It's All You: Musicians Go DIY

In some ways, the romanticized caricature of the struggling New York City musician hasn't changed much since Patti Smith donned pegged pants and camped out at the Chelsea Hotel. The shuffle from club to club, playing gigs that sometimes offer little more than a chance to be seen, continues for many musicians trying to make it in the city.

Despite a plethora of social media platforms and other modern conveniences that bring music to more people than ever, musicians today still must struggle to establish themselves. The path to success is risky, expensive and often DIY.
For Jim Campilongo, a Brooklyn-based jazz/rock/country guitar veteran, who plays with the likes of Norah Jones (in their band, The Little Willies) and Nels Cline (Wilco), making it as a musician in New York is a day-to-day test of persistence and diversification. Campilongo's monthly schedules are typically packed and varied: A nine-day trip to Japan to open for Norah Jones; a weekly residency at the Living Room in the Lower East Side; a monthly gig at The 55 Bar in the West Village; and three dates in the Czech Republic with the Jim Campilongo Electric Trio.

You might think an established musician like Campilongo would have a publicist or manager to handle business basics. But he manages the booking and promotion of most of his gigs himself, along with his assistant, William Riordan. He hired a publicist during the release of his album, Orange, in 2010, who secured him an NPR Song of the Day and exposed him to insider blogs, which he didn't know about, but Campilongo mostly manages his own promotional affairs: He reissued Orange himself, and recently played a great gig in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which he said came about solely by word-of-mouth.
If playing gigs alone could secure a stable income, working musicians like Campilongo could rest easy. But to keep his music career thriving, Campilongo has had to diversify his approach. He teaches private guitar lessons out of his home for $100 an hour — a fair price considering his expertise and the average going rate for freelancers in New York City. He also offers lessons by snail mail ($60 each) or download ($30 each) from his website, making them accessible to any aspiring jazz guitarist or country picker who wants to follow in his footsteps.

He seems to have maneuvered new technology and the challenges of running a business successfully. But there is one aspect of modern music that still concerns him.

"I'm just really concerned and worried about next year and the main reason I'm concerned about next year is because everything is on YouTube."

The fear of YouTube makes sense, and is different than the music downloading fear that started with Napster. Today the big question is: Why would someone want to go to a live show, let alone buy an album, when they can do all that for free, in perpetuity, on YouTube? Even dedicated music lovers may be loath to buy albums even though they know the impact these sales have on musicians. And now that free streaming video is ubiquitous, the need for music lovers to pay to see live shows — which are now even more essential to a musician's livelihood given flat record sales — is threatened.

Even Campilongo admits to YouTube's allure.

"Why do I need to go buy a Mumford & Sons record," he said, noting the obvious irony.
A recent YouTube search for "Mumford & Sons" resulted in 66,100 hits, and the first results page alone included their full album, Babel and an hourlong video of the band's show at the 2011 Glastonbury Festival. The rest were videos featuring live performances of individual songs. And these aren't 90-second iTunes audio samples. These are full songs or concerts, in video, for free.

It's easy to see why Campilongo is concerned: If music lovers gravitate toward videos of live shows as opposed to the real thing, what options are left with which a musician can make a living?

The fear that YouTube will eventually gobble up everyone's attention and become a dominant platform for musical entertainment may be partly generational. Alana Amram, a 33-year-old folk and indie-country singer/songwriter (of Alana Amram & the Rough Gems) has a slightly different take on technology's effects on music. As the child of musician parents, she's a throwback, and she seems to approach new technology with an almost dismissive attitude. She likens it to when TV first came into fashion and everyone was seemingly obsessed with it. Time showed everyone eventually became unobsessed; TV integrated into the fabric of society and didn't subjugate everything that came before it. The same may happen with social media.
Amram seems aware of society's greater trends but sticks to her own way of doing things: a mix of old and new.

"I'm just adapting to what I gotta do," she said. "I'm one of those people who believes that if you're born an artist, you have to do your art."

