Booking Gigs: The Power of Specialization

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.”

Marketing for musicians by Dave RuchThat 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.

So, I…

  • 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, 29 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)

Case Study

Not too long 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.

The Power of Specialization . Dave RuchThat’s worth about $100-150 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

Or, Cheap…

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:

  1. Develop some unique material that nobody else has
  2. 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
  3. 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?)
  4. 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

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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31 Responses to Booking Gigs: The Power of Specialization

  1. Dave,
    thanks so much for posting all this info-I’m a late bloomer musician that has performed in several church worship bands and am a decent musician and singer., but never seriously considered music as a means to make a living, mostly lack of confidence I suppose..I’m sick to death of working for the man in boring, lifeless jobs, and your articles are opening up all kinds of ideas….my genre would be perfect for retirement communities (mostly 60s-70s folk and some rock) but I can easily expand that portfolio to do music for younger people…I’m a natural entertainer and pretty funny in front of a crowd and good at public speaking, or at least have been told that haha…anyways, thank you SOOO much, this is really opening my eyes…feel free to email me, I’d love to chat w you..Shawn

  2. Dave,

    Great timing. Great content. This was not new to me…but very poignant for what I’m doing right now.

    Thanks for all you do!

  3. I’m not a musical entertainer, but I still value your comments/ suggestions. I’m a speaker about the 260 WWII vet interviews conducted over the past decade. I’ve written 9 books and my husband & I have taken a 10-day WWII Tour of Europe. Putting all of that together, I present zoom/in-person talks to libraries, civic groups, churches, more. I’ve never been in the military but am a proud Air Force wife/mother. I think all of those components make what I do a niche — I try not to be boring w/ too many details but bring the vets’ service to life to boost patriotism/morale. Thanks for your posts. I always read them.

  4. Best blog post yet! I am a Jack of All Trades with two highly specialized components that I tend to value as equally as my other skills. You have opened a door of possibility!

  5. Dave, this blog arrived at just the right time. Perfect time actually. Thank you, and good on you for realising your worth and how you were recognised how to go about this by specialising and quoting your price, not being told what someone was prepared to pay.
    Jenny from Aus

  6. Hi Dave!

    Just wanted to drop you a note in this “Season of Thanksgiving” to thank you for your blog, it is helping supply advice I have long gone without. Be well & blessed. 😊


  7. Very well said as always and could not agree more. I just released my first Online Guitar course and while there are many other courses out there and a lot of free stuff on YT mine is a bit unique and that’s my niche’ 🙂

  8. Thank you for this Dave! I appreciate all of your insight and you’ve become quite the mentor to me…without your realization haha! I am having a bit of trouble “cracking the code” to getting hired into schools. Cold calling, as I have been so successful with in the past for performing in nursing homes, does not seem to be as effective with schools. Any specific advise on that or direction to an already written article? I am an empowerment speaker and singer. I have performed at 1 jr high school and am scheduled to do 2 assemblies at another. I am looking forward to making this purpose filled work my full time career. Any advise is greatly appreciated…even if that advise is to patient as the seeds I sow grow. 🙂 I hope to see one of your performances when you are near the Bemus Point, NY area.

  9. Thanks for this Dave. I’m writing a guide for storytellers today and this really works in suggesting the years of apprenticeship being all things to all people (at least trying to!) before choosing that area of specialization and polishing everything about your professional performance.
    Thanks for all the good tips … I recommend your blog all the time.

  10. Hi Dave!

    The other Dave here, jazz accordionist. Your column really struck a nerve as this subject always does. I have my jazz accordion niche, and people still try to associate the accordion with polkas and ethic music. I do neither, and refuse to do either one. I have friends who play for nothing, or dinner and drinks or gas money then complain they can’t get paid gigs! Duhhhhh! Keep the good columns coming. And remember, you always have an open invite to be on my tv show if ever in the area! I’m sure we could find so e common musical ground!

  11. Dave; Thanks so much on your post on specializing. That is something I’ve been doing more & more. I relate it to taking, what many would consider your weakness and turning it into one’s strength. For example, Miles Davis might not of had the technical virtuosity of Dizzy, or Clifford Brown,, but instead of being intimidated, he concentrated on what element was missing from classic BeBop.. He gave his music room to breathe and a chance to be more relaxed and reflective, without losing any of the depth. The results were the best selling Jazz album of all time …Kind of Blue. (That generalization has plenty of exceptions but still, to me, is true.)

