When a musician reaches a significant level of success, he may find he needs a personal manager, a business manager, a tour manager, a publicist, publisher, lawyer and many other people to help promote his career. Before that level of achievement is reached, however, the musician needs to learn how to build his own career. A person can learn a lot of this in school, but there’s no substitute for personal and practical experience, that is, for doing it yourself.
I asked Nate Roberts, a co-owner of the very innovative local music production company, LiveLIVE, how a band could stand out enough to catch his attention. Since three of the four co-owners of LiveLIVE are State University College at Oneonta music industry graduates, I had special interest in hearing Nate’s advice to young musicians.
What are the characteristics of a band you hire or invite to perform in your venues?
When I book a band I’ve never seen, what’s most important is whether they sound good live. They can send me some tracks that sound great, produced and mastered, but if they don’t have any clips on YouTube showing them bringing the house down, I’m probably going to pass.
It often comes down to energy and stage presence. Did everyone at the show have a good time? Do I think this audience is going to tell all their friends about this show and bring them next time?
Do you have advice about musicians starting their own business?
I would say to start small, specialize, then expand. Pick one aspect, like booking. Master it, then move on to booking other bands, maybe start managing one band until you’re really good at that. Then expand on that and so on.
What top five pieces of advice do you have for bands that want to grow in their success?
DIY, DIY, DIY... Manage yourselves. Call the venues and book yourselves, build a website with Wordpress, get merchandise at bandsonabudget.com. Videos of you playing live are more important than uploading your demos.
Is there a difference in your likelihood of hiring a cover band vs. a band that plays their own originals?
I save cover band bookings for special occasions such as Halloween, the night before Thanksgiving, New Year’s, etc. Any other night it’s about bringing new, incredible, never-before- heard (around here) music to the area, and hearing patrons leaving the show saying, “Who where those guys? They were amazing.”
Do you think musicians are good businesspeople? Why or why not?
Generally, no. This doesn’t mean they can’t be. They just haven’t learned how to be. It takes time to learn booking and managing, and playing out for little to no pay is a grind. Unless you’re related to someone famous and have a modicum of talent yourself, you have to work for it, and learn something new every step of the way.
If you knew two years ago what you know now about presenting live music, would you still have formed LiveLIVE?
Absolutely. Never have I done anything that has filled me with such personal enjoyment. I love all the bands I meet and work with. I don’t book anything I don’t like. I spend a majority of my time hanging out with musicians that I respect, and that care about their music and fans. It’s absolutely rewarding ... every show, even the flops (and in a small town, that does happen.)
What do you think musicians should know about building their careers?
Musicians should expect not to make a dime from album sales. They should expect to lose money on merch and think of it more as money spent on advertising than a revenue stream. Musicians should expect to make money playing live shows, and by only playing live shows for as long as they live. And unless they’re signed to a major (label) and getting the kind of publicity they need to book national tours, they should expect to have a day job. When a band graduates from local to regional and they start getting guarantees instead of door deals, and are playing three to four shows a week, it’s time to get serious and keep grinding, probably onto the festival scene and hope someone likes you. But for the most part, don’t quit your job the first time you get $500 for a show, and just keep doing it because you love it.
It’s all about art and all about the community
After Nate answered my questions about the development of a young band’s career, I asked how he felt about being one of several concert presenters in Oneonta. His answer was inspiring. He said, “We all have to work together or no one will come out ahead. All the venues and arts organizations, both colleges, everyone in the arts community needs to work together. If the community scene dies, there’ll be no music for anybody. We have a lot to give our community with music, film, art, video, dance and all the other great things art can do for our area. I’ve gotten a lot from this area and I love having the chance to give back.”
I hope all of us in the arts and at both colleges respond to Nate’s call to action. We’ve all worked very hard to deliver good quality for our region. Nate’s experience suggests that we can do even better if we work together.
Music Industry Tips from Nathanial Roberts
1. Use live performances or YouTube broadcasts to show talent bookers that you’re good at interacting with audiences.
2.Understand that it will take some time to learn to run your own business. Learn about every aspect of a musical career, including booking, generating good publicity, finding and selling merch, and making good deals with venue owners.
3. Write and perform your own music. You’ll have more chance to perform and more value to show record companies as your career grows.
4. Become a positive part of your community and find ways to help it grow by working with other people in the arts. Good things happen when you work together.
Dr. Janet Nepkie is a member of the music industry faculty in the music department of the State University College at Oneonta. Her columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/musicbeat.