While Amram manages Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr pages, as well as her own website, she also makes fliers and handbills to hand out. Most importantly, she relies on word-of-mouth to get her name out there, and she ensures that her good reputation comes from making the best music she can make.

"I think through what I perform," she says. "I'm very careful about where I perform. Presentation of your product is a big part of marketing."

Beyond performing and presentation, taking care of life basics like health care is essential for letting musicians remain competitive and relevant. Unfortunately, accessible support resources for struggling musicians can be difficult to come by.

The Associated Musicians of Greater New York, New York City's local musician's union since 1921, is one resource for support: it offers a pension program, a credit union, health insurance benefits, and rehearsal space at special member's rates, among many other things. But the union benefits only those who pay dues. And health insurance benefits become available only after a musician has logged enough union gig hours. Luckily for them, this can come from private teaching if the proper paperwork is completed. It's understandable for the union to have rules for functioning, but it's also difficult to imagine the average dive bar down the street — a common "employer" for bands starting out — contributing to a union health plan when they pay their musicians via a tip bucket or a cut from the bar's earnings.

A different option is the Freelancer's Union health benefits plan, which is open to all freelancers in qualifying New York State counties, including musicians, who log an eligible number of freelance working hours or dollars during a minimum length of time. While generally less expensive and more accessible than many private health insurance options, the Freelancer's Union health plans are not necessarily cheap. Its low-end, individual preferred provider organization plan is $345 per month, and a $3,500 annual deductible — a hefty price that would most likely be unaffordable without a day job.
New York City could take some cues from a different American music capital, Austin, Texas, where support for local musicians is strong and well organized. Redd Volkaert, a local Austin musician and winner of a 2009 Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance, sings the praises of the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, or HAAM.

"It's a fantastic deal," he said. "Lots of people donate for it and a lot of musicians take advantage of it."

HAAM provides health insurance options for low-income musicians, and holds annual HAAM benefit days during which hundreds of local businesses join in to support the livelihoods of local musicians. Why New York City lacks a program as comprehensive and accessible as HAAM isn't fully clear. But Volkaert said one reason may be the city's size and music's competition among other local cultural offerings.

"NYC is so big and so successful, but the music scene may not be as strong because there's other distractions."

But Austin is not necessarily musicians' Shangri-La. Even well-established musicians like Volkaert still have to hustle, just like his New York counterparts.

"There's lots of work here," he says, but "same old thing: outta sight, outta mind. If you're not playin', you're out hobnobbing and handing out cards. Yeah, you gotta go out all the time."

And you have to watch what's out there. With social media's growing influence, musicians today aren't able to completely control everything themselves; they have to compete with amateur bloggers who, according to Campilongo, don't have the greatest writing skills, but whose opinions can carry some weight. Campilongo looks fondly back to the days when The New York Times or a reputable music magazine had the final say on the quality of an album or live performance, which he respected, because musicians were "being written about in a quality way."

Now the standard for quality is unclear, and up-and-coming artists often use quotes from obscure sources on their one-sheets as a form of validation. Campilongo said he wants to believe in what is being written, but with the publishing industry in turmoil, social media's influence growing and an army of music bloggers touting their opinions online, a writer's credibility is harder to pinpoint.

Perhaps one way to ensure credibility is managing some of the message. Volkaert, for example, still covers his bases on the technology front with "a website and Facebook, and all the usual bullshit that young people have," he says with a deep chuckle. He also uses Sonicbids, which he says works like a digital press kit.

"I can put a link to my own website, and a little bit of my bio and picture."
According to the company's website, "SonicBids is a Social Music Marketing platform that connects bands, promoters, consumer brands and music fans," and for $6.99 per month, a band or songwriter can create a page that will hopefully link them directly to paying gigs. Volkaert said the payoff is worth the investment. "If you get one job out of it," he said, "it pays for itself."

But what he said after that seemed to sum up the business strategy of today's working musicians, wherever they are: "You gotta cover all your bases and all the little angles."

~Caroline Covington
January 9, 2013

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  • Lloyd Loar from AlbertaRedd is an incredible musician!
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