Musicians’ Survival Guide: Part I

One of my first blog posts on this Eddie Lewis Ave. website was a short piece called Staying In the Game. In it I write briefly about weathering the slow times that are inherent in this line of work. Today I want to begin a new series on that topic. The slow times are upon us and I want to take this opportunity to add more details to that original post.

Taking Inventory

The first and most important thing to do during the slow times is to take inventory of your strengths and weaknesses. It’s time to take a step back to see what can be improved on in your musical career. It’s also the time you want to spend looking at your strengths through the eyes of your customers. You need to know what your value is in a way that will help you put your best foot forward.

Let’s look at that part of “taking inventory” first.

Finding Value and the Words to Describe It

On a recent trip to the library, Pearl read a few sentences from a business book addressing the issue of telling people what it is we do. The book said that it’s not good enough to say, “I’m a plumber…..I do what plumbers do.” For us musicians, it’s not good enough for us to say, “I’m a trumpet player….I do what trumpet players do.” No, we need to be able to say what it is that makes us different or makes us valuable to the people who hire us.

The book Pearl was reading used as an example a woman who boiled it all down into twenty-five words that she memorized. She used those same twenty-five words every time she introduced herself and also on all of her promotional materials.

The reason she pointed this out to me was because she has recognized this as a weakness in our business from the very beginning. Pearl and I are in business together now. I’m not just a freelance musician anymore. But if we cannot tell people what we do, clearly and accurately, how will we ever grow our business the way we want to? How will people ever respect what we do if they don’t even know what that is?

Pearl is right. Finding value in what I do as a musician is something I’ve had to do throughout my entire career. I have never had very impressive credentials. As I’ve written in other posts, I have not studied (long term) with any famous players. I didn’t graduate from a prestigious university (I actually haven’t graduated at all). I have never toured with a big name band. These are the credentials most successful musicians are able to use to promote themselves, but I never had that luxury. Instead, I have had to regularly step back to take inventory of my strengths as a musician, as a composer and as a teacher, so I can summarize those strengths in a way that communicates what I have to offer. It’s time for us to do that for our business as well.

I strongly encourage every musician to go through that process. It’s a big part of staying afloat in the music world. When you can put your product into words that communicate your business identity to the people who need what you have, then you are on the right track toward growing the business side of your art.

Models For Encouragement

The slow times can be emotionally straining. Taking inventory of your strengths helps you see how far you have come and gives you the confidence to continue with more of the same. Also, all of our past successes should be evaluated and used as models as we move into the slow times. This applies to every aspect of your career; practicing musical skills, rehearsals, networking, marketing, composition and arranging, book keeping (mostly for taxes), and keeping your equipment in good working condition. Whatever your successes have been in the past, use them as emotional motivators and as models for future plans.

Fixing What’s Broken

On the other side of this process of taking inventory is finding what needs to be changed and doing something about it. The slow times are the best times to give your career the makeover it needs.

The Woodshed

When there are fewer gigs, that is the perfect time to practice more. When you evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, take a really good look at what you could do better to improve your value as a musician.

One of the things I like to do is to keep a list of every tune that gets called on a jazz gig that I didn’t already know. This is something I do throughout the year, but in the slow times, I take that list and tackle each of those tunes in a way that prepares me for the following season. On the jazz side of the fence, there are so many tunes we have to know that very few of us ever learn them all. The guys I know who seem to know all the tunes are in their seventies. You can know literally a thousand jazz tunes and still get stumped two or three times on one gig, depending on who you’re working with.

On the classical side of the fence, the slow times are a wonderful time to work on my sound. If you are familiar with my teaching philosophy, you know that I believe your schedule is the one thing that effects your sound most (on a variety of levels). The most ideal practice schedule involves shorter practice sessions spread out throughout the day. The problem is that during most of the year, we don’t have time to practice all day like that. So when the slow times hit, I like to make it a point to practice all day, from early in the morning until just before bed time.

