How to get to Carnegie Hall

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I was at an event lately and there was a panel discussion with the fabulous Robin Spielberg in which she was talking about her music career as a concert pianist and promoter. Robin is a no-nonsense, hard-working business person that has been successful in a tough career for 35 years now, largely because of her perspective.

One of the things she said made me laugh:

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? You rent it…

She is dead right of course. Carnegie does not really invite anyone to perform there or at least not many. Anyone can pay to play though and these days, many do. When your friends let it “slip” that they have performed at Carnegie Hall, smile and pretend to be impressed but just know that it is just a resume bragging point that means very little. It just means someone opened a checkbook.

The closest I have gotten to playing in Carnegie Hall is a few months ago when I stayed at the Hyatt across the street. However, in case you are interested, I can guesstimate the cost from previous experiences I have had. My guess is you can rent a decent sized space there for less than $5K though with required union labor and such, you might be lucky to get out the door for under $10K. The larger halls cost more. Here in Atlanta, the Fox Theater would be the most comparable venue and it costs $15K/day to start though again, the additional costs could easily double that.

While the finances might be interesting, that is not the point though. Robin’s point was that musicians need to bring a certain mindset to the table. I resonate strongly with her message because I feel the same way. What it boils to is this: if you want to do music as a business, start acting like a business person and just make things happen.

In Robin’s case, breaking out of the hotel piano lounge world meant going out and renting auditoriums to do concerts all over the country. Sometimes no one came but she plowed on anyway. Eventually, things started clicking, and eventually, I presume that she either rented Carnegie Hall or had proved herself to the point that a promoter was willing to invest in her.

In my case, I dropped $30K on Reflections on a Journey with no idea if I could sell even 1,000 CDs. Later, I would invest $120K into one show without knowing if the money was coming back. Our paths are different but I like her so much because our underlying philosophy is the same. I am not saying I have not made mistakes; I have in fact made breathtakingly stupid mistakes and not everything has worked. The same is true for Robin. But when that happens, you get up and keep fighting because that is what it takes.

I have three bits of hard truth for those of you that want to do professional music.

Forget about KickStarter and fund your music business like a real capitalist does.

I don’t see much of what I would call a healthy financial mindset among most musicians if I am being honest and it often starts at the very beginning. Many are scared to invest their own money so they head for KickStarter to guilt their friends into shouldering the risk for them. I don’t like KickStarter (in case I have not said that recently). KickStarter is basically anti-capitalistic because it encourages entrepreneurism without risk, but even more importantly, it allows would-be entrepreneurs to short circuit the development of financial discipline that you need to have in business. Look at it this way: if you can’t save $5K yourself to start your business, do you really think you can manage the financials of the business itself? Don’t count on it….

I know that some will say KickStarter is just micro investing and the principle has been around forever. Friends and families have always financed startup businesses. I get that but that does not make it OK. Most businesses fail already and I guarantee that your chance of failure goes up significantly if you don’t have your own skin in the game. I also know that in Christian music especially, musicians justify KickStarter by hiding behind the “ministry” label. Guys, if you feed your family with your music, it is not really a ministry regardless of how you try to spin it. It is a business and needs to be treated that way.

Are there exceptions to the rule? Yes. Can KickStarter be used in good ways? I think so. But get out of the mindset of thinking you can’t start your music without other people’s money.

Forget about golden tickets and getting discovered and big breaks.

The biggest platform for discovering new talent these days is probably The Voice on NBC. There is a common mindset that the exposure of a show like that is a big break that will change the trajectory of a music career. It just does not work that way though. A contestant that kills it on The Voice wakes up the morning after the experience in pretty much the same shape. Yes, a few new opportunities might come along but those usually die off quickly. Probably at least 90% of The Voice contestants have nothing of substance to show for their exposure a year later other than fond memories and a new line on their resume.

Smart musicians know that exposure opportunities of any size are nothing more than a step in a journey. Of course there is value in great exposure but you have to capitalize and build on that exposure. There are a few exceptions to this rule that get attention and raise false hopes. Normally though, if you show me a person that is successful in music, I will show you a grinder that built their business step by step over the long term. There is nothing quick or easy about this. As I have said here many times, forget the home runs and just focus on hitting singles.

Forget about getting help until you prove that you don’t need it.

Here is a bit of sad truth. You will never get a good promoter if you can’t prove that you can sell tickets without a promoter. Promoters have to make money too and they are not going to promote musicians that can’t sell tickets. I know what it is like to try to sell out a venue and I have the spreadsheets to prove it. It is stressful and not fun but if you want someone to help you in that area, that is what it is going to take. Professional music is more about spreadsheets than Finale.

The same goes for radio promotion and CD distribution and licensing and all the rest of it. If you want to do this business, you need to forget about music for way more than half of your work day and learn how to do the business of music. Why? For a long time, you are going to be doing all that stuff yourself. I still do all the business stuff myself, partly because I prefer it that way but also because I just don’t have the clout to get the help I would like.

I have said a lot of this before and let me close by saying something else I have said before: this is a great time to be a professional musician. The opportunities we enjoy today did not exist a few decades ago. The tradeoff is that while musicians of the past could focus on music, today they basically have to wear two hats: music and business. If you can adjust to that reality, you have a great chance to succeed. I hope you do.