Educate Your Audience and Write Your Ticket

It turns out that just about every audience loves to learn something while they’re being entertained.

In today’s Educate and Entertain article, I’m going to explain how making this shift has allowed me to literally write my own rules in terms of the types of gigs I do (and don’t do), what I charge, how often I travel, how far, how long my gigs last, and more.

I realize it sounds a bit pretentious to say “educate your audience,” as if somehow they are uneducated before they arrive at your performance.

I don’t mean it that way at all.

What I mean is that separate from your artform, you probably have some really specialized and interesting knowledge around one or more topics that you’re passionate about.

The day I started to combine some informative, “enlightening” content with my musical performances is the day my career changed permanently, and for the better.

With so many talented performers today struggling to figure out how to make a good living as an artist, I’m humbly putting this forward as one great way to do that.

Educate, Entertain and Enlighten

For me, it all started with the school performance I talked about here.

I was a gigging musician then, period. I knew nothing about “entertaining,” or talking to an audience, or “teaching” from the stage, or any of that stuff.

Now, twenty years later, I “inform and educate,” to a greater or lesser extent, in every performance I do.

Even when I’m playing with my band.

My audiences are adults (sometimes), kids (sometimes), and everyone in between (usually), and my income and opportunities are several times what they were when I was playing bar gigs and weddings, and teaching private guitar students.

The Argument for Educational Performing

There are many reasons why you might want to consider adding some informative content to your performances.

Included in those:

  • You get to scratch two or more of your favorite itches each time you perform
  • You’ll enjoy the preparation and research as much as the performance
  • You’ll meet some really interesting people in your audiences
  • You’ll learn some new skills in “presenting”
  • Your gig possibilities will multiply exponentially
  • Your gig pay will multiply exponentially

Did you notice the bold text in those last two points?

Let’s talk about both of those.

More Gig Possibilities

I’m going to try to describe how this has worked for me. Hopefully, by substituting your artform and your interests/passions for mine, some ideas will start to bubble for you.

I’ve been a musician since I was 15.

It started with Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Neil Young.

Well, actually, it started with The Partridge Family, but…

Separate from my musical life, I’ve always been interested in North American history.

Once I began to combine those two interests, doing music from specific places and time periods in American and New York State history, my marketplace expanded at least fivefold. Maybe more.

Why?

Because now, not only can I continue to play places where musicians get hired, but my market also includes all those places where people like to learn something about history.

Schools, libraries, museums, historical societies, community events, colleges, lecture series.

I’ve got a LOT more potential clients than I had before. And it gets better.

As it happens, the places where people like to learn something about history often have budgets and/or write grants to bring in visiting guests who have interesting things to say about it.

Awesome! But that’s not even the best part.

Usually those visiting guests don’t play musical instruments and sing too.

In this context, your artform is the “hook” that makes your presentations on whatever-your-non-arts-topic-is really pop, while at the same time making you a really desired entity to the people who book these events.

934664620_2b260bbafd_zThe other side of the coin is also true!

Some of the more conventional music venues are spending good money to bring people in who can entertain their audiences in a unique way.

Now I’m included in that pool too!

Subscription concert series across the northeast. Arts centres in the UK. Folk festivals in Canada.

These are all gigs I simply would not have gotten as just another local or regional musician.

The work keeps coming

As if that weren’t enough, a really nice spinoff of all of the above has been getting hired for research and website projects around my areas of interest.

I was even featured in a nationally-syndicated PBS documentary alongside Pete Seeger, Peter Yarrow, and actor Kevin Bacon, which went on to win a regional Emmy Award!

Here’s a video highlighting my participation in that project…

From the very first day I performed with The Hill Brothers at a school assembly concert, my wheels started turning as to how I could do more of this educational performing.

I really had no idea of the booking potential in it; I just knew that I loved putting these two interests together.

I’m still on that journey, and it still feels pretty limitless.

(Much) Better Paying Gigs

From Crappy Money to “How Much Do You Charge?”

If you’re involved in the day-to-day work of the local performing artist, you may have noticed that there aren’t a ton of great paying jobs out there.

And perhaps you’ve come across other local artists in your genre who are willing to perform for next to nothing, making it extremely difficult for you to make a good living at this.

