Solving the Symphony Crisis

The San Francisco Symphony has been on strike for over two weeks, demanding wages equal to similar caliber orchestras like the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony.

In Chicago, however, things may not be any better. Chicago had its own strike earlier this season and a 2.5% pay cut in 2009. How can the San Francisco Symphony demand Chicago’s wages, if Chicago can’t even afford Chicago’s wages?

San Francisco and Chicago are certainly not alone in their financial troubles. Just in the past year we’ve seen crises at the symphonies in Atlanta, Indianapolis, Minnesota, Cleveland, Baltimore, and others. More emergencies are certainly on the horizon.

So what’s the problem?

Both the musicians and the management of our major orchestras are overpaid. They have failed to adapt to a changing market. Over the past 30 years they have demanded higher and higher paychecks while ticket sales and recording revenues have continued to drop dramatically. There is no business in the world that can sustain a negative revenue model like that.

Furthermore, there are too many of them. There are 51 major ICSOM orchestras and 80 more part-time ROPA orchestras through the United States. Surely we can all agree that orchestral music deserves a permanent place in American culture, but if the market (or public/private funding) can’t support 131 professional orchestras, then we should have less of them.

Decline in attendance at symphony concerts in U.S.The numbers are clear: classical music recordings represented just 1.9% of the music purchased in 2012 (an overall decrease of 20.5% in total album sales from the previous year), a number that surely indicates a general lack of interest by the U.S. consumer. The League of American Orchestras have recorded a significant decrease in concert attendance (see chart) between 1967 and 2000, and studies have shown that 73% of major orchestras operate on a deficit.

2% of working musicians

Americans’ disinterest in classical music is not sign of decline in our culture or an anti-intellectual climate. It’s not a referendum on the importance of music in our country. It’s not even a comment on our regard for most working musicians – because we’re not talking about most working musicians.

The ICSOM orchestras employ 4,000 musicians in North America, a number that represents just 2% of the professional musicians in the United States (source: 2010 US Census). The high-end, “luxury” orchestras (such as Chicago) are making enormous sums of money (Chicago: $173,000 average salary, plus benefits) compared to the average, full-time American musician, who makes an average annual salary, without benefits, of $27,558.

Why? Often the argument is something like this: “Classical music is harder than other kinds of music, requires more training and, therefore, demands higher compensation.”

Putting aside the overt classism that an argument like that requires, the supporting evidence is wearing thin. Yes, there was a time when classical musicians were subject to a duration and expense of training that far exceeded that of non-classical musicians – but that is no longer true. Jazz musicians and pop musicians now begin their formal training at an early age and study at the same over-priced colleges and conservatories as classical musicians.

So, then, why are symphony musicians paid so much more than other musicians?

The American Federation of Musicians

The answer lies in the story of the union – in this case the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). The AFM, unable to cope with the rise of synthesized music starting in the 1980s, then also unable to adapt to the changing music distribution technology of the late 90s and 00s, has all but lost its grip on the American music scene. The AFM has spent the last 30 years retreating; falling back to what it feels are its most defensible positions: major symphonies, Broadway shows, and the last vestiges of the formal TV/film recording scene in North America.

These positions are important for the AFM, not just for its legitimacy as an organization, but for the financial solvency of its pension fund. The aging membership of the AFM has put increasing pressure on this fund, which has been artificially propped up by the revenues of these last remaining assets.

It’s no wonder that the major orchestras have seen an unrealistic rise in wages over the last 30 years. According to a study done by the Stanford Business School in 2008, “the salaries of symphony musicians increased more rapidly than the pay of most other groups of workers in the late 20th century.”

Well, how else would the union make up for the loss of pension revenue?

The fallout

Unfortunately, the major orchestras are now paying the price. After so many years of wage gains coupled with attendance decreases, they find themselves in a particularly untenable position. Their members (and the thousands of highly-trained, college-debt-saddled pros that audition for every open position) have come to expect the current level of compensation to continue to increase, and they will fight for it.

In fact, they will even fight the AFM itself. In 2011, “under the guise of bankruptcy,” the Philadelphia Symphony was allowed to leave the AFM pension fund and start its own private retirement plan. This, obviously, paves the way for the other 130 orchestras to follow suit.

Would that happen? Who knows. But if it does, don’t look to Broadway and LA’s decimated recording scene to make up the difference. They are having their own troubles.

So what do we do? I would like to propose a solution.

Adaptation and innovation

Above all, the United States symphonies must adapt. They must do the same thing that other businesses do when their revenue models have become obsolete: they innovate.

Let’s begin by listing the assets that each of the major orchestras possess:

  • They have a highly skilled and educated workforce. Most orchestral musicians have an education equal to a graduate degree or higher, plus decades of supplemental training and experience.
  • They have an abundance of time. Despite musician’s legitimate needs for outside-of-work practice time, most major orchestras take summers off and spend only 20 hours a week at work.
  • Large facilities. Most major orchestras have large performances spaces housed in enormous buildings.

What can we create with these assets?

Imagine a symphony center that is divided into multiple uses. One side of the facility houses a state-of-the-art museum, full of music history exhibits curated by the musicians themselves (they certainly have the training for the job), and the other side includes large and small performances spaces for these musicians to rehearse, run master classes, and perform. Downstairs includes a music library of sheet music and rare recordings, as well as small rooms filled with enough internet-enabled technology to allow the symphony musicians to teach lessons in person, or via teleconference, to anywhere in the world.

The mixed-use facility would open up revenue streams for museum fees, performance fees, lessons fees and rental fees. With an expanded cultural footprint that now includes performance, museum curation, and education, the symphony organizations would be able to apply for a much wider range of local and federal grants. They could cast a much wider net in their private fundraising. Most importantly, the symphonies would serve a much more active, relevant, and valuable role to their community.

Yes, the musicians would have to work more hours. Yes, they would have to teach lessons through the symphony organization; no, that is not customary. Yes, these increased hours would cut in to their practice time.

Their lives, as a result, would look a lot like the other 98% of musicians who work long hours every day, while still finding enough time to practice. As someone who spent many years of my life as one of these working musicians, I would be happy to welcome them to the community. It’s likely that they would still make a lot more money than the rest of us.

New ownership models

And why not consider new ownership models for our major symphonies? Haven’t we grown tired of the cat and mouse games of Management vs. Musicians that exemplifies our orchestras?

Why not explore other models – like co-operatives or collectives? Symphony musicians have more than enough education, intelligence, and expertise to run their own organizations.

The union must also adapt

And what would happen to the union? The American Federation of Musicians is quickly losing its grasp on its last strongholds. The AFM desperately needs two things:

    1. Instead of constant brinksmanship and intimidation, the AFM needs to find new ways to incentivize businesses and members to use their services. The drop in AFM membership over the last 30 years is not a result of musician’s laziness or business’ greed (as it is often portrayed). The AFM’s lack of market penetration is a result of systemic problems in the union’s approach, and their near-complete irrelevence, to the modern musician industry. They are the ones that need find the solution.
    2. The AFM needs to attract young, educated and enthusiastic workers to fill its leadership positions. The current AFM management seems to be paralyzed by the expectations they formed during the music industry’s heyday (RIP 1940-2000) – which was, undoubtedly, an economic anomaly that will never repeat itself.

