that will fill their room with paying customers.

If you can sell tickets, you can make a lot of money.

Restaurants, wineries, and hotel lounges are the kinds of places that hire musicians as background music. These gigs often go to solo musicians or smaller groups that play niche styles. For example, a solo jazz guitarist could be a good fit for Sunday brunch, a string quartet would sound nice at a winery, or an accordionist playing traditional Tarantella would create the right atmosphere at an upscale Italian restaurant.

If you can play music that will enhance or add authenticity to an establishment’s atmosphere, you should be able to find some work.

In both cases, you’ll probably have to deal with a talent buyer, manager, bartender, or some other employee at the venues. While in college, I worked at both types of venues–a bar that booked bands six nights a week, and a restaurant that hired background musicians on the weekends. I learned what to do, and what not to do, if you want to be booked at these venues, and wrote another article called What I Learned Working at Venues.

Other Musicians

Booking your own gigs is great, but it’s also a lot of work. Another way to land the same type of gig is to be hired by other musicians.

These are typically sideman jobs, that is, you are hired to be a supporting band member for another artist. Some of the best musicians in the world have lucrative careers recording and touring alongside popular artists.

Fellow musicians might also hire you to help with tasks they can’t do themselves, such as transcribing, writing charts, or acting as their music director.

In my experience, the first musicians that are going to hire you will be your friends. As you perform more often and continue meeting and working with other musicians, your network will expand. When artists need to hire somebody for their band, they ask often their friends and band members for recommendations. If you’ve built a solid reputation, people will start recommending you.

MusicianWages has several articles on working as a sideman. To better understand the job, check out A Guide To Being a Successful Sideman.

Music Contractors/Music Directors

Music Contractors and Music Directors are two different jobs with different responsibilities, but because they’re sometimes done by the same person, I’m grouping them together. Both jobs are management positions that oversee performing musicians.

Music Contractors, also called Music Supervisors in musical theatre, oversee the hiring of musicians for a particular gig. Even though the contractor does the hiring, he or she usually isn’t directly involved with the music.

Music Directors are responsible for teaching the music to the performers. In many cases, the MD is also in the band.

Jobs with Music Directors on board typically enjoy bigger budgets, which means more pay to the musicians. The most lucrative jobs are very competitive. Contractors and MDs often act as a filter to find the right musicians for a job, and they usually start with people they know and trust.

Again, this comes down to being a great player and networking. If Contractors and MDs hear your name enough, eventually they will call you with a job. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to reach out and let them know you are available.

Dave wrote a great series explaining how he became a Broadway musician, and discusses exactly how he reached out to music contractors, music directors, and everybody else that works with musicians on Broadway. If you haven’t read that series, I highly recommend you check it out. Even if you don’t want to play on Broadway, you’ll find some vital information in his articles.

Music Producers

In the music industry, the music producer’s job is to oversee the making, or production, of a recording. Originally, making a recording was simply (or not so simply) a matter of capturing a live performance in a studio. As technology progressed, multi-tracking and post-production sound manipulation broadened the role of the producer. Today, for better or worse, the technology needed to produce a modest recording is easily accessible to anybody with a couple thousand dollars.

One of the producer’s roles is to hire musicians for recording sessions. They need musicians that can learn the music very quickly and nail their parts in few takes. Having a great ear, professional sound, excellent time feel, and the ability to sight read are all important skills for a studio musician.

The recording scene has been greatly decentralized with the rise of home studios. Now, wherever somebody is making an album, there is potential for studio work.

One problem is that most people with home studios are trying to make albums as inexpensively as possible, and cannot afford to hire session musicians. Sometimes, though, opportunities to work with young producers can turn into long term collaborations that will be valuable to your career down the road. It’s important to know when to take an unpaid gig, but occasionally they can pay off in the long run.

It’s also possible to work for producers without ever actually being in the same room as them. Virtual session musicians record their parts at home and send them to the producer online. For a thorough read on this topic, check out Scott Horton’s How To Be a Studio Musician Without Leaving Home.

Finally, some of you may have dreams of working in high end studios and playing on pop stars hits. I hate to break it to you, but the days of storied groups of dedicated studio musicians like the Funk Brothers or Wrecking Crew are long gone. Session work at that level isn’t as sustainable as it used to be, and won’t be for the foreseeable future. It still exists but on a smaller scale, allowing fewer musicians to make a good living playing sessions exclusively.

TV/Film Professionals

Composing for TV and Film can generate a great income for musicians, but the industry has been changing over the last decade or so. Instead of in house composers and studio bands, much of the music you hear on TV and in the movies now either comes from a music library or is licensed directly from an artist or record label. Nonetheless, there is still good money for musicians in film and TV placements.

Ethan Stoller, who composes, produces, and edits music for TV and film, wrote about his career for MusicianWages. He offered a few pieces of advice for musicians interested in these jobs: Be prepared for the job you accept, be someone people want to work with, and connect with people in your local film making community.

Once again, hone your skills and network. Read his story and you’ll see how his connections from high school turned into his big break.

Note: If you’d like to do this type of work but are not in proximity of film makers, you have to consider moving.