My friend and musical colleague Kevin O’Brien put it this way recently:

Kevin O'Brien

Kevin O’Brien

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a potential client tell me ‘Well, Band X will play for this (ridiculously low) amount of money. Why can’t you?’ Sometimes the band being quoted is an excellent group of musicians, people I respect. In those cases I simply say ‘I can’t compete with that price. You should probably hire them because they’re not charging you anywhere near what they’re worth.”

Here’s the good news: the second you add some educational content to your performances, all of that goes away.

Every bit of it.

Why?

Because now, you have no competition. Who else does what you do?

Nobody, I guess…

Who’s setting the standard rate of compensation for what you do?

That would be you.

Instantly, you’ve gone from “we pay our performers XYZ amount” to “that sounds really great – what do you charge?”

Of course, you’ll need to be sensitive to budgets and what the market can bear, but you are now in the driver’s seat because a) you’ve made your performances really useful to a large body of people, and b) you’re no longer in the same category as the performers who work cheap.

For more, see the article “Four Figures a Day: The Life of an Educational Performer.”

Educate Who? About What?

Great questions. This depends alot on the context.

In K-12 schools, my experience has been that the closer we can tie our performances to curriculum topics the students are already working on, the more gigs we get. You’ll find lots of resources at www.teachingartists.com as well as in my articles on getting hired to perform in schools and writing songs in schools.

For performances for kids outside of schools (libraries, community events, etc), it’s mostly for fun with little bits of education thrown in there. (Again, those little bits make you more valuable to the venue.)

PRO TIP (1)For me, my concerts for kids outside of the school setting are kind of a grab bag of the most engaging material I have for the age group I’m working with, but I’ll also do things like teach them to play the spoons, or talk about and demonstrate how the slaves would make music on their bodies when they didn’t have access to other instruments (aka “hambone”). Quick little cultural tidbits to go along with the fun.  

Same thing goes for multigenerational/community audiences. Lots of entertainment along with just the right amount of “informative” content.

For strictly-adult audiences, I’m usually hired to either give a solo concert on a specific theme (“The War of 1812: Songs and Stories from NY and Beyond,” for instance) or perform with my group The Canal Street String Band.

In putting my themed solo shows together, I’ll take material already in my repertoire and dig out some interesting stories to tell around the songs to interpret the theme in some way, and I’ll also seek out new material to help tell the story I want to tell.

Banjo fiddle mandolin songs in Buffalo NY

The Canal Street String Band

In terms of playing with a band, The Canal Street String Band makes kind of an interesting study.

On the surface, there are literally thousands of groups across America doing some version of what this group does; that is, playing “stringband music” of one kind or another (bluegrass, oldtime, etc.).

However, because of the focus the group has put on interacting with and engaging an audience, and the great stories we’ve uncovered from some of the old music we perform, we’re able to present a really round package that, while still being all about entertainment, aims to leave people feeling like they learned something too, and that they were involved in the performance.

On a good night, it feels like that all works really well, and this has made a huge difference in the types of gigs we do and the rate at which we get hired back for repeat performances.

Musically speaking, there are highly virtuosic groups out there that could play circles around us, but that’s not usually what it’s all about for the person hiring you (or the audience, for that matter).

The venue is actually purchasing the outcome of a great show; that is, a delighted audience.

Getting Started

I was extremely “green” when I first started dipping my toes in this world of educational performances; you may feel that way too.

Twenty-plus years later, I’m still learning as I go. Every single time I perform, and each time I see someone else perform, I’m always watching closely for what works best in terms of really connecting with and engaging an audience.

That really seems to be the key to making this work.

And when it comes right down to it, there’s no substitute for getting out there and getting that experience with diverse audiences of live human beings.

Whether that means “learning while you earn,” or doing a bunch of free performances in the kinds of places you ultimately want to be working, it’s really the only way to get your feet wet and see what’s going to work for you.

Dive in!

I’m Happy to Brainstorm A Bit

If you’re considering this for the first time, or perhaps sorting out your options for doing more of it, I’m glad to kick some ideas around with you. Just leave me a note in the Comments section below.