In conclusion

The major symphony orchestras in the United States are facing an increasingly dire financial situations – not just because of a decrease in consumer demand and a decade of economic recessions – but because of systemic, short-sighted and self-inflicted deficiencies in their current business models.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Symphonies deserve a permanent place in American culture, and if they can adapt to the modern music industry — using the suggestions offered above, or better ideas still to be found — it’s possible that they can turn the tide on their long decline.

Interview with Drummer Larry Lynch

I went to a wedding in California a few months ago. There was a live band there called Larry Lynch and the Mob.

Now, I’ve worked as a professional musician for 18 years. I’m afraid those years wore down my affection for live music. I’m not saying that’s good, I’m just being honest. My fiance refuses to bring me to live music events anymore. I’m a real drag. If everything isn’t in tune, or in the pocket, or if the sound sucks, or whatever it is – I know I turn into a really lousy date. So when we walked into the reception and a live band was on stage, my fiance gave me her “please don’t do that thing you do” look.

But, man, this band killed it. The pocket was locked up tight. The vocals were great. They could play anything. The dance floor exploded and people danced for hours and hours. Including me! We want to hire them for our wedding, too. They were really great.

So I asked Larry for an interview.

One thing you should know that Larry doesn’t mention below: Larry was the drummer on the song Jeopardy, which hit Billboard’s top ten in 1983.

MW: When did you start playing music, and when did you realize it was something you wanted to do professionally?

I started playing music when I was 14 years old. That’s when I bought my first set of drums.
I realized I wanted to start doing it professionally when I was 6 years old. I thought Elvis was the most amazing performer and I just thought that was the only thing to aspire to (and I thought that everyone would want to do that).

Did you study music in school? How has that impacted your career?

I am totally self taught, I would play for hours everyday to my record collection in the bedroom.

Music has impacted my life so much, I made it my career for about 20 years (solely) and it’s still an important part of my life and it is still a very substantial part of my income. I now have my own second business (carpet and upholstery cleaning) to augment my income to prepare for my future years.

Briefly describe your career today. What kinds of work do you do to make a living?

I am currently the band leader to my band “Larry Lynch and the Mob” and I have had this band going for 28 years and counting ( – We mainly play weddings on the weekends.
I also have a carpet and upholstery cleaning business (www.Larry’ It has been extremely successful also.

How do you find work as a musician?

The way I find work as a musician is: put together a great looking website, to be very personable and accommodating to my clients by delivering great customer service (learn specific songs, work with their timeline, responding to their e-mails and phone calls promptly, being on time, dressing properly, etc.) One of the best advantages for us, is we offer clients to come see our band play live at our studio. It serves as two terrific ways to secure the wedding date. One, you find out and play the songs they would like to hear you play live. And two, it allows them to meet you and the band and see how responsible you are and it also allows them to ask you questions about the specifics of their wedding. It’s also helpful to contact all the booking agencies in your area and send them any promo you may have. And follow up, don’t give up. Be willing to play for exposure and the opportunity to establish your act and the money will follow –

What skills are necessary to be successful at your job (or jobs)?

The skills necessary to be successful at your job (many are listed above) are to be reliable, on time, communicative, courteous, playing at a comfortable volume, dressing properly, not to drink alcoholic beverages, finding out the songs in advance they would like to hear (we encourage our clients to look over our song list on our website and send us a list of the songs they would like us to play), taking our breaks at the appropriate times according to their timeline, such as during cake cutting, toasts/speeches, etc. Also it is important to not take too much time in between song selections – it keeps the momentum of the party going, and look like you’re enjoying yourself (smile) and encourage audience participation.

Put the customer first and let them know your priority is to provide them the best entertainment that will be the highlight of their event. Remember, this is about them and their special day, not about you. Your job is to focus on giving them the best of your ability.

Finally, do you have any advice for younger musicians aspiring to be professionals?

To all aspiring musicians I would give this advice: If you love playing and entertaining, then never give up. The secret is to keep going (persevere), but only if you love what you do. There will always be challenges and disappointments but to be a good musician, nothing comes easy especially if you’re not enjoying it. So make sure it’s what you really want to do. Music not only brings joy, it keeps you young.

Join MW and Google for a Musician Hang, October 18th’s co-founder Cameron Mizell will join musicians and representatives from Google Play and Limelight for an informal, free hang at the Openhouse Gallery (201 Mulberry Street – at Spring) starting at 2pm, October 18th, 2012.

CMJ and Google badges are automatically RSVP’d, all others please RSVP at this link.

More info:


Google’s rockin’ the Lower East Side this Thursday during CMJ Music Marathon. Find out how to sell original music with Google Play, monetize videos with YouTube, secure licenses for cover songs with Limelight, connect with fans on Google+ and optimize artist websites for Google Search.

CD Baby artists are invited to join us for a special happy hour meet-up at 4pm!

When: Thursday October 18th, 2pm – 2am

Where: Openhouse Gallery at 201 Mulberry Street (at Spring Street)

Who: Open to CMJ badgeholders and guests who RSVP (walk-ups will be taken as capacity allows)

  • CD Baby artist meet-up and drinks at 4pm
  • Free artist headshots by professional photographer (3pm – 7pm)
  • Happy hour kegs from 7pm onward
  • WhyHunger PSA tapings with musicians
  • Product demos, swag and more

Special performance opportunity for musicians:

Join Google Play for a first-of-its-kind on-air open mic, broadcast live to the world via the +Google Play page. Musicians are invited to perform one original song (read: no cover song), acoustic or with minimal backline (and no profanity, please, in case the kids are watching). We’ll record the audio and provide it to performers so that they can distribute it through the Google Play artist hub.

  • 6pm: Sign-ups start for walk-up participants (performers will chosen at random to perform alongside invited guests)
  • 7pm – 9pm: On-air open mic

Google Play concert showcase:

  • 10pm: Monsters Calling Home (unsigned; Google Play artist hub user)
  • 11pm: Little Green Cars (Glassnote Records)
  • 12am: Duologue (Killing Moon Records)


Cameron Mizell to Speak at CMJ Festival

Cameron Mizell, guitarist and co-founder of, is scheduled to speak at this week’s CMJ Music Marathon Festival being held October 16-20 in New York City.

Cameron’s panel, “I’ve Got You Covered” – moderated by Google’s Alex Holz, will discuss:

  • How cover songs have helped build careers and introduce artists to new audiences
  • Mechanical licensing issues related to recording and selling cover songs
  • New tools for artists and labels to obtain licensing
  • The future of copyright law in the digital age

Other panelists include singer/songwriter Jenny Owen Youngs, public relations agent Kim Gerlach, and copyright attorney Barry Heyman.

