Danny Barnes is an American banjo player, singer, and composer. He was a founding member of the Bad Livers. As a solo artist, he has collaborated with Bill Frisell, Dave Matthews, and others. He has been awarded the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass.
Barnes also wrote what is, in my opinion, the best, most clear-headed guide to having a career as a musician available. It is posted on his website, but I took the liberty of adding capitals at the beginning of sentences and doing a little light editing for easier reading. Though it predates the importance of YouTube, it is still required knowledge for any musician who wishes to pursue music as a living, especially those performing the kind of music featured in Guitar Moderne. And as a bonus, here he is with Bill Frisell.
“I hear so much complaining about this subject, I just wanted to lay my practical experience on you. Free.
First, three pre-conditions:
1. If you are a very materialistic person, skip this article, I don’t think you are going to like what it says.
2. If you don’t have the music where you want it art-wise, you might want to go work on that, this article isn’t going to help you much either. You will be better off practicing and studying and working on your music instead. You need to get the art pretty close to where you want it, before you worry about making much of a living out of it.
3. Determine if you are actually called to be a musician. If you aren’t, all the gyrations in the world won’t make it work. If you are, no matter what you do it’s going to work. This determination will solve most of the problems you are going to encounter.
Assuming these three conditions are met, here goes:
Keep your expenses very low. Read that one again. Move someplace cheap. Drive a good used car. Buy your gear used.
Don’t have a big expense like alcohol, drugs or any drag on your system like that. I wouldn’t even smoke. You have to have health insurance. You have to have some money in savings. You have to pay your taxes. Spend very little, save as much as you can and don’t get into any big expenditure until you can afford it, maybe never.
Learn how to honestly add and subtract without emotion. If you spend more than you take in, you lost money. I can’t tell you how many folks have trouble with this. If you bring in more than went out, guess what? You just made money. Stick to this low-overhead model, if you end up making a bunch of dough, you will already know how to deal with it. If not, you still get to keep working because you don’t have a bunch of stuff that you have to dust and pay for.
However, don’t be a cheapskate. tithe or donate faithfully whatever your heart tells you to do. Pay your band as much as you can. Tip well. Give street musicians money. Become involved in charity work.
Be totally square on your taxes. render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. If you try to fudge on this, it will come back to bite you every time. Get receipts for everything, 1099 everyone no matter what, unless they are a corporation. Claim every dollar you make and take every deduction. Keep perfect records.
Your basic infrastructure should consist of a good lawyer, a bookkeeper, a CPA, a doctor, a mechanic, an instrument repair person, a web person, and someone in your circle that will always tell you the truth. Maybe a backup of each one. Do what they say. These are all musts, even for solo acts. Later you can add a good agent, then maybe a manager if you have lots of stuff to deal with like a label.
If you are going into a deal with any entity the arrangement must be win/win. Win/lose is ultimately lose/lose. avoid that. Also, make an agreement that either one of you can walk away at any time and everything is cool.
Don’t be afraid to do other things to make money in the short term. This can be very rewarding. Waiting tables will give you lots of stuff to write songs about. Just live within your means and you can avoid so many hassles. Hassles interrupt your practice routine.
It isn’t about you it’s about your art. If your main focus is on the art, waiting tables is no big deal because you are doing it to support your art. If your main focus is you, you are not going to like waiting tables. You will feel like you are way too good for that.
Avoid the performance mentality. Establish your value outside of how well you did on the gig and what the papers said about you. Otherwise you are going to be miserable and you are going to make everyone else miserable. Somedays you play better than others. This doesn’t make you a great person. Somedays you make lots of errors, this doesn’t make you a bad person.
Record labels can help or drag you down. If they expect you to be the primary distributor of the product, don’t sign the deal. The typical deal is a 90/10 split, you get the ten minus every expense related to the project. Thus, you are paying for everything and giving the label 90 percent of the gross. Read that sentence again. In addition, they will charge you eight bucks plus shipping for CDs that you can make for one dollar. If they are motivated and have a track record and have ideas that are workable, they can really help. However, you might want to have an out clause in there. I’d tell you to avoid the whole thing and do it yourself. It’s very likely the person that brings your act into the label fold will get fired. Then you can get stuck with four years left on the deal and no one will return your calls. They just hope you will get another deal and someone will buy out the rest of the contract. Lots of bands close up shop at this point.
There are some labels that operate with different models. They tend to be more punk rock style outfits. The punk rock deal goes something like this: all the black ink goes in a list, all the red ink goes in a list, find the difference, split what’s left if it’s a positive number 50-50. These are really the only deals I ever made money on. You are creative, your business arrangements can be creative.
The main business strategy is to build your own audience. If you have a draw, agents, labels, and investors [which I do not recommend] will come to you. If you skip this step and start trying to talk to industry people and you don’t have a draw yet, you are going to be sorry [unless you are really hot looking or have a famous parent and/or willing to sign away the rights to the whole thing, of course]. Build your own audience. If you can sell your own records that you make yourself and do your own shows, you can attract the attention of industry folks and get your calls returned. Then you probably won’t need them unless you want them. That’s a better bargaining position for you.
If you don’t have a draw, these are some things to look at:
Where you are playing isn’t the right place.
The music isn’t there yet.
The time isn’t right
Keep working on finding more and better places to play and new contexts within which to place your work.