About The Blog

The Largest Online Gathering of K-5 Classrooms for Connected Educator MonthSince 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.

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44 Responses to Educate Your Audience and Write Your Ticket

  1. Nathan

    I’ve been a touring artist for nearly 2 decades as a multi-instrumental one man band, but the normal gigs (festivals, venues) have been drying up in the last 2 years so I’ve been wanting to transition into performing at schools (I have zero ‘day job’ skills or experience to fall back on). I have a TV & Film acting background also, so I’ve been wanting to utilise those storytelling elements even further to bring a theatrical show with music to kids in the education system (coupled with workshops) and I must say that these articles of yours have given me some fire to get things rolling. Thanks so much for that.
    My question is about tertiary degrees. In Australia, it seems to be a pre-requisite for agents to take you seriously for this kind of work. Is that the case in the USA?

    • Dave Ruch

      Sounds like a great plan Nathan. No degrees are required here in the USA, nor has anyone ever asked me about one.

  2. Brad

    Greetings Dave. I have been working feverishly on a music for motivation seminar that I can do personally but more specifically corporately. Very exited to do something unique but understandably also terrified as this is you say is to scratch 2 itches as once . Glad to find you are successfully doing this. Very grateful to read your posts as I feel a little overwhelmed with covering the education side of things. I’m thirsty for information so keep the guidance coming. Wishing you much continued success. Warm regards. Brad. (South Africa)

    • Dave Ruch

      Hi Brad – exciting stuff! Glad this found its way to you, and vice versa. Keep us all posted on how it’s going for you.

  3. The Legendary Frank

    Great copy David but the word “exponentially” made me squirm a bit. It’s one of those words that has lost its impact through overuse and I don’t think people believe for one second that their income will increase “exponentially”.

    I guess it depends on the venue and the audience and the locale. I don’t think pissheads going to a local death metal gig would really be interested in educating apart from maybe where to score the best dope 🙂

    So I reckon the opportunity to make money in this way are pretty limited unless you play genres that are amenable to such education such as folk etc.

    The few times I go to a gig I go because I know the band or I’m with people that know the band or bands. Also it is social. If someone starting educating me I think I would get restless and wonder whe they were going to get back to the music,

    However if the venue was a museum, school or some such institution where I would expect interesting talks then yes I’d be interested.

    But then again I suppose if the songs being played had some sort of interesting background such as one of your previous blogs dealing with food etc then it might work on a small scale.

    But I think for most venues I can’t see this working.

    • Dave Ruch

      Hey Frank – thanks for challenging me on this. You make great points. I agree that nobody wants to be “educated” in a rock and roll club, but I do think there’s lots of room for a rock band (for instance) to create a show with some kind of educational theme and book it in OTHER venues such as arts centers, community concert series, etc. where you have a sit-down audience and the audience has no particular expectation in terms of how much (or little) the band will interact with or “educate” them. And believe it or not, those gigs CAN pay “exponentially” better than a standard gig in a rock club (though I agree that I used that term too loosely in the article).

      I guess the main point is that, as entertainers, we can think about our choices beyond what seems like “the only way” (i.e. the bar gig), and that can lead to (in my case, at least) whole new careers that feel far more sustainable.

      Again, thanks for the comments, and I hope you and others will continue to add critical comments and rebuttals here along with any positive feedback. It’s really helpful.

      • The Legendary Frank

        Good reply.

        Maybe the venues that you discuss above can also be shown just how much added value a suitable musician or band can bring to an evening?

        If I was an owner of such a venue I’d like to see an online directory where I could enter a few chosen phrases such as “caribbean cuisine” or “space exploration” and so on and then have at a click or two of the mouse a list of bands that could help make a talk or evening more memorable and entertaining.

        For instance there the Royal Institute Lectures broadcast every Christmas in the UK. They are a series of science lecture aimed not only at children but adults as well. This year’s lectures deal with invisible energy. The Lectures tend to use quite a few props so I can see no problem adding musical props.

        http://www.rigb.org/christmas-lectures/supercharged-fuelling-the-future/about-supercharged-fuelling-the-future

        I did a quick google and came up with a list of songs dealing with energy.