Churches

Churches, synagogues and other places of worship have always employed musicians. There is a wide variety of music in churches, from traditional and classical to contemporary rock, pop, and gospel.

Most churches employ at least one full time musician, such as an organist, who might also be responsible for all music related activities. In larger churches, there may be more full or part time musicians on staff to share these responsibilities.

In addition to their staff, churches often hire freelance musicians for holiday services, musicals performed by the youth, or sidemen for contemporary worship bands. Churches may also commission music by freelance composers.

Staff positions are typically hired by church leaders. For example, when my parents’ church recently hired a new organist and music director, candidates met with the pastor and a congregational committee. When churches need to hire musicians for their staff, they’ll likely post the positions on musician jobs boards, religious jobs boards, or in classified ads.

Freelance positions, on the other hand, are usually hired by the music director. It’s possible she’ll post the jobs in classified ads, but more likely that she’ll look for musicians in the community, either through members of the congregation or by recommendation of other church music directors.

Schools

Schools, like churches, have several methods of employing musicians.

First, there’s staff. Band, choir, and orchestra directors, and if the school has a large enough program (and budget) they might employ private instructors, accompanists, and other specialists. If you’re interested in being a music teacher at a school, you’ll need a degree in music education (bachelors at least, masters for higher education). Then you’ll be able to apply for teaching positions as they open up.

Next there are contracted positions, for example, somebody hired to help instruct the drum line in a high school marching band. These are part time positions that aren’t needed during the entire school year.

Finally, there are clinicians–professional musicians hired to teach a masterclass or give a lecture. These are basically freelance jobs that typically last a day or a week, less than the contracted positions.

Clinicians and contracted musicians are hired by a school’s music teachers. To start finding this type of work, contact your old high school band director! Start with the people that already know you and try to learn who is hiring outside help for their programs.

In my opinion, musicians that are passionate about teaching make the best teachers. Education takes a lot of patience, planning, and expertise. Just because you’re good at music does not mean you’ll be good at teaching it to others.

The Military

Joining a military band isn’t something most musicians consider when they first pick up an instrument. However, it can be a great gig with a salary, benefits, and plenty of playing opportunities. I’ve known a few musicians that joined a military band because they were struggling to make ends meet, and they ended up loving their military career.

Granted, this gig isn’t for everyone, and I don’t know enough about it to give you proper advice. Lucky for us, Staff Sergeant Joshua DiStefano, a pianist in the U.S. Army for 14 years, has been a regular contributor to MusicianWages. Read about Josh’s experiences in The Life of an Army Band Musician.

Event Planners

Event planners are people or companies that organize and oversee upscale private parties, weddings, corporate events and other special occasions. Most of the time, these events include live music. Musicians call these jobs “club dates.” Club dates are commonly high paying jobs, especially in large cities.

Because club dates and private events can pay so well, there are companies that operate multiple corporate party bands and event planners specifically to book these gigs. They hire musicians through auditions. If you’d like to play in one of these bands, contact corporate bands in your area and ask them for an audition.

Many times, however, the event planner usually deals directly with one musician acting as the music director, who in turn hires the rest of the band. When events only need a small group or soloist, the event planner might deal directly with the musician or group.

If you’d like to be hired directly by even planners, search the internet for “event planners” or “event planning” in your area. In a big enough city, you’ll find anything from large companies to individuals offering event planning services. In all cases, event planners need a network of trusted vendors, including musicians, to do their jobs effectively.

Don’t expect them to call you, though. Make first contact, explain what you can offer (type of ensemble, repertoire, etc), and tell them you’re available immediately. If they don’t have an event for you on their calendar, politely follow up every few months.

Regular People

Finally, there are plenty of jobs to be found from people outside the music and entertainment industries. Regular people hire musicians to teach private lessons, write a song for a special event, perform at their anniversary party, company holiday party, or a house concert.

How do these people find musicians? The internet, neighbors, churches, schools, local music venues, or anywhere musicians work.

I haven’t looked at a Yellow Pages in years, but I’m pretty sure there wasn’t much of a musician section like, say, plumbers or pest control. There aren’t many directories people can use to find local musicians, so it’s up to you to let people know you’re available. By simply mentioning you do private events on a business card, your website, or postcards at your other gigs, you’re making it easier for people to hire you.

Tying it All Together

This article is just the beginning; there are many links embedded throughout it that lead to words of wisdom by other musicians. Learn from every opportunity, strive to be a better musician, a good hang, and contribute to the musician community by helping others. Please feel free to share your tips in the comments below!

Good luck everyone, and happy gigging.

Winners of the MusicianWages.com Scholarship for Music Director Training

As we posted earlier on our Facebook page, we’ve announced the winners of the MusicianWages.com Scholarship for Music Director Training.

We had so many wonderful candidates apply for the scholarship. Each was deserving in their own way, and in the end, we couldn’t pick just one. So we’re giving away two scholarships!

Our winners are:

Natalie Lovejoy and Colin Graebert

Natalie and Colin will be attending the The Weekend Intensive Music Director Training Program in New York City, offered by Singing Onstage Productions

Congratulations to Natalie and Colin – we hope you have a great time!

