Jumping into a time machine and going back 50 years, the artists of today would be a little shocked at the sheer legwork of becoming a touring musician. No Kickstarter to fund your dreams. No internet to publicize your latest effort. No facebook to reach your fans whenever you wanted. Your career went like this, assuming you were lucky:
1: Your band plays locally and frequently for a couple of years, while you all hold down day jobs to earn money for a demo.
2: You finally take the money you’ve saved and go into a studio to record your demo. The rest of the money goes to making a tape, or limited-run 45 pressing to take to local radio stations and “music professionals.” In an ideal world, they’ll lave it and want to back you. That’s not likely, though…
3: You earn some more dough, and just go ahead, refine the demo, and produce a bunch of 45’s or cd’s, depending on your era. Try to sell them at local outlets, drop some off at the radio stations in a two-hour driving radius, and also give a bunch to venues that are outside of your current territory. And guess what else? You’ll be playing local businesses, like car dealers, for chump change.
4: At this point, its sink or swim. Your career is taking off or you’re getting that job with the local insurance company you never wanted to rely on.
5: Even if it does take off, it’s not going to be cheap. Venues like mine wanted 5 cd’s for every show so we could hand-deliver them to radio stations, newspaper critics, etc. A tour with ten gigs would mean 50 cd’s given away, along with the cost of mailing those, and including professional quality photos for the press.
6: A record deal? That might get you some placement in stores, but on the whole, it did’t mean much. You still had to pay for the cost of your record production and publicity; all you really got was help in distributing the record. And help with publicity? Don’t get me started…I spent more time giving local media contacts to national labels so they could plug a tour, only to find out afterwards from the local media (they all become friends, so they tell you these things) that they were never contacted by anyone from the label.
You get the point: the workload was greater without the benefit off the internet, and the costs were higher. Right now is a very good time to be entering the music business. Financing, production and distribution are all far easier and cheaper than ever before.
However, that means the field is more crowded than ever before, and competing for a smaller piece of the live-music pie, as a number of venues will have vanished. Hang in there, as new ones will spring up. A number of very savvy restaurant and bar owners decided early on to simply close existing businesses for good. It sounded like a disaster, but their plan is to open up something new and hopefully better once the pandemic eases. Their idea is to simply preserve capital for future investment.
The new short story on the economics of touring and getting gigs is this:
1: Long-distance tours by less-than-headlining artists won’t be happening for a while, as there simply won’t be enough venues able to pay enough to warrant or support a tour. There are a lot of costs in touring, and if the profit isn’t there, it’s not viable.
2: Venues, even the well-established ones, will be operating at less-than full capacity. That also means less-than-profitable. There’s a really simple fact here that won’t go away: the audience for folk/acoustic/string music skews older, and they’re reluctant to sit indoors in a crowd. You may hear of crowded bars flouting allowable capacity, but those are hard-drinking, rock and roll bars. They’re not the venues that will be giving gigs to alt/classical, jazz or folk musicians.
3: Many established older musicians in the genres we’re discussing will probably elect to curtail their touring due to the decrease in revenue for them. That opens a number of doors for younger artists willing to play for less.
4: Just like all those years ago, keep it local. Start busking heavily (nothing teaches you about audience interaction than seeing how people react when they’re up close).
5: Most important: Create a new attitude when working with a venue. Stop thinking of yourself as the attraction, and start thinking of yourself as a partner with the venue in creating an event that serves the community.