“I recommend my students not to be professional unless they really have to be. I tell them, ‘If you love music, sell Hoovers or be a plumber. Do something useful with your life.’
Let me firstly clarify what I mean by “professional musicians” and “hobbyists”
A professional of any sort supports themselves financially from their craft. A hobbyist is someone who may play music, but their primary income is derived from other means, even though they may generate some income from musical activities.
The Oxford dictionary definition is
“Engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as an amateur”
I would not class myself as a professional musician in this respect and have absolutely no intentions of ever being one either. I am however a professional trainer and consultant with global reach which also allows me to fund musical activities and create musical platforms I believe in. I know many seasoned professionals with decades of experience and I know how hard they work. I also know how there’s usually a massive commercial pressure to deliver on the record company’s investment. I’d never personally wish to be in that situation, but I am grateful that others go down that path.
The Playing for exposure issue and other constraints
Recently there have once again been numerous conversations online about artists playing “for exposure” also known as play for free. Many of these are hobbyists and I am increasingly hearing that this presents all manner of problems for professional musicians. Of course, this is all about balance and there is IMO a place for both, but from what I hear this trend can lead to professionals being edged out by hobbyists as promoters see this as a cheaper financial option. This all depends on context and promoters need to attract customers, so artists with a following will always be an attractive proposition.
The problem is often that the professional artists are the ones that suffer as promoters reduce fees. This is certainly the case with niche music festivals where promoters have application forms asking what performers want for a fee which although can be seen to be reasonable on one level, has been seen by many as reducing earnings as many hobbyists will play for free and even pay their own expenses to try to “get exposure”.
Another problem is that for the hobbyist their day job which pays the bills will need to take priority over other pursuits. This can mean that if their professional work beckons they may have to cancel a gig at the last moment, so both promoter and the audience is left hanging. Similarly, a hobbyist will often struggle to play more than 20 miles away from home, whereas professionals will be used to travelling hundreds of miles as that’s the work that pays the mortgage! The result can then be that locally the audiences only see the exact same artists month in month out…
The Trades in Business
Its useful to remember that in any good business relationship there is a trade that is equally beneficial to both parties involved. The “trade” is not always measured in financial terms. Some new artists genuinely benefit from getting audience exposure and in their early days are not usually going to be in a position to demand a good fee.
As someone with a background in business, a lot of what I see in “the music business” makes little sense to me and both performers and promoters can find themselves in an endless cycle where the benefits are increasingly diminished, and the quality of the music suffers. Social media is extremely important in promoting artist interest, BUT can also create a really distorted view as well. Many artists who post an event on FB where X number of “friends” commit online to attending, often find that the real-life figure is significantly less. Understandably many individuals are also looking at new models to promote music and I applaud such initiatives, BUT any new label that makes statements such as “the directors do not take any salary from this business” should IMO be viewed with some caution. The sentiment is admirable but any long-term business success means balancing time and money.
The Importance of multiple income streams
Professionals appreciate the importance of predictable income and all the professional artists I know have multiple income streams that often include teaching 1 – 1, running workshops, selling merchandise, playing gigs and festivals as well as selling digital and physical products. Even though there is a reassurance in vinyl sales any artist would be extremely foolish to avoid digital distribution for their music in this day and age. Of course its always a balancing act and for many artists merchandise sales are more profitable that musical products. I remember in 1990’s talking to my good friend Tim Booth lead singer from James about this exact issue. The band made sizable income from their T Shirts, far more than from their record deal. Tim’s been in “the music business” for over three decades and I massively admire his dedication to making music as well as being in awe of his work rate.
Balancing Time and Money – music promotions
In niche music circles I see all manner of fundamental mistakes made in marketing and promotions and I have stopped giving well intentioned advice from my own business background! The key mistakes are lack of proper pacing in advertising and ill-considered pricing. This has resulted in many festivals closing because the key ingredients of balancing time and money have not been properly addressed. This is understandable as in niche circles many promoters are running events as a hobby and it’s not a full time professional job. This is in no way intended as a negative comment but simply an observation. I pointed this out in an article earlier in the year, which provoked fury from many hardcore enthusiasts and then exactly as predicted a longstanding festival suddenly threw in the towel commenting in the press
“We’ve never been in this to make money – it’s not a business, it’s a club”
I totally admire the sentiment, BUT unless you balance time and money, most ventures will fail unless you have a wealthy benefactor. Any event where the promoter has a budget of tens of thousands of pounds, in my view would be wise to consider running an event as being a business venture with careful attention to balancing time and money. This is my personal opinion which comes from having to deliver in a business context. I also have no problems with folks who treat such promotions as a part time hobby, but there can be quite severe consequences if you can’t balance the books.
So, before I receive another mass firing of arrows in my direction, let me be clear that I 100% applaud anyone who seeks to promote the arts, but a few tweaks would IMO make for a much better end result. Another niche festival due to go live early 2018 had not done any updates to their main website which in my view is missing a trick, especially as there is clear interest on social media for more up to date news on the event. This is all basic business sense and of course often business success is about paying attention to such crucial details. All of this is 100% my opinion of course and I welcome other different viewpoints. There’s no right or wrong, just different outcomes. My own view is that events and festivals have a better chance of success if there’s good attention to balancing the books. Similarly with artists balancing time and money will make for a greater chance of audience reach, although this is increasingly a tough task and I admire anyone going this route.
In my view professionals and hobbyists are equally important, but serve different functions and its useful to think of them in this respect.