More Resources for Music Directors

Are you a music director in the theatre industry? Make sure to bookmark these important resources.

The Music Director Job Board

MusicianWages.com hosts a job board for regional theatre companies seeking music directors. If you are interested in these kinds of jobs you should bookmark that page, visit often and subscribe to it’s RSS feed.

The page is moderated by Geraldine Boyer-Cussac (twitter: @MusicTheatreMD). Theatre companies are encouraged to use this resource.

Music Director Groups

Yahoo email list: Ask questions to MDs in this private email list where only MDs are allowed in

Twitter: Network in a fun way with other MDs @MusicTheatreMD

Facebook: Find and post articles, videos and jobs

September 11th in the U.S. Army Band

It’s only days away from September 11th, 2011. It is hard believe it’s been ten years since the devastating and cowardly attacks on American soil. The chaotic images are burned into my mind. Vivid as if it was yesterday…

But in so many other ways it feels like an entirely different lifetime.

September 10th, 2001. Norfolk, VA.

For the past two months I’d been hanging with 25 other band soldiers learning how to be Staff Sergeants. We were learning how to run and rehearse our own group, how to be drum majors, how to conduct a military ceremony, and of course, taking more private lessons. Basically the next level up of Army music school.

It was great. The group was pretty tight. We’d go clubbing, go to the beach, go to Dairy Queen for ice cream (this was a very frequent stop) or just hang out drinking beers. Throw in some informal jam sessions and you’ve got my summer. Not too shabby.

As Sept 11th was approaching I’d been preparing the class for the day off. You see, I’ve been celebrating 9/11 my whole life. It’s my birthday.

“Don’t worry, I have connections. ” I’d said, “We’re getting the day off.”

Little had I known, my prediction was about to become a grim reality. By lunchtime the next day the towers had fallen and the pentagon was burning. Flight 93 had come down and all training on the base was suspended. We were told to stay on the post and remain vigilant. The rest of the day we huddled around the television unable to comprehend what had happened or why.

So here I am ten years later, beginning the downward spiral towards 40 and reflecting on the last decade.

I’m no longer a swinging single. Settled down with a family. This is a vast improvement over my previous life.

My body aches these days for no reason other than being alive. Some mornings just getting out of bed is a challenge. The gray hairs on my head seem to be gaining more ground everyday.

I’m a better player/composer then I was 10 years ago. Although I could’ve been far better, if I’d practiced every day… but I didn’t. It would come in phases. I’d be working towards an event, or playing with a new band. But other times I’d lose focus and find other, and far less productive, activities to keep myself busy. Life has a habit of getting in the way.

Some other changes are a direct result of 9/11.

These changes, however, were not instantaneous. After the attacks, I was just as pissed off as the rest of the country. I wanted heads to roll. I was anxious for our “High-SpeedSuper-Badasses” to go over there and flatten the entire area. And I carried that rage for a long time. But vengeance is not a healthy emotion. And I don’t have the energy to live with hate for ten years. Not to say I wasn’t excited when we caught Saddam (I was only a few miles from the hole they dragged him out of), or that it didn’t please me to hear that Osama is out of the picture… permanently.

Most of my changes came from being deployed. It is a life changing experience, both good and bad. Sometimes it’s strange for me to try to explain it, because unless you’ve been Over There you’re just not going to understand. This is not a criticism. It’s a fact. A good analogy is becoming a parent. When you first bring home that tiny, little person and you realize that you are completely and utterly responsible for everything that happens to her – the time babysitting your sister’s kids and multiple screenings of “Look Who’s Talking” go right out the window. Some things just have to be lived through.

I am more patriotic now. Not in a “my country is better than yours” kind of way, which has always struck me as really arrogant. More in a quiet unassuming way. Appreciating the sacrifices, tenacity and unwavering resilience of my fellow Americans, past and present.

My feelings towards the Army Band have changed. Before it was just a job – a fun way to pay bills while I figured out “what to do when I grew up”. Now I see it as a valuable service. Something far greater than me and my day-to-day happenings.

Legacy, tradition and brotherhood are words that tend to sound clichéd and antiquated. Soundbites tossed around by politicians to sway the vote. But that doesn’t mean they don’t ring true. Not only to the Band, or even the Army. But the military as a whole.

It’s very humbling to realize that you’re following in footsteps that have been laid down since the beginning of civilization. Citizens coming together to defend their homes, fight for their independence, or liberate their neighbors from oppression.

I feel a kinship with other Bandsmen. I meet Army Band Veterans from Vietnam and I can relate to their stories. As I’m sure they can relate to mine. I can share a beer with a retired Marine in a run down V.F.W. and understand where he’s coming from. I now know why my grandfather always watched War movies and the History channel. The desert (or the jungle, etc.) stays with you.

Ten years ago my life was one dimensional. I could describe myself in a single word: Musician. The past decade has brought perspective and depth. Suffering and change are valuable teachers. I can no longer encapsulate myself with a single word. And that, I think, is a good thing.

Adaptation, Survival and Success in the Musician Business

The music business is in constant motion. In order to survive and to be successful, you have to be able to adapt. Survival is defined as staying in the business you love and finding fulfillment in it.

