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Business of Music 101

Jazzed Magazine • Lessons LearnedOctober 2017 • November 7, 2017

By Harry Schnipper

AUTHOR DISCLAIMER: This article is not intended to encapsulate every aspect of our industry.

The business of music is all about uncovering quantifiable solutions to pragmatic problems. It is also about making more money, at the very least, and about earning a living at the same time. The simple act of making money is called entrepreneurship and the presenter of that entrepreneurship can be likened to a performer’s silent partner. The simple truth is that the silent partner invests in the entrepreneur, expecting to receive a financial return on their investment and, if there is no return on that investment, then there is no invitation to return. It is really that simple, however the artist-entrepreneur needs to know that the silent partner maintains a symbiotic relationship with all artists, agents, or managers and that’s what this article is all about. The good artist-entrepreneurs know this little secret and the bad ones will always be left to wonder why they never receive any return telephone calls or messages. The truth is that successful artists constantly reinvest in themselves by developing new audiences, that audiences are merely customers of entertainment and true artists communicate by consistently providing their audiences with new creative entertainment. (Can you say Chic Corea?)

I like to think of music as an alternative form of creative communication when we reduce it to its common denominator. As an entrepreneur, an artist must develop a constructive business plan that contains elemental forms of one’s own personal investment – whether that investment is thought, ideas, or currency. The old adage, “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail” is especially salient in the musician’s case. A musician is a creative artist in search of an audience, but musicians cannot exist solely in an ethereal world.

The Ethereal World and the Real World

A lot of weight is given to social media in today’s ethereal world, but in the end most artists rely upon bricks-and-mortar venues to ply their trade and grow their audiences. Plying one’s trade is about attracting an ever-increasing audience that invests their hard-earned income on quality entertainment and sustaining that level of income over time. FULL DISCLOSURE: If you are already a successful artist, musician, or entertainer you do not need me to explain to you the mechanics of your own business plan because you are already financially thriving. You may need me to tell you, though, that jazz is truly an egalitarian art form and every minute of every day there is another creative person just like you out to unconsciously steal your audience share in a world where there is an ever-decreasing number of venues. That is the plain but sad truth of today’s jazz entertainment universe.

The first rule of becoming a successful jazz entertainment entrepreneur is that no two markets are exactly the same. What works for you in Peoria may not translate to New York, Atlanta, Chicago, LA, and certainly not Europe or Japan. With the advent of social media, you must go to where your audience is and knowing your audience’s location is your secret to financial success and that may take some doing. So let’s start with your business plan. An artist or musician’s business plan should contain a physical and an electronic promotional package. While it may be easy to attach oneself to an agent or manager, that may be easier said than done. Consider yourself the employer of that agent or manager and not visa versa. You have a product to sell and that product is your music. A good agent or manager is interviewing you just as much as you should be interviewing them. I have worked with countless agents over as many decades and the keys to their success lie in identifying talent that both bonds and brands over time.

Agents and Managers

The artist-agent bond is a relationship like any other professional relationship, but that agent must be as equally entrepreneurial as you are an artist. If your goal is to record the best product possible, and get that product in to as many hands, hearts, or minds, then your relationship requires professional networking. SPOILER ALERT: ALWAYS GET THAT RELATIONSHIP IN WRITING. Networking may require a myriad of different means and those means require constructing a quantifiable resumé. In the ethereal world, this resumé may include uploads, downloads, “unique” visits, followers, “friends,” and “hits.” Remember that you are laying your career foundation and all of the building blocks that come after will hopefully result in the construction of a lifelong and satisfying career in the art of making music. I shall therefore strongly recommend hiring a professional website creator and possibly even a business consultant. While one may readily dispense with these marketing recommendations, websites have not yet disappeared since the inception of the Internet to my knowledge. (Remember MySpace?) Consider your website your island in a sea of musical miasma. Your website should contain durable, consistent, relevant, and sustainable information. You should incorporate links, sponsors, testimonials, samplings, reviews, and contact information. Your website should be just another tool in your entrepreneurial toolbox; it should reflect who you are and it also your link to the outside world – wherever that world may be. If you doubt my word then install a ticker and count the number of visits. (NOTE: Start your ticker at a relatively high number because psychologically no one wants to be the first tick and no presenter wants to see a subservient number of ticks.) This will be an especially valuable piece of information when you are selling your music to a doubtful buyer.