Business

Let’s face it. Most musicians have a very poor attitude about taking care of the business side of our art. There seems to be a stigma associated with trying to make a living and how any talk about money spoils the fun. Unfortunately, as with so many other things in life, the truth is actually the opposite. In my career, it has always been the guys who refuse to talk about the money who end up spoiling it for everyone.

The slow times are the best times for looking at your short comings on the business side and doing something about them.

Networking

Have you been networking enough?

Networking is an important part of being a musician. When you don’t have any gigs for the week, be certain to spend some of your typical gig nights going to jam sessions or attending the performances of other musicians. This is not just good for networking, but it’s also good to stay on top of what the other musicians are doing.

There are also other ways to network besides the old traditions. Sure, you can attend parties (or throw one yourself), but I’ve always been an introvert (and a non-drinker). So I tend to network one on one instead of in big groups like that. In most cases, this really just means keeping in touch with people with a friendly phone call or an email.

Advertising

If you run your music career like a business, ask yourself, do you invest enough time, money and effort into advertising?

It is said in business circles that advertising during slow times is far more valuable than advertising during good times. Those companies that invested heavily into advertising during economic crisis typically produced far better returns than they did during the good times. The added benefit is that they often emerged from the slow times with less competition as their competitors dropped out of the game. This is consistent with something I learned early in my career. For each slow time that you endure, you rise higher in the ranks.

What kind of advertising should musicians do?

How about getting a gig at a jazz club?

A good friend of mine who passed away only recently once told me that almost no one showed up to his performance at a local jazz club. I told him I was sorry to hear that but he told me he didn’t mind. He said that he got so many calls for gigs after he played at the club that it made it worth it for him.

There are a lot of things we can do to raise awareness of our musicianship. We can teach at jazz camps or perform in outdoor park concerts. While I do not believe in performing for free in exchange for exposure, I DO believe in taking gigs that don’t pay as much as I would normally charge if there will be some sort of publicity involved. Our Kemah Jazz Festival is a great example. The gig pays union scale….which is much less than what I would typically charge. But I play those gigs, not only because of the exposure but also for the networking opportunities.

Another way to get advertising is to do SOMETHING to get yourself in the paper (hopefully something good!). Just today I picked up a local community paper to find an article about my new Vintage Trumpet Treasures CD. We sent the paper our press release and they ran it. This kind of advertising is an important part of doing business as a musician.

The point I’m making is that, if you aren’t doing anything for advertising, then this is a great time to do something about that.

Summary

I actually didn’t mean to dig so deeply into the details for this first post in this Musicians’ Survival Kit series. I will cover some of these topics and more in far greater detail than what I have done here. For now, just take this opportunity to slow down, think about where you are in your career, and make some decisions about what you would like to do to move forward.

Also, please let me know what you think about having a series like this. What questions do you have?

And as always, I’m open to any comments you might want to share.

Thanks for reading.

  1. Again, wonderful information to be reminded of, also very encourging…….. taking inventory is key for me right now, has really helped me organize my goals and thoughts about my career! Thanks so much!
    Rick

    • Thanks Rick,

      Yeah, I know what it’s like to dig in deeper, emotionally speaking, during the slow times. And all that ever did for me was to make me lose sight of what was important.

      I used to feel the way you described in another comment, that if I wasn’t out on a gig on a weekend night, then I was doing something wrong. I used to gauge my success and failures according to how many gigs I was doing per week.

      Fortunately, I later learned that this is nothing more than ego stroking. How many gigs you play has nothing to do with how well you are doing in your career. That was a difficult lesson learned for me. I used to play as many as twelve gigs per week with the average being between five and seven. And while I was working like that, I was dirt poor! Ha! Now I have far fewer than twelve gigs per week and I am doing a lot better than I was then.

      So yeah, to me, that’s one of the things that makes this inventory thing so important. We don’t want to get side tracked by things that are not really beneficial for anyone involved.

      Anyway, thanks for writing again.

      Eddie

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