Today’s guest column by veteran Kalamazoo producer Ian Gorman offers tips for expanding a musician’s toolkit during an economic downturn — and to help ensure future success.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Musicians’ Soundboard gives a voice to Michigan musicians and industry veterans amid an ever-challenging music scene. Today, Kalamazoo recording studio owner, producer and multi-instrumentalist Ian Gorman offers a guide to survival for musicians.
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Even before the pandemic hit, musicians didn’t exactly have it easy.
The gig economy has never been for the faint of heart — living show to show, week to week or month-to-month if you’re lucky.
Performers often have to wear many hats as well: booking agent, manager, promoter, administrative assistant, bookkeeper, all on top of actually making music. Even the most successful independent artists were just barely scratching by, putting in constant hustle and long hours for very little money. And those were in the “normal” days before COVID.
Now, with the pandemic and the big pause of the entertainment industry, those challenges have been greatly amplified, and many in our community are struggling as never before. But no one pursues a career in music because it’s the sensible and stable path, we do it because we are compelled to, because it’s built into our bones and because it fuels our souls.
With or without live shows, we’re going to create anyway. We’re not going to stop writing and playing, for the magic and power of music is just too great. But without gigs, we’ve lost the main source of income for our community. So, what do we do now? How do we get through this and make it to the other side?
Difficult times can spawn alternate ways to branch out, using talents as a musician to explore sources of income besides gigging. After all, there is no rulebook for the music industry. We’ve always had to be flexible, open, and inventive to survive, and this adaptability is something we need to lean into now more than ever.
Casting a wide net and piecing together our careers from a variety of sources is critical to the life of an independent musician, and I want to share with you some of the approaches that I’ve seen help many along the way.
Let me be clear: There is no replacement for the income loss or creative fulfillment we get from live shows, and it’s critical that we get back on stage as soon as we can. But here are some options for exploring alternate sources of income, expanding skill sets, sparking ideas and maybe even accruing long-term benefits to your career well beyond the age of COVID. After all, versatility is key to our success, regardless of the pandemic.
TEACHING – Giving lessons has long been a great supplement to the career of a gigging musician. You can do this either independently, or through working for an established music school. In Kalamazoo, a couple of the most popular ones are the Kalamazoo Music School and the Kalamazoo Academy of Rock. But keep in mind that being good at an instrument and being good at teaching that instrument are two very different things. It requires lots of preparation (studying teaching techniques and creating lesson plans), as well as patience and the flexibility to adapt to what the student wants to learn and what methods are most effective. These days, it’s also critical to be able to teach virtually in addition to in-person, so make sure you’re comfortable with Zoom.
WORKING AS A STUDIO MUSICIAN – Recording is an area of the music world that’s still very active. Musicians can’t really gig right now, but their creative sparks are finding outlets in the studio. If you’re looking to get into studio work, it’s much more effective to do so by building on your already-established reputation and body of work as a performer than it is to “cold call” studios. I suggest contacting and communicating with artists and studios that already know you in some way, and letting them know that you’re looking to get into more studio work. Artists and engineers look to musicians they already know and very rarely just take on musicians they haven’t heard of, regardless of how talented those musicians might be.
Performing in the studio is very different than performing on stage, and the skills to be a great recording musician are different than those needed for playing live. There’s certainly a lot more to it than just being good at your instrument. You must be dependable, prepared, flexible and good with communication. Show up knowing the songs and having some options to present to the artist who hired you, but also let go of your ego. If they don’t like what you’re playing, you need to be willing to change it up at the drop of a hat, let go of any “creative ownership” of what you’re doing, and embrace your role in helping the artist realize their vision.
STREAMING PERFORMANCES – Lots of musicians are channeling their love of performing into live online streams. This is not only a great way to make a little extra income through donations, but also an important way to continue the connection between you and your audience. Although live-streams will never take the place of a packed bar or theater (or replace the income from a traditional show), there’s something wonderfully direct and intimate about the performances. Artists such as Joshua Davis and May Erlewine have been staging weekly performances online for months, and it’s become a tradition that fans cherish.
MUSIC LICENSING – Music licensing can be a great source of income for recording musicians (getting placement for your music in TV, movies, advertisements or video games). There are many companies specializing in licensing, so a good place to start is through a performing rights organization such as ASCAP, BMI or SESAC.
If you’re looking to explore this, it’s critical that you’re already registered with a performing rights organization. Even if you’re going through a third-party company, they’re going to expect your material to be registered, protected and ready to go. It’s also important to have instrumental versions of your recorded work available, as instrumentals get way more placement than songs with vocals. Plan ahead when you’re getting your album mastered, and have your engineer also master instrumental versions at the same time.
Be careful that you have a clear understanding of any agreements an organization asks you to sign, especially regarding the rights of your recorded work. If it means giving up ownership of the material or recordings in any way, that’s something you want to do consciously, and not be surprised by it later. If reading legal jargon isn’t in your wheelhouse, it might be well worth it to seek out an expert to help you.
GRANT FUNDING – Grants often help fund artistic projects. We’re lucky enough to have organizations such as the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (“MCACA”), that have been regular supporters of the arts for a long time. I’ve worked on many albums funded in part or in whole by them.
To apply for grants, you have to be comfortable with very specific forms, budget plans and deadlines. If it’s your first time, I’d highly recommend getting the guidance of someone who has successfully navigated this world before. There are certainly approaches that tend to work better than others, and “grant writing” is a skill unto itself. But if you’re willing to jump through the necessary hoops, it can be a great opportunity to get financial support.
CROWDSOURCING – Platforms such as Patreon, Kickstarter and Gofundme have been around for years, but might be more helpful now than ever before. Even if you’re using crowdsourcing simply as a way for fans to pre-order albums and show their support, this can be a good way to build funding for your project. And maybe just as importantly, it can double as a terrific promotional tool: The promo push for your fundraising campaign also leads to much more visibility and anticipation for your upcoming album.
KEEP THE HOME FIRES BURNING – Above all, keep creating, and keep following your muse. We will get through this, and slowly start to return to some version of the performing lives we had before the pandemic. The world needs your voice and your vision, and that’s something you can foster and grow regardless of state of the industry. After all, the spark of inspiration and the beauty of emotional connection is why we do this. As they say, “After the plague, came the renaissance.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Ian Gorman is owner and head engineer of La Luna Recording and Sound in Kalamazoo, as well as a musician, promoter, booker and dedicated fan of the Michigan music scene. Since founding La Luna in 2002 (originally known as “Big Green Lamp!”), Ian has worked with hundreds of the most prolific and inspiring artists in the region, and has helped produce over 750 albums. Get more information at lalunarecording.com.
CHECK OUT THE JAN. 4 MUSICIANS’ SOUNDBOARD COLUMN BY STOVEPIPE STOVER: Why we must start paying for recorded music again
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