Working - Off the Horn (Why Playing Your Instrument Is Not Enough)

by Chris O'Hara



Whenever I give clinics, the usual questions about practicing or instrument/mouthpiece choice inevitably arise.  The questions that never get asked are about the other, non-musical things that go into a successful music career – and they are numerous.  This is the stuff that doesn’t get talked about much in music classes, and comprises the vast majority of what I do on a daily basis.  Recently, while talking to class of collegiate trumpet players, the professor (who is also one of my former teachers and knows me pretty well) asked me to tell the students how many companies I run. Here it goes (and I’ll try to keep it brief):


1. Educational Opportunity

 I teach about 30-40 students in an average year and there is a lot to manage.  I also present clinics and workshops with the support of my sponsoring companies Denis Wick and Bach/Conn-Selmer. – Think about the enormous administrative costs of education today.  That alone makes it hard to assign a dollar amount to this.


2. Freelance/Solo Trumpet Management

I don’t do a lot of standard “gigging,” but there are a few gigs that I take each year playing in orchestras, wind ensembles, and pit orchestras.  In addition, I will usually play anywhere from 10-30 solo engagements each year.  This is usually as far as most people go, but I’m just getting started.  –Most managers/agents will take a 15-20% cut of events that they arrange, and many will also have quarterly fees for their services that average about $1,000-$2,000.


3. Illumine Trio Management

My new ensemble is a trumpet/voice/keyboards trio with some of my good friends on the East Coast: Sarah Moyer, soprano (Boston, MA), and Mark Engelhardt (Bayshore, NY).  The logistical issues of the three of us getting together are pretty much a nightmare, but always worth the effort.  We recently recorded a CD (we’ll get to that in a minute) and are playing several concerts on the East Coast which I booked. –Same managerial costs, though now with three people to pay, the take home after agent fees goes down quite a bit.


4. Alliance Brass Quintet Management

I don’t do all the work in the quintet, that is for certain.  However, I do book 98% of the gigs, which is an enormous task for an ensemble that regularly performs between 30-100 events each year. –Now that there are five people getting paid, the agent now makes more money than anyone else in the ensemble per event (something to think about…).


5. Travel Agent/Tour Manager

While putting together events for myself and my various ensembles, things like travel have to be taken into consideration.  How are we all going to get from point A to point B?  Also, while traveling from points A through Z, what happens along the way?  These are questions that are answered by this agency.  –This easily saves thousands of dollars per tour (especially, if you need to hire a tour manager who will get a cut of all events and need daily stipends and travel expenses).


6. Arranger

As a soloist, unless I am playing a newly written piece, I perform mostly transcriptions.  Yes, I could just buy arrangements, but those arrangements might not suit my playing or the things that I am trying to accomplish (musically or technically).  Therefore, I make own arrangements and transcriptions.  This also goes for Illumine Trio and Alliance Brass.  I have also made arrangements for various other clients ranging from solo instruments to wind ensemble and orchestral works.  Currently, I have over 500 arrangements/editions for various ensembles, only a small portion of which are published (I have a tendency to overwhelm publishers with sheer quantity!).  –Think about how much money you have spent in the past year on music.  For an hours-worth of music, this could easily be well over $100.  I don’t spend that money (I make it!).  


7. Recording Studio

 I believe that it is important to have as much control over the work that I do as possible.  Along those lines, I do the majority of the recordings that I have released 100% in house. I own several microphones, and various recording equipment and spent time researching various ways of mic set-ups, etc.  This is not my strongest area of expertise, but having recorded 10 albums at this point in my career both with other engineers and on my own, I have got things pretty well in hand – and each project gets better!  Recording my own projects gives me a great deal of flexibility in every project I do.  Running a recording studio also means that I edit the recordings as well, which is no small task.  –This is another huge expense.  On the very low side of things you are looking at $1,000 for time and equipment.  If you are then going to have the studio do the editing, that cost easily triples, if not more, plus an additional $1,000 (at least) for mixing/EQ – so, let’s just say $5,000 per project.


8. Design Studio/Marketing Firm

 All of the graphics for every project I do are created by my studio.  This includes the majority of the photos, logos, and other images that represent myself, or any of my ensembles whether in print, or online.  Marketing campaigns, from print/posters, online ads, social media, press materials, and project concepts are all conceived in this company.  This also includes all artwork for the albums produced by my recording studio.  –This would add a minimum of $300 to the average album costs, not to mention additional costs for posters, etc.  Oh, and if you need to pay a photographer, you prices go up significantly.


9. Website Design/Administration

 Any project in our current society needs to have an internet presence.  You can’t just put a picture and your name on a website and call it a day.  A good website needs to have specific information based on the product that they are selling.  In most of my cases this includes event schedules, press materials, video and sound clips, and more.  Websites also need to be maintained and updated on a fairly regular basis.  This also includes social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.  At present I run a total of 7 different online presences.  –This service runs at least $600 for initial set up, then service fees for maintenance.


10. Production House 

This is where all of the text for all of the various projects gets finalized.  Everything needs to be checked for accuracy and, of course, the usual spelling and grammatical issues (my lovely wife, who is a former English teacher helps a lot with this).  Once the text is in place, all of the other pieces are put together in this company to make a final product. –This is another hard one to put a price on because every project that gets done will eventually have to go through this and the costs will be different from project to project.


11. Trumpet Player

Finally!  After all of that, I finally get to go to the practice room and play my trumpet and work on the things that I need to do to be a better player.


You might be thinking: why would you do all of that?  It seems like so much work!  

Well, it is a lot of work, but it gives me incredible freedom and control over my career – it also saves/makes me a ton of money!  Every point along this list is an out-of-pocket expense for most musicians (notice the price points after each company – and remember that those are per project).  I have a family that relies on my career, so I have to make the most of every project, this work allows me to do that, and it guarantees that I own all of my work.  A record company can’t decide to go another direction and stop producing my albums, and as long as there is a physical medium I can have them produced – and they can exists in digital form forever.  Long after I am gone my family will be able to continue making money off of the work that I do today, and that is priceless.

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