Versatility

The first requirement of this action and reaction is versatility. If you refuse to develop a wide set of musical skills, adaptation will be difficult.

There is a famous story coming out of the Depression in which a street vendor was selling boxes of apples. Sales were going well but supplies were running low. As the last apple was sold, the enterprising vendor calming looked at his empty boxes and quickly fashioned a new sign “Boxes for Sale!”.

Work in the music business goes in and out of favor. It’s not the musician’s fault – just the realities of supply and demand. That supply and demand shifts with the wind. It doesn’t happen because the musicians want it or will it to happen. It happens because of society and commerce and in many cases because of other peoples’ greed.

It’s not unlike horse and buggy makers, a thriving industry… until the car came along.

Recording musicians didn’t want or anticipate that the recording industry would fall apart. I didn’t expect that the show places I worked at would be sold to make room for a super market and for the world headquarters of an automobile maker. But these things happened and we all had to adapt to the reality. It wasn’t a time to moan and whimper about our fate and our bad luck. It was a time for action.

Develop Your Skills

Take stock of your skills and interests. If the musical skill you’ve developed is based on sight reading classical music, develop improvisational skills. If you’ve always played rock or country, develop a set of jazz skills. Most people shy away from what they don’t know. Don’t fear the unknown. Embrace it. There are teachers available to help you with every skill you may need. Don’t let pride stop you from seeking help.

Remember that music is a business as well as an art. Marketing should always be part of your daily work. Too many musicians expect the phone to ring. In reality, you have to make it ring. Expand your contacts and your network.

Think Outside the Box

Consider the work possibilities that the music business offers. Stardom is not the only alternative. In fact, it’s the least probable alternative. You need the skills to explore the alternatives but you also need the mind set and the attitude. Think of each area, each field as an interesting challenge, Maybe you can learn something from a new field or opportunity that you have ignored in the past, Not only does that give you new opportunities for work, it also expands your skills and opportunities as a teacher. All of these alternatives are beneficial to the expansion of your career. They also remove fear and stagnation – not to mention a lack of income.

Playing, teaching, writing, arranging and producing are the large headings. Within each of these areas, there are many alternatives.

Playing can include clubs, concerts, session and show work, weddings, tribute and commercial bands, solo performances etc. The music styles are wide as well. Consider rock, classical, reggae, ethnic, country, bluegrass. jazz, blues etc. The list goes on and on.

Teaching runs the gamut from private teaching on your own to formal teaching in a school. There are opportunities in music stores, on line teaching using Skype and any other way you can share your knowledge with students. Don’t fail to consider the age range alternatives. Kids do not represent the only or the best market. There has never been a larger base of seniors in this country.

Writing and arranging provides a wide range of activities. Writing, arranging and producing songs, jingles, scores for film, television themes, multimedia and computer games are some of the many options. Don’t forget that writing can also include developing educational books and methods for students of all ages, levels and musical styles.

Be Ready For the Next Challenge

Always be ready to try the next challenge whether you think you’re ready or not. It’s also important to be willing to leave a situation if it does not contribute to your advancement or if you no longer enjoy the work.

It takes a certain amount of courage to leave something that makes money. It’s important to be able to switch gears and find the next situation that will take you forward on your journey. When you make one of these changes, you do have to consider the financial ramifications. At the very least, you need to replace what you’ve lost. The degree to which this can be a long term or short term decision is based on your financial obligations. If you’re living on a generous trust fund, it’s less of an issue.

As my student, Michael Sembello (mega writer, guitarist, singer and producer) told me not that long ago – “Rome has finally fallen and we once again have control thanks to the internet”.

I don’t know how much control we have but it’s the only game in town!

The Skinny on Promotional Packages and Booking Agents

OK, you’re ready to get out there and perform.  You have the skills, you have a promotional kit and you can visualize yourself working five nights a week and making pretty good bread.  Your plan is to network with other musicians at jam night and find out who’s gigging where and how much they’re getting paid.

You then cold-call club owners, hotels, event planners and drop off or e-mail your promotional material.  They never call you back.  You cringe as you make that follow up call. You ask them if they reviewed your material, but in the back of your mind you get the feeling they couldn’t care less about you, let alone remember you.

The digital promo kit you sent to their inbox is one click away from the spam button or the kit you delivered to them has been shredded and your CD was frisbeed into the trash can – but they did save the CD jacket for their own collection.

Are you struggling with the business of getting gigs?  Chances are if you’re a passionate musician or performer you may not have the entrepreneurial skills, time and energy to finding your own gigs.

In this article, I’ll be sharing a few ideas that will help with understanding your strengths, how to put a solid promotional package together and finding trustworthy and motivated booking agents.

Getting Your Act Together

As you know, competition is fierce.  In the West, there are hoards of incredibly talented musicians and most of them are playing the same tunes or following the latest trends; fighting for the tiny morsels of glory and money left over from a disintegrating live venue gigging scene.

Before you begin to put together your promotional package or approach a booking agent, you need to ask yourself:

  • What makes me unique?
  • What makes me or my band stand out above the rest?
  • Why would anyone want to put their reputation on the line and find gigs for me?

