We touring musicians are in a business that is very challenging. And one of those challenges is recognizing your own worth as a musician, composer, and/or performer.
The powers that be would have us base our worth on one thing alone. How many fannys are you putting in the seats; how many recordings are you selling; how much will people pay to see you live?
These are certainly valid criteria and have their place (albeit a large one) in the equation, but consider this: Bob Dylan never sold as many records as people that recorded his songs; the Rolling Stones, for all their huge grossing tours never sold that many recordings compared to their live audience.
But that is not the only criteria. Ahmet Ertegun wanted the Rolling Stones for Atlantic Records, and Clive Davis wanted Bob Dylan to stay on Columbia Records. Why? Because they brought artistic value to the label.
Now I am not so arrogant or deluded as to compare us to these two pop icons, but I want to make this point about artistic value because our lack of commitment to and perception of it is impacting our very lives. And as artists we do have some kind of artistic value. It may not be where or what we want it to be, but it's there.
As a touring musician, we try to find gigs that will pay us well, and we usually refer to these as anchor gigs. If we draw well in one town in a state, we know we can go to that state and make all our expenses on the anchor date. Thereafter, every gig we can secure should go into the profit side of the tour.
Consequently, once we have the anchor gig, we sometimes take any gig we can find because, a) we’re out there and b) whatever we make is better than nothing.
When you play someplace that is not recognized as a venue that presents artists of your caliber, you are announcing to the world that you are with them, amongst the musicians of a lower caliber; amongst the amateurs. And I’m not talking fame here, I’m talking expertise.
We’ve all seen well meaning wannabe’s who don’t learn the craft of songwriting; who don’t learn their instrument; who don’t learn to use their voice. And they go out there year after year without ever getting any better. And wherever they are playing, if it is for money then, we do not want to play there.
A venue that keeps a certain level of expertise amongst its artists always ends up with a reputation for presenting A list talent and always ends up with a supportive group of patrons who know what they are going to get for their hard earned money. And that's where you want to aspire to play.
I have said this before to venue owners and presenters that one show with an unprepared amateur and they’ve set their series waaaay back in terms of reputation.
But the same can be said of us artists who accept gigs and pay that are not commensurate with our expertise. Play a toilet and folks are going to think that's where you belong. And many people will not come there, no matter how much they like you.
If you are really good, you can tell, people let you know and you will begin to develop a following.
Talk to the following and find out where they like to see you perform the most. And find and book those kinds of places.
Tom Rush discovered (by actually hiring a research marketing firm) that his audience wanted to go someplace nice; someplace safe; and that they wanted it to be an event. They didn’t want to go to some bar where they have to pour the booze through a strainer to keep the insects out of the drinks. (and yes, I really played a place like that coming up—but I didn’t drink the booze.)
But I digress.
Tom realized that he had to create events that his audience would want to come to and he has. He plays Boston’s Symphony Hall every Christmas Holiday Season. A lofty goal and one we should all aspire to; along with the goals of mastering your instrument, your voice, and your presentation.
Don’t take any gig, just because it’s there. Take the gigs commensurate with your talent and expertise and always strive to become a master at what you do.
The rest will take care of itself.