Do You Want To Be Right Or Do You Want To Be Paid?

Don’t leave your music business in the hands of other people

It began, as so many of these things do now, on Facebook.

A well-meaning person posted a question in a musician’s group.


I’ve already written about a number of problems with this scenario in my The 3 Secret Problems with Jazz post on, but the main problems with this specific scenario are the following:

  • These gigs don’t typically pay well.
  • These gigs don’t typically draw.  If your jazz group brings 100 people to a restaurant on a Tuesday night, you won’t need a booking agent because you’ll have an open invitation.
  • No one in a band wants to book these gigs, because booking requires a lot of leg work.
  • No one outside of a band wants to do the legwork because there’s no money to be made.

From a music business perspective, it’s a Catch-22.  If you have to ask for a booking agent, you probably don’t have enough of a draw to get a good one.

Still, I wanted to be helpful and not draw direct attention to the real issue at play.  Here was my (heavily edited) reply.

Hey [name],

My best suggestion is to look at it from the booking agent’s perspective. Do you have a big enough draw to make enough money to make it worth the booking agent’s time to call all the places he or she will need to to set up a gig?

If you can show that you have a draw and that there’s money to be made, you’ll probably find that the resources will present themselves to you.

Good luck!!

This was met almost immediately with the following response:

Or you can find a club owner that knows how to market his club. You entertain HIS customers.


To be fair – he’s right.

Club owners should promote music acts.

But clubs are notoriously bad at promoting music, jazz clubs are almost non-existant, jazz is usually relegated to lounges, bars or restaurants of some type and music acts are usually the Hail Mary pass of a restaurant.

(i.e. “Geesh, we only had 20 people here tonight.  Maybe if we got some live music and did a happy hour type of thing…”)

In other words, it’s usually an afterthought.

When I was in Boston – I remember the exact moment when I saw the death knell for a local live music career there.

It was a Friday night on Landsdowne Street, there were lines outside every door, and every club had a DJ instead of bands.

I thought about it from the venue’s perspective and came up with the following.

  • The draw is better with a DJ than it is on most band nights.
  • Dealing with a DJ means dealing with (and paying) one person instead of dealing with 3 bands and 12-15 people.

There wasn’t much incentive for them to book local live music.  As a live musician, that’s a substantial problem.

Looking at it from the other side of the equation, we come back to the topic question:

Do you want to be right or do you want to be paid?

If you go to a venue and rely on their promotion alone, you are playing dice with the house and in the end the house always wins.  Sure, you get to say that you’re playing a gig but playing to an empty room can not only be a huge kick in the teeth, but it also won’t convert many in the audience to coming to see you again.

Being right and not getting paid means that regardless of whatever’s happening that you’re wrong.  Sometimes you have to move past who is right and who is wrong and get to the central idea of weas in coming up with an answer to how do we both get what we need out of this?

If you like this post, you can find The 3 Secret Problems of Jazz (and a number of other music business posts) in my kindle e-book, Selling It Versus Selling Out.

You may want to also check out my Indie Musician Wake up Call e-book as well!


As always, thanks for reading!


The 3 Secret Problems Of Jazz (And Jazz Is Not Alone)

A Book Excerpt or Marketing (Slight Return)

One interesting thing about publishing Kindle titles on Amazon is that Amazon does a web search to match various phrases with text you’re submitting.  This means that if you have any text on a website that you’ve included in your book, you’ll have to take it down from your site before the book is published.

I understand that the measure is there to protect copyright infringement (and make kindle content exclusive) but as a Kindle book excerpt exists to drive people to your Kindle title (and make money for Amazon),  it’s a flawed approach for most authors.

With that in mind, I may have to remove this post eventually, but for now – I hope you enjoy this chapter from Selling It Versus Selling Out (available here on Amazon).

Thanks for reading!



The 5th person sending me the NPR / Kurt Ellenberger post about the difficulties of being a jazz musician, was the tipping point for me writing a post I’d held off on for a while.  I don’t play Jazz but I’m an improvising musician who went through a rigorous Jazz pedagogy, so take please take whatever observations I offer here with a big grain of salt.

I think that Jazz has 3 big problems as a genre, and musicians working in that realm have their work cut out for them to move forward in it.


Duo or Trio wanted for restaurant

(no pay but you can sell your cd)


This gig scenario is actually a microcosm of the problems Jazz faces as a genre.


First, when you drive by a restaurant and you see a sign that says, “Tonight – live jazz!” have you ever turned excitedly to the person next to you and said, “Hey there’s a band playing there tonight!  I love Stella By Starlight!  Let’s go – maybe they’ll play it!”

No you haven’t. And no one else has either.  Because you don’t go to hear the music – you go to hear John McLaughlin or whatever other player interests you – and that’s the first big problem.  For the general public, Jazz has become a cult of personality for players instead of focusing on songs.