        Now these songs are just a starting off point.
        https://cubillinois.wordpress.com/2013/08/16/the-top-10-best-energy-songs-ever/

        So not only should venues have access to this directory but also the people doing the talks also could benefit. The directory would not only be listed according to musicians and bands but obviously also subjects. In this case the subject would the “invisible energy” and the list that would throw up would be suitable songs and also how the lyrics could help to enhance the message of the talk.

        As regards musos well they could look up the same directory type in terms that reflect their interest and/or expertise and come up with a list of venues that might be interested and even better forthcoming talks that could find the musicians’ input valuable.

        A sort of electronic impresario?

  4. Keith Jones

    I’m the mirror image…a storyteller just getting started with professional gigs. I’m a musician, but not on guitar, banjo, or other easily portable or approachable instruments (I play piano, tuba and euphonium.) I do sing but my voice is a very low bass, so it doesn’t usually lend itself to ‘singalongs.’ I do have a very wide variety of historical interests and stories about the north GA/east TN/western NC area. Got any specific suggestions? My mom used to play the dulcimer, so I’ve thought about adding some songs accompanied by that, but my own skills are very rudimentary.

    • Dave Ruch

      Hi Keith – sounds like a great mix of interests and talents. Specific suggestions? Lots. Assuming you live in the same area where your historical interest is based, your local schools will be charged with teaching that very history – if you can bring it to them in an entertaining, engaging way, they will want you to visit. Same for libraries, museums, historical societies, etc. Even outside of the Southern Appalachians, I imagine your material would have interest – we Americans are fascinated by the folkore of the southeast. If you dig around on the website, you’ll find article on how to get gigs in schools, libraries, etc. I hope that helps..

  5. Xanthe Levi

    Dear Dave,
    I’m so very glad I found your brilliantly laid out and informative site! What a great angle; turning live performances into an educational tool for a multitude of topics.

    I would love a little of your time please Dave, to “kick around” an idea or two of mine, if you can spare it. I have signed up to your email list, so I’m looking forward to connecting soon!
    Kindest wishes and admiration,
    Xanthe

    • Dave Ruch

      Hi Xanthe – thanks so much for the good words. Feel free to comment further here, and we can have a dialogue that everyone else can see and possibly benefit from.

  6. Arturo

    I am definitely interested in putting together a program to edutainment Buiness and I was doing it during the time I had a full time job and you are absolutely correct it’s about our audience not about what I like playing thanks for the first allowing me to feel that I am not alone in this type of gigs and also that it’s possible to perform your art lifestyle to any kind of audiences that may be looking for your talent and shows something different and diverse

  7. Matthew Williams

    This article intrigues me to really focus on the future more with music. Been playing for 20 years and I am quite respected yet underpriced (Even/especially with the band) Knowledge is the key.Teaching is the real answer. Plus I never thought of the school as a potential client.There’s your next students right there. This is a great read and I am now subscribed. Thank you Dave. 🙂

  8. Fábio Cardelli

    Hi Dave!

    Loved your text, what an interesting approach for live gigs. I have a singer-songwriter verve and my show is mostly made of fresh new music, but I guess even this has its emotional/historical/social etc backgrounds which could be entertaining for people to know about.

    This added a lot to my “stage banter backpack”, as a shy and “dreamy” guy, It’s great to put some short topics about the origins of songs and whatnots, between tunes in a setlist, I’ve already thought about it before, but the whole educational aspect in booking, engaging etc. you stressed throughout the text gave the really helpful click. Thanks a lot!

    Fábio (São Paulo, Brazil)

    • Dave Ruch

      Hey Fabio – it’s great to hear from Brazil! Thanks for you note. I spent years and years staring at my shoes on stage, too shy to say anything to the audience. I’m sure you’re way ahead of where I was already.

