Category Archives: Marketing

Extinguishing Audience Burnout

With the work I’ve been doing playing tons of instruments in different ensembles, I’ve noticed there’s an area I’ve put on the back burner.  That would be Neon and Shy, my solo songwriting project.  This year I’ve only played about 6 or 7 solo shows, which is much fewer than last year when I had about 2 shows per month.  The clearest reason for why this has dropped off quite a bit is a financial one.  While playing singer-songwriter shows, it is very difficult to make any money.  Playing an instrument in a band is much more lucrative.

Being inquisitive, I got to wondering whether that’s just the nature of the business or how I have been handling my business.  I think there’s something to be said for both.  Bars, coffee houses, and other venues for smaller original performers are just accustomed to paying very little, if at all for their live music.  And yet, I’ve found ways in which I was complicit in hurting my bottom line as well.  One big issue I discovered was my contribution to audience burnout.

In my attempts to get as much exposure as possible, I booked myself wherever I could.  Some of these venues were not conducive to listening to music (or having good food, drinking good beer, or frankly, having a good time).  Some of these venues had sub-par sound systems.  Some of these venues charged an extraordinary amount for the audience to see the music.  Some were very far away.  Some had unrealistic models for how the performers could be compensated.

And some of these venues had every one of these problems.

As a performer and as a marketer, I would try to get as many people as possible out to these shows.  The typical way for a beginner in the industry to get people out is to use the friends and family approach.  I would broadcast invitations to as many of the people in my life as I could reach and ask them to come out.  And for the first few months, a lot of them did.  Over time, though, the flow slowed to a trickle.

While my material is rather eclectic, I don’t think the quality or style was what turned my fans away.  I think it was the invitations I would send to shows that I myself wouldn’t have gone to if I hadn’t been booked there.  Eventually I realized I was becoming embarrassed to ask people to come out to a show that I knew would not meet my standards for a fun night out.

Around this time my tuba gigging life got a lot fuller, so I put the Neon and Shy shows on the back burner and focused on playing more paying gigs.  During that time, I came to terms with the fact that I was playing unfun shows, and decided to take a different approach.

Realistic charge for entry

I had played too many shows where my fans had to pay $12 to see me play for a half hour.  Unless I was wildly in love with the performer, that would be a hard pill to swallow.  And if I were wildly in love I would do it… once.  So I thought about what I’d be willing to pay to see the same amazing performer multiple times, and that cost for me is between $0 and $5.  Once I start making the Top 40 list, we can start to bump it up, but until then it’s too easy for a fan to feel cheated by paying too much.

A word about earnings

I also realized that sometimes I’d bring about 10 people to a show of mine and earn nothing for the effort.  One of my favorite places to play in Philadelphia is the Dawson Street Pub, and the reason is how fair they are about payment (ok, it’s also got the nicest people, the best beer, the most off the hook fries, and the best vibe).  I’ve played shows there where the band I was playing packed the place, and we would earn several hundred dollars as our cut.  I’ve play shows where I was able to bring in about 5 people on a weeknight, and I’d earn several dollars as my cut.  I don’t ask for something unrealistic when there isn’t a built-in crowd, but I should at least get something for my effort.

I’ve found, though, that the audience is afforded a special privilege when they are solely responsible for the performer’s payment.  Yes, I’m talking about playing for tips.

Amanda Palmer has an interesting TED talk on the subject if you haven’t seen it.  The essential idea is that allowing the audience to determine what and how to pay the artist allows for a more intimate connection, and one that’s hard to develop otherwise.  The professional musician in me bristles a bit at the idea, as we are constantly struggling to convince people that we deserve to be paid for the talents we have honed for so long.  I can’t deny, though, that playing for tips has a surprising quality of sincerity.  I’ve seen in at shows at certain venues, when I’ve made far more than the venue would have paid me.  I’ve seen it in the subway station both from the people who smile when they see me play and from the tweets I’ll see afterwards:


A special connection

There are shows we remember for the genius of the talent that is performing.  These shows are rare and precious, and I’m still striving to get my quality up to that level (I think I’ll always be).  There are also shows we remember for the connections the audience has made with the performer.  I think of Michael Franti coming out into the audience after the show to hug his fans or They Might Be Giants with their audience participation in improvised songs about the Planet of the Apes.  These moments are increasingly rare in popular music, and I think they have an important role.  So I’ve been trying to foster these connections and come up with ways to draw in the audience beyond words and music.

