Ney Rosauro Arthur Lipner

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Life After School: The Business of Music

PICTURE THIS: NO RENT TO PAY; instruction, instruments and practice rooms easily available; free concerts of all styles of music; bands that will read through your original compositions free of charge; lots of musicians to talk to and perform with; staff to book gigs and organize tours for you; and most importantly, knowledge, progress and experience are the goals, while making money to survive takes the back seat. Sound like a dream come true? Sounds like a university school of music to me! The truth is that when we’re in college, because of so many other complex changes that are occurring in our lives, many of us don’t stop to acknowledge how easy and focused things can be (or were).

It’s not necessarily that the music school environment is a sheltered one, but many of life’s demands are—by design—not present. This allows us to focus, as clearly as possible, on the learning experience. However, that same design ends up holding back in a few key areas that prove to be fundamental to successfully competing— and surviving—after graduation. It’s those very areas that I’ve spent the last fifteen years discovering.

After I graduated from college, having moved to a new area, I was in for an enormous surprise. I was trying to get gigs but everyone had them already. And it seemed that no one was willing to give up work that was paying their bills just because I was a good player and a nice guy. I knew that “right place at the right time” bit, along with “you need a break” and “you need to get a foot in the door.” Of course I knew what I needed, but it wasn’t coming to me. The only sure way I knew to have what I needed was to go get it. What was I looking for? I simply wanted to survive as a player or teacher. But what no one told me in music school was that, in order to do this, I had to start my own business.

A lot of music-major graduates that I know end up in a field unrelated to music by the time ten or so years elapse. Of
course, this situation is not unique to musicians. Perhaps the main reason is that, like so many fields, there are not enough quality employment situations to sustain the number of qualified graduates. Or, even if there are, these opportunities don’t present themselves at the right time or in the right sequence.

There are a myriad of other important reasons why music-degree graduates end up somewhere else. Those include the general quality of graduates, along with economic/ demographic/geographic variables. But, most importantly, there exists a mixed bag of skills that are essential for survival in the business world—such as personal focus, discipline, determination, resourcefulness and a general business sensibility. It’s hard to learn these in the class or practice room.

You can start working on these skills by taking maximum advantage of the college environment, and by accepting the fact that each of us, individually, is the only one responsible for the success or failure of our careers. I’m sure you’ve considered the possibility that there may be at least a brief period between graduation and the time you get that first steady income. If you’re planning on ending up with a symphony gig or school teaching job after graduation, all of the discussion below will still apply. You’re still in your own business.

A full-time freelance musician or teacher is actually a small-business owner. The product is your talents and expertise. You are your own boss, and the hours are up to you. So are all the other qualities of a successful business, including promotion, quality control, reliability, equipment and professionalism. Here are a few thoughts designed to help you consider how to run your business.

Teaching: By graduation quite a few of us have already done some private teaching. But how seriously have you taken this? Have you advertised for students? Have you created curriculum outlines? Are your methods and lesson procedures the best possible? Could you raise your prices and not lose any income? Have you considered that you may be able to make a full-time living from teaching privately? How will you determine if this is actually possible for you? Try contacting local schools for students, doing a free clinic at a high school, or calling other teachers for referrals. If you truly want more students, do everything you can until you have the volume you need.

Promotion: Every company spends money on promotion and/or marketing. The amount is usually expressed as a percent of the total receipts for a year. No business can function unless people know that your product exists. In other words, if you want to make a certain amount during your first year of business, you’d better plan on spending something to make that money—unless you’re really good at playing the lottery. Some obvious basics are business cards and letterhead stationary. Other essentials include a good quality answering machine (don’t miss the call for “the big gig”) and a computer. Teachers and players must spread the word about themselves by making phone calls, placing ads, mailing literature, sending tapes and bios, etc. What will you send out? Always make sure that you have materials on hand (tape with printed insert card, photo and biography). Every musician must have a demo tape that sounds as good as possible. If you are out of tape dubs and have to wait three days (or worse, make an awful copy on two cassette decks you have at home), it’ll end up costing you sooner or later. Reorder when you’re down to five tapes—not zero—so you always have a few. Update these materials regularly.

