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.
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.