A Recipe for the Fully Employed Musician

by Chris O'Hara

Originally published to AllianceBrass.com 

Classical musicians have a specific model that we emulate. We have been doing this for hundreds of years. We go to music schools and learn and strive for perfection. We work our entire lives for the moment when our opportunity will come and the orchestral position of our dreams becomes available so that we can audition, win, and make all of our dreams come true.

Some musicians pursue the realm of small ensemble playing, or chamber music.

Others follow the path of the soloist.

All of these ideas though generally come back to a basic formula. If you want to be successful as an orchestral player, chamber ensemble, or as a soloist, common convention says that you must have an artist manager/agent. This person will take care of all the details so you can focus on your art.

From time to time, this works, and that is why it is a model that continues. Unfortunately, many of the artist management firms operating today are not really interested in building young ensembles into tomorrow’s elite. The vast majority of these companies just want ensembles/artists that sell themselves – which is why if you look at the Artist Rosters of the top artist management agencies, you will likely recognize most, if not all, of the names.

Early in my career I thought that the artist manger was the way to go, and as my career started to take off I began to be approached by different managers. I always accepted their offered contracts for review. I sat down and read each one carefully. I will not go into too many details, nor mention any specific names, but I will say that you need to be very careful. Don’t be so excited that an agent wants you on their roster that you just sign without careful consideration.

Some of these contracts – most, in fact – required at least a quarterly fee for their services, and these fees can be quite hefty. In addition to their quarterly fees, they will also take between 15 and 20% of any event they book for you. Just a quick bit of math here – if you play in a brass quintet, this means that the manager/agent will make more money than any member of the ensemble for each performance, example: If you are booked for a $5,000 concert and the manager takes 20% that comes to $1,000 off the top, leaving $4,000 to be divided between the five players – not to mention any expenses that the ensemble may incur. Don’t forget those quarterly fees, which will likely eat up around 50% of the remaining fee, because managers/agents do not guarantee bookings, so you may only get one each quarter (if you are lucky). Of course, you might do this for a few years and eventually start making enough money to go to a part-time position in your day job. Unfortunately, a few of the contracts that I have read even say that the manager/agent will take that 20% out of every employment you have, including teaching positions, etc. So, it might take even longer.

Now for some more truth: you don’t need a manager/agent.

One day during my senior year of my undergraduate degree in Boston, I was driving around my school looking for a place to “pahk my cah,” because that is just what you do in Boston. Anyway, the radio station I was listening to was doing an interview with former Metallica bass player, Jason Newsted, who was promoting a concert with his new group. Of course, the interviewer was more interested in talking about Metallica. I happen to like Metallica quite a lot, so I kept listening as I circled the potential parking places and even sat for a while after finding the elusive spot – and I am very glad that I did.

The interview made me realize that Metallica are some of the smartest people in music today. Why? Because they own everything that they do. They own their record label, they own their touring company. Every time you see or hear something about that group it is likely produced and owned by them.


But that is heavy metal “music” and has nothing to do with real music. Right? We (classical musicians) went to some of the top universities/conservatories in the world. We are highly trained in the art of making music. Those guys just probably started playing in their garages and basements.

Probably true. However, those guys can – and do – entertain audiences that fill arenas night after night for a couple of hours and do it without a shred of printed music on the stage. AND they made an okay living doing it, so maybe we could learn a few things from them.

One of the things that Metallica, and frankly most rock/non-classical groups, have over us is that they are fearless. We classical musicians talk about being fearless in performance, and we work hard to be so – and sometimes we even achieve it – but we generally become quite fearful off the stage. We don’t want to call, or even email a venue to set up a concert. What if they say no? What will this do to my reputation? A rock musician wouldn’t even entertain those thoughts, but since we are trained in a much more reserved way, we over-think these situations.

Yes, you may hear a lot of “no” from presenters and venues. Yes, you may have to send several correspondences and/or make several phone calls. Yes, it can feel very frustrating at times. However, if you keep calling and keep sending emails, etc. eventually you will hear a “yes.” When booking my own events, I generally expect about one “yes” for every 100 contacts. Of course, sometimes it’s a lot more than that, and sometimes, not. Regardless, over time it gets easier to do. You start to find that many venues would rather work without the middle man manager/agent and work directly with artists.

Here is the problem with that, however. Most musicians are not good at managing themselves, or even presenting themselves. How do we fix this? If you are reading this and you are in college, take some music business classes as electives (do you really need that year-long intensive study of J.S. Bach’s Leipzig years?). More importantly though, take regular business classes. Sit in the same room as the people who will be running Fortune 500’s in a couple of years. Around Spring/Summer time at my graduate school (Boston University) all of the Ferraris and Maseratis were parked outside the School of Management, not the School of Music. If you are not in school anymore, use the research skills you learned in college and do some studying. Study the people who are currently doing what you would like to do and see how they did it.

If you want to be successful in music, you have to learn to think outside of the box. You have to forge your own path. A degree in music qualifies you to do absolutely nothing in the real world. In fact, a MM or DMA will only qualify you to teach. There is no guaranteed job after college, but like all things in life, if you want something bad enough and you are willing to work hard for it – and perhaps do things a little differently than everyone else – you can be successful.

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