  9. Ellen Revello

    Hi Dave
    Great to have read your article because thats actually what we do but need more gigs. We are an Australian group me and my kids actually, The Jitterbugs Green & Groovy Show. I have been working on this concept for 18years. Its only in the last year or so that my son and daughter who are 22 & 25years have gone crazy about being Vegan and very organic. My son has done horticulture and now starting a career in Herbal Medicine and the informative educational material that we have put into our show is fantastic! I am learning so much I cant tell you. As an entertainer for over 30years we are really getting some great gigs. Sydney Opera House, Special events, festivals, shopping centres schools etc…You are right about the schools. Even my kids say wow that is amazing how they really get into the songs and interaction and are amazingly so entertained and well behaved. Dont get me wrong we love doing pre schools too but the schools really listen up! and take it in…We are all characters and the kids love that as we are all bugs but sometimes I wish we werent..as everyone says our target market is pre schools its not..any way I could write for ages..loved your article…will keep readign…you have inspired me to contact more schools

  10. Robert Van Horne

    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for your excellent article. I can tell you are very successful with your Educational Concerts.

    As for myself, I’ve been entertaining senior audiences in Retirement Communities for the last 15 years. My one hour piano concerts are filled with songs from the 20’s to some of todays music. I find that taking requests are a wonderful way to engage the audience and keep their interest. My program is always varied and fun..

    I carefully prepare each concert knowing exactly how to keep my audiences attentive. I mention interesting facts about the song or tell a short story about my connection with the piece. I always get a very positive response afterwards.

    Unfortunately, most retirement communities do not pay a fair wage for my concerts. I enjoy performing for seniors a lot because I love performing the music they enjoy.

    Do you have any suggestions of how I should go about getting a fair payment for my concerts? Whenever I approach an activity director and mention my fee, their response is usually: “It’s not in our budget.” With all my experience and knowledge at the piano, I feel unappreciated for my talent because of their payment..

    Again, thank you for your insightful article. I wish you much success with your music.

    • Dave Ruch

      Robert,

      Thanks so much for sharing your experiences here. I agree with you that retirement communities can be great audiences, but I haven’t done too many of them because of the issue you mentioned about budgets. It’s just not in the cards for them to be able to pay the kind of rates that some of us need to be charging. Have you thought about libraries, schools, museums, historical societies, community events, summer concert series, etc? These places often write grants to hire performers with the kind of entertainment/educational skills that it sounds like you have.

      • Robert Van Horne

        Thank you very much, Dave. You have given me a new prospective on my career and where I should be performing.

        • Jim King

          Greetings from central Wisconsin!
          I, too, enjoy playing retirement/ senior & assisted living venues and share your dismay at their (lack of) budget. I’ve found some success in finding sponsors, often local banks, who will pay my fee and ‘gift’ me to the local VA or nursing home. I’m still looking into other sponsors; a business, service club or organization that would benefit from the recognition they get from sponsoring my show. The venues really appreciate it, for obvious reasons. Now, I’m thinking of approaching some (senior) healthcare, insurance or even hospice organizations as possible sponsors. I’ll post what I find out. If you have some thoughts on potential sponsors, I’d love to hear ’em. Cheers!

          • Dave Ruch

            Jim,

            That’s an excellent entrepreneurial approach which will surely land you more work – – reach out to people who will sponsor your performance (because it makes sense for their business or educational/community interests) and then offer it to the venue for a minimal contribution on their part. I’ve taken the exact same approach with schools and historical societies, though as I mentioned above, I don’t have much experience with retirement/nursing communities. I hope you’ll keep us posted on any other avenues you’ve explored.

            Another idea for you would be to get five or more retirement communities to each pay a lesser-than-normal fee to stream an event with you that you do from home. You schedule the event, perform for your webcam, and they show it in their respective facilities. You have a much better payday than going to any one of those places, and they get a discounted event from you. Last week’s article was all about that.

            • Jim King

              Wow! Doing a lve-streamed show via webcam seems so – so 21st century for me. I can’t wait to start looking into the nuts ‘n’ bolts of doing a show that way. Side note; most VA homes have actual theaters where they can hook up a TV/computer and show presentations on a big screen, in a venue with all the viewing amenitites that was designed for watching a show. How cool is that?!?

  11. Elissa

    Excellent advice that I will be putting to use. Thanks Dave!

  12. Gail Ford

    I’d be interested in suggestions on how to market these types of idea on my website – good key words for google search, etc. My 2 things are Regency social dance music (Jane Austen, etc) can be costumed. That’s on piano, but my big passion in life is playing jazz, Latin, soul & rock on my oboe – when I do (at the moment free) concerts, I always give the audience info about the song, the composer, etc. Haven’t played in schools – there tends to be no funding for that kind of thing over here in UK.