The panel will be held at the NYU Kimmel Center, 60 Washington Square South. Use hashtag #CMJ and Twitter handle @cameronmizell to follow or join the discussion at CMJ this week.

Interview with Pianist Sonny Paladino

This week’s Working Musician Interview is with pianist and music director Sonny Paladino. Sonny and I worked together on several Broadway shows and readings and he’s a fixture in the New York theatre scene. Lately, though, Sonny’s been finding more opportunities in both LA and NYC to music direct for big-name pop concerts. I wasn’t surprised, then, when I went on Facebook a few weeks ago and saw a photo of him playing a gig with Ke$ha.

Here Sonny tells us a little bit about himself and how he got started.

MW: When did you start playing music, and when did you realize it was something you wanted to do professionally?

SP: I was given a piano and lessons as a Christmas gift from my grandparents when I was 8 years old.  I took lessons, but eventually, being a kid who would rather be running around outside whenever he could, quit.

My mother encouraged me to try taking lessons with another guy that we new from the neighborhood who was a musician that I had seen play around town. I agreed and at my first lesson he taught me a short chord progression I-vi-IV-V and I learned it that week and brought it back to the lesson. He heard me play it and said great! He then got up from beside the piano and went behind the drum set that was also in his little studio. He counted off 1-2-3-4 and we started playing together.

I was instantly hooked. Up until that point I was “taking piano lessons,” and at that moment I was “making Music.” I remember getting in the car with my mother and saying, “Mom, I know what I want to do for the rest of my life.” I’ve been pursuing a career in music ever since!

MW: Did you study music in school? How has that impacted your career?

SP: I did study music in school. First high school (we had a great music program at my public high school and I literally had 5 music classes.) Then I went on to attend Berklee College of a Music in Boston. I left after one year because I felt that my contacts would be in Boston, and I knew that I ultimitaly needed to be in NYC. So I transferred to CUNY City College where I studied jazz music under the guidance of many great musicians including the legendary bass player Ron Carter.

I learned a lot about music in college and I continue to use these skills everyday as a professional, working musician. What college doesn’t really teach you though, is how to be an actual working musician. I find that most college programs focus solely on the artistic side of music, which is great, and important. But to be a working musician you’re going to have to play many styles of music: pop, rock, jazz, classical, hip-hop… you name it. It is important to keep those musical styles fresh and “under your belt.” you never know when you’re going to need to be able to play, write or arrange for those various styles.

MW: Briefly describe your career today. What kinds of work do you do to make a living?

I used to work solely as a Broadway Musican. And in many ways I still do. It took razor sharp focus for me to get established in that world. I did several national tours then decided I would stay put and do nothing but work on Brodway Shows. I started subbing around and then got a few opportunities to conduct the orchestra for several musicals. To date I have worked on 10 musicals and have been the assistant conductor on four of them.

I am currently expanding to different genres of music. I am trying to play more pop music and work as a music director for pop acts.

But day to day, I do everything from playing piano for rehearsals for a show, to writing songs for various shows, to arranging music for vocals, for full bands, to having an artist come to my apt for a vocal coaching session. You name it, I probably do it. You must be versatile in this business. If I am asked to do something that I’m not 100% comfortable doing, I will usually say yes and learn on the fly as I go. It’s a varying life with no set schedule (or payment structure,) but it’s really fun and rewarding!

MW: How do you find work as a musician?

Every way under the sun. Here you have to be creative. It’s really 100% word of mouth. So it’s about meeting the right people and staying in contact with them. There is definitely no set way to do this and getting started, getting people to know you is really the secret. How to do that is different for everyone.

For me, I would volunteer for anything. Play any gig I could. For free. It didn’t matter, I wanted people to know me. The other thing that I always tell people, is to be nice. When you do meet these people, be genuine. Don’t ask them for a gig, but rather befriend them. Truly. Once you become their friend, then they will trust you and might recommend you for a gig that they can’t do, or that they think you might be better suited for than them. A smile and a genuine interest in people goes a lot further than you can imagine. Try it!

Oh, and when you get that first opportunity to play some gig or cover a rehearsal, be prepared. Over prepared. No one knows how many hours you put into learning the material… They only hear you play, and hopefully they say, “Wow, he/she can really play!”

MW: What skills are necessary to be successful at your job (or jobs)?

SP: Every skill imaginable. This business is not only about going into a situation and making great art. I wish! No, you’ll have to be a band leader at times doing arrangements, you’ll have to be a side musician and learn that now you’re role is to keep quite and go with the flow, you’ll have to be a composer, a manager, a friend. And at the end of the day, you’re actually running a business. You are your business. Better brush up on your accounting skills!

MW: Finally, do you have any advice for younger musicians aspiring to be professionals?

SP: I will share some advice that Herbie Hancock gave me when I was 17 years old and asked him for advice after seeing him perform a concert. He said, “Man, you’ve got to get your life together first, ’cause unless you have a story to tell in your music… no one will care.” I think musicians will always listen to great masters and think, ok, I have to practice every day for 25 hours to get that good. But remember that with music, people are looking for an individual. If you can say something with your music, if you can make someone feel something (and this can be achieved playing something as simple as comping on a four chord progression tune- see story about my first time “making music” in question/answer 1) then you will be the type of person people want to work with.

Half a Million Downloads and 500,000 Dilemmas

Allow me to start at the end:

And in the end, I feel conflicted about the project.  As I continue to build my songwriting career, I feel encouraged by the numbers.  500,000 people downloaded my music (and not the easy way – they had to create a profile on a single clunky website to get the songs).  400,000 people have watched my YouTube videos.

I don’t care what anybody says – you don’t get those numbers with crappy music.  Someday, maybe, people will say, “Man, did you know that Dave Hahn had a million YouTube views before he ever had a hit?”

On the other hand, in the two years I’ve been working on the project, I’ve made $673.02.

$673.02 is about what it costs to live in Manhattan for 4 days.


This is essentially a story about a side project that took off.  And it’s about the state of the music industry today.  And it’s about fart jokes.  Well, not fart jokes, but whatever the musical equivalent of fart jokes is. Which is:



I was bored, maybe. I had been ignoring my songwriting side for too long.  I had spent all my time hustling after gigs on Broadway and no time on music that I really loved (no offense, Broadway).

Songs started coming out. Silly ones at first. Goofy ones. Marginally inappropriate ones. But all catchy. And they were funny – some of them very funny.

So I started recording them and showing my friends on Facebook.  And people liked them! 300 downloads in an hour – that kind of liked them.

It’s fun to make things that people like, so I made more.  They were just 30-second joke songs.  It occurred to me that they’d make great ringtones, so I started writing them with that in mind.  I made about 30 of them in, I think, about 2 weeks.

If you’d like, you can listen to them here.