Many of the Real Book tunes date back to Tin Pan Alley.  Back in the day, Jazz players played on popular music.  People actually went out to hear the music and the band.   Remember the fire-storm Miles caused when he recorded a version of Time After Time?  He was just going back to that tradition of playing on tunes that people liked.  And yes, there’s been a lot of new music written – but as a genre, the focus is still on the players.  Once you put a focus on a player, you cut your audience down to people who like players and other musicians.  That’s really problematic if you’re trying to build a career.

No one (outside of musicians playing it or other musicians sitting with crossed arms at a gig critiquing a player hitting the changes) gives a toss about hearing Giant Steps live – they care about the energy the soloist is transmitting. The audience (such as it is) at every jazz gig I’ve been to is about 90% musicians and 10% fans.   I’ve mentioned this observation before, but in my undergrad experience I remember going to student recitals and seeing the band mindlessly getting through the head and then breathing a sigh of relief, “Thank God that’s over – now we can play some music!”  If you just want to solo with complete disregard for the song – why even maintain the pretense of playing the tune?

Mind you, the issue of repertoire is an over simplification.  I don’t want to discount that a lot of great music has been written.  While I think that is where Duke and Mingus got it right in keeping the focus on some great pieces, I don’t see any contemporary Jazz composer’s gaining traction in the same way they did.   There are a number of reasons for this (including saturation of the music market), but rock music survives because people sing along with the songs and dig the rock star.  As a genre, focusing on the Jazz star is a hole that will take a long time to get out of.


“Stop collaborate and listen”

The next problem with Jazz (as indicated by the gig listing above), is the implication that Jazz is background music.  Any type of music is no longer music if no one is listening – and Jazz is a music that demands the listener’s attention to pick up on the nuances of the performance.   People go to a restaurant to eat, not to listen to the (unpaid) band.  Or fans of the band go to the restaurant to hear the musicians play and begrudgingly order food and the 2-drink minimum.  So other than people the band has brought (in reality – the only reason restaurants book music anymore) – the other patrons there aren’t listening.  Some bands fight this by playing louder and then the patrons just eat and leave.

Musicians take these gigs (and wedding gigs) because they need cash, but as a culture we have moved into an ADD mindset with regard to focus.  People are less likely to sit down with a record and dig though it and try to get something out of it.  They listen to 5 seconds of an mp3 stream and then move onto the next thing.


Music and players are everywhere

As I mentioned before, the saturated music market is one of the biggest obstacles that challenges Jazz as a genre.  There are a lot of players with less and less venues to play in.  So you get musicians taking unpaid gigs at a restaurant and wondering why they haven’t sold any cds (and why management wouldn’t comp the food now that the sets are done).

There’s value in scarcity and people have infinite access to music.  If you wanted to hear Miles Davis electric band play back in the day, you went to go see them.  Now you go to You Tube.  There’s increasingly fewer reasons for people to go out and see a show for the sake of seeing a show.  In general, they won’t go just because a band is playing and it’s something to do.


“…Those were the days…”

Derek Bailey has one of my favorite quotes ever about the conservatory experience.  (I’m paraphrasing here), “As soon as bebop became a set series of formulas taught in an academic setting it went from being the vibrant searching music that it was and became a maudlin reminder of the good old days”.

Many people associate Jazz with comfort (like sitting next to a fire with a glass of wine and listening to Sketches of Spain).  They have a nostalgic view about going to a bistro and hearing some jazz.  (Some of these people will also tell you that the LOVE Michael Bublé as evidence of a “Jazz” pedigree!?!  This is another problem where people have equated intrumentation and arrangement with a genre.) Comfort is a tough market to cultivate and maintain, but Jazz has also been equated with cultured music and as some people go see Jazz in the way that they go to a museum, this could be a key.

People want to be moved.

They want to center.  They want to focus.

People go to a museum to experience something.  They go to a show because they don’t want to miss an event.  As an audience, people are searching for something new.

That sounds like Jazz to me.  Ellinger is right.  In terms of output – Jazz IS thriving.  But its musicians (by and large) are not and if the musicians and composers aren’t thriving – then the genre is in real trouble.


As a genre, I think Jazz needs a re-branding.

Many Jazz musicians are already doing this.  They don’t call their music Jazz anymore.  They come up with a million other labels and get new audiences in by playing venues guised as something other than Jazz – but playing Jazz at its core.  Playing “searching vibrant” music that moves people.

Appealing to people’s mind as cultured music is a good start.  Appealing to people as head boppin’ – ass twitchin’ music that grabs the ear and moves the soul is even better.

As a label, Jazz is too broad to be meaningful to most players – but to the public that label already has associations with it.  As a genre, Jazz needs to bring new fans into the fold with songs and then wow them with the musicianship behind them.

And it needs to happen, because it’s too beautiful a thing to let slip away.


This excerpt is taken from Selling It Versus Selling Out (Applying Lessons From The Business Of Music) which is available as a Kindle title here.

If you like this essay, you may also like, An Indie Musician Wake Up Call also available on Amazon here.