At a recent workshop I was asked just how a person could actually make a living playing music in today’s world. It’s not an easy profession after all. I thought about this for quite awhile before coming up with what seems to be the key word: diversity.
Young players -- i.e. players in their late teens and twenties -- are generally so happy to be actually getting paid for playing music -- touring, gigging, meeting people -- that the amount of money really isn't the main consideration. Not yet, anyway. Younger players probably haven't yet bitten off a mortgage payment or begun a family, so crashing on people's floors, a diet of Taco Bell and 7-nights-a-week in bars are not only tolerable but actually pretty damn exciting.
But we all DO get older and a revenue stream 100% derived from gigs can be very dicey. What if you get the flu? What if a club goes belly-up? What if you need medical insurance? There had to be a better way.... So a few decades ago I looked around at other more successful players in my genre and noticed something: they all had other music-oriented sources of income, in addition to gigs. The key seemed to be in diversity.
So how can a musician diversify and create some additional musical revenue streams? Here are a few ideas:
1) CDs. Yes, to an extent the "record business" is dead. But CDs, even with abysmal sales compared to yesteryear, can still be a small source of income. The more CDs you can get out there -- all of them theoretically earning small royalties -- the better. And don’t be afraid to give away free copies to producers, studios, engineers, scorers, agents, songwriters and anybody else you think might possibly help your career in some way. Just be polite and humble when you do it; if you come off like a jerk, they’ll never listen to it.
2) Write songs and keep your publishing rights. Start your own publishing company and register it with BMI or ASCAP. Another small revenue stream if you record them yourself -- and if somebody big covers one of your songs: ching, ching, ching.
3) Record as a sideman on other people's records. Make yourself available and do every session offered. When you play a new studio, discretely drop off a business card with the engineer -- it might lead to another session down the road.
4) Commercials for radio and TV pay residuals every time the commercial airs. But how do you get the work? Let’s say you have an idea for the perfect Budweiser Beer jingle. First you have to do a bit of research and find out which advertising agency handles the Bud account. Then write the ad agency and ask for permission to send a demo. (If you just submit the demo without permission, it will be returned unopened. Agencies do this as a matter of course in order to avoid possible copyright infringement lawsuits down the road.) If you are granted permission, record a demo, send it and keep your fingers crossed. Repeat until successful.
5) Playing on soundtracks to films and TV shows can be very lucrative --even more lucrative if you write the stuff you play. But you’ll probably have to live in NY, LA, Nashville or London to get much of this sort of work.
6) Teach. Take on an occasional student. You may think you can’t do it, but you can.
7) Double. If you can find the time to learn another instrument in addition to harp, your income will jump exponentially. And don't be afraid to sing -- even the froggiest voice can be developed and/or have charm (witness a couple of my heroes in John Prine and Bob Dylan.)
8) Books. Sure there are already over 100 harmonica oriented titles available, but so what? Ever notice how many different kinds of peanut butter there are on a supermarket shelf? Everyone has a different point of view and your's just might be the one that resonates with a lot of folks. Books are like CDs -- the more you have in print -- all earning small royalties -- the better.
9) Have no shame. If the gig pays, take it -- even if it's a wedding or a Bar Mitzvah or something else you consider "beneath your dignity." Take it anyway. Their money's green. And there’s no need to worry that you're "embarrassing yourself" if another musician sees you, because if they're a pro, they're playing gigs like that, too.
10) Assuming it's a cause you believe in, play the big benefit shows even if they don't pay at all. Not only will you feel better about yourself, but also it's amazing how many good (i.e. good paying) gigs can sprout from the exposure.
11) Join the Musician’s Union. It’s well worth the expense.
12) Keep your overhead low. If you truly want to be a working musician, chances are you can't afford that yacht, that trip to Tahiti or that cocaine habit.
13) Try to get endorsement deals. If you use Elixer Strings or Hohner harps or Pro-Mark drumsticks, drop them a letter and ask. It’s worth a stamp?
14) Take advantage of today's technology. These days with ProTools, it's possible to overdub a part on somebody's CD with a simple exchange of Emails. With Skype you can give an hour lesson over the phone for free.
15) Set up a web site and don't be afraid to publicize it.
16) Never give up your dream -- you only live once (I think?) and you don't want to be an old geezer in a nursing home looking back on your life with a lot of "shouldda, wouldda, coulddas."
Now then. Apologies for the pedantic attitude of this column. I honestly don't mean to sound like a schoolmarm but I thought I'd pass along a few tips that have enabled me to do what I love all my life. Thanks for the opportunity.
Best wishes to all and keep harpin',
Born in Los Angeles on Sonny Terry's birthday (October 24,) Tom Ball began playing guitar at the age of eleven and took up harmonica three years later. A teenage member of the Yerba Buena Blues Band in the mid-1960's, he played Love-Ins and Sunset Strip nightclubs before leaving the country for most of the '70s. In 1979 he came back to the U.S. and teamed up with guitarist Kenny Sultan -- a partnership that still flourishes today and has resulted in eight duo CDs (most with Flying Fish/Rounder) and countless concerts, festivals and tours all over the world.
In addition to working with Sultan, Tom has also performed and sung on scores of TV shows, films and commercials, has appeared as a sideman on nearly 200 CD releases, recorded three solo guitar CDs and written five instructional books and a couple of novels.
The Tom Ball & Kenny Sultan duo has appeared on television internationally, played for audiences of 300 million via Voice Of America, were featured on the "Levi's 501 Blues" commercials and are frequent guests of National Public Radio. Their music from the film "Over The Edge" won them the prestigeous Telly Award in 1994, and they were the only musical act in America to play all four venues of the 1984 Olympic Games.
It's not hard to see why Tom Ball has been on the cover of both the American Harmonica Newsmagazine and Harmonica World, why Blues Revue called his playing "stupendous," and why Sound Choice wrote, "The best acoustic blues act going, bar none!"
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