My friends wanted to know how to get them on their phones – and what could I tell them?  How would I know?  I’m not a phone expert.

The Rush

So I found a site that would let me distribute homemade ringtones –  I put them up for free and my friends would download them to their phones.  But then everybody seemed to get into it – 2,000 downloads a day, that kind of everybody.

I thought, “Wow, cool. Goofy or not, these are songs I wrote and people really dig them. That’s a really great feeling.”

And also: “There’s a real demand here.  I could start a whole business.  I’ll have my friend make a logo. I’ll make a website.  I’ll start developing an app.”

And finally: “I’ll just charge $1 each. Perhaps I won’t get 2,000 downloads a day, but surely a percentage of these people will pay $1 for these songs.”

But I was wrong.  People wouldn’t pay a dollar.  Downloads fell immediately to maybe six a day, then nothing.  I made the price just $0.50 each – still nothing.  I put it back to free for a day and within a few hours the rush was back. 2,000 a day or more.

Part of the problem was Myxer – they promote free ringtones on their home page and dismiss the premium ringtones to the abyss of invisible content standing dormant in the innards of their site.

And part of the problem was the medium.  You can sell ringtones yourself, but there’s two problems:

  1. There are more than 50 different ringtone file formats used in the world. Which is difficult enough in itself, but then it’s combined with #2…
  2. As I described before, people want to know how to get your ringtone on their 1997 Zach Morris brick phone (or similar), which you don’t know how to do – especially for 2,000 people a day.

I’m sure you can picture the dilemma. I had to use Myxer, but Myxer was no help.

“Ok, fine,” I thought, “I don’t care if people ever hear this music. If somebody wants the ringtone on their phone it costs $1.” It stayed like that for awhile.  I made maybe $0.90 a month.

My Wise Friend

A little while later a songwriter friend came to stay with me. I told him the story, complete with my indignation over the unfairness of Myxer and those fickle ringtone consumers!

He said, “Look, man, you’re a songwriter.  Would you rather have 2,000 people a day hear your music, or 3 people a day?”

And, wisely, “How much money would you pay to have 2,000 people a day listen to your music? Would you pay $0.90?”

I felt like he made a good point.  And what was there to do? By then I’d submitted the songs to all the placement services I knew of at the time – without any responses back.  They’d be great in a cell phone commercial, I imagined, but landing a major corporate placement was a big leap from my little perch in the Broadway scene. I was now selling them on the iTunes Ringtone Store through Tunecore, but marketing options were limited (ie, you can’t link to a ringtone in the iTunes Store – hell, you can’t even see them unless you are looking at iTunes from a mobile device).

So I made them free.

And I promoted them.  I created YouTube videos for them. For awhile I had a whole site for them (now absorbed into I released a 22-track, mastered album (with commissioned album art even!) of these funny ringtones.

Counterintuitively, making the ringtones free and promoting them actually helped grow sales in the iTunes Store (perhaps an important lesson in itself).  These days the Tunecore revenue is around $80-100/month. And the YouTube channel brings in ad revenue – a humble amount I’m not allowed to disclose as part of the standard Adsense contract.

And now they’ve been downloaded to 500,000 cell phones worldwide.  They’ve been viewed on YouTube 400,000 times.

And I’ve made a profit of $673.02.


So, in the end, you already know how I feel. I think I’ve succeeded (in a quirky, farty-joke kind of way) as a songwriter on this project. I wrote songs people like to listen to – songs people share with their friends. That is a difficult thing to do in any format or any genre.

But I didn’t make much money. And maybe that’s just how it goes this time. Maybe that’s what I get for making musical fart jokes. If I’d written an ALBUM (like a NORMAL HUMAN BEING) that was formally downloaded 500k times, I might have a different story to tell.

So maybe that’s what I’ll do.

What would you do?

How I’m Building a Career as a Songwriter

You know what I would have loved? I would have loved to have been part of the Brill Building history between the 1940s and the 1960s – where some of America’s most popular songs were written. If you don’t know the history, check it out on Wikipedia.

Just a taste:

By 1962 the Brill Building contained 165 music businesses: A musician could find a publisher and printer, cut a demo, promote the record and cut a deal with radio promoters, all within this one building.

Or you know what also would be have great? Jingle writing between the 1940s and 1980s. What a sweet time to be a songwriter or a studio musician. Writing songs, recording them, hearing yourself on the radio, collecting big royalty checks – man, that would have been cool.

But, alas, that era was very short-lived and we were not lucky enough to be a part of it. So what do we do?

I’m not satisfied to just throw my hat in and say that it’s too hard to work as a songwriter. There are people out there doing it, and if they can do it so can I.

I’m going for it.

The Goal and Strategy

Let me be clear: I don’t want to be a singer-songwriter. I want to be a songwriter. I want other people to perform my songs. I know full well that I have limited skills as an entertainer, and I know my place.

My goal is to have recording artists cover my songs on their albums, secure film and television placements for my music, and to work professionally as a songwriter and composer. A difficult goal, to be sure.

People don’t know what you want unless you tell them. So that’s what I figured I’d do. I decided I would show people my music, tell them what I want, ask them to help me, and see what happens.

The Tools

I know about how to build a website, so I started there. I searched for the right URL to purchase and, to my complete surprise, I was lucky enough to secure I can’t believe that URL had not already been taken by a Silicon Valley start up, but I’m glad to have it.

I build a site there using WordPress and a $30 theme from The theme has a nice structure featuring a portfolio, a contact form and a blog. I added an “About” page, found some photos to use and set it all up. The website took me about a day to put together.

In the portfolio section I put all of the songs I want to showcase. For many of them I included a free mp3 download, lyrics, chords and even sheet music. I used Soundcloud players for the recordings – and made sure I used the HTML5 players so that they would work on iPads, iPods and iPhones.

Autoresponder Email List

Next I set up an email list through

I want people to listen to my music, but I can’t expect to just put it on a website and have people listen through it one by one. People are busy.

So I set up an “autoresponder” email list that would help. Everyone on the email list is sent a free download of one of my songs – complete with a little description, photo, lyrics, chords and sheet music – once a week.

Everyone on the list gets the songs in the same order, one at a time, once a week. It’s a playlist of songs, but doled out in a way that’s not overwhelming to listeners busy schedules. People may not sit on and listen to every one of my songs in an afternoon – but, sure, they’ll listen to one of my songs once a week.

In each email I make sure to reiterate my goal. If the reader likes it – consider covering it on your next album. Would it fit in a film or commercial you’re putting together? Great, hit reply. Know anyone that could help place this song? Pass it on.

Soundcloud, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, blogging, RSS feeds

Sure, I’m not an entertainer. Hell, I’m not even much of a singer. But unless I sing my songs and get them out in the world – no one’s going to ever know about them.

So guess who’s singing now?

I put my tunes on Soundcloud. I set up a Facebook page. I make videos for YouTube.

