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.

Why Are There Fewer Working Musicians in 2012 than 1999?

Every day I receive a few email newsletters, including the Digital Music News. As I sipped on a fresh cup of coffee this morning, one of their articles titled “Recording Sales Declines & Musician Employment, 1999 – 2011…” caught my attention. It was published on Saturday by DMN editor Paul Resnikoff. I enjoy Paul’s insight on the music industry. Digital Music News does a great job covering the changes in the music industry and I recommend all of you subscribe to their newsletter.

I was mostly interested in the article because of the “musician employment” part of the title–which is of course the primary topic of MusicianWages.com. It’s also something DMN rarely discusses.

In this particular article, Paul writes:

There’s more music being created than ever before, but paradoxically, musicians are making less. Which means there are also fewer musicians and music professionals enjoying gainful employment, thanks to a deflated ecosystem once primed by major labels and marked-up CDs.

He also shares this graph overlaying statistics from the US Department of Labor and the RIAA.

The reddish orange bars represent the number of “musical groups and artists,” which is a classification used by the US Census Bureau. The white squares represent the amount of recorded music shipped, which basically means sold to retail stores (and includes digital sales even though nothing is actually shipping).

This graph is trying to draw a correlation between album sales and musician jobs, so it begs the question: Is the decline in album sales responsible for the decline in musician jobs?

I have a buddy that works for the US Department of Labor so I asked him for some help checking these employment statistics. I found that while there is a decline in the number of self-reported “musical groups and artists,” it is not as dramatic as this graph makes it appear. Paul wrote that there has been a 41% in paid musicians since 1999, but based on statistics I find from the Census Bureau, there has been a 15% decline. Perhaps there are other numbers in play? I’ve asked him about his source, so we shall see. For all intents and purposes, most people would agree that there has been a decline in jobs for musicians.

The decline in album sales has been well documented by the RIAA and through Nielsen Soundscan sales reports. I don’t think anyone will argue that there are far fewer albums being sold today than 10 years ago.

My wife is a professional researcher, so I asked her what a statistical analyst would think of this graph. She said it was a weak correlation, and suggested I look up this blog post about correlation and causation. Turns out statistical analysts have a sense of humor that is 63% better than expected. It also means that this data alone is not sufficient to explain a cause/effect scenario.

Now, I have no doubt that the decline in album sales has had a negative effect on musician employment as we’ve known it over the last 70 years. Dave Hahn once pointed out that the recorded music industry isn’t responsible for creating the career of “professional musician.” For hundreds of years before recordings, people worked as musicians, and it’s reasonable to believe that will be the case even if recordings are no longer worth money.

However, I don’t believe that we can simply blame the decline in album sales, and to do so would be short-sighted for the musician industry. Let’s look at the bigger picture. What other factors could cause a decline in musician jobs?

1) Recording Technology

Without a doubt, technology has always been one of the most consistent disrupters of industry. Printed sheet music, player pianos, the phonograph, synthesizer, and mp3 are all examples of technology that impacted the musician industry.

Dave and I recently had a conversation with a veteran NYC drummer. He compared the scene of 30 years ago to the scene today. NYC used to have thousands of recording studios and employ tens of thousands of musicians, many of whom made very good money. Back then, he explained, every note of music you heard anywhere had to be played by a musician. Commercials, albums, demos, jingles, soundtracks, and anything else that required music required musicians.

By comparison, these days I can cut a demo and pitch a commercial in my living room, on my computer, by myself. Anybody can do that today. The technology is relatively affordable, and sample packs and plugins can take the place of other musicians and expensive studio gear. It’s not necessarily better, it’s just possible.

Furthermore, how many musicians does it take to record a hit album these days? I looked up the top album on iTunes today, and then looked up the album credits. There are a bunch of producers and writers, but I could only find one guitarist credited. Another guy was credited with “strings.” The rest of the music? Probably assembled by the various producers.

I also looked up the credits for Rihanna’s latest album. She is one of the biggest stars today, so how many musicians does she use on her albums? Two, covering the guitar and bass. No drummer. Somebody has a credit for “instrumentation,” and there are also credits for fluids and good vibrations, hair stylist (two of those), vocal engineer, and many, many more production credits.

Compare either of these to Michael Jackson’s Thriller which employed dozens musicians in the studio during the early ’80s and had only one producer.

Recording technology has replaced the need for musicians the same way robotics have replaced people on assembly lines, but there will always be a demand for high end, hand crafted product.

2) DJs (and DJ technology)

I realize that this might make me sound like a crotchety old man, but hear me out. I have nothing against DJs, but it is a fact that where there were once bands full of musicians, there is now a guy behind a computer. If we’re lucky, he or she is actually using turntables.

DJs exist because there is a demand for them. They cost less and take up less space. People like to dance to the music. In fact, sometimes the music they play isn’t even recorded by real musicians, so why would you hire real musicians to perform what a DJ spins?

Regardless, I think we need to agree that DJs are a cheap competitor to working musicians from here on out, and technology will continue to make DJing possible for anybody with a laptop and decent taste in music.

3) Greed/The Economy

Just as technology allows you to do more in a recording studio with fewer musicians, you can do more in live performance. Backing tracks, or “sweetener tracks” are more common on pop tours. Broadway pits have gotten smaller and smaller over the years, partially due to pop/rock musicals written for smaller orchestras, but also due to the never ending battle between the producers and the musician’s union. Producers will make more money if a show uses pre-recorded music. Sometimes it just boils down to somebody wanting to make more money by downsizing the band.

