Question from a Subscriber: Gigs and Stereotypes

I love hearing from readers of the Educate and Entertain blog, and when a question comes up that I think I can help with, I’m glad to take a swing at it.

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How to Make the Accordion CoolHere’s a question I received from a long-time reader…

Packaging: How to Make the Accordion Cool

David Laprise, aka “Coach Dave” wrote:

How to get accordion gigs

Coach Dave

“My group is ‘me’ and is called Accordion Cool after my TV show of the same name, where I strive mightily to make the accordion cool. Main question is the age old one of getting gigs, but in my case getting away from the stereotype accordion stigma. I refuse to play polkas et al. It is almost like an education process and pulling teeth. I do not do ethnic related shows as I have learned the hard way, no matter how many ethnic songs one digs up, there is always the one or two that someone wants and gives a hard time about. Most of my gigs now are farmers markets and once I am heard, they go well. On my TV show, I always give a brief history of the song(s), and try to do so when I am in a concert setting. My genre is light jazz influenced by the late, great Art Van Damme and the “youngster” and friend, three time world champion, Cory Pesaturo, who, in spite of his greatness runs into the same road blocks I do.”  

Hi Coach Dave,

First of all, thanks for reading. I believe you were one of the earliest subscribers to my blog, and it’s been fun to hear from you every now and then.

Your question is a great one, and I’m hoping that several readers will have some good ideas for you as well. (The Comments section is below.)

For me, this is really a question of “packaging,” i.e. how do I sell myself to people who already think they know what I do?

While I’m not super familiar with the accordion world, I do know something about banjo history/players/styles, and I think these two instruments share some similarities in terms of strong associations with particular types of music, at least here in America.

educate and entertain blog - dave ruchI’d say “get out there and change everyone’s perception,” but then I think about 16-time Grammy-winner Bela Fleck‘s genre-bending musical exploits on the banjo (classical, rock, jazz, various world musics, and more) and the fact that his (and many others’) decades of boundary smashing has done little or nothing to change people’s expectations when I pull my banjo out of its case at a gig.

(They’re not thinking “boy, I’d love to hear some Chopin on that 5-string,” or “I wonder if he’ll play something African.” They’re assuming they’ll be hearing “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” – a bluegrass classic – and probably hoping for “Dueling Banjos” too.)

So…I think the thing to do when promoting yourself for bookings is to lead with what you do rather than the instrument you do it on. That way, you’re setting the table with the important stuff right up front.

Then, when you happen to mention that “oh, and I do this with an accordion,” that becomes a unique selling point that could easily work in your favor.

What are the gigs that the light jazz players are doing in your area? And who are the players doing that work? Go after those gigs as a light jazz player who has his own TV show and loves to banter with the audience, etc. “Oh, and by the way, look at the instrument I do it on!”

When I think about how I “package” and promote my own shows, I essentially follow this same model, describing the uniqueness of the material that I do, who I do it for, and what others have said about it, long before I mention the instruments that I play. In fact, that might not even come up until the second or third paragraph!

I hope that’s helpful, Dave, and that you and others will chime in on the Comments section below so we can continue to discuss this.

Got a Marketing Question?

Thanks everyone for the great emails. More Q&A for subscribers in a future post!

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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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14 Responses to Question from a Subscriber: Gigs and Stereotypes

  1. Very good advice Dave. It seems it will help you to get your foot in the door before it is slammed shut by pre-conceived notions.

  2. Excellent advice, Dave! I run into this scenario as well. I play percussion with bands (bongos, congas, etc.) and I teach private lessons on the drum kit. However, when I do group classes and events, I bring out djembes for everyone. I let people know right away that I’m a rock chick, so there won’t be any African or cultural drumming. I bring synthetic djembes because they’re lightweight and portable and I can disinfect them easily. So….who’s ready to rock? I always close out with a rockin’ tune and I have them all join me, so they get it. I also don’t own a stitch of tie-dye, so there goes the “hippie image.” Lol!