  12. Thanks very much Dave for the blog article on ‘niche performing’ vs the ‘standard fare’; I gleaned some very good ideas which I am going to get right at!

    I am a pro. musician (composer/classical-guitarist/teacher), with a small but dedicated roster of long-time guitar students and am looking to get back into performing (last tour was 2012) but not the way I was doing it before (4 years of mostly afternoon Christmas gigs at fancy hotels via an agent). I did a Summer tour in 2012 with what I believed was an orig. model: playing original new classical music and some of my own arr.’s of Canadian traditional songs to (literally) a captive audience! All I needed to make was a single digital poster to advertise each gig at each park and the park rangers at each stop went to every campsite to let folks know what was happening on concert day…

    I agree with you about charging for what you do as opposed to what you think you should charge for what you do. I’ve employed this with regards to my students and it has worked out very well!

    I hope this is useful and thanks again for your inspiring and ‘educational’ article!

    With good vibrations (of the plucked variety!),


  13. That first paragraph sounds like what I tell people all the time! I do mandala sand painting (like the Tibetan monks) and venues pay for their crowds to watch something unique, but impermanent because the mandalas are brushed away when they are done. It’s definitely a thing I have to create my own market for! I’m trying to get more comfortable saying my price (usually between $300-$800 depending on hours and complexity) and just letting it sit with the person. It’s so hard not to chase them and offer crazy discounts. But I’m the only westerner who does this art, so I try to remind myself what it’s worth 🙂 Thanks for your insights.

  14. I tried doing this a few years ago, to offer our string group as the specialists we were (in a certain type of music). We got about 2 gigs, and constantly were told that there was some other group doing what we did but “cheaper”. The problem is that the general public cannot tell the difference between us (in our specialty) and all the rest. So we gave up on that, which is a shame, it was fun while it lasted and we had great hopes, but it just didn’t fly–the clients could not tell the difference and there are too many other groups that appear to be similar, and we just seemed like oddballs when we tried to explain how we were actually not the same…. We still do perform in concert in our specialty, but no “gigs.”

    • Thanks for sharing this valuable experience here. So, perhaps not a good fit for your marketplace. Another thing I would suggest, though, is that this could take 5-10 years to really take root. Your reputation in the marketplace is a significant factor here, and delighted past clients are going to make a big difference in how you’re perceived by prospective new clients. (THEIR words about you will matter 10x more than your own words when trying to differentiate yourself from others.)

      Can you share more about what your speciality is/was, and how it was different from other groups?

      • Our instruments were Renaissance/Baroque and we sought to provide music of 1500-1650 on original instruments, which we also provide in professional concerts, to the events/weddings/funeral clients. Our experience is vastly different than 95 percent of the other groups who advertise to those clients; the other groups in some cases were fresh out of college and rehearsing for free in their mother’s living room (probably) while they worked for minimum wage at the local coffee shop (probably), or, they were same age as us but only performed with civic orchestra, or taught 35 students….and that is just not the same as what we do. We never rehearse for free and we might have some students but that is not the bulk of our income, it’s performing.

        We wrongly assumed that clients would 1) be interested in our specialty & experience, and 2) would pay a little more for this. Our asking price (back then) was about 500 for a Trio. Most potential clients just went with someone else who was cheaper, because lower price is more interesting to them, I guess.

        We did get wonderful comments from the 2 gigs we did, which I always referenced to potential clients. In the age of internet reviews (many of which are probably fake) (ask me how I know that!) want oodles of reviews all 5 stars and I know for a fact, some of the cheaper groups have simply manufactured their reviews by having all their friends write bogus reviews, which is really hard to compete against. Some online booking services have now tightened up to protect against this, but it was only a couple years ago that a few nefarious groups in our area did this type of thing, so they have dozens of 5 star reviews which really shouldn’t be there.

        As for it taking 5-10 years to get a “product” like that to become viable? Not very appealing–it’s a ton of hours to put a group together (before you get any gigs), pay for website, photos, videos, and then a few grand on ads & leads on several event booking services, schmooze at event vendor cocktail hours, rinse, lather, repeat….