Additionally, maybe people just don’t have the disposable income to spend on entertainment like they used to. This is especially true with younger people, who might go out more frequently. There are numerous economic factors that could come into play, but the point is, people choose to spend their hard earned money elsewhere.

4) People’s Choice

Has the evolving aesthetic of popular music cost musician jobs?

Bob Lefsetz keeps saying electronic music is the new rock’n’roll. There’s something to that. Not everybody wants to go to the local symphony, jazz club, or blues bar. Some people, just prefer music that doesn’t require any musicians.

Also, can the audience really tell the difference between pre-recorded music and a live band? Even if they could, do they care? Pop stars have been lip synching or using autotune live for decades, and for the most part their fans don’t seem to care. Will those same people ever appreciate a great live band in the same way? It’s difficult to speculate, but it’s very possible that the market for live music is smaller than it used to be.

What can musicians do?

I don’t believe the failing recording industry is entirely to blame for a decline in musician jobs. Did it have an impact? Absolutely. But so have these other factors.

To succeed as a musician, it’s very important that you pay attention to the state of our industry. It’s foolish to think that because you studied at an elite music school you’re entitled to make a ton of money as a studio musician, or that you can form a band, get signed to a label, and be set for life. Sure, it’s possible those things can happen, but the probability is much smaller today than it was before 1999.

Learn how to adapt. I can not stress that enough. The way you make a living today might be very different in two years. The studio musicians of 20 years ago that are still working today figured out how to adapt. Along with being a great musician, learn how to use the internet to your advantage to help you network and be easily available to people that can hire you.

Understand what is in your control, and what is not in your control (hint: You cannot stop technology, avoid greedy people, or change people’s taste in music). The biggest lesson we can learn from the recording industry and the digital music revolution is that you cannot fight change.

Learn from other musicians. Dave and I try to share as much of our knowledge as we can on this site, but we also interview others and look for guest bloggers to cover topics we cannot write about ourselves. Many times it’s just an excuse to pick the brain of musicians smarter than us!

Finally, be a champion for the working musician. Support the arts and arts education and help kids appreciate music. Take pride in your work. You don’t have to be in the union to advocate for musician jobs, all you have to do is support industries that support musicians.

My Ever-Changing Career as a Musician

When I was in college, I held several part time jobs to make ends meet. One of those part time jobs was playing guitar at a few restaurants every month. Nothing glamorous, but I was happy to be playing guitar. I started keeping track of how much money I made on those gigs to see if I could justify quitting one of the other part time jobs.

It turns out keeping a detailed list of my music income has served me well over the last 10 years. I was eventually able to justify quitting all of my day jobs and become a full time musician, and since being a full time musician, I’m able to keep a finger on the pulse of my various streams of musician income. Just as a shop owner keeps track of her inventory and carries whatever products are in demand, I’ve been able to assess and adjust my inventory of music jobs that keep me in business.

Over the last 10 years the way I make a living has changed dramatically. I’ve never made a lot of money, but I’ve been able to make more each year despite the changes in the music industry and economy in general. Here’s my method and what I’ve learned along the way.

Multiple Streams of Income

One thing I learned early on was to diversify my income. If one stream hits a drought, you can lean on the others to get by. Here’s how I categorize my income:

  1. Non-Union Gigs
  2. Union Gigs
  3. Recorded Music Sales/Streams
  4. Royalties
  5. Miscellaneous

Anything that pays me to be playing guitar falls under one of the gig categories. Performances, rehearsals, recording sessions, etc. Additionally, I separate my gigs between non-union and union, mainly because my accountant tells me to (taxes are withheld from my union paychecks), but it also gives me a good understanding of where I make more money. Currently, that’d be non-union gigs.

My recorded music income is essentially anything I make from my distributor: CD and download sales, streams, ringtones and whatever other formats exist today.

Royalty income is earned through BMI. There are other avenues to earn royalties, but for now, I’m only earning money through BMI. This income is also reported in a separate space on my tax return, so I keep strict records for my accountant.

The miscellaneous category covers a lot of ground, but none of it is significant or regular enough to warrant tracking under it’s own category. Some of this income includes:

  • Licensing
  • Commissions
  • Teaching lessons/masterclasses/clinics
  • Revenue from websites (MusicianWages and my own)
  • Transcriptions/charts
  • Arranging/orchestrating
  • Backend earnings that don’t qualify as royalties

Broad Categories for Musician Income

Dave Hahn and I have often discussed musician income in two broad categories: Active/Passive and Yours/Others. Naturally, I think of my earnings in this way as well.

Active Income / Passive Income

Active Income, also known as Earned Income, is a finite amount of money paid for specific time or services. Everything under the Gig categories and about half of the jobs under Miscellaneous count as Active Income. Every month I try to make sure there are enough jobs that create Active Income to at least cover my expenses.

Passive Income is the money I make from my recorded music, royalties, website revenue, and various other backend percentage agreements. I usually have an idea of about how much Passive Income I’ll earn each month, but experience tells me that you can’t count on the check arriving before rent is due. Nonetheless, this money is vital in rounding out my income, especially when there are holes in my calendar for Active Income jobs.

Your Music / Other People’s Music

This broad category is pretty easy to understand:

Your Music is basically anything you create as an artist or songwriter. If you have your own original band and play shows and sell CDs, then you’re making money from your own music.