  3. I am also a professional accordionist (and singer), and one of my favorite comments is, “I didn’t know an accordion could do that!” I’ve played lots of polkas for Oktoberfests, Italian music for strolling in restaurants, French music for April in Paris. old standards and sing-along songs . . . and more. I also have a Bachelor of Music degree in Accordion Performance and played mostly classical music while in college.

    My newest chapter is performing for kids as Janie Next Door. At first I was hesitant to mention that I played accordion in my marketing campaigns, but I had someone tell me that since the accordion is unique, I should promote the heck out of that, and I did! The kids love the instrument, and I love introducing them to an instrument that they don’t often get to see.

    I’ve always felt that part of my job as an accordionist is to educate people about just what this versatile instrument can do, and I’m enjoying sharing the instrument with our youngest generation!

  4. I see nothing wrong with playing some polkas on the accordion along with other types of music. There are always people who want to hear the polkas, and believe me they are happy when polkas are played. My band, a swing big band, will play a polka or two, and the people are so delighted. It’s always nice to bring people back to remembering the good old days they’ve lived along with the music they knew. Music is about performing what the audience wants to hear and introducing fresh music for the public to enjoy. The performer gets notoriety for being versatile and meeting requests. A friendly performer has much more audience appeal, and will be hired again. There are some swing bands that I know of whose leaders will not perform In the Mood, because they are sick of the tune. The audience is somewhat disappointed and it leaves a void for the audience when the performance is through. One has to remember that a big chunk of good entertainment is pleasing the audience/customers. Also, when the smiles and exuberance of the audience are seen by performers when familiar music and audience-appealing new music is performed there is a reciprocal reaction causing better performances. Happy Audience + Better Performance = Very Marketable Gig

    • I totally agree with Lynne Henry about playing what the audience wants to hear – especially if a certain style of music is what you’ve been hired to play. If they are enjoying your music, though, most audiences are open to being introduced to some other styles of music during the performance – including some jazz favorites such as Dave Laprise described, (I, too, love the music of Art Van Damme.) : )

  5. Hey Dave,
    I wonder if flipping the narrative in the other direction would help me sometimes. I also think it’s the kind of thing where you can cater your promo/story to the venue.

    As you know, I do shows of folk music sourced from old collections made in the Great Lakes region — largely drawing on the repertoires of old time lumbermen. There are huge and in many cases off-putting stereotypes that jump into people’s heads if I market the show as “lumberjack songs.” Interestingly “Great Lakes songs”–while still historically accurate in my opinion–elicits a much different (often more positive, certainly more serious) reaction. The problem with both labels is that they conjure such strong ideas about the material that they don’t leave much room for people to think about what the actual music sounds like. My duo, The Lost Forty, puts massive amounts of time in to making thoughtful, interesting arrangements on guitar and bouzouki and we often feel like the “thematic” angle excludes audiences/venues that would enjoy what we do just for the sake of the music.

    Of course it depends on the venue. Some places hire us specifically because they want a show that deals with logging history or Great Lakes history.

    • Very interesting Brian; I know you’ve thought a LOT about this, and you and I have had good conversations in the past about “packaging” what we do.

      I think that, like you say, it all comes down to context. At a folk festival or other music-based series, we might play up the musical part of what we do, whereas we can get into lots of other types of venues (and in front of lots of other audiences) by playing up the thematic content. In both cases, we probably have to leave behind some audience who would otherwise have loved what we’re doing but didn’t find a connection in the way we described the show.

  6. I’m a storyteller-and NO I don’t read from books and YES I do mostly adult, teen, and some family shows. (I’ll also do younger kids-but not my biggest emphasis). That usually gets everybody scratching their heads. I also do drum circles (with real drums) and offer a story option. Once people see me, they understand, but marketing with the word “storyteller” is often a futile gesture. Healing story, Historic telling, Corporate storytelling and public speaking, tends to help a little. I’m still mostly relying on referrals.

  7. I agree with Dave. It’s who you are that is important. I am not a performing musician, I am a puppeteer, but believe me, people have their definite, challenging impressions of what that means. But presenters, who repeatedly book my shows, tell me that they appreciate my particular style and spin on the stories I perform. So I just keep plugging away and hope that others come to realize that, too.

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