How Musicians Thrive in the New Economy
by guest blogger Steve Treseler
It’s no secret that making a living as a jazz musician is a tough road. The economic landscape seems bleaker than ever: streaming music royalties pay fractions of a penny, jazz venues keep closing, musicians are willing to play for free, and only 2% of the population listens to jazz.
Despite what most people tell you, it is possible to thrive as an independent musician in the new economy. And I will introduce you to a few remarkable artists who are.
The internet changed everything. Record labels are no longer gatekeepers between artists and audiences. Recording and producing music has never been cheaper. Anyone can distribute music globally, and social media allows great music to spread faster than ever before.
You don’t have to wait for a record label, publication, institution, or jazz star to pick you. You can pick yourself.
Marketing Without Selling Out
In an ideal world, great art would stand on its own and society would reward artists handsomely. Unfortunately, that’s not how our economy works.
Many musicians resist “marketing” because it makes us think of spammy ads, annoying social media posts, diluting our music for the masses, and sleazy/cheesy sales tactics. The good news is effective marketing in the new economy is none of these things.
Check out what author and marketing guru Seth Godin has to say to aspiring musicians. Do not skip this! The big ideas are at 5:41 and 9:00.
One of Seth’s mantras is “be remarkable.” Remarkable work is excellent, but more importantly, it’s worth making a remark about. Your work doesn’t have to appeal to the masses, just to a small base of rabid fans who tell their friends about it. This is distribution in the new music industry.
Networking is an essential part of any business. Effective networking is building connections with friends, colleagues, fans, and clients rooted in mutual trust and respect. Jazz is social music, so networking is usually a fun hang.
Be on the scene. Go to gigs and jam sessions. Collaborate on interesting new projects. Be generous. Stay in touch. You never know how old friends and connections can come back to support your career in the future.
The Value of Our Work
You may have seen a meme like this:
I agree with the sentiment: artists deserve to be paid more. I think our society would benefit from a dialogue about the value of art and artists. But waiting for broad societal and cultural change is not a winning business strategy.
Why do people pay for coffee and not music? It’s simple: no one wakes up with a music problem. Few people will pay $10 to download a jazz album when they can stream thousands of hours of music for free.
Who wakes up with a caffeine problem? Millions of people! That’s why people pay for coffee and not music. Coffee fulfills a known desire. (As soon as Spotify or YouTube launch a streaming coffee service, Starbucks will suffer the same fate as the record industry.)
The monetary value of your work has nothing to do with:
- How much it cost to make
- How long it took to create
- How long you were in school
- What you think you deserve
The monetary value comes from how much value it provides to other people. This is a bitter pill to swallow, but an essential step toward making a living.
Focusing on your audience does not mean you should dilute your art for the masses. (Please don’t!) You can have a successful career by connecting with a community of people who value your most authentic work.
Business strategist and author Tara Gentile says value is transformation. If you know who your audience is and how they will be transformed by your work, you can build a business.
How Can I Make It?
The first step is to spend time reflecting and brainstorming. Identify and write down:
- Your deepest passions. What challenging and fulfilling projects inspire you to jump out of bed in the morning.
- Your areas of expertise. You may not be “an expert,” but if your knowledge can help others, it provides value.
- How your work is unique. How will it stand out in a noisy world?Passion and expertise mean you have a hobby. If you want to get paid for your work, you need to take another essential step. This is your challenge: how can you align your core passions with work that solves problems or satisfies desires for other people. If you can do this in a way that inspires your fans or clients to tell their friends, you win.This type of reflection isn’t just for musicians. It helps business owners, freelancers, and entrepreneurs succeed in a myriad of industries.
Jazz Musicians Who Are Making It
Let’s look at four jazz musicians who are thriving in the new economy. They produce remarkable work, know who their audience is, and know how they provide value.
Skerik is a Seattle-based electro-acoustic saxophonist who tours the world with dozens of eclectic bands. He satisfies desires in the way Seth Godin described: by connecting fans who want to hang out with each other. A fan at one of his shows exclaimed, “When Kurt Cobain (of Nirvana) died, there was a huge void in the Seattle music scene. . .until Skerik showed up.” What do your fans say about you? If you energize this type of fan base, you don’t have to worry about being paid fairly or undercut by a generic band who is willing to play for free.
British vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jacob Collier spends countless hours producing stunning and virtuosic YouTube videos. Since going viral on the web, Jacob’s music even caught the ears of Quincy Jones, Pat Metheny, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea. Now he performs all over the world, writes for orchestras and soundtracks, and developed new music performance technology with MIT. He still posts new videos on YouTube.
Bob Reynolds is an L.A.-based saxophonist who has toured with John Mayer and Snarky Puppy. Bob also produces online lessons and courses. For $39 a month, his subscribers have access to hundreds of lessons and a private forum to connect with each other. At 400 subscribers, that’s over $15,000 a month in passive income. Bob was recently featured in “The New Making It” in The New York Times.
Darcy James Argue is a Vancouver-born, Brooklyn-based composer and bandleader. His cutting edge multi-media works for big band are pushing the boundaries of the art form. His music doesn’t have mass appeal, but it doesn’t have to. He satisfies desires of organizations, critics, and institutions of higher learning seek to support the most innovative and groundbreaking new artists. He is the recipient of numerous awards, grants, fellowships, and commissions.
The Bottom Line
If you have the passion to be remarkable, tell interesting stories, resonate with your audience, connect people, and provide value, you can be a success story in the new economy. If not, consider looking for a day job.
Resources for Independent Musicians & Bands
Blog Advice for “Making It” in the Music Business by Erica von Kleist
Michael Hyatt explains why you shouldn’t rely on social media to connect with your fans. It’s worth the effort to build your own website and email list.
Seth Godin’s Freelancer Course is essential for anyone who works with clients (private teachers, wedding bands, instrument repair technicians, audio engineers, commercial composers.)
Steve Treseler is a Seattle-based saxophonist, educator, and author. His latest album Center Song featuring Ingrid Jensen was named one of the “Best Albums of 2014” by DownBeat. Read Steve’s Creative Music Blog at http://stevetres.com/blog