Everything else is Other People’s Music. If you work as a sideman, play in a cover band, in a church, in musical theatre, teach, or any other type of musician job we’ve ever discussed on this site that you can’t call your own music, then you’re making money from other people’s music.

How My Streams of Income Have Changed

Creating Passive Income with my Original Music

In 2007 I was working a full time job at a major record label, a job I’d somewhat fallen into through temp work a couple years earlier. Meanwhile I was playing a few times a month with my own jazz trio, performing mostly original music from an album I’d independently released earlier in the year.

The day job helped me cover rent and bills, which freed up most of my music income to be reinvested. In other words, I could use my music income for things like paying my band, saving up to make a new album, or buying new gear–all things I felt would have long term benefits to my career as a musician. I was my own patron, supporting myself as my art developed.

At this time, most of my music income came from music sales, and most of that was through iTunes. You see, for a brief period of time I figured out a way to use iMixes in the iTunes Store to help people discover my music. I started making enough money that in early 2008 I quit my day job and took a pay cut to become a full time musician.

Because I was making most of my money as passive income with my own music, the logical thing to do was create more content–or write and record more music. In 2008 and 2009 I wrote and recorded a new album for my trio while also creating several DIY albums with friends under various monikers. I figured each recording was a new asset that could potentially earn more passive income down the road. And for a time it did.

By the end of 2009, however, it was clear that the decline in music sales that had been decimating record stores since 2001 was finally catching up to the small, independent artist and DIY scene that had gained some footing a few years earlier. Despite having three times as many albums (for a total of nine) available on iTunes and other online stores, my distributor was paying me a quarter of what I had been making on average the year before. It’s even less today, and unless I wanted to get a day job again, I needed to beef up my other streams of income.

Generating Active Income with Other People’s Music

Having worked for a record label, I knew that a decline in my record sales was inevitable. Once I quit my day job, I had a lot more time to start playing with other people. I began networking with other musicians and gradually started playing as a sideman.

Playing other people’s music is a much different gig than playing your own music.

When you write and perform your own music, it’s easy to cater to your strengths. When your job is to play other people’s music, you really can’t have any weaknesses.

To become a well rounded guitarist, I started transcribing players from all genres, especially genres in which I had less experience, like country. Gradually I felt confident copping the styles of many major guitarists. You never know when the person hiring you will ask for a David Gilmour lick in one song and a Vince Gill lick in another. You don’t have to play like every guitarist all the time, but you have to convincingly play like any guitarist some of the time.

I also had to think about earning active income, which meant playing a lot more gigs. One of my goals was to play 100 shows in a year, and doing whatever was necessary to make that happen.

In New York City, original bands play about once a month locally, more if they tour. Cover bands might play once or twice a week. Broadway and Off-Broadway shows run 8 times a week, and as a sub you can usually count on at least a few gigs a month. In order to reach 100 shows, it was clear I needed to play a lot of different gigs as a sideman.

This was a lot easier to do without a day job. Learning music can be a full time job in itself, and for every band you play with you can expect at least one rehearsal each month. Networking also takes time. I spent many late nights going to friends shows trying to meet other musicians.

Eventually I began playing with singer/songwriters, rock bands, pop singers, a bluegrass band, jazz vocalists, and occasionally playing private events and club dates. At first I didn’t ask for much money, but as I got busier it was easier to value my time. I found that if a gig wasn’t paying much, and especially if I wasn’t that into the music, it was best to walk away amicably because a better gig was always around the corner.

In 2012 I’m on pace to play about 125 shows. The active income I’ll earn from playing other people’s music this year will more than make up for passive income I’ve stopped earning with my own music.

Nurturing the Odd Jobs

Along with playing and recording, there are many types of musician jobs to supplement your income. These jobs help round out your days and can often get you through sales droughts and slow months for gigs.

The first job that comes to mind is teaching private lessons. Now, for many musicians, this is actually their main gig. I enjoy teaching motivated students, but for the most part I never have more than a couple weekly students at a time. Most of the time I’ll teach a few lessons to intermediate to advanced level students that want to work on something very specific. I’ve attracted many of my students by posting semi-regular free guitar lessons on my website. Currently I have one Skype student and one local student.

Other services I offer include recording demo tracks for songwriters, writing easy to read charts for bands, and arranging horn or string parts. These are all active income jobs.

Although recorded music sales are dwindling, there is still money to be made from recordings. Licensing your music is an incredibly viable way to keep some passive income flowing. I’ve delivered most of my music to various music libraries and fostered relationships with people in music supervision. The music I’ve recorded so far has been licensed more and more frequently, and I’m also earning quarterly royalty checks through BMI. The big money, however, is in exclusive custom jobs, and I’ve submitted several demos for commercials. I haven’t landed anything yet, but eventually I will.

I also earn some money through my websites. MusicianWages.com was created as a passion, but Dave and I have built it up to a point where we can make a little bit of money each month.

Looking Ahead

There are limitations to the work I’m doing now, and I’m constantly thinking of solutions.

There’s only one Friday and Saturday night a week, and as I get busier I get more calls to play those nights. Eventually some of those bands are going to have to replace me with somebody that’s more available. The only way to make more money is to land gigs that pay more. These gigs are higher pressure and have more competition, so I try to play all of my current gigs as perfectly as possible. You never know who’s listening. I sometimes tell people who ask me about my career that I’m no rockstar, but if a rockstar called and needed me for a tour, I could get the job done.