  13. Jelena Makarova

    Dear Dave,

    I found this very interesting. I am classical concert pianist,chamber musician and an accompanist. Although classical music concerts usually have a certain traditional set up of not talking, I do sometimes talk about pieces I perform to the audience and have noticed that it makes recitals more interesting and educational.

    • Dave Ruch

      Interesting, Jelena. I don’t know the classical world very well, other than attending the occasional concert, but I think it’s safe to say that all audiences like to feel included, and to laugh too (to whatever extend that is appropriate). If you end up “breaking protocol” and experimenting with some banter between songs, I’d love to hear how it goes.

  14. Elizabeth

    Enjoyable article!

  15. Ales

    Wooow, what an EUREKA! Thanks, Dave!
    I’m trying to fuse psychology, NLP coaching and music. I started a business of coaching for musicians – managing stage fright, harmonizing their identity of musician with other aspects of life etc. Now, I’, struggling to get first clients (since this field is completely unknown in my country – Slovenia).
    With your post a totally new horizon opened to me: presenting the influence of music to our psychical state, behavior and mind state. I think, that’ll be interesting topic for schools, their staff and kids…
    So, thanks a lot! 🙂

    best regards,

    Ales

  16. Amy Conley

    Great article Dave! Have you joined The Childrens Music Network? You would love this group of people , many of whom are doing the same kind of work you are doing. Check out http://www.cmnonline.org. And forgive me if you are already a member! Happy to join your email list. Thank you for your generosity

    • Dave Ruch

      Hi Amy – thanks for the good words about the article. Please feel free to share your own experiences and opinions on this or any of the other posts. There’s much we can all learn from each other.

      To answer your question, I do get the CMN’s Twitter updates but hadn’t considered joining. I appreciate the suggestion.

  17. Steve Featherston

    Great article. Just “discovered” you & signed up for your blog. My experience includes playing for kids in libraries, for churches, festivals, seniors … And I play out 5 to 10 times a month.

    Nearly always, I include stories about the songs, original artists & also my own experience. What you have described is almost what I am already doing. but I have not capitalized on it or molded my performances as a complete package that includes both education and entertainment!

    It almost seems like you reached deep in my brain and pulled out what I always wanted to do, but could not quite put together.

    Thanks much!

    • Dave Ruch

      Wow Steve! I’m really glad to hear that this found its way to you at the right time. Thanks for your nice comments. On the blog, you’ll find several more articles on getting gigs in libraries and schools, marketing, pricing, etc. Keep us posted on how it goes and what questions come up.

  18. richard wise

    when i set up my site to market my solo act i wrote a “pep talk” on the American Songbook,generally speaking.i couldn’t think of how or why to gear it towards the uninitiated…,so i did not .those who know me for my original material were not wowed by my change of direction,in most cases,i think..this is kind of normal–people don’t know what they like;;they like what they know,so it can appear to be a waste of energy to change direction/image,etc..but my goal was not to re-invent me.it was (and is) to re-invent some of these tunes!clearly i need a different audience to really pursue this work,and if,along the way people would like to hear “stories about songs”… i would love that.i wonder if this is viable.hope it is.i address “the book” in some detail on my site—
    richardwisemusic.com
    i f anybody wants to look/listen,i welcome your thoughts..
    thank you,Dave for this series!

    • Dave Ruch

      Hey Richard – I’m listening to “Blue Moon” right now. The echo/delay/reverb on the guitar works really great for your solo playing. Really nice stuff.

      • richard wise

        thanks,Dave-you made my day!funny you should mention “Blue Moon”–the song was a result of Rogers and Hart meeting with their publisher,who said that songs that mention the color blue were selling,as were songs that mentioned the moon;so they wanted a BLUE MOON song.at first Mr.Hart refused,basically saying that moon/June/croon type rhymes were cliche,etc..but the publisher was very insistent .so..Lorenz Hart decided that if he put BLUE MOON at the beginning of the line,he would not have to rhyme it with anything,so the song was written around that.you know the rest.is that education?

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