When I find a song I like, or a record a new demo of a work-in-progress, I put it up on the blog. The blog posts feed to Twitter and Facebook through

Getting Involved in the Community

The best way to get a gig as a songwriter is to know other people who are gigging as songwriters. I know I need to get involved in the community.

I sang a few weeks ago at the Sunday night singer-songwriter open mic at the Bitter End in NYC. Boy, that made me nervous. For a guy who’s used to performing 8 shows a week on Broadway you’d think I’d be cooler about it, but I was shaking in my boots.

I tried to think of resources that might be helpful to other songwriters. When American Songwriter magazine comes out I like to make a Spotify playlist of all the music mentioned in the issue, then post a link to the playlist on the blog.

I put my songwriting friends new songs up on the blog – and those posts, too, get sent out through Twitter and Facebook.

Making Quality Recordings

The recordings I have of most of my songs are demo quality. Creating radio quality recordings is much easier today than it was 20 years ago – so much easier that it’s become expected. I know that most of my demos aren’t going to cut it.

So I’ve started reaching out to producers in Chicago, Nashville and New York (to start). I’m hiring them to arrange, produce and record my songs in their studios. I leave the song treatment completely up to them. I tell them only this: Our goal here is to get a film or TV placement. Make me a recording of this song that I can pitch to FTV.

I give them a lump sum upfront and, if the song is placed in FTV, I promise them a higher-than-average percentage of the gross income on the master side. My hope is that it gives the producers a higher-than-average incentive to pitch their recording to their FTV contacts as well.

Submitting Recordings to Placement Services

I’ve submitted music to PumpAudio, YouLicense and similar services. I find the process incredibly tedious and (especially with PumpAudio) painfully slow. It feels a lot like throwing a penny into a well and hoping to one day get your wish.

I have not joined Taxi, and I suspect I never will. Their claims are just too good to be true, and there is too much noise about their service being a complete scam. It’s too expensive of a service to take a chance on. It’s like throwing $300 into the well instead of a penny.

There are better placement services out there, but it will take me some time to garner their attention. I’m hoping that the portfolio I’ve built at will help me pitch to them when the time comes.

Submitting to Songwriting Competitions

This is a tough one, because it costs money. Most competitions cost between $15 and $35 to submit a song. It’s difficult to know which songs might work in which competition, so it’s tempting to submit multiple songs to each competition.

This part of the strategy seems like an expensive crap shoot to me. The quality of a song is a really subjective thing, and if I win one of these things it might just be because the gods smiled on me that day. Who knows?

But if I do win…well, that would be great. There’s always a chance – so I do it (sparingly).

A few months ago I submitted a song to the Song of the Year competition. I received the Suggested Artist Award, which I understand puts me in the top 5% of the contest.

But, I ask rhetorically: who cares? Unless you win the top prize on one of these competitions it doesn’t mean much.

Writing for Musical Theatre

Consider this:

  • The movie Titanic, since it’s release in 1997, has grossed $658 million in box office results. Very impressive.
  • The musical Mamma Mia, since it’s opening in Toronto in 2000, has grossed over $2 billion worldwide. Much more impressive.

I’m not saying that I can write the next Mamma Mia or Wicked, all I’m saying is that it’s worth trying. I’d settle for 0.1% of the financial success of Mamma Mia ($2 million, for those of you adding it up in your heads).

I’ve worked in musical theatre a long time. I’ve studied the form and tradition. I’ve conducted shows on Broadway. I write music – why not write a musical?

I have two in the works right now. Why not? The best way to fail at writing a musical would be never to try at all.

Next Steps

Songwriting & composition is what I’ve always wanted to do. Nothing compares to the elevated feeling that accompanies creation, and for me that feeling is strongest when I write music.

Becoming a professional songwriter seems like an impossible challenge, but I think with the plan and tools that I’ve described above will help me start the journey.

I hope you’ll visit and let me know what you think. If you are a performer or recording artist I hope you’ll check out my songs. If you are a songwriter I hope you’ll get in touch with me.

How can I learn how to be a Broadway conductor?

I often have people email me who are interested in becoming Broadway conductors. It’s often musicians still in high school or college who have been bitten by the theatre bug and have developed a passion, but maybe not the skills, for the industry. They ask me,

“How can I learn how to be a Broadway conductor?”

The answer I send back is usually long. There’s no easy way in, really. I mean – I was 12 when I decided I wanted the job and it took me until I was 30 to actually get the job. There are very few college programs geared toward the career, and the path to the top is usually known only by those who are already there. Yet, it’s one of the best jobs left in a troubled music industry and a viable career choice for many collaborative pianists.

I write about the job here on MusicianWages because I want to help others who are interested in conducting and music directing musical theatre shows. I started to feel like I was perhaps writing too frequently about music directing here on, so I helped found a new website,, to dedicate to the topic.

And now I’m helping organize an afternoon of master classes in NYC for anyone interested in music directing for theatre.

On June 25th I’m bringing together 3 Broadway conductors to each give a 2-hour master class. Joe Church (the original MD for Lion King on Broadway, now conducting at Sister Act) will discuss piano-conducting technique. Jeff Marder (Associate Conductor for Priscilla Queen of the Desert on Broadway and synth programmer for Newsies) will give a class on music technology and synth programmer. Sonny Paladino (Assistant Conductor for the Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar will talk about breaking down and performing all the different styles of music required for modern musical theatre.

It’s going to be very cool. And after the classes are done John Miller will join us for a 1-hour question and answer session.

If you are interested in music director for theatre or one day conducting on Broadway – you should register for these classes on June 25th. You’ll meet 4 Broadway conductors (including me) and John Miller and you’ll be able to ask all of us any questions you might have about how to get started in the business.

I wish I had something like this when I got started. I’m telling you, this is a really unique and valuable opportunity.

Class sizes are limited and there’s a chance they will sell out. So please register right away. Here is the ticket form, or you can find out more info our EventBrite page.

Master Classes for Music Directors, June 25th in New York City

On June 25th I’ll be organizing and moderating an afternoon of master classes for music directors in the theatre industry.

  • Joe Church (original music director of Lion King, now conducting at Sister Act) will lead a session on piano conducting
  • Jeff Marder (synth programmer for 3 shows on Broadway this season) will discuss music technology and synth programming
  • Sonny Paladino (Assistant Conductor on this season’s revival of Jesus Christ Superstar) will talk about breaking down grooves and playing different musical styles for theatre

Everyone is welcome to attend. Classes cost $45/each or $100 for the whole day, payable through EventBrite (EventBrite adds an additional transaction fee).

Visit for more info.

Full class descriptions are below. I’d be very glad to see all of our music director readers at the event!

