I have been asked by a few friends to compile a list of things that you need to do in order to make a living at Christian music. So, below you will find my personal opinions on what you need to do to succeed. I will warn you that these are my opinions and not the only way to succeed. There are always exceptions to the rule. However, these things have worked for me and thus I will share what I know. I am not going to sugar-coat anything so if you are easily offended, my apologies already. Before I start, let me dispel a few myths.
Myth #1 If I had a record label to support me, I could be full-time
So, So, So Wrong. I have a better idea, go max out all your credit cards, take out a huge loan, borrow money from your family and live off that while you build your career in music. What? No takers? Why not? In effect, that is exactly what you are doing with the label. You are living off of money that isn’t yours. When you are out busting your butt touring to support your new CD, guess where the income goes? It goes to pay back that money they gave you to live on. I am going to say this once, STOP CHASING A DEAL! I did it for years. When I finally stopped and focused on making my music my business, the record deal found me. What you would be offered as a no-name/no-momentum band will be crap anyways. Go out and sell 10,000 copies of your self-produced demo and then we can talk about record deals and if they make sense. Until then, shut up and play.
Myth #2 I can just play churches/Christian events and survive
How can I put this? Christians are cheap! For the most part, Christians are not going to give you the financial support you need to survive. This will vary by region but all-in-all people think that ministry = free. Be careful how you present yourself to not get pigeon-holed here. You can be an artist that is Christian as well as a Christian artist. Let the music speak for itself, and when the opportunity presents itself, share what’s on your heart. If you try to bill yourself as only a Christian artist, you will not be able to play enough to survive.
The fact is I can go play 3 hours of cover songs at a bar and make more money than taking a love offering from 200 people. Shocked? Don’t be. It is sad but true. Be open to playing where you are needed, where your message is needed. If churches can’t sustain themselves financially, how can they sustain you? The research tells us that 2% of people who attend church actually tithe (the full 10%). Those are not the kind of odds I want to bet my family’s well being on.
On to the Top 5 list:
1) Be Competent
I heard Billy Joel once say that the reason he has been successful for so long is that he is competent. Most musicians are not as competent as they can be and thus fizzle out faster. If singing is your thing, take lessons, improve, study, practice! The same can be said for your respective instrument. If you are only OK at playing, OK isn’t good enough for full-time. There are plenty of mediocre musicians doing gigs for free that make it harder for you to make a living. So, be better! Be much better. The back half of this is to accept the Truth. If your parents tell you that you are great, get a second opinion. If strangers come up to you after hearing you play and fawn over your music, now you are talking!
2) Be Unique
There are many good performers out there. What will separate you from the pack? Is it your vocal style? Your guitar playing? There needs to be something that makes you, you! Whether it be using loops, a different tuning, a particular look or whatever; keep people watching and wanting to see what you are going to do next. A great resource for creating memorable moments is Tom Jackson seminars. I have had Tom’s home course for 4 years and refer to it often. I build my set lists around his formulas. Guess what, it works! You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, just research and study wisely. Find yourself before others find you.
3) Have a Great Recording
So, you have practiced hard, prepared a good show and created moments to remember, now what? If you do these things well enough, others will want to remember as well. You need a recording of yourself. This is the first true key to Full-Time. A good recording will get you gigs, a bad recording will not. Should you record in your home studio or go to a larger one? Good question. My experience is that most of us do not have the talent to create a good recording at home. Please note, good equipment does not equal good recording. You can have all the bells and whistles, but if you don’t know how to use them, you are wasting money.
I used to have great equipment at home but I didn’t know crap about using it to its full potential. I sold all of it and used that money to record with professionals. The results were fantastic and enabled me to have a quality product that was a true representation of what I sounded like. I used that CD to send to venues and book gigs. There is no doubt that it helped me to go full-time. A quick word about recording budgets, if you have a $1000 to record as your budget, do fewer songs with better production. A great 3-song demo is much more valuable than an average 12 song LP. You will sell many more at $5 each if they are great quality. The great quality will also get you attention of industry folks as well. Any prayer of radio play, etc. will only happen if the quality is great!
4) Be a Publicity Hound
You need to take every opportunity to promote yourself. Even the smallest opportunities can birth bigger and better chances to play. I started playing anywhere I could, parties, churches, youth groups, restaurants, charity events, business functions, bars, prisons, you name it and I’ve been there. Have a nice handout to give to people. Places like Club Flyers can print you thousands of post cards and posters very inexpensively. Use these to give out to everyone at gigs. If there is another band playing in your area that has the same style as you, go to the gig and hand out your material as people leave the venue. What?! Commando style? Yes, a full frontal assault on your prospective audience. Don’t be an ass. Use your head, be enthusiastic and invite people to your next gig. Go visit your local radio station and offer to play for any events they might have coming up. Many times they have a charity event they would love entertainment for. You need to go looking for it. If you can afford it, hire someone like Ariel Hyatt at Ariel Publicity. She does an absolutely incredible job on a 3-month publicity campaign for about a thousand bucks. In the publicity world, that is dirt cheap. She can obtain press, reviews, radio play and is a wealth of knowledge to help you promote yourself. Heck, she even got us playing live on Sirius Satellite Radio! One thing is for sure, if you are going to wait around for the opportunities to come flooding in, you are not full-time material. Sorry.
5) Think out of the box
This phrase is overused but it does hold true. I have done several things that many would never have thought of to survive. For instance, I played a Holiday Inn once a month in their restaurant/bar. I played 40+ cover songs over 3 hours. My arrangement was that they pay me in Priority Points. These internal points are funny money for the hotels. Giving you 20-30,000 points is nothing to them. However, it is 2-3 free nights at any Holiday Inn for you. This is very valuable when you are on the road touring. Limiting expenses is the key to success. For the hotel, it is free entertainment. For you, it is free lodging.
A win-win situation for all. I also played many coffeehouses around the US. One of the coffeehouses I played also was a roaster, i.e. they roast their own beans and make their own brands. I offered to bring samples