Don’t despair, perhaps this will make you feel better:  You don’t have to be the best to get gigs – here’s a little secret – you just need a U.S.P.

U.S.P – (Unique Selling Point) This is something which sets your product or service apart from your competitors.

Interestingly, most businesses and musicians out there don’t know what a U.S.P is and how vital it is to have one.  The only leverage they use for securing sales or gigs is price manipulation.  “Well, maybe people will buy my product if it is cheaper” or “…tell you what, my band will play for less, give us the gig.”  They’re missing the point and not realizing their potential. The products that sell well or the musicians who are working consistently have identified and use their U.S.P to their advantage.

So What’s Your U.S.P?

The following are some examples to consider:

  • A clear and unique sound and repertoire
  • A wardrobe or “look” that carries your message visually
  • An ability to interact with the audience

Bands and artists who have a U.S.P

(I’m not associated with any of these acts they only serve to illustrate my point):

  • The Maxwell Street Klezmer Band
  • Dread Zeppelin
  • The Shaggs
  • KISS
  • DEVO
  • Bob Log
  • Yma Sumac
  • Tom Waits
  • Nina Simone

I think you get my drift.  Once you have discovered your U.S.P., it’s time to move to the next step.

Your Physical Promotional Package

Today most acts have a virtual promo kit, but I highly recommend having a physical one as well.  Remember you need to be unique. And most folks appreciate getting mail.

Your promotional package should include enough information about you or your band so that it inspires a booking agent to imagine the money making potential for you and for them. The basic pieces should include:

  • Letterhead and business cards.  Use your graphics and print style in your business cards and letterhead. Your business card should communicate to people what you’re all about. Keep it simple. What can you include on your card to help people remember you? Use good quality card stock and be sure the information is easily read and accurate.
  • A truthful bio– the music circle is a small one, you don’t want to be known as a bullsh**ter.
  • A video – no fancy filters or editing.  One camera, straight on the subject (that’s you)
  • An audio recording as you sound in a live situation (no overdubs)
  • A song list
  • Professional pictures and posters that clearly convey your U.S.P
  • Press releases
  • Social network and website information

A consistent image helps perpetuate your brand. Your business cards and envelopes should have your name or bands logo on them.

Be very bold with your mailing envelopes too.  Which envelope would you be inclined to open first?  A plain, boring manila envelope? Or a shiny, florescent orange one that screams “you really want to open me right now!”

(Side note: having promo photos and a video where you look scruffy, wearing jeans, looking mean and miserable won’t cut it – if you want the choice gigs, you need to look the part.)

OK, you did your homework.  Now what?

You’ve created a unique and fabulous act and assembled an eye catching and professional promotional package; you’re way ahead of everyone else. You’re now ready to present yourself or your band to booking agents – or anyone for that matter – who has the skills, contacts and motivation to get you in the gigging game.  But let’s deal with the booking agents.

What are booking agents looking for?

Booking agents are looking for:

  • Acts that have a U.S.P
  • Acts that are really good at what they do
  • Acts that have a polished promotional package

Hey, that sounds like you!

There are so many booking agents out there – who can I trust?

Unfortunately, there are many unscrupulous people with fancy websites who claim to be booking agents.  But because you have a killer product, and with that, a new found sense of confidence, aim high and don’t be shy.  Search for the bigger and better established booking agencies who book relatively well known acts.  They will identify you as an act that has vision and confidence: They will help you if they see you have potential.

Hotel gigs

If you’re interested in hotel gigs, one way to find the more reputable booking agents is to get in touch with the hotels’ Food and Beverage Manager.  Find out what kind of entertainment they have and what they’re looking for. If they don’t deal with hiring acts, kindly ask them who takes care of their bookings for them.

The international booking agent

There are many musicians who are looking for gigs outside of their own country.  There are quite a few gigs out there, particularly here in Asia. But be very wary.  As I mentioned earlier, there are folks out there who claim to be legitimate booking agents but in reality they’re looking for a quick buck or they may even have a more harmful agenda.

Don’t even consider dealing with an agent who:

  • Isn’t clear about where you will be performing
  • Isn’t clear about your accommodations
  • Asks you for money (Never give an agent money. Period.)
  • Asks you for your passport (Never give your passport or passport number to anyone unless they’re travel agents, consular, embassy or immigration officials.)

Use common sense and touch base with your survival instincts

  • If an international booking agent is interested in hiring you, ask them for a list of performers they booked and contact them.
  • If you’re a female artist, be very careful.  Do your homework. Investigate the agent or organization thoroughly.  There are “Booking Agencies” out there who are drug runners and sex traffickers.
  • Have everything in writing/email.
  • If you’re Skypeing or on the phone with the agent, record the call and make sure you let them know you’re recording the call.  “I’m just letting you know I’m recording this call.”  If the agent sounds uncomfortable-be alarmed.
  • Be skeptical, and learn to say no

I hope this helped you gain some insight and if you would like more information about the gigging game, please feel free to contact me.

