Educate Your Audience and Write Your Ticket

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

Today, I’ll explain how making this shift 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.

This trend will continue as we move past the shutdowns associated with COVID.

OK, so 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 non-arts 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 out there struggling to figure out how to make a good living as an artist, I’m humbly putting this forward as one outstanding way to do that.

And now would be a great time to start putting this in place.

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

Even when I’m playing with my string band.

My audiences are adults (sometimes), kids (sometimes), and everyone in between (usually), and my income and opportunities have become 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 couple of nationally-syndicated PBS documentaries alongside Pete Seeger, Peter Yarrow, actor Kevin Bacon and more, one of 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:

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 a lot 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 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-five 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.

Until things fully open up again, try it online!

Whether this means “learning while you earn,” or doing a handful of free performances first, 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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