I started thinking about this as an addition to the Folk Economics series, but now I think it fits better with Getting Things Done.
Very early along in our musical adventure, Chris and I found ourselves playing backup for two young boys, eighteen year old twins that were handsome and congenial and pretty good musicians. Over the course of seven weeks we played quite a few dates spread out over three states. At first the long drives and different venues were mildly glamorous, but soon enough it started to feel like we were playing to more or less the same crowd, another forty people who had nothing better to do than show up for a free performance at a town celebration or a Friday night music series. These were gigs that were no different than those we could have played just down the road from our house—not as frequently, perhaps, but about the same crowd presenting about the same challenge. Aside from building up some tolerance to the tedium of travel, being on the road wasn’t bringing anything to the party.
As we began to look for our own opportunities to perform, we ended up putting potential gigs into three different categories. If the venue was within an hour’s drive of home, we would almost always accept an offer to play there, and we would be flexible about the price. If the drive was between one and two hours, we would be more reluctant to play there, and would stand firm on our price. For anything outside that radius, we would only accept the offer if there was a special reason to do so, e.g. it allowed us to work with musicians we admired or was some kind of venue we hadn’t yet experienced.
That decision took a few things out of the mix, and added some others. It saved us a lot of time away from home. It reduced the number of opportunities for us to perform. But most important, it forced us to play for an audience that became increasingly familiar with us. If you have a superficial gimmick, which we sort of did—a duet, a father-son act, a repertoire of old songs with lots of harmonies—then it isn’t so hard to get people to look at you once. But the gimmick wears off quickly, and so we soon found out what folks enjoyed about us because of its novelty and what they enjoyed about the performance itself.
Because we weren’t able to coast on the gimmick, we had to buckle down and figure out how to create a solid musical experience for our audience. And we did, eventually. We now have a modest presence in southwest Virginia and eastern Kentucky; we’ve played certain events multiple times, and a number of people are glad to see us again. Maybe our proudest moment in that line was when our friend and mentor Ron Short, who arranged for many of those performances, told us that he had been getting questions from folks about when “them fellers” would be playing again. That is exactly how we’d like to be know—them fellers.
Years after we made that decision I happened to be reading Jeri Goldstein’s book How to Be Your Own Booking Agent (which I highly recommend to anyone who has reached the point in their music where they are performing for pay), and I was pleased to see that she had a section describing the importance of building up a hometown presence, rather than chasing around the countryside after gigs. Some of the advantages she lists:
- Build a local reputation from which to expand
- Instill confidence in your performance
- Practice new material in a supportive environment
- Help generate enthusiasm for your career building
- Provide a base for your livelihood
- Provide stability in your life
- Network with other local artists
- Develop your promotional skills
- Develop your business skills
Note that all those advantages actually constitute tests to which you should put yourself if you plan to pursue music performance seriously. And many of them are tests that you can conveniently avoid by always performing in faraway places for people who have never seen you before (and may never see you again).
One nice feature of Goldstein’s book is that the margins are full of relevant quotes and anecdotes from people in the business. Here’s how Mike Boehm, a music writer for the Los Angeles Times, sums up this idea:
Be a hero in your own hometown first. If you don’t have a good core following in your own area, there is little point in trying to conquer the outside world. Given the odds, hometown heroism is all you may be able to achieve. It is no small achievement.
Boehm’s wisdom extends beyond music performance; really, it can be applied to any new thing you want to do, if you phrase it this way: put your efforts to the right tests, in the right order. If, for example, you see a bright future for yourself raising and selling pastured poultry, don’t start out by investing in the equipment and inputs needed to run a multi-thousand chicken operation. Start with a few chickens, to see if you can raise them, or even if you will like raising them. Once you’ve raised a few chickens, then try slaughtering some, to see if you like that. Then try eating some, to see if you like that. Then try giving some to friends, to see if you like that (and if they like your chickens). Then try selling some, to see if you like that (and if you are capable of doing it). Then try the whole thing with somewhat larger numbers of chickens, to see if you like that. And so on.
Each of these tests are challenges that a pastured poultry farmer should be able to meet; if you end up balking at one, it will tell you with minimal investment that you would be wise not to proceed to the next stage of pastured poultry farming. But if you instead plunge into a full-fledged operation, you may end up failing without knowing exactly why. Or, worse, you may struggle to keep an operation alive which deserves to fail, hating your life all the while, simply because you’ve invested so much in success. A relevant bit of wisdom about this comes from musician John Hartford, who often told people, “Don’t get famous doing something you hate.”
But these tests will also tell you something positive, namely the level at which you can operate comfortably. Perhaps you prefer to grow meat birds for friends and family and neighbors, or just for yourself. Perhaps you like to grow them but prefer to pay to have them slaughtered. Perhaps you prefer just to have a few laying hens to produce fresh eggs for your family and the occasional fortunate friend. As Mike Boehm would say, these are no small achievements. Better to be famous for doing something small that you enjoy, rather than something big that you hate.
We’ve done this with eggs, and we’re pretty sure that keeping thirty hens and selling ten dozen or so eggs a week is all we want to do. We’ve done this with produce, and we’re pretty sure that we don’t want to mess with selling fragile things like green leafy vegetables and summer squash, but tomatoes and winter squash and garlic do well for us. We’ve done this with chickens, and we’ve decided to only grow as much as we will eat ourselves, as well as reducing the amount we eat (more on that later). We’ve done this with milk cows, and we’re happy with two and would love to be able to sell the excess milk. We’ve done this with the bookstore, and are happy with the sales we get from our small, carefully selected inventory, and although we’d be happy for more sales we don’t want them at the expense of advertising or expanded selection. We’ve done this with the music, and are comfortable with what we’ve accomplished so far but would like to put ourselves to the next round of tests by building more of a presence in south central Kentucky.