        It is about 10 grand a year (if you include all the uncompensated hours following up on leads), EVERY year, and for all that work I should be seeing 100 bookings (at current prices which is not the 500 from back then). Keep in mind—a booking at 500 for 3 musicians does not mean 500 in my pocket! I have to pay a booking fee 5 percent, and 300 to the other 2 musicians, so I’m only getting a measly 175 for doing all of the work (and paying all the overhead fees). Within 12-18 months, I need to recoup my investment….which I did not, and thus I am very shy about losing money & time, again.

        So, back to your original article, encouraging “specialization”….it is really quite speculative to go down that road, in our experience, the only people that made any money were the photographer, makeup artist, website designer, online booking agencies.

        • Wow! Again, thanks for sharing all this. My 5-10 year comment has to do with solidifying a reputation in the marketplace – I’m certainly not suggesting that people bust their asses for that period of time BEFORE doing any gigs and making money. It’s just that, as you know, developing a great reputation doesn’t happen overnight, and unfortunately, we’re not worth more than other people just because we SAY we are.

          I think your specialty sounds great, and if it were me, I might start charging 3-4x what these other groups charge (rather than being just slightly more expensive). Sometimes your price says “wow, these guys must be different.” You’ll lose plenty of lower-paying gigs to those other groups, but you’ll also intrigue a different segment of the market. Then, of course, it becomes a matter of proving that you’re worth it once they hire you. It sounds like you’ve got that covered.

          Market size has a lot to do with this too. Might not be the best approach if you’re in a very small market.

          • I agree with Dave on that – I would have been charging $2500-$3000 for what you are describing. Get 5-10 gigs per month and you would be making decent money. The only reason I say that is because I am a solo performer who has really cut out my niche in my market place. There is literally no one else around doing what I do in my area. (I play complex fingerstyle arrangements of popular songs, some romantic classical and jazzy lounge type solo guitar, which I loop my acoustic and then solo over top of it with my electric guitar). I am charging $500-$2000 for a solo performance. I try to get at least 3 gigs a week, but am ramping up to 4-5 per week.

            Also I should mention that my marketplace is SATURATED with singer/songwriters who play 4 chords and sing pop songs. They are a dime a dozen, and when people see me play who don’t get it, they say… you need vocals (because I play all instrumental music) and I just tell them I specialize in instrumental music. I explain that each song I learn can take up to a month (or more) to perfect and that I could learn that other guy’s whole set (the singer/songwriter) in a few days. It helps put it in perspective for them and raises the perception of value.

            Not to mention I play very expensive instruments, great audio gear, wear tailored suits to every performance, and play high quality music that people respond very well to. My business cards are very expensive, high quality and well designed, which immediately sets me apart when I hand them to a prospect. I have been hired on the spot just because my business card looks and feels amazing, they hadn’t even heard what I do yet.

            I could go on but the point is that it all adds up to value when you educate your prospects, I will be raising my prices as I get even more busy and in-demand and I have only been technically running my business for 1 year, only doing performances. I am becoming well known, (reputation) and kind of starting to become the “go-to” guy for upscale private events. I sometimes hire a violinist and/or cellist to perform with me. Which I usually pay $150-$250 per musician depending on the set. (The reason we don’t split it all evenly is mainly because it’s my business, I arranged the set list, got the booking, and they just have to show up, plug-in and play, much less work.) Very excited to see where it will go from here!

            When you tell someone your price and they spit their drink out in incredulity and repudiation, those people aren’t your target market. Good job Dave for closing that particular deal!

            The problem I see you having is similar to what I had experienced at first, where there are a ton of other musicians charging sometimes $50 (or even playing for free!! Yikes!) for a gig, and that generally brings the whole local market down, and that will affect you UNLESS you specialize, or have an amazing reputation.

            I have never paid for an ad or used a booking service, these leads are all self generated. I’m not trying to boast or anything like that, as I am just beginning my career, but these things are possible. I truly believe you were just charging too little for the perception to shift, and your target market wasn’t fine tuned.

            P.S. I would have loved to hear your trio!!

  15. I really appreciate this approach! I must agree — and it took me awhile, quite awhile, to realize that my unique qualities, both as teacher and performer, are certainly my strengths. This article clarified many vague areas on how to go about describing myself — you really helped me to solidify my thoughts. Thank ;you Dave.

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