Another option is to find gigs earlier in the week. Most of these gigs pay less, with the notable exceptions of tours and Broadway gigs. This year I started subbing on a couple shows off Broadway, including the revival of Rent, and I believe I’m well equipped to play more of these highly competitive gigs.

I also see the importance of writing music. All kinds of music. Publishing is still a viable source of income for musicians, and if you have a writer credit on a few successful songs, you can make decent money. I try to write something every day–even if it’s just four bars of melody–and am always open to collaborate with other musicians.

And finally, I’d like to keep developing my own music and create art for the sake of art. After all, that’s the reason I started playing music in the first place!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the music industry, it’s that these days nothing stays the same for long. Multiple streams of income makes it easier to adapt. Owning the rights to my albums means I can exploit them however I see fit in the future. Playing a lot of gigs with a lot of different bands prepares me for bigger, higher paying gigs. If any of these miscellaneous jobs turn into a bigger gig, I’ll be prepared for that, too. I can’t control when opportunity will knock, but I know I’ll be ready.

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.

Intro

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:

Ringtones.

Ringtones?

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 – Myxer.com.  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 Songwriter.fm). 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.

Conclusion

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?

Musicians and the Public Image

Is it just me or have you ever noticed that musicians are consistently portrayed by the advertising media as losers, homeless, broke, druggies, alcoholics or just plain simpletons? From my perspective, I am not only offended by this but enraged enough to try to raise consciousness about this entire subject.

Are some musicians druggies and alcoholics? Yes, but so are some lawyers and doctors.

There are very few harder working and dedicated professionals than those working in the music business. It’s important to differentiate between the star market and the professional market. I’m talking about the people who have dedicated a substantial part of their life mastering their craft. I’m not looking at many stars whose success is solely based on appearance and image. And as it stands today, we now have to handle music, promotion, booking, brand building, creativity, performance and a host of other tasks.

The profession of music requires the same hard work that success in any business demands. It is an entrepreneurial industry in which we have to generate the product and the means by which it’s sold.

Let’s make the marketplace aware of the fact that musicians are successful people who have incomes, homes, cars, investments and can put their kids through college.

Not every one is a “success”. Every profession in the world has its share of “failure”. Musicians in general love their work and that’s more than I can say about most people I meet who dread going to work and would quit their job in a heart beat if they could.

Let’s try to create a more accurate picture of the profession of music in the public at large.

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!

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!

Why You Should Build An App

I went to a dinner party the other night. At the table were a whole collection of fascinating people. One person had helped build Facebook, two worked at Goldman Sachs, one lady worked in environmental conservation at the Bronx Zoo.

There was one guy there who worked for Bloomberg.

Bloomberg is the namesake of our billionaire mayor here in NYC, Michael Bloomberg. He founded the company with a few of his friends in 1981 and it’s now worth an estimated $6.9 billion.

Bloomberg’s main business is selling big, expensive terminals to financial companies and organizations. The terminals show the traders information about the market and if the traders know how to interpret the information correctly they can use it to make a lot of money. It costs about $1,500 a month to have a terminal.

But, actually, I didn’t know about the terminals. I know Bloomberg as a news organization. They provide financial news through their TV station, radio station, website and newspaper.

My dinner party friend told me an interesting anecdote about Bloomberg. When they first built the terminals they found that the traders needed not just financial information about the market – they also needed to know about what was happening in the world that might affect the markets. Bloomberg originally outsourced it’s reporting to the Associated Press, but eventually the news feature of their terminal became so important that the prospect of a strike or other disruption from the AP became too much of a risk to their business. So they decided to do the reporting themselves – and Bloomberg’s media empire began.

Here’s the thing, though – the Bloomberg media outlets actually lose money for the company. The TV station, the newspaper – they’ve never made any money. It’s a kind of symbiotic relationship between the two sectors of the company – the terminals need a reliable news source and the news source needs money.

The Future of Journalism

That’s a remarkable model for monetizing content, isn’t it? Both elements are central to the product – the terminal and the content – but they aren’t valuable unless they are combined together.

I think this is the model for the future of journalism. Companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook increasingly need a steady flow of news, human interest stories, investigative reporting, reviews and other kinds of old-fashioned journalism to feed the huge numbers of people that voraciously eat this content on their sites every day.

Google, Facebook and Twitter, however, don’t pay for this content. Google finds it and reposts it on their news feed, users post it themselves on Twitter and Facebook. Google and Facebook, if not Twitter, are making a lot of money off this kind of content usage, and none of it is finding it’s way back to the newspaper’s where the content originated. It’s not the case that news doesn’t make money today – it’s just that the money is being rapidly redistributed away from the news companies that make it.

So eventually the newspapers will go out of business. But then Twitter, Google and Facebook won’t have the same quality of content. Then they’ll have to start creating it themselves – just like Bloomberg had to do.

Sure, you could argue that this content can all be crowd-sourced from people’s blogs, celebrity tweets and iPhone videos. I think there will be some of that, but you’ll never convince me that all of our news and content will be entirely crowd-sourced in the future. There will always be an educated, professional group of content-creators that run the highest levels of the business.

This same phenomenon is already happening in the music business. Apple’s best revenue-producing product isn’t music in the iTunes store – it’s the products that play that music, like the iPhone, the iPod, the iPad, etc.

But you and I can’t make our own iPod and sell it to fans. So what’s the indie artist to do?

Bundling in the Music Business

Embedding your music in another product – a mobile app, for example – is going to be the way to sell music in the future.