I have a few songs in which I hand instruments out to the audience and conduct them through a song while I sing it.  I’ve had the audience provide sound effects for my music as well.  I think one of my most popular shows ever was the one in which I had a 20 minute set and attempted to perform 20 songs in 20 minutes.

Lately I’ve been thinking about ways to connect with an audience merely through the art of songwriting.  Often as a songwriter, the appeal of the song comes from the way the listener can relate to it.  There can be a tendency to cast a wider net to ensnare more listeners, but it’s really hard to do that while crafting an interesting and unique piece of art.  So I’ve started casting a much smaller, narrower net with the idea in mind that I’ll catch the ears of fewer listeners, but those I do catch will take in the song as a more personal experience.

Playing at Chemical Heritage Foundation

The first three rows will get scienced on!

I’ve started writing songs that appeal to my fringe geek cultural roots and need for analysis.  I wrote a song called Level One to Level Two about the tropes roleplay games such as Dungeons and Dragons and Kobolds Ate My Baby.  I’ve been writing songs about prime numbers and obscure video games, and grammar.  While I know that there will be people who just don’t understand it, I’m hoping for a few “FINALLY” moments from the people who do.  I just premiered some of them at a special show at a museum in town, the Chemical Heritage Foundation, to great success.  By the way, that was a free show with free cookies and cider.  Everyone came away happy.

Ultimately, I learned the importance of empathizing with my audience and merging my artistic leanings with their needs and interests.  As with everything I do, this is an experiment that continues to evolve.

And if you’re free on December 28th, I’m playing at the incredibly cozy Zen Den Coffee in Doylestown.  The seats are comfortable, the staff is delightful, the snacks are lovely, and the sound is fantastic.  Hey, it’s a free show, but if you feel like giving some tips, I’d sure appreciate it.  Just remember who’s looking out for you.


Pining for Novemberfest

The other day, I posted to Polkadelphia’s Facebook page:

Well, our first Oktoberfest season has come and gone. We had a blast playing from Philly to northern Jersey to the Polkanos. We had so much fun that I've decided to continue the party into... NOVEMBERFEST! Break out the insulated lederhosen, the polka Thanksgiving tunes, and beer beer BEER! We're coming for ya!

It was a kind of tongue in cheek way for me to both take pride in what I had accomplished over the previous month, as well as express some anxiety about the holes in my working schedule.

October was a very good month for me.  Polkadelphia was playing at least once a week, often much more.  While 2 or 3 shows per week for a polka band during Oktoberfest season seems a little low, I’m really proud of how much we accomplished as a band that hasn’t been around a whole lot.  I also had great gigs with 5 other groups across the month some of which were bands I had never played with before.  I got to play accordion in the West Philadelphia Orchestra, giving me the opportunity to expand my role in the group and learn new repertoire on that instrument.  I also got to write new songs as Neon and Shy and perform in one of my favorite venues (shoutout to the Zen Den).

Novemberfest!Last month I got to amp up my business acumen as well.  Booking Polkadelphia repeatedly taught me some new skills for finding work and negotiating.  I actually began to look forward to calling clients, instead of cringing any time the phone rang.  I had the opportunity to teach sousaphone lessons to a colleague, jumping back into the teaching world.  I was hired to build a new website for a client, and I got a few graphic design projects thrown my way as well.  And of course I got the brilliant idea for Novemberfest which, while not a full-fledged idea yet, has great potential for the future.

In October, I managed to meet my financial goals, meaning I earned enough to pay my monthly expenses.  This is an accomplishment of which I am especially proud, as it gives me the confidence and reassurance to continue working hard to make music my primary source of income.  It’s yet another reason I pine for Novemberfest, since I know running a polka band during Oktoberfest contributed greatly to my financial security for the month.