Conducting from the Piano

Instructor: Joseph Church (Music Director: The Lion King, The Who’s Tommy, Associate Conductor: In the Heights; Assistant Conductor: Sister Act)

This class will examine skills and circumstances peculiar to conducting a stage show from the piano, covering both scores written for a piano/conductor and orchestra reductions. The focus will be communicating a maximum of information with a minimum of gesture. Techniques of conducting with the hands, the head, and with breath and facial expression will be demonstrated and analyzed. Issues of audio and video monitoring will also be discussed. The format of the master class will be a short presentation, followed by an opportunity for attendees to play and conduct with the presenter’s feedback.

Time: June 25th from 12:00pm to 2:00pm
Cost: $45

Eventbrite - Music Director Master Classes

Music Technology for the Theatre – A Guide to What Music Directors Need to Know

Instructor: Jeff Marder (Synth Programmer: Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Newsies, Leap of Faith; Associate Conductor: Guys and Dolls, Priscilla Queen of the Desert; Assistant Conductor: Leap of Faith)

In this workshop we will focus on synthesizer programming and will give an overview of the synth programming technology commonly in use at the present time. Participants will learn the basics of what the various pieces of hardware and software are used for, in addition to gaining a greater understanding of how these things affect the sound of a show. Also covered, but with a lesser emphasis, will be the role of sound design. This workshop is not intended to be a tutorial in the use of these various technologies, but rather a guide to what music directors need to know to effectively interact with the synthesizer programming and sound design in order to facilitate a seamless collaborative process.

Time: June 25th from 2:30pm to 4:30pm
Cost: $45

Eventbrite - Music Director Master Classes

Styles at Play

June 25th from 4:45pm to 6:45pm
Instructor: Sonny Paladino (Music Supervisor: High School Musical (Milan/Italy Tour); Assistant Conductor: Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease)

Musical Theatre today is not what it used to be. For the first 50 years or so music for most American theatre was simple: a beautiful melody, some interesting chord changes, and you were set. The rhythm was decided: either it had a two-feel or it was a sweeping ballad. Today musical theatre music embraces so many different styles of music. So how does one master all these styles? One show we’re playing 60’s Soul, the next show we’re steeped in Disco, next thing you know we’re groovin’ to salsa, and what’s that Hip-Hop!? Styles At Play will help you discover different approaches to getting down to the essential elements of the styles at play within the play. We will look at ways to break down different styles to find what actually makes them groove. After this class you will be prepared for whatever show and whatever ever style comes your way!

Time: June 25th from 4:45pm to 6:45pm
Cost: $45

Eventbrite - Music Director Master Classes

Learning Musical Styles with Transcription

I received an email today from M., who’s in college now and interested in working on Broadway one day. He asked me about a comment I made a few weeks ago.

I wrote an article talking about how I got my current gig, and I gave the advice that younger musicians shouldn’t over-emphasize their theatre experience when hustling this job. Broadway, in my opinion, prefers musicians that have learned different musical styles from outside of Broadway. Here’s the section:

Whether its true or not, Broadway music is largely seen as a derivative art form among the Broadway musician community. Look at shows like Jersey Boys, Million Dollar Quartet, In the Heights – these shows showcase rock n roll, country, hip hop and salsa – none of which originated on Broadway.

The last thing you want to say, therefore, is that you learned to play R’n’B by playing a summerstock version of Dream Girls. Broadway wants authentic players that have learned music styles from the source, not from itself.

I really think this is true. I just don’t feel like you can learn jazz by playing musical theatre scores. You have to learn jazz by playing jazz.

And so, M.’s question to me was this:

I am classically trained and I personally feel any style other than classical has been learned from playing MT repertoire. I feel that I am very limited because of this. I feel intimated and do not know where to even begin learning these styles.

[Do] you have any advice on how to learn jazz, blues, gospel, latin etc…?

That’s a good question, M.

Commercial Music in Theatre

First off, there are plenty of good gigs for classically trained musicians in the New York theatre scene. Shows that are in the traditional theatre style might be a good fit – for instance the current revival of Porgy and Bess or the long-running Mary Poppins. These shows showcase old-school theatre or operetta styles and need great classical players.

However, Broadway’s musical styles have always followed popular music trends, and you can see that with today’s shows as well. Most of the shows on Broadway today are shows that require commercial musicians that understand how to play jazz, rock, funk and world styles.

The Twenty Year Itch

As a side note, I’d just like to register my own complaint about Broadway music – yes, we follow popular music trends, but must we follow so far behind? If you look at the shows open on Broadway right now – Jesus Christ Superstar, Mamma Mia, Godspell, Rock of Ages, Priscilla, Memphis, etc. – not one of those shows features music that was written less that 20 years ago. Among other reasons – how can we instill a passion for theatre in younger audiences if we ignore music written during their lifetime?

The exception this season, of course, is Once which features music from the 2006 movie. Bravo, Once. Where is everyone else? No indie rock musicals out there? No bachata musical?

Anyway – M., here’s my answer (and I’m sure others will have valuable answers in the comments below).

The thing about commercial styles of music – by which I mean most non-classical styles – is that they can’t be learned from books and sheet music. The rhythm, groove, and feel of commercial styles needs to be heard and felt.

So my best advice is to transcribe different styles directly from recordings.


And – these days – there’s no excuse not to transcribe. When I was coming up it was difficult to get access to recordings of different styles – recordings cost money back then (imagine!). Now you can get a Spotify subscription for $10/month and have almost anything you’d ever want.

For example – just the other day I found a Spotify playlist for every song in the Real Book. Are you kidding me? Do you know know how hard it would have been to gather all of those recordings together when I was in jazz school? Now there is no excuse to not have intimate knowledge of several different versions of each jazz standard.

Actually – I’ve thought a lot about this recently – I’m anxiously awaiting a new breed of musician to come out of the Spotify generation. There are kids growing up today who have unprecedented access to every style of music recorded over the last 100 years. I can only imagine what kind of musician I would be if I’d been listening to Miles at birth instead of discovering him – like most white, suburban kids of the 1990s – as a teenager in my high school band room.

The musicians that come out of music school in 20 years will have no excuse not to be monster players. What kind of jobs will be available to them…well that part is anybody’s guess.


Back to transcribing. M., transcribing gets better as you go. It’s tortuous as first, but addictive as you get the hang of it. Here’s how you should start:

Find a recording of a new musical style that you really dig. Put in on your phone and listen to it over and over. Listen to it as you’re walking to class, while you’re eating, when you wake up. Sing along to all of the solos, know the form, figure out the instrumentation. Get to know that recording really, really well.

Then – after that listening phase – sit down at your instrument and start playing along. Figure out the key, the harmonic structure, pick out of a few key notes. This is how I like to start – I just get a cursory feel for the harmonic content of the song. Some musicians are much better at this part – even without perfect pitch they can start picking out almost all of the song on the first go. Personally, I’m much slower at this, especially when I started out.

Then take sections of the song and learn every note. For example, I was once trying to learn to play a better jazz blues. I took the recording of “Freddie the Freeloader” from Kind of Blue and transcribed Wynton Kelly’s solo from 0:45 to 2:13. That’s a great solo to transcribe, actually, because you get to play along with Paul Chambers (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums) and their swing is so killing on that whole record.