Consider this article, published just 5 months ago in the New York Times. It highlights the major labels’ mad dash to get into the mobile app market. Bjork new album will be a collection of apps rather than a list of songs. UMG is creating an app for Nirvana’s “Nevermind”.

They aren’t the first – this has been happening for several years. Mobbase.com is a company based on (nearly) this business model.

And it makes sense. Just last month news surfaced that Apple has now sold more apps than song downloads – even though iTunes had a nearly 4 year head start on the App Store.

But major labels are as greedy today as they were 20 years ago. I’ll believe they’ll create bloated apps that require too much of their users – apps loaded with Facebook “Likes”, “Tweet this” buttons and “Sign up for our spamletter” prompts. They’ll track users clicks, analyze their preferences and deliver personalized and invasive advertising.

Forget the major labels – we should all be doing this in the indie market for our own music. Remember? We don’t need the major labels anymore – isn’t that what the interet gave us?

Make Your Own App

Think about it – let’s say you record your new album on your own computer at home. Let’s even say that you have the album professionally mastered and that costs you $1,500.

See also: Creating a Budget for Your New Album

According to OSXDaily.com, a simple iPhone app probably costs between $3,000 and $8,000 to develop. Let’s pretend you go on Elance or Odesk and you get someone to do it for $3,500. Add that to the cost of the mastering and you’ve spent $5,000.

$5k isn’t that bad. It’s used to cost more than $5k just to make an album. (And, actually, if you were creative I don’t think you’d have to spend that much.)

Let’s say your music is totally great and the app is really fun and you have average success selling your app in the App Store. According to a 2010 article in TechCrunch, even average selling apps were moving 44 units every day. If you made $1 on every sale – you could break even in 4 months and bring in an extra $1,320 a month thereafter. Not terrible for an indie release – and imagine the potential revenue if you were lucky enough that your app became popular.

My App

I’ve always said that I never give theoretical advice on this site. I never tell people to do things that didn’t work for me personally or that I would never try myself.

I started developing my app yesterday. If it’s a failure and I lose a bunch of money I’ll take down this article. If it works I’ll tell you about it.

So you can wait to hear from me or you can get started. Which will you do?

Top Ten People Who Should Definitely NOT Join the Army Band

This is the season of chilled beer and barbecued hot dogs, where grown men lounge in kiddie pools while small children launch bottle rockets at each other. Freedom and apple pie scent the air, while the Stars and Stripes fly proudly over many a green lawn. Hearts burst with pride over all things American, and people flock down to the local recruiter’s office hoping to meet Uncle Sam himself. In this spirit of patriotism, brotherhood, buffalo wings and “The Wal-Mart” I bring to you:

“Josh’s Super Deluxe All-American Top Ten List of People Who Should Definitely NOT Join the Army Band”

When I volunteered to write for MusicianWages.com I had one goal. To help interested folks make an informed decision before enlisting. Part of that goal involves steering away people who would not fit, and would make themselves (and everyone around them) miserable, by joining. This list is dedicated to you.

10. Drug Addicts.

Addict is a strong word, maybe I should have said “folks who enjoy inhaling from time to time, and don’t plan on quitting”. You may think this is obvious, but I was recently reading comments on a blog about cruise ship musicians (cruise ships like the military require drug tests) and was amazed at people’s questions. ie; “My friends and I all like to smoke marijuana, what happens if we fail the drug test?” or “I haven’t smoked pot in 6 days, do you think I’ll pass the test?”

Without divulging too much personal history, I’ll just say I understand the allure of certain illegal recreational activities. But if you want this gig (or any other that does drug testing) you need to ask yourself one question; What’s more important, getting high or getting the gig? If you’d rather go get stoned, the Army Band is not going to be a good fit.

9. Folks who fear exercise.

You will exercise… daily. If your idea of an “epic workout” involves struggling for breath after eating an entire pizza from the fetal position, you will not like this job. Now I’m not saying you need to be a fitness monster who climbs mountains and runs marathons. But you do need to be prepared for a moderate amount of fitness. And there is plenty of exercise in Basic Training. So if you are allergic to breaking a sweat, don’t join.

8. People who hate authority.

This is the Army. No matter how high on the food chain you go, there will always be someone higher up, telling you what to do. All the way up to the President, and he gets bossed around by the tax payers. In fact, if you can’t handle being told what to do you may have a difficult time with most non-Army jobs as well. Maybe… you should get a dog, grab your guitar and go play under the bridge.

7. People who want to be in the Army just to tell others what to do.

The polar opposite of number 8. The truth is (as much as I hate to admit it) you’ll probably be okay, but I find people like you utterly exhausting. Besides, I think one or two of you may have already snuck in… groan.

6. Elitist musical snobs.

If you’re too good to play country, or only want to play 4 hand marimba solos, or feel that anything other than 2oth century woodwind literature is beneath you. This is not your dream gig.

Being passionate about something is great. You will probably find some like-minded individuals. Or maybe you’ll introduce some friends to a style they were unfamiliar with. But the truth is you will play many different things. You may not like all of them.

Throughout US and Iraq I heard “Play some Skynyrd!” at practically every gig. Here in Europe they go crazy for “In the Mood”. So we play them all. And you will play your fair share of marches. If this sounds like a nightmare, don’t join.