Let’s say I’m a bandleader looking for someone to play in my society band, and three people of equal musicianship send me materials. Person A has submitted a tape with smeared handwriting, a typed biography and no photo. This package goes in the garbage. Person B has sent a laser-printed letter, but the tape sounds awful; it’s normal bias, and I’m not told the total length nor when the music was recorded. Person C’s package arrives. It’s a glossy folder with a laser-printed letter on logo stationery. The tape insert card was done in a print shop (what a hip-looking font, too!), tape sounds clean, and it’s short (that’s fine—I need only ten minutes of properly edited music to get the idea). Moreover, it arrived Priority Mail, which tells me that spending another buck on postage was meaningful. This person knows the deal; they’re experienced, professional and detail oriented. This is the one I’ll call for the job. One important rule of thumb about sending materials to people:

If the material was unsolicited (i.e., you sent something but that person never asked for it), don’t be surprised if you get no response and the person doesn’t take your call. Why should he or she? You want something from them. Try not to waste your time and effort dealing with too many of those things or individuals that are way beyond your reach. But what about “reaching for the stars” or “there’s always room at the top”? Of course. So what’s the answer? You decide. Achieving a balance with these important concepts is essential for your success—and peace of mind.

Telephone: Having good phone chops in this business is a must. Get your list of calls together before you start. Put the dog in the basement (“Gee, I really want the gig—and my barking, distracting, unoffice-like dog agrees!”). Get used to spending solid periods of time on the phone (one to two hours per day). Keep a phone record of anyone you’re in touch with. Be sure to organize your thoughts before you talk. Speak intelligently and articulately; don’t talk “hip” to the wrong person. And don’t forget to listen. As the saying goes, there’s a reason why we have two ears but only one mouth.

Projects: I always keep a list of ongoing projects. I rank these by level of importance and how time-sensitive they are. Projects like composition are more long-term and ongoing. Preparation for an important concert or filling in dates on a tour I’m taking are more urgent. This list gets rewritten regularly as projects come and go.
Practice: Keeping your chops and repertoire growing will always be essential. Try alternating two different practice schedules. Change them every six weeks or so after the items are played proficiently and up to tempo. These days, my practice time—particularly in the non-winter months—is extremely precious. I barely have enough time to work on the music I’m performing, recording or composing. I’ve thus found that the ability to use practice time efficiently is invaluable.

Taxes: Utilize the tax advantages of self-employment. The office use of your home, business use of your car and purchase of all kinds of things can be deducted to save you bucks. Did you know that your business could actually lose money and you wouldn’t owe taxes in a given year? Check with an accountant on this subject.

Here are my fortune-cookie suggestions.
1. You must be disciplined. Give your talents and hard work the best shot at paying off.
2. Organize practice time, and do it.
3. Keep good files. Any phone number or single sheet of paper you may need in the future is worthy of its own file.
4. Don’t censor ideas you have (musical or business) because you think they’re off-the-wall or farfetched. Follow through; either there’s a payoff or you’ll learn from your mistakes.
5. Model your moves after someone else’s who has been successful at what you’re trying to do. What did that person do when he or she was in your situation? Sure, times have changed, but still...

6. Situations often arise that are actually masked opportunities. Part of a successful business mentality is the ability to see the potential value (good or bad) of a situation before you get into it. Will that part-time job in a music store introduce you to areas of the industry you wouldn’t have seen otherwise? Will doing a copywork job allow you to run into a new group of people in your locale? Will playing in a rehearsal band for no money pay off in other ways?
7. Talk candidly with friends and past teachers. If you’ve relocated or you simply don’t see these people often, pick up the phone and call. A part of all of us is rooted in our experiences of the past. In fact, what happened during all of the yesterdays is what got us to today. You can use those yesterdays as a learning tool—and a source of energy and inspiration.

Percussive Notes V34 N1 February 1996
Reprinted by permission of the Percussive Arts Society, Inc., 701 NW Ferris, Lawton, OK 73507-5442; E-mail:; Web: