I’ve been a professional musician now for getting on for a quarter of a century. In that time I’ve done many things to earn a living from my craft. I’ve played in rock bands, cabaret bands, country & western acts, and all manner of live music ventures. I did earn some income from this work, but it was patchy and not at all what you’d call consistent.
None of these gigs were able to provide me with a reliable method of paying the bills. The trouble is that on any live music circuit, anywhere in the world, there will always be a strong contingent of people who play as a leisure pursuit. Most bands on the ‘professional’ circuit where I live are made up of musicians who have day jobs and can afford to ply their musical trade for little or no reward, (other than the enjoyment of standing on their hind legs, in front of an audience and being a rock star for the night). If you can just about cover your costs or even lose a little money on every gig you have a wonderfully engaging hobby which costs you very little. Nothing wrong with that, per se, (it was my pathway into the world of music, after all), but it does make it nigh-on impossible for anyone like myself trying to make an honest living.
I found out pretty quickly that the most consistent source of income from music was to teach, so that’s what I’ve been doing for over 20 years now. I teach guitar and music theory to private students and occasionally in schools. Alongside this I also write and record my own original music with the hope that one day I could turn this into a revenue stream.
The general feedback I get when people hear my music is overwhelmingly positive. The original tunes I post on Soundcloud, YouTube and the various message boards I frequent always get lauded with compliments and praise. So what’s the problem…?
Well, it seems that while people enjoy my art, it is completely impossible to sell it to anyone. It’s the age-old ‘catch 22’ scenario: I try to get a publisher interested, and the first thing they want to know is “What are your sales figures like?” Erm… if it was selling, why would I need a publisher? I try to get radio airplay and I get asked which record label I’m signed to. If I was a signed artist, I wouldn’t be looking for the kind of exposure (like radio airplay) needed to get a label interested. Yes, there are online stations specialising in unsigned acts, but does anyone actually listen to those? And while it is possible to set up your own label, this is little more than an exercise in vanity publishing unless you have the resources to market your wares in a way that competes with the “big boys”.
Another piece of sage advice given to any aspiring professional musician is to build a following by getting out and doing some gigs. Let me tell you what would happen if I were to call any of the local music venues and pitch an evening of original, instrumental, jazz. I doubt if I’d get to the end of my pitch before finding I was speaking to the dial tone. The three words which would get the phone put down on me would be “original” “instrumental” and, above all, “jazz”. It’s tricky enough trying to get gigs when you play familiar, sing along covers. For my kind of music, it’s like trying to sell real ale at a temperance meeting. Scrub that option, then.
There are a multitude of online ways to share and publicise one’s music (Soundcloud, Reverb Nation etc.), but usually you’re sharing it with other performers in the same boat as yourself. It’s a marvelously supportive community, but effectively a bit of a “closed shop” in most cases. I’ve been doing the rounds of online communities like this for quite some time now, and enjoyed the wonderful reactions I got from my fellow musicians, but on a professional level, these kind of services haven’t helped me one iota. Social media… facebook etc.? See my last post on this blog for my experiences on this kind of self-promotion. Put simply… it doesn’t work.
It’s not like I want the life described in Nickelback’s “Rockstar”, I just want to earn a wage commensurate with the skilled trade that I believe my musical abilities amount to. Is that asking too much? It seems like it is. I’ll keep you posted.
If you’d like to decide for yourself whether my music is a saleable commodity, you can check it out (for free) at http://johnrobsonmusic.co.uk and if you like what you hear, you could always make an old man very happy and buy a copy… just a thought 🙂