5. People with a sense of entitlement.

Maybe you did mow Alanis Morissette’s grass when you were younger, or your dad’s neighbor’s dog did write a song that’s in “The Real Book”. It doesn’t matter here, we all start on equal footing. And the biggest culprits, I’m sorry to say, are my fellow college grads. I’ve known many great musicians over the course of my life. Many were formally trained with degrees, and many were not. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big advocate for furthering your education. But if your playing and knowledge can’t speak for itself, nobody will care if you have 3 Ph.D’s. And if you start waving your degrees in people’s faces to explain why you deserve more money, better treatment, and less BS than everybody else, you’ll just get under everyone’s skin.

And please, whatever you do, don’t try to explain to me why you shouldn’t have to deploy. You will instantly lose my attention and my respect. We’re a big team in this field, and everybody needs to do their share.

4. People who can’t leave home.

I grew up in a suburb of L.A. Many of the folks I went to school with are still there, trapped in some kind of invisible bubble. And there’s nothing wrong with that (LA is a serious city). But being in the Army is not bubble living. We move. If the end of your rainbow is the end of your street, you will not like this job. Every couple years (depending on how long you stay in) you will pack up and go somewhere new. Sometimes it will be better than where you’re coming from… and sometimes it won’t. But one thing is for certain, you’re going. So if you have an elderly relative to look after, or you just bought a new house and are looking to put down roots, maybe this isn’t the right job for you.

3. Lazy people who need to make a living and are content being mediocre musicians.

When I joined about 15 years ago there were a good number of seasoned band Soldiers with this mindset. They would just drink coffee, not practice and count the days until they could start drawing their retirement checks. Thankfully over the last decade-and-a-half most of these folks have been weeded out. The caliber of musician has risen, and a lot of great music is being made throughout the field. If you’re lazy and find the Army appealing because you won’t get fired, that’s fine, the Army could always use more truck drivers. Just don’t join the band.

Which leads us into number 2.

2. People who really want to be Infantrymen/Truck drivers/Tankers/etc.

I have nothing against any of the aforementioned jobs. If that’s what you’re into, go for it (although I imagine most readers of this site do not fit into this category). But please don’t join the band if you really want to be a combat medic. I don’t want to hear about how we should be spending more time in the field, or why we really need to do combatives.

I want to play music with my friends. That’s why I joined. If you’d rather be jumping in the mud than learning a new chord progression, the mud is waiting. Splash away.

And Josh’s number 1 type of folks who absolutely should not join the Army Band are:

1. Societal Misfits or as I like to call them… A**holes.

This is a small field. Nobody wants to work with a jerk. There’s a good chance if you sign up we’ll serve together. And if not with me, you’ll certainly end up with someone I know. We’re more than just coworkers, we’re friends. It’s like a big family. We eat, sleep, work, party and relax together (for a solid year if you deploy, minus the partying). We all need to get along.

So there you go. If you find yourself identifying with seven out of ten of these categories, maybe you should look elsewhere for employment.

I love my job. And I feel extremely fortunate to have found a way to make a living doing what I love. But the Army Band is not for everyone, and this blog is a testament to that.

Now if you’ll excuse me, there’s a can of spray cheese and a 6 pack of Budweiser with my name on it. “U-S-A, U-S-A!”

The Talent Myth

Robert recently asked a very insightful question in the forum. Essentially, he wonders what effect talent has on getting work as a musician in the real world.

For our purposes here, let’s define talent as a mix of natural aptitude, exhaustive training and years of practice that, when looked at objectively, distinguishes a musician as an expert. Let’s pretend that talent is a commodity that is easily quantifiable and that some musicians have more and some musicians have less.

(Even though we know that last part is not how this talent thing works. Pretend anyway.)

Do the Best Musicians Get the Best Work?

It’s a very good question. Logic would suggest that the most talented musicians would get the best work. The better you play the more people will want to hire you, right?

The validity of university music programs – especially the ones that focus their curriculum exclusively on performance and completely ignore business, entrepreneurship, or career-building – seems to be predicated on this talent myth. Become the best and you’ll succeed. Why else would you pay $100,000 for a fancy conservatory education?

But we all know the truth. We’ve all seen overwhelming evidence that the most talented musicians do not, necessarily, have the most success as working musicians.

How’s that fair? What’s the deal?

Yes, Talent Does Matter (To a Point)

To a certain point, talent is very important. If a musician doesn’t learn or perform music at a very high level, they will never make it as a professional musician. They will perform poorly at gigs and employers won’t call twice. Eventually it will become clear that this career is not for them and they’ll find another path to follow. It happens all the time.

So who are we left with? The best of the best. A pool of really talented musicians who can play anything you put in front of them.

So yes, to get to this level as a professional musician talent does matter.

An Abundance of Talent

However, it’s at this point that talent becomes such an abundant resource that having a tiny bit more or a tiny bit less of it doesn’t have a pronounced effect on a musician’s career. Put another way – when everyone is talented it becomes nearly impossible to distinguish yourself among the crowd based solely on this marker alone.

Employers may say that they are hiring you because you are the best, but you shouldn’t believe them. At the highest levels of the business, talent is simply not the reason that one musicians gets hired over another.

Distinguishable Traits

Here are some characteristics that employers look for when hiring musicians:

  1. Punctuality – Musicians who miss gigs or consistently show up late don’t get called again. Why would you hire someone you can’t trust when there are plenty of musicians that you can?
  2. Sight-reading – Musicians that sight-read well require less rehearsal time, and less rehearsal time means the employers save money. What is more attractive to an employer than the ability to save time and money while still maintaining the level of quality they require? That sounds awesome. Wouldn’t you want a great sight-reader if you were an employer?
  3. Sociability – Meaning, the ability and willingness to engage in activities and conversation with other people. Would you rather work with someone who’s nice or someone who’s a jerk? Easy question.
  4. Consistency – Professional musicians bring the same energy and accuracy to every performance. Employers value that quality.
  5. Flexibility – Which would you prefer – a musician that complains or resists every time something changes, or someone that rolls with the punches? Another easy question.