I wouldn’t get too hung up about opening slots. The old model of thinking if you open for someone and do a good job you can get some of their audience interested in your work is not really that reliable. Find a new model. If you meet someone who wants to work on your team, and you are thinking of hiring them and they offer this as the main strategy, this is not a creative workable person. They are working on decades old business models. This ploy will work sometimes, but it should be part of an overall deal, not the main thing.
I work for free when it’s my idea to do so. If someone else suggests it, I tend to pass. I also pass on a job where they say they aren’t going to pay you but you’ll sell lots of CDs. When I did not adhere to this, I was sorry.
Don’t expect to get paid more than you can bring in. If you draw ten people, and the cover is ten bucks a head, you gross one hundred dollars. not five hundred. Don’t get mad at the agent, club owner or whatever because of simple math. If you want a raise, figure out how to draw more folks. You can’t ask for more than you bring in the door. If you don’t believe this, try producing some concerts of your own.
You may want to hire sidemen that don’t get too worked up about money, it can be hard to make these folks happy. Also, when it comes to hiring musicians, you may have to live with them and be involved with them about emotional issues like money and life problems. You may want a person that’s easy to get along with even if they are a little less sharp musically. Of course, getting both is best, but if you have to take one or the other, take the one you get along with a little better. If you are in a place where you don’t have a lot of choice, you may be forced to hire someone that’s tough to be around. Replace them when you can. The best players I know are also the nicest folks. Except for one or two. When folks have it together, they are at ease and play great, and know when to lay out. They are also more expensive.
It’s totally fine, and many times necessary, to use different players on the recordings than in the shows. If you are a leader, do this with no guilt. if you are a sideman, get ready for it and don’t complain. It has to be this way. If you don’t believe it, try putting out your own record and you’ll soon see why. Sidemen, you can always practice and take lessons and get your tuning and timing together. Leaders again, get their tax ID and report every dollar that transacts. If someone is upset about this, you can’t use them—period. Never fudge on taxes.
Use local shows to try out new stuff, play with different folks, have fun, play for the home town crowd, etc., but typically you won’t be able to work that often at home. Maybe twice a year. Don’t worry about that. Your market is the whole world, not your hometown.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t make money playing music. Six of my pretty good musician friends are millionaires. Three of them multi-millionaires. Three of them play music about which most folks would surely comment, “You can’t make any money playing that.” Don’t tell those guys. Five of them are the nicest people you would ever want to meet. One of them is as mean as a snake. There you go.
I would suggest being able to do different things. If you write songs, maybe you can sing on other folk’s demos or play guitar in someone else’s band. For years I taught music lessons in a music store. Many folks I work with have a little studio and also play in someone’s band, or are a chef or tax person on the side. This is all very healthy. I know several folks that are sidemen but have their own writing deal or what have you. That way you can take a hit and keep moving. The world doesn’t grind to a halt because your label went under.
Be wary of someone that talks about gear a lot and folks that tell you how great they are. Stay away from complainers and folks that don’t have their lives somewhat together. Sometimes folks need some ministering, which is certainly what we are called to do, but if you take someone out on the road with a big jones, you are going to be sorry. Drama is always bad.
Build alliances. Let’s say you play some weird kind of music, contact someone in another city that does something similar and offer to set up a concert for them in your town. Maybe they will later help you to play their city. If you can’t get into a particular festival, why not have your own festival? Get some like-minded bands together, get a venue to turn over the night to you to produce your own gig, and do it yourself. Sometimes you can do that yourself easier than you can talk someone else into doing it for you and then paying you. Going to that big music conference is out of the question? Why not have your own conference? It might be cheaper to fly in the guy you want to see your band. That way you only have to put one guy up, rather than having flying a six-piece band to Los Angeles and have one guy that lives there come out to the show. He may blow you off anyway. It would probably be cheaper to fly in six A and R guys to where you are and put them up and have them come to the show, than it would be to take the band out to them because of the gear and salary. You also could have their undivided attention, within reason.
If there’s no social context for the music you are making, don’t be mad if no one comes to the shows or buys the music, or very few people do. In that case the reward has to be the music. Hey that’s a great deal: You have lots of freedom to do different stuff because there’s no one to alienate. Let’s face it, sometimes having no one at the show is a great indicator that you are onto something. I’m serious.
Don’t waste materials and time giving a CD to someone unless you are fairly sure they will actually listen.
If I sense the gig is going to get weird before I even get there, I cancel the show and walk away. Because of this, I can’t remember the last bad gig I’ve had. Let’s say I’ve booked a show next year with a person I don’t know that well. As time goes by, he keeps wanting to chisel away at our arrangement, or add stuff for me to do, or whine or complain about the situation, I would cancel the show. Time and time again, I learned it only gets weirder and more difficult when you get there. This is better for the buyer too because then he or she doesn’t have to worry about my show anymore.
Have interests outside of your art. Especially if you can do this on a non-performance basis, where you can just enjoy the activity and not analyze it to death. It’s so easy to burn out if you do one overwhelming thing for about twenty or thirty years. Sometimes I don’t play at all. I don’t think about work and mess around with my sailboat, work in the yard, or ride the motorcycle, giving myself a break from the pass/fail mentality. I like just being a regular person.
Think of your art as a work in progress. That takes the heat off it having to be perfect all the time. Keep working on your art, your vision, your catalog. Dedicate your work life to that, and things will work out.”