That last sentence there is the insecurity in me talking, and it has been nagging quite a bit lately.  The real trigger for it was the end of October, when I got my car inspected and found I needed major repairs.  The bill made a massive dent in the earnings I had worked so hard for, and I started second guessing myself.  Talking with a few other freelancers who assured me this sort of thing is always happening has made it a bit easier, but I still feel like I’m not accomplishing enough.

It’s an odd pattern.  There’s a very small sweet spot between when I start a project (book a show, write a song, arrange a new piece for a band) and see it to fruition (play the booked show, perform the written song, showcase the new arrangement) in which I’m feeling like all is well in the world and I’m being productive. After that, it’s easy to start to panic that I’m not doing enough.  While it’s important to have a strong work ethic, it’s far too easy to be, as David Bowie says in Rock ‘n Roll Suicide, “religiously unkind” to myself.*

Looking back over October, I can see why I might feel this way.  I’m still finding ways to be physically comfortable after my back injuries.  It’s cutting into my productivity, as one of the few places where it doesn’t hurt to work for over an hour is in bed (where I’m currently typing this).  And as business-like as my bed is, there’s no escaping the fact that I go there every night to rest.  Also, as I learned in 9th grade, you can’t really practice the tuba (or any other instrument) in bed.  It just doesn’t work.

I’m also a little gun shy about performing too much.  It’s hard to feel the correlation between the pain I feel and the performances, so I don’t always know what specifically to stop doing.  While performing is sometimes about landing those big lucrative gigs, I am finding that it’s also about just getting out and being present.  So I’m trying to do that without overdoing it.  As a whole, I’m trying to continue my experiments in productivity without damaging the future of my productivity.

So I’ll continue to find new approaches, develop new ideas, and create new opportunities.  Now that I’ve seen it happen for one month, I know financial solubility can be a reality.  I’ll keep on pushing through the thin veneer of terror and impossibility that can cling like a film to see what’s on the other side.  Onward to Novemberfest, Decemberfest, and beyond!


I’ve been really loving this song lately.  While it’s ostensibly part of the Ziggy Stardust story at a point in which he is washed up and depressed, I find it a timeless inspiration.  We as creators feel that timeless drag towards self-destruction, the clock ticking away our time left to say something, anything, and the solitary confinement of the path less traveled.  And in one soaring ride, David Bowie offers consolation and respite.  It’s really such a gorgeous journey.

New Brand Day

I recently finished up my third month of busking in the SEPTA terminal. This month I got to play in my preferred location and time. I continue to learn what I’m doing down there (and how to do it better).

In addition to the actual music I play and how I play it, I’ve been looking for other ways to connect with the people in the station. By and large, everyone is in a pretty big hurry, so I only have a few moments to make an impact. One way for me to connect that I have been using is Twitterstalking afterwards to see if anyone mentioned me and introduce myself. It’s been great, but by the nature of it, I only get that connection after I’ve stopped playing. So I started playing with signs.

Since the beginning, I’ve been putting up a sign with my Twitter handle asking for requests. For the most part, it got a quick glance before people moved on. And I got zero requests for music, meaning it wasn’t having any impact. After viewing it from the audience perspective I realized why.

They were clearly wary that I was selling something (which I sort of am). I thought the novelty of a busker offering an online correspondence would be amusing enough that someone would try it, but apparently that’s a bigger hurdle to jump than I thought. It turned me into just another guy trying to sign people up for my mailing list.

So I opted for a much more innocuous sign to try to connect with people without their feeling like they were at risk of further contact with me. A simple sign with a singular message: “GOOD MORNING!”

Apparently it was too innocuous. Or perhaps to much of a commonly disingenuous statement that people make without thinking. In either case, I got barely a glance at it as the throngs passed by. I meant it sincerely, in a “hey, we’re all in this together kind of way,” but no one cared to infer that much sincerity. Which I completely get.

The next sign was a product of the whimsies of my mind. For example, when I see a jar of garlic, I immediately think “Jarlic.” So one night, I came up with a silly little riddle about public transportation, that looked something like this:

What do you call a 70 year old who rides the train in Philly?