Reminder: Scholarship Applications Due by Midnight Tonight

If you are interested in applying for the MusicianWages.com Scholarship for Music Director Training, please note that applications will only be accepted until midnight tonight (9/6/2011). We will be announcing the scholarship winner on our Facebook page on Friday.

The scholarship pays for one music director to attend the Weekend Intensive Music Director Training Program in New York City, September 16-18. More details and the application form are at this link.

We wish the best of luck to all of our applicants. Also, don’t forget the Music Director Meet-ups in Chicago and New York City on September 25th.

How to Get a Musician Job at Walt Disney World

I am a substitute bassist at Walt Disney World in Florida. I sub at the Grand Floridian Hotel, which houses a society orchestra that plays mostly old jazz from the 1920s to 1940s. On a regular basis, I have questions from people all the time about how one goes about getting hired as a Walt Disney World musician. On one hand, it’s quite simple: you audition and get hired, like any other musical organization. On the other hand, Disney’s talent employment process is quite unique. It takes quite a bit of explaining, and makes sense to have an article about it.

Before we get started, I must mention this: all of my knowledge for being a Disney cast member is from the Florida park, but I believe the process is very close, if not identical, to the processes at the other four parks around the world. The parks even advertise openings from the same website.

Types of musician jobs at Walt Disney World

There are two kinds of musicians that work at Walt Disney World: contracted groups, and in-house cast members. Cast members then get broken down into full-time and seasonal musicians. Subs, like me, are considered seasonal musicians. Usually, it’s for employees that work only during busier times of the year. This is where subs are classified, however. I guess it makes sense to classify subs here, as they only work when called on, anyway.

Cast Member Musicians

The in-house jobs, where musicians are considered actual employees of Walt Disney World, are the cast members. These jobs are the more ongoing ensembles at Disney, where an actual budget is set-aside for them in particular. The musicians have full benefits and pension, as per the collective bargaining agreement with the Local 389 musician’s union.

The jobs that are included would be bands like:

  • The Main Street Philharmonic – a kind of marching brass jazz band in the Magic Kingdom.
  • Oktoberfest Musikanten – a German polka band at Epcot’s Germany pavilion.
  • Mo’Rockin – a Moroccan fusion ensemble at the Moroccan pavilion in Epcot.
  • Mulch, Sweat, and Shears – which is a rock band at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
  • Disney’s Grand Floridian Society Orchestra (my sub position) – which is a six piece jazz band, which plays early to mid 20th century period jazz at the Grand Floridian Hotel in the lobby. It’s kind of reminiscent of a cruise ship’s “big band” sets.
  • Disney’s Polynesian Hotel’s Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show Band – which, as the name implies, is the Hawaiian band that plays the music for the dinner show.

There is even a number of lounge pianists and harpists around the property as solo acts.

There are many more ensembles in the Florida park; these are just a few examples. As far as the cast member jobs, these are some of the older groups that have stood the test of time. Some of these bands work five days a week, and some work seven, using a second group of musicians that work two days a week. Some of these seven-day ensembles have a “two day band” and a “five day band,” and others have different schedules for each musician, so the band is pretty much the same all week, with a few differences in the personnel from day to day. The two-day musicians are usually the first call subs for the five-day guys.

It is the cast member jobs that I will be concentrating on, as they are what I’m most knowledgeable on, and what Disney is most interested in.

Contracted Jobs

Some jobs, like the ones around Downtown Disney, Pleasure Island, the annual Food and Wine Festival, or even a small handful of groups inside the parks, are brought in on a temporary contract. They are not Disney employees, and don’t have all of the same benefits. They are usually hired when Disney has a special need for a themed band, and they use the contracted musicians sparingly.

For contracted gigs, Disney contracts already established bands and acts that have put in the effort themselves for the rehearsals, costumes, equipment and anything else that goes into their show. In short, you are ready to play, and need minimal interaction with the venue; you’re pretty much pointed to the stage, shown where the electrical outlets are, and left to do what you do best.
Some examples of contracted jobs around Disney are:

  • The British Revolution – which is a 60s style rock band playing in the UK section of Epcot. I believe the name actually reflects the show, and not the band’s name, which may be something different. I have seen the same show with a different band in the last year, so I assume the bands are rotated in and out. This band is one of the few examples of the contractors performing inside of one of the theme parks.
  • Nova Era – which is a classical/fusion group that uses 18th century period costumes and electric string instruments. They perform in Downtown Disney.
  • Don Soledad Trio – which is a rumba flamenco group that occasionally performs at Pleasure Island or during Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival. Don’s group is an example of a contracted job that is hired on an as-needed basis. They do not work regularly, like the above two groups.

What instruments are needed?