And that’s the thing with transcribing – you are picking up not just the notes, but the rhythm, groove and feel that I mentioned before. You’re picking up on all the thing that sheet music can’t teach you.

Then transcribe more. Learn the difference between Basie swing and Ellington swing. Listen to the play between bass and kick drum in disco music. Listen to where the open strings are on Simon and Garfunkel recordings. Figure out what the hell that voicing is that Chick Corea is using on [insert Chick album here].

Write It Down

Under NO circumstances are you allowed to even glance at any published sheet music during this process. You’ll quickly find that sheet music is a poor representation of music, anyway.

However, that said, the next step is to write down what you’ve transcribed. This part can be particularly difficult – especially on, say, Charlie Parker transcriptions…so don’t start with that. But it gets easier.

Jason Crosby Solo TranscriptionHere’s an example of something I transcribed a few years ago. Jason Crosby plays a great Hammond solo on Susan Tedeschi’s version of Don’t Think Twice. I loved it so much I had to transcribe it and play it myself. Here’s a copy of my transcription.

Of course, you don’t have to write it out in Finale like I did – but it doesn’t hurt to practice those Finale chops. You’ll need those, too, when you get out of college.

Keep It Up

I think any commercial player will agree that learning musical styles by ear is the best way to absorb them into your playing. And I think everyone can all agree that it’s not an easy thing to start to do if you’ve been classically trained and haven’t learn music that way before.

But it’s invaluable. It’ll change your playing. And more importantly, it’s absolutely necessary. It would be nice if, instead, we could just go on tour with a great swing band like our past legends did…but those days are long gone. The best thing we can do is learn the recordings inside and out.

Although – by all means start a band and go on tour making new music. Then write an indie rock musical so I can play it.

(In 20 years.)

Visit the new from Trombonist Mike Davis

My friend and co-worker Mike Davis is the trombone player at Priscilla Queen of the Desert on Broadway. We brag a lot about Mike over there because he’s a monster player and, when he’s not hanging out with us, the trombonist for the Rolling Stones.

Mike has completely re-designed and restructured his website, and he’s looking to get the word out. I told him that I would tell you about the site and recommend that you check it out.

Aside from the Stones, Mike has toured and recorded with a huge list of legends like Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, Sting, Aerosmith, Tony Bennett, Sheryl Crow, Jay Z, Buddy Rich, Bob Dylan, Sarah Vaughn and Bob Mitzer. He’s also has his own signature trombone made by the S.E. Shires company.

I’m serious. They made a trombone and named it after Mike. He’s, like, totally famous.

Mike’s website is a great example of how modern musicians can use the power of the internet to connect with other musicians, create a brand and sustain a career. It’s also a great example of the transition that a lot of A-level recording-industry players have made in the past 20 years.

From Mike’s blog:

The New York free­lance music scene, like the rest of the world, has under­gone dra­matic change in the past 10 to 15 years. At first glance it can seem over­whelming and a bit scary, but on closer inspec­tion we come to realize that this change is our best oppor­tu­nity for growth. It may seem a bit harsh, but the expres­sion “change or die” has never been more applicable.

Some of the most enjoy­able work I do is recording music in a studio. These recording ses­sions can be for a cd, a motion pic­ture sound­track, a tele­vi­sion theme or com­mer­cial. Coming out of col­lege, my goal was to become what was then called a “studio musi­cian”. Everyday you were pre­sented with a new, fresh musical chal­lenge that you were seeing for the first time. A chal­lenge that you had to deliver on imme­di­ately. A pres­sure packed envi­ron­ment for sure, but also an extremely rewarding one at times. As the music busi­ness has evolved over the past decade, the role of the studio musi­cian has con­tracted. While I still get calls to record on a reg­ular basis, it’s def­i­nitely less.

For­tu­nately, New York has a thriving musical the­ater scene also known simply as “Broadway”. Most free­lance musi­cians in the com­mer­cial end of the busi­ness find them­selves playing in the pits of Broadway. You either have a full time posi­tion, which enables you to per­form 8 shows a week, or you are in the very tal­ented pool of sub­sti­tutes who fill in for the reg­u­lars when they take off to do other work.

Check out more at

How To Audition for Cirque du Soleil as a Musician

I want to preface this article with this: I didn’t get the gig. I got a free trip to Japan for 5 days of interviews and auditions, but in the end the gig went to the other guy.

So I can’t exactly tell you how to get a gig with Cirque, but I can tell you how to audition (and, maybe, what not to do).

It was January, 2010, when I got a call from a colleague of mine. He had previously worked as a keyboardist for Cirque in Vegas and had since operated, now and then, as one of their recruiters. He told me Cirque was looking for a new music director for a tour they had in Asia and my colleague had recommended me for the spot.

He wasn’t sure what the pay would be, but he estimated that it would pay about as much as a music director on Broadway would earn, which is somewhere around $150,000+/year. Of course I said yes. I told him I would go through the audition and recruiting process and make him proud.

My colleague forwarded me the music that I would need to learn for the audition. That included 9 selections from the show, along with demo recording of the songs and backing tracks that I could record to.

Registering with Cirque’s Jobs Website

The first step with Cirque, though, is to register for their online application system, located here:

I want to emphasize this – they seem to be very strict about their application process, and there are no exceptions – you have to follow the rules exactly as they present them or your application will be disregarded (or simply lost in their system).

So I registered for their jobs site, then set about to make my demo video.

The Demo Video

Cirque du Soleil is smart about it’s videos. They don’t want professional-videographer-quality videos for auditions. I think they know, like everyone, that professional quality videos and recordings can include a great deal of smoke-and-mirrors – including punch-in overdubbing, auto-tune, huge reverb, and all the other tech tools that can turn an otherwise average musician into a virtuoso.

They don’t want any of that. They just want you to put a camera in the corner and hit record.

So, for my video I used a regular ol’ digital camera – my Panasonic DMC-FS15, a 12-megapixel point-and-shoot camera that I got for Christmas the year before. I used the built-in microphone and edited the video (minimally) with Mac’s stock iMovie application. Nothing fancy.

It took me 5 days to learn the songs and make the video, working from morning to night. I would practice a song until I had it polished, then hit record on the camera.

In the video instructions they requested that I talk a little about my background and why I wanted to work for Cirque. So I also videotaped myself talking (which I now find impossible to watch without cringing).

Here is my final audition video that I sent to Cirque:

The Application

Applying for Cirque also requires some paperwork. In addition to the video demo I needed to send them:

  1. A cover letter (PDF)
  2. Resume – including date of birth, nationality, contact info and all school and experience marked by year (PDF)
  3. 3 photos – 2 headshots and 1 full-length shot (jpg/PDF)
  4. One audio demo (mp3)
  5. One 5-minute video from a recent rehearsal

I sent them my grid-based resume that you can read about here. I found 3 photos and sent along my standard demo recording. Here is a copy of the cover letter I sent (with specifics blacked out).

