So, this would be a pretty bad business model for a musician or performing artist, right?
“We, the XYZ performing group, will operate in obscure niches, period. It will be somewhat difficult to describe what we do, and there won’t be any good comparisons we can draw to well-known performers. We will be in a category that nobody searches online for, nobody wakes up thinking they need, and no other performers seem to be working in.”
That sounds like a disaster, doesn’t it?
After all, it’s common knowledge that self-employed artists need to be as versatile and “marketable” as possible in order to put a decent living together.
Yet, when I think about it, that description above represents exactly how I’ve built a really strong career filled with interesting and great-paying gigs.
Do you try to be all things to all people, or do you specialize?
Booking Gigs: The Jack of all Trades
For my first several years as a full-time musician here in Buffalo, I was a “jack of all trades.”
I figured that was the only way I could book enough gigs to make it work.
- played swing and light jazz music for weddings and cocktail parties
- played rock, bluegrass, and more with three different bands around town
- played acoustic music in coffeehouses and restaurants
- gave guitar and mandolin lessons out of my house
- did community concerts and sideman work with anyone and everyone
The pay was consistently so-so for those gigs, with weddings and cocktail parties having the slight advantage over the others (and thus getting more of my attention).
I had to do a LOT of those gigs to put a full-time living together, and the competition was steep. There were (and are) lots of other musicians going after those same gigs.
(Which, of course, keeps the pay down.)
Booking Gigs: The Specialist
Now, 25 years later, I find myself fully in the “Specialist” category.
I’d love to say that this happened by design, but really, I think I’ve simply followed my nose towards doing things that:
a) I’m really interested in (as opposed to what I thought I should be doing)
b) pay well
c) have a “market” I can sell them to, even if I have to create that market.
I’m still doing music full time, but mostly in some of the most “niche,” obscure areas imaginable.
The Jack Gets The Gig (at His Price)
A few weeks ago, I was asked to come sing some Erie Canal songs (I mentioned I am “niche,” right?) for a film shoot.
The shoot took place at a canal museum, and afterwards, the new museum director asked if I was available to perform for an upcoming event.
I was, and he asked how much it would be.
When I quoted him my price, he almost choked.
“For an hour?” he said.
“Well, 45 minutes to an hour, yeah” I replied.
See, he had just watched me do a few songs for the camera. To him, it looked an awful lot like what thousands of other acoustic musicians do – sing songs, play instruments, tell a story or two, go home.
That’s worth about $100 for an hour-long gig, right?
Wrong. My price was $550.
“I’ll have to check the budget for the event and get back to you,” he said.
(Usually code for “no way in hell.”)
So we finished up the filming, I schmoozed a bit with him and the film crew, and went home happy.
A few days later, the phone rang. He was ready to book!
(And unfortunately, I could no longer do the gig – the date had been booked elsewhere. Oh well.)
So what happened there?
How did he go from being shocked at my price quote to hiring me in a matter of 48 hours or so?
I didn’t ask him – maybe he visited my website, or talked to others at the museum who had seen me perform for a live audience before.
But somehow, he came to understand that what I do is not like what those thousands of other “guy with a guitar” performers do.
(I perform only for captive listening audiences, informing and educating while I entertain, involving audience members of all ages in the show, and offering deeply researched material in a user-friendly package.)
From there, any ability to compare my price to “standard rates” sort of falls apart, and the decision becomes a much different one for the buyer:
Is it worth $550 to bring in a program that will thoroughly entertain my audience while educating them about the canal (or whatever)?
If the answer is “yes,” then I get the gig.
Running Into Those Who Play for Free
A side benefit to having no real competition is that you’re never in a position that I hear so many performers complain about, where the booker says . . .
“XYZ Group is willing to play for $150 plus pizza – why can’t you?”
And when you do find yourself in that situation, you can clearly articulate the differences between what you do and what these other groups do.
How Can You Specialize?
Let’s brainstorm a bit, and we can continue the conversation in the “Comments” section below.
Some ideas for creating your own category:
- Develop some unique material that nobody else has
- Take a different approach to your live shows that would separate you from the pack (add a multimedia element? audience participation? educating while you entertain?) – the possibilities are endless
- Take a genre not usually associated with an audience type and figure out how to do it really well (blues music for kids? writing songs for seniors based on their experiences? storytelling for rock audiences?)
- Become known as “best in class” for something. Anything!
Can You Do This? Yes.
I encourage you to think about ways to separate yourself from the pack, at least as a side project for now.
It’s been super fun and meaningful for me, it’s tripled (or more) my income, and it got me off the hamster wheel of doing 15 gigs a week.
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the Comments section below.
About The Blog
Since leaving a white-collar marketing job in 1992, Dave Ruch has been educating and entertaining full-time in schools, historical societies and museums, folk music and concert venues, libraries, and online via distance learning programs.
Along the way, he’s learned a great deal about supporting a family of four as a musician.
The Educate and Entertain blog provides articles, tips, encouragements, and how-to’s for regional performers (in any region) interested in making a great full-time living in the arts.