Here’s a list of cast member bands from the top of my head. There may be more, and these may change as time goes on and park interests change. Take these as a guide to know where to start when looking into your instrument at Disney. Most of these groups can be searched on YouTube to see what their gig is all about:

Violin:
Mariachi Cobre
Mo’Rockin’ (electric violin)

Flute:
Spirit of America Fife and Drum Corps (fife spots, of course)

Saxophone:
Fantasy Woodwind Society (Sax quartet)
Grand Floridian Society Orchestra

Trumpet:
Grand Floridian Society Orchestra
Main Street Philharmonic
Oktoberfest Musikanten

Tombone:
Grand Floridian Society Orchestra
Main Street Philharmonic

Tuba:
Grand Floridian Society Orchestra (can replace bass)
Main Street Philharmonic
The Notorious Banjo Brothers and Bob
Oktoberfest Musikanten (tuba/bass double)

Bass:
Grand Floridian Society Orchestra
Off Kilter (Celtic Rock Band at Epcot)
Mariachi Cobre (Guitarron)
Mo’Rockin’
Mulch, Sweat, and Shears
Oktoberfest Musikanten (tuba/bass double)
Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show

Drums/Percussion:
Grand Floridian Society Orchestra
Off Kilter (Celtic rock band at Epcot)
Oktoberfest Musikanten
Main Street Philharmonic
Matsuriza (Japanese taiko drumming at Epcot)
Mo’Rockin’ (Zen Drum and hand percussion spots)
Mulch, Sweat, and Shears
Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show
Spirit of America Fife and Drum Corps

Guitar:
Off Kilter (Celtic rock band at Epcot)
Oktoberfest Musikanten
Mariachi Cobre (also vihuela spots)
Mulch, Sweat, and Shears
The Notorious Banjo Brothers and Bob (banjo also, of course)
Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show

Accordion:
Oktoberfest Musikanten
The Ziti Sisters (female comedy troupe)

Piano/Keys:
Casey’s Corner Pianist (ragtime pianist at Magic Kingdom)
Grand Floridian Society Orchestra
Grand Floridian Lounge Pianist
Off Kilter (Celtic rock band at Epcot)
Mo’Rockin’
Mulch, Sweat, and Shears
Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show

Harp:
Dinner Music at Grand Floridian

Orchestral spots:
There is one seasonal gig worth mentioning: Disney’s Candlelight Processional. It’s a Christmas concert that happens during November-December at Epcot. A full orchestra is hired, and is compiled of seasonal musicians making up some of the best orchestral players in the Orlando area. If you didn’t see your instrument above, and are classically trained, you may find yourself suited for this annual gig.

What are the jobs like?

The job at Disney varies greatly depending on the ensemble. For instance, the Hawaiian band at the Polynesian Hotel plays two shows per night, five days per week, which is divided into three sets. The Grand Floridian Society Orchestra plays four sets daily during the late afternoon to evening. Most of the bands around the parks have multiple show times, which are usually 30-45 minute sets performed on regular intervals throughout the day. Costumes are usually made to go with the show; Hawaiian shirts, or tuxes, or minutemen uniforms, etc. Yes, the German band wears lederhosen.

The Main Street PhilharmonicThere are few indoor jobs, such as the Grand Floridian Orchestra and the German band, which are considered the “best” jobs for the simple fact that they are indoors. One of the reasons Walt Disney chose this area of the U.S. was because of the relatively mild weather year round. However, the summers in Florida aren’t much cooler than the rest of the eastern seaboard, with highs still being very close, if not over, 100 degrees, with very high humidity. This can easily take its toll if you didn’t grow up in this climate. It also can still experience highs below freezing during the winter seasons. This is why indoor jobs are considered more desirable, but the outdoor jobs are given consideration to this fact, which is why sets are shorter throughout the day.

The way the music is learned also varies. There’s one group, the Grand Floridian Society Orchestra, where the job is strictly reading on the gig, with no rehearsals. One or two ensembles have charts, but they must be memorized before performing. There are also many ensembles where the music is learned from recordings, and put together through rehearsal. These groups have no printed music. Some of these bands allow you to make your own charts and read them at the beginning, and some require memorization.

Even the times vary. Some groups start as early as the parks first open, and the hotel bands seem to play the latest, usually striking the stage at around 10pm. The contracted musicians that play in Downtown Disney, Pleasure Island, or on Disney Boardwalk, play even later than that.

As much as the physical aspects of the job vary, the musical aspect is very similar. Each musician is highly skilled. Some of the musicians have come from bands such as Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band, Maynard Ferguson’s big band, and one was even the busiest New York bassist in the mid-20th century, recording with all the heavies then, and performing at the legendary Copa Cabana. It’s both humbling and exciting to play along with such high-class musicians.

Perks

Pay works slightly differently between the contracted and cast jobs. Contracted jobs are paid per job. There are three kinds of cast members: full time, part time, and seasonal.

Cast members are typically paid 8 hours per day at the parks, and also paying into pension and benefits. Rehearsals, when scheduled, are also paid. Orlando Local 389 has a collective bargaining agreement, which represents all musicians working at Disney, whether they are a part of the union or not (Florida is a right-to-work state, meaning you don’t have to be in a union to work a job). The local has a close relationship with Disney and they both work together and get along great. The starting pay at Disney is very competitive, which tends to bring in the best talent to desire these jobs.