There are probably a hundred others. Also check out Cam’s article, 5 Traits of a Professional Musician.

These are the qualities that define a successful musician. These are the qualities that give one professional musician an advantage over another professional musician in the uber-talented, saturated freelance market.

When I meet new musicians looking for work, these are the qualities that I look for, well before I even care to hear them play.

There are two reasons for this: first, I assume that if they are working consistently at a professional level they must be talented, right?

And second, I know that even if they can play circles around other musicians, I won’t want to work with them unless they exhibit these crucial characteristics.

A Real-World Example

Here’s a real world story – I recently started subbing on a Broadway show. For me, this is my 2nd Broadway show.

The people that hired me to play keyboards on this show had never, not once, heard me play a single note before I played an actual, live performance of this Broadway show.

I had worked with them in a non-performance capacity several months ago. We got along great. I liked them, they liked me – and we established trust on the characteristics described above. And now, because I’m already playing on another Broadway show, they assumed I must be talented enough for the job, so they asked me to play.

There is virtually no way to argue that I landed this job based solely on my level of talent – and this is a great example of how the real world works.

To be successful as a working musician it’s first important to establish yourself as part of the pool of talented professionals, then distinguish yourself among the competition with secondary characteristics that are important to your potential employers.

What other characteristics are important for working musicians? Leave a comment below.

And Robert – thanks for reading the site and putting your question the forum! If anyone else would like to give Robert an answer, visit the original post.

How To Actually Make $50,000 a Year As a Musician

One of the reasons we started MusicianWages.com was because of the huge reservoir of unqualified career advice that was being served to musicians online.

I usually keep quiet about the charlatanry tips I find online, but I just can’t pass this one up. It displays the characteristics of bad career advice so acutely that I just have to point it out.

The Busking Alchemist

This article dropped onto my reading list this past weekend.

Want To Make $50,000 a Year In Music? Start With One Dollar a Day.

There’s a pair of sentences early in this article that are particularly telling. One of the things that mystifies me about this article is why it continues after this:

How does a musician make money? Honestly, I don’t know for certain.

The article goes on to explain how daily busking, YouTube videos, Adsense ads and CD sales could net a musician $5 to $10 a day and ends with the epitaph:

What else? Do you have ideas on what can generate money on a daily basis? I think my ideas above could get an artist up to $10,000 a year. What would push it to $50,000?

The difference between $10k and $50k is a BIG difference – especially when you’re already spending 7 days a week busking on the street for $5. I can’t imagine how anyone would turn that janky business model into a $50k/year career.

Telling musicians to busk 365 days a year is terrible career advice, but the inconsistencies in the article (namely, the huge discrepancy between the title and the content) are not really my point here.

Bad Advice

Every day my RSS reader gives me pages and pages of what I think is lousy advice and useless data. What is the deal?

Here’s what I think. For about 100 years there was this economic bubble in the musician industry. We called it the “Recording Industry” and it made a ton of money. Some people made money hand-over-fist. (Most of that money, though, went to the people that ran the business and not to the musicians, but that’s another story.)

The problem was that the whole industry was dependent on a closed distribution system built on limited technology. Eventually some smart people created a way to circumvent that distribution route with computers and the whole house of cards collapsed.

100 years. It’s really not that long. Humans have been on Earth for about a half a million years, so the record industry era represented just a tiny percentage of our history. Beethoven made a living as a musician, as did many of the musicians that played in his orchestras and operas. They never sold a record. So what’s the big deal?

I think the 100 years of the record industry created a set of unrealistic expectations and entitlements in the musician business, and we’re still having trouble getting past it. Selling recorded music used to make a lot of money – quickly – and we want it back. When we can’t get it back we try make up substitute business models that might bring in quick money just as easily.

So what kind of content do we see being served to musicians these days? Articles about the collapse of our beloved recording industry. Articles claiming to give advice on how to make quick money again. Articles about mega-stars that are still making quick money.

It’s all nonsense.

Good Advice

You know how you make money as a musician? The same way everyone else makes money – get a job and go to work. Or start a business and make it grow.

There are plenty of jobs in the musician business – at schools, tours, churches, theaters, the military – we talk about them all the time here at MusicianWages.com.

Can’t find a job where you are? Move to a place where you can find work. You don’t see fishermen complaining that they can’t find a job in Oklahoma.

Musicians start businesses all the time – your private studio is a business. Your band is a business. Your solo career is a business. Make it grow and expect it to be difficult.

That’s good advice.

How to Really Make $50,000 a Year

  1. Get a church job (3 services a week @ $100/service) = $15,600
  2. Start a teaching studio (12 students @ $50/lesson) = $31,200
  3. Play background music once a month (@ $250/gig) = $3,000
  4. Play in a band twice a month (@ $50/gig) = $1,200

That’s $51k a year. That’s how it’s really done.

EDIT: Note that this is only one of the many, many different combinations of gigs that could bring in $50k/year for a musician. I have to say this because so many of the comments below fixate on the validity of these numbers. These numbers are real – this is actually how much money I’ve made on these specific gigs in the past.