For the 5-minute rehearsal video I brought my little point-and-shoot into the gig I was doing at the time and hit record. Back home I edited out a 5-minute block of time that showed me playing and interacting with singers. I would show you that, but some of the performers there were equity actors and rules are rules – I can’t post the video without their consent. Anyway, it doesn’t matter – I’m sure you can picture it.


Once I had all of this material together I submitted all of it to Cirque through my profile on their jobs website. I remember finding that process a little confusing – the job site’s interface can be difficult to use – but eventually I was able to submit it.

Altogether it took me 6 days to put together and submit my application to Cirque. I worked on nothing else for that time. It was very time consuming.

After successfully submitting my materials I called my colleague and let him know. He then alerted his contacts at Cirque’s headquarters in Montreal and we were all finished.

Basically, that’s the end of this article. That’s how you audition for Cirque du Soleil.

But perhaps my experience might help you with yours, so I’ll tell you the rest of the story.

A Call from Cirque du Soleil

Normally it can take Cirque a long time to get back to applicants. I’ve heard of people being called out of the blue, 4 years after their application, for a gig. I imagine it was because I had been recommended, but this is not how it went for me.

I got a call from Cirque’s headquarters 3 days later. They told me that the job that I had applied for was no longer available. In fact, they told me that someone had been in negotiations for that job for some time.

All I could think was…geez, I just wasted nearly a week on this thing – and in the end we’d been given bad information?

It was a nice phone call, though. I was still grateful for the opportunity to be recommended and apply anyway. They said they liked my playing and would keep me in mind in the future.

Another Call From Cirque du Soleil

Three weeks later Cirque called back again. They said the position was, suddenly, available again and they would like to consider me for the job.


The next step was a Skype interview with the higher-ups in Montreal, which we scheduled for a few days later. At the interview I met with, if I remember right, three people who were all from the recruiting/human resources department of Cirque. It was a nice interview – we spoke primarily about chain-of-command issues and management styles. Like any music director gig, it’s always less about music and more about how best to manage people. I felt very confident coming out of the interview.

They told me that they were considering 3 candidates for the job, and they would advance only 1 candidate from this round of interviews. That candidate would basically have the job, but would need to fly to Japan to meet the tour and make sure it was a good fit.

A few days later they called again and told me I’d advanced to the next round! Great, I thought, that means I’ve basically got the job!

This was on a Monday or Tuesday, and they asked if I could fly the Japan the following Monday. I cleared my schedule, told all my friends I’d (basically) landed a job with Cirque and packed my luggage.

The Catch

The catch was that I would need to agree to the terms of the contract prior to flying to Japan. There was good reason for this, of course. They didn’t want to pay for me to take a trip to Japan only to find, when I returned, that I wouldn’t sign the contract.

This is where things got weird, though.

They were reluctant to tell me what the pay or benefits of the job actually were. They weren’t entirely sure, even, where the tour was going over the next two years (which was the length of the contract).

I thought that was a little weird, but I didn’t worry too much. I called my colleague for advice and we both agreed that I should just have my lawyer take care of this part of the negotiations. What do I know about contracts this big anyway? This is how it’s done on Broadway (the scene I know most about) – when you are hired to be a music director you have your lawyer negotiate the contract.

So I called my lawyer. To my complete surprise it turned out that my lawyer was the same firm who had been negotiating the previous candidate’s contract – they told me that those negotiations had fallen apart when Cirque offered too little and the candidate had walked away from the table.

I was in a better position, though, as I had less credits than the previous candidate and would probably be much better suited to the results of the previous negotiation.


However, the offer from Cirque was considerably less than I expected. It was more in the $60,000/year range…which you might remember is less than half of what I’d expected all this time.

My lawyers worked to get the offer increased, but Cirque seemed reluctant to budge. By the end of the week they’d moved a little bit and I’d accepted the terms. It wasn’t as much as I expected, but it was enough. I was excited about the job.


On Monday I left for Japan. My friends (and employers) all figured this was the last they’d see of me for awhile and they wished me well. I found subs for all of my gigs.

On Monday morning, while I was at the airport, Cirque called again to let me know that the other candidate and I would be staying at the same hotel, and perhaps we could meet up at the airport in Japan.

The other candidate?

I’ll spare you the drama that followed. I’m not entirely sure how things went down, but the story I ended up with was something like this: 2 days before I left for Japan they called another candidate who hadn’t previously been part of the process and told him to get ready to leave for Japan. He was being considered for a music director job with the same tour in Asia.

Why did they do that? I’ll never know. My guess is that they didn’t like that I’d lawyer’d up…but I had only meant to do the professional thing. Perhaps they just didn’t like my lawyer? I really don’t know. For whatever reason they started to get a bad read on me – and, actually, that part doesn’t bother me. Why they still took the time and expense to send me to Japan for a week is the part I can’t understand.

What followed was 5 days of interviews, meals and meetings. It was really tense, to be honest. The other candidate and I knew that we were competing with each other for this job, both of us wanted it, and we were thrown together in this strange situation in the middle of Japan.

There were personality tests, auditions on tape, auditions with the music director, meetings with the crew, lunches with the artistic director, dinners with the other band members, more interviews late at night.

I’ll admit it – I really wasn’t mentally prepared for all of this. I thought I was going to Japan to meet my new co-workers, not fight with a stranger for a job that paid half of what I expected it to.

You can imagine about how well this all went. I did my best, but I’m sure they saw a little shadow in my eye that hinted at my misgivings. I don’t fake emotions well. I’m sure I seemed a little put off. I was.

Back Home

We left Japan without any indication about who had won the job. It was a full week before I got the call from Cirque that told me that they had given the job to the other candidate. My reaction was a mix of disappointment and relief. I felt bad that I’d lost the gig, but the Japan experience had left a bad taste in my mouth that I wasn’t eager to revisit.

I had to rebuild things here in NYC after that. Obviously I’d made a big deal about how I was very close to working for Cirque du Soleil, and I had to retract all of that, apologize to subs and employers and get my old gigs back. It wasn’t as hard as it sounds, I think I just found it a little embarrassing.

Final Conclusions

I still think that Cirque du Soleil is an incredible company that puts on high quality shows. I’m not sure if the situation I went through with them was a normal recruiting process, but I’ll say this – they are a private corporation that has grown and seen a lot of success. Corporations don’t make a cake that big without breaking some eggs, you know? They do what they have to do to get the best product possible. And I think I just caught the bad end of that stick back in 2010.

Bottom line, they are a major employer of musicians and other artists worldwide – and for working artists that is something that can’t be ignored. I recommend auditioning for Cirque. Once you get the gig they really seem to take care of their people.

If you’re interested in the Cirque gig, take my story with a grain of salt. Sign up for their jobs site and make your own story.