Some of the other perks include:

  • Pension for all cast member musicians
  • Full health benefits for full-time musicians
  • 20% discounts to merchandise
  • Varying discounts with most sit-down restaurants on property (this is my favorite perk). After lots of experimenting, I’m starting to see the pattern. If you’re waited on, you probably get a discount. They range anywhere from 10% on up. There’s a nice little hidden southern-style buffet in Fort Wilderness that has great food, and with the discount, came to under $15 per person. It’s my favorite place for the combination of price and taste, even if it is out of the way of everything.
  • Discounts at participating surrounding businesses, including restaurants, hotels, retail stores, etc.
  • Free park admission. All cast members get this. In addition, each year, you can get in three people or less six times. This resets every January. You also get a couple of comp tickets each year. I believe this perk changes with your employment status with the company and the time you have been with them.

For any discount, it never hurts to ask. If you can’t get a discount at a certain place to eat (pattern I’ve noticed: if there’s a counter for you to order from, the answer is probably “no”), they already know most cast members are going to try, and they apologetically tell you it won’t work. I even sat down at a Pizza Hut just outside of the property, mentioned I was a cast member, and was given 10% off.

For the record, alcohol is full price for everyone.

How does one actually get hired at Disney?

First of all, keep checking the audition calendar. Vacancies and open call auditions are posted there.

There are 104 regular musical positions around Walt Disney World in Florida. The most common way one is hired for a Disney job is through auditions. Five times a year, there are “open call” auditions. The main purpose of these auditions is to find talent for the sub lists around the parks, and to hear local bands looking to be contracted. Each musician or group is scheduled through the union, and given 15 minutes to show the audition panel what he or she can do. The president of Local 389 is present at all auditions as an observer. According to Mike Avila, the Union President, “these auditions last about 15 minutes per individual and I call them ‘the friendliest auditions on the planet.’” If the musician is competent, and there is a need for his or her abilities, they will begin the hiring process.

When there is a vacancy for a specific position, such as a musician leaving, or Disney creating a new musical act, the auditions are much like the open call, with a few differences. If the vacancy is with an existing group, you actually play with the band for which you’re auditioning. These auditions are the most fun. I’ve done a few of them. I auditioned for lead trombone with the Main Street Philharmonic, and the audition was mostly reading down two charts, and performing them with this band. Talk about high energy. With the Hawaiian band, the guitarist explained the tune as fast as he could, then the drummer counted us off.

Usually, when there’s a vacancy, Disney auditions for that spot as full-time, and also auditions every other spot for sub players. For instance, the Hawaiian audition I was at was actually for a new steel guitar player, but I came to audition bass, and there were ukulele players, guitarists, and drummers at the audition, as well.

When invited to these auditions, you are encouraged to watch the group for which you are auditioning and come prepared to show the company why you are the right person for the job.

As for fairness, the president of the union told me this:

“In my 12 years as President of the Local, I have observed Disney auditions to be very fair. Contrary to popular belief, the company does not go into auditions already knowing who will get the job. I have heard so many people say this over the years, however, as one of the individuals who sits on the panel (as an observer for the union only), I can say that it is just not true. Disney has an impeccable record for hiring the person who ‘won the audition’.”

Okay, they liked you. Now what?

Before this is explained, I need to mention this: I’m not sure how other Disney parks around the world are, but Walt Disney World is in a very large, vast, out-of-the way piece of land. Don’t make any other plans the days you mean to go out to Walt Disney World. Everything there takes plenty of time, especially traveling. And the most important thing is to give yourself plenty of time when going there. Make sure your punctuality is fine. I tend to show up as early as I possibly can when I need to do something at Disney. I live only about 20 miles from the exit I need to get off for my job, but give myself well over an hour driving time. And depending on what job you have, you may have a lot of walking, a lot of connecting bus rides after parking, costume changes, or anything else that can take plenty of time.

Once you’re hired to be a Disney cast member musician, you must first go through the process that each employee on property goes through. First, you have a full security background check, fingerprinting, the works. This can take a few hours. Once you’ve passed, you’re given a date to a training day at Disney University. It’s basically just an eight-hour class about some of the rules, how certain things work, and little games that help you learn. It’s not a bad day, and you’re getting paid your musician wage to do this day, which is not bad at all. This is why Disney doesn’t hire a lot of people as subs, because they have to pay each just to be able to sub. So it costs them money to have subs not working all the time.

Once you’re finished there, you’re given your nametag, your ID card, and sent on your way to your gig. You then speak with your bandleader about the job.

How did I get my job?

My situation came about a little differently. I couldn’t make an open call audition, and didn’t want to wait two months for the next one to come around. So, I had a special audition set up with the talent director. I played all four of my instruments for her, and at the end of my audition, she told me where she thought I would fit best as a sub: The Grand Floridian Society Orchestra. Not only that, but the great thing here was, since it was not in any of the theme parks, I could swing by and talk to the bandleader personally without having to pay an admission. So I did just that. I visited about once a month for about six months, and they finally made the call to have me statused as a bass sub with this band. Persistence does pay off! I’m even renting the bandleader’s guesthouse now, too, so it even worked out better!

Now that I have a company ID, I can go into the parks and discuss subbing with other bands. Some are interested, some aren’t sure I will be useful with their already full sub list. But we’ll see.

There you have it. Much of this information is very hard to come by unless you have a good friend in the company. I had to learn this as I went along at Disney. So, if you’re interested, keep an eye on auditions, do your homework, and good luck!