Stay on Target

Another step in the right direction should be to establish your targeted demographic audience early on in your career and often through audience reinforcement. Knowing your targeted demographic audience will enable you to further profile your product to the consumer. (NOTE TO SELF: EVERY PRODUCT HAS A PROFILE, INCLUDING MUSIC.) The best way to develop your profile and your product is to tour, but touring can be a daunting and overwhelming process. The solution to this process is to start out with a mini-tour. Begin at the beginning, which is where you domicile. Your domicile is where you live and collect your postal mail (at least for now.) The mini-tour can be a week to a month, depending upon your geographic proximity to other towns and cities. Start with a two-hour radius in each direction and identify towns of equal size and demography. Contact talent buyers and music critics. Remember that this contacting is called doing your homework or in professional parlance, performing your “due diligence.” Research all of the available venues and reach out to talent buyers directly via the telephone (TRANSLATION: A telephone is that apparatus that you hold in your hand that humans used to use to talk to one another). It is also the instrument that we humans used prior to texting, e-mails, and instantaneous communications. Never forget that every musician is fundamentally in the communications business and that every successful business is responsible for developing its own clientele. Repeatedly pushing ”re-send” will not necessarily deliver the desired outcome and may even alienate the recipient from further communicating with you. A qualified and responsible talent buyer reads quantifiably delivered information in order to arrive at an informed solution.

The artist or musician and the talent buyer maintain a unique and symbiotic relationship. The artist wants to earn a living selling their music and reaching an ever-expanding audience with the product of their hard work. The talent buyer wants to stay in business, keep his or her job, and earn a decent living. If you do not believe that a successful venue is tabulating audience counts, defining price points, quantifying food and beverage consumption, and merchandise sales, then you should not be in the music business. The attitude of the presenter is that of a silent partner and the goal of that presenter is to be profitable and profitability is predicated upon proprietary practices. The business of music can be essentially segmented in to three proprietary precepts: (1) product, (2) audience, and (3) marketing. The biggest misconception in the second half of the twentieth century was that you go to school, you graduate, and then you sit back and wait for the telephone to ring or for an e-mail to arrive in your inbox. The dirty little secret in the entertainment industry is that marketing is the missing link and can make the difference between success and failure. You can be the greatest musician in the world, but if you do not take the time to market, network, and cultivate your audience then you are essentially an artist without a voice. In the early 1990s there was a popular movie starring Kevin Costner entitled “Field of Dreams” that I am fond of quoting and its catch phrase was, “Build it and they will come.” Not only is this catch phrase a complete fallacy in the jazz music industry, we no longer possess the infrastructure to transform abject creativity into financial success. A half-century ago a performer would cut a record deal, release a demo, pitch it to radio, make in-store record appearances, perform on tour, and earn a living. Now, everyone today is trying to carve out his or her own creative niche in an ever-expanding ethereal universe. I cannot tell you how many times I have been in the presence of sidemen and women, attending a master class, standing in a festival line, and I have struck up a conversation with a musician and they did not have a copy of their own recording in their possession.

Musical recordings are your business cards. Not only are recordings your business cards, but also you should be asking others for their business cards as a matter of course. The fact of the matter is that you will never know when you will encounter an agent, manager, presenter, or talent buyer, but chances are they will be often quietly attending performances in search of new talent. Two things that successful agents, managers, presenters, and talent buyers want to do: (1) be on the cutting edge of identifying new music and (2) cultivating talent for future performances. The ability to achieve these two objectives successfully and successively increases their own qualifications and reputations within an increasingly competitive industry.

In Closing

Finally, your reputation is all that you have got in this increasingly competitive industry and you need to show up and follow up. I have personally worked with all of the jazz legends in this industry and these two credos are what differentiate the successful musician or artist from the unsuccessful. Your success is simply doing what it is you say you are going to do when you say you are going to do it and doing it to the best of your abilities. If you say that you agree to hold a press conference, perform an on-air interview, participate in a meet-and-greet, or host a clinic to promote your upcoming performance then you need to take the necessary steps to insure that you successfully achieve that performance. This includes providing the talent buyer with a contract and a technical rider, any management contacts, hospitality requirements, or guests well in advance of your designated date. Always remember that you are the master or mistress of your own musical destiny and that by empowering others you empower yourself.

Good luck and good gigs.

Harry Schnipper is owner and executive director of Washington D.C.’s famed Blues Alley and has worked with innumerable jazz performers, agents, and promoters throughout his career. This year saw the launch of the first annual Ella Fitzgerald Competition, under Schnipper’s guidance:

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