But, look, it doesn’t matter – make up your different numbers if you’d like. Don’t teach that many students. Supplement your income with more performances – whatever. Again, there are a lot of ways to get to $50k and these exact numbers are not the point. – April 11, 2011

What the Economic Recovery Means for Musicians

Two years ago, I wrote an article about finding work in the midst of the recession. Part of the advice I gave was to focus on building clients at schools and churches, as they seemed to be the only institutions surviving the financial crisis.

It’s time for some new advice.

Now, certainly, I’m no economist. I took one, required, econ class in my whole life and I spent most of it looking pretty glassy-eyed. I can only tell you what I’m seeing in my own career and you can tell me in the comments below if you are seeing the same.

The Five Employers of Musicians

There are 5 basic employers for musicians.

  1. For-profits (i.e. corporate gigs, cruise ships)
  2. Non-profits (ballets, symphonies)
  3. Individuals (weddings, parties)
  4. Education (schools, universities)
  5. Churches/synagogues

As soon as the recession hit in 2007 (it came early in the arts), the first three on that list took a big hit. In 2008 I was working a sweet guest performer gig on a big ‘ol cruise ship in Hawaii. Then one day the act got canned and replaced by a juggler. They said one juggler was cheaper than the seven of us. That’s showbiz for you.

Once the recession came in earnest in 2008 non-profits in the arts started closing up shop. Famous theaters from California to Akron to New York closed their doors for good between 2008 and 2010. Nearly every symphony orchestra in the country took a pay cut, including untouchables like the Chicago Symphony and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. The Honolulu Symphony folded altogether and the Charleston Symphony was nearly turned into a community band. Eleven Broadway shows closed in late 2008, taking 150 musician jobs with them.

It got pretty ugly. I’m sure you remember.

Run and Hide

Many of us, myself included, retreated into academics and churches. They seemed to be the only organizations hiring musicians at the time. Before the recession hit I’d never played a church organ in my life, but when a church gig opened up in the Bronx in 2008 – you bet I learned!

I also landed an accompanying gig at NYU. It was a great gig and NYU – a university as big as a municipality – seemed too large to be impacted by the recession.

As I said, I’m no economist.

In late 2009 it was clear that universities were losing the value of their endowments at an alarming rate. Eventually this loss of equity began to impact the number of accompanist positions as well. See? Trickle down works.

Churches held on much longer, but eventually they have also felt the hit. The Archdiocese of New York recently announced the closing of 32 schools, and a list of church closings is bound to follow.

The Recovery

The end of the recession was announced last year by people smarter than me, so I suppose we should believe them. The guys on Wall Street are certainly back to making money.

Economic indicators, like the recent increase in consumer confidence, seem to suggest that we’re in the middle of the recovery, even if unemployment is still at 9%. Obama is prodding the private sector to start hiring again (they’ll need to make up for all the public sector jobs that are about to be liquidated with the new budget…).

Predictions

So what does this mean for working musicians? Here’s my updated advice:

  • With the slash in the federal budget that’s almost certainly going to come out of our new congress, I suspect we’ll see more cuts to arts funding in public schools. Couple that with the school closings that churches are facing, and we have a looming arts education crisis.

    My prediction, though, is that the private sector will take up (some of) the slack here. If schools decrease or lose their arts programs, after-school programs, arts camps and private teachers will see an increase in business. In my work I’ve already seen an increase in teaching gigs for these kinds of supplemental arts education programs.

  • Did you see that consumer confidence is at a three-year high? Christmas sales at the big retailers did pretty well, too. That’s good for us.

    For this reason, and the one I just mentioned above, now is the time to start building your teaching studio back up to where it was before the recession. Read our article on starting your teaching business. Greg wrote some great advice in that article, and I suspect your hard work will get more traction this year than it did in the last 3 years.

  • Remember the 5 employers I mentioned above? I think the first 3 are starting to come back (for-profits, non-profits and individuals). Here’s the thing though – they are coming back, but different.

    My grandparents lived through the Great Depression. Like many that lived through that time, they had an amazing talent for saving money and planning for the future. Their lives were forever colored by the difficulties of the Great Depression.

    The Great Recession has taught our generation lessons as well (topics like: What is a subprime mortgage and how can it ruin your life?). I think the post-Recession costumer is going to be more savvy and receptive to added value.

    So whatever your product is – your new album, lessons, a new concert series, etc. – I think you’ll get a lot more interest if you are able to raise it’s perceived worth with some kind of incentive. Try quantity discounts, hand-made packaging or access to members only content – or maybe something no one has thought of yet?

  • I think jobs with for-profit corporations are on their way back. Cruise gigs, tours, corporate gigs – I can’t prove it, but I think we’ll slowly see these gigs creep back into our lives over the next two years (right in time for the 2012 elections, how about that?). I know that I’ve started to get calls for the kinds of gigs I thought had gone extinct entirely: concerts, tours, new musicals, etc.

  • The arts were one of the first sectors of the economy hit by the recession, and I think we’ll be one of the last to recover. I can’t help but feel that non-profits will take the longest to recover, as they are privy to the financial support, and whims, of both private and public funding.

    May the NEA and it’s (soon to be cut) budget save our ballets, symphonies and operas. Amen.

There’s Still a Long Way To Go

Again, the arts will be one of the last industries to recover fully, so while I think we can feel positive about our future – I know we’ll also have to wait patiently for it’s arrival.

I do think, though, that we should be using this time to build our businesses, careers and brands so that when the recovery does finally hit us – we’re ready to ride it as far as it will take us.