This one got peoples’ attention. I saw a few double-takes as people walked by, and a few smirks. I posted it to Twitter and Instagram at the same time and got a bunch of peoples’ responses. And as I finished my final song that day, a man approached me and gave me the answer:

A SEPTA-genarian.

The next time I played, I didn’t have a sign, and I was playing sousaphone instead of accordion. In the Twitter comments that day, a few of them mentioned that I was playing a different instrument.

guy who has been playing an accordion 4 the last week @market east station now has a tuba some1 needs 2 teach this guy how to play guitar

(And by the way, I didn’t let that comment at the end slide. We ended up having a nice 140 character conversation about it.)

What this told me was that people were actually noticing that I was down there, even though it looked like they were rushing by and ignoring me. I was having some impact, because when I changed it up, they commented.  So for my final day, I printed this sign:

This is my last performance here this month.  I'll see you in October!  Keep in touch (take a card).

At the bottom, I included cards for people to take with my Neon and Shy info on it. In addition to making a more personal connection by acknowledging that the people in the station acknowledged me, I also had a small hope that this would earn that precious sympathy dollar.

Now, interestingly, I had offered cards for people to take from the first time I was down there playing, but no one would touch them. The sign and the connection gave people a bit more permission (and trust) however. Across the 2 hours I was down there, about 10 people took cards, which was huge as far as I was concerned.

Later that morning, I got a call from the owner of a few restaurants in Old City who asked if I would be interested in busking in front of his bar during happy hour. We ironed out the details, and suddenly I had my first gig from busking.

When I had first started playing in the station, I was not looking at it as a stepping stone to getting paid work. However, I knew it was a project that had many potential doors. It was incredibly exciting for me to open one of those doors, and reap the fruits of my labor.

Last Friday I played at the restaurant, and had a blast. The people there were incredibly friendly, the atmosphere at the bar was great, and the food was delicious. I took some time to talk with the owner before I played. We had an interesting conversation about live music in a restaurant setting (told as a dialogue for dramatic effect).

“Thing is,” he told me, “whenever we have a live music event here, we are guaranteed to lose money.”

It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, for sure, but it was something that rang true to me. It certainly explained why restaurants frequently balked at the prices I charge when trying to book Polkadelphia. I thought it was because restaurants don’t explicitly budget for music, but I never considered it was because it was an active loss. He continued.

“When we bring a band in, people are more interested in listening to the music than buying food and drinks. It hurts our sales and we end up with a lower than usual income that night.”

He went on to tell me that even so, he still has bands play from time to time. And clearly he was going against the grain by hiring me to play that night. So why does he do it?



“We don’t do music events for profit. We do it to build the brand. To build loyalty in our customers. So they know that when they come to our place, they just might see an accordion player singing Toxic strolling through the bar. That’s a draw.”

And suddenly everything seemed to fall into place for my experiment down in the train station. While making enough money to sustain myself by busking is a noble (and incredibly ambitious) goal, my real purpose down there is building my brand. I’m exposing myself to thousands of people each morning as a snapshot; a character; a brand. When I make a sign that connects with people, it’s further defining my brand and creating loyalty in my fan base.

Just because I don’t quite know what my brand is yet, it doesn’t necessarily detract from the building of it. The more I do know, the more I can focus, but at the moment, it’s once again just a bunch of doors waiting to be opened.

The bar owner’s comments also made me re-evaluate the way I approach restaurants when trying to book Polkadelphia. Unless it’s a special event that is advertised, a German restaurant is (probably) not going to make more money the night we play their restaurant. They might even make less. But they become known as the place where that awesome polka band that plays Radiohead performs, and that causes both buzz and customer loyalty. They build their brand.

I was struck today that playing in the train station has given me significantly more exposure than performing in established venues over the past year or two (even some big ones). I’ve also made more money in the station than I have as a solo artist playing bars and clubs. Whether this is an indictment of the music industry or my own personal loophole, I’m not sure; so much remains to be seen. But I can see the path unfolding around me, slowly coalescing into something awesome.

Time to stoke the fire, heat the metal, and see where the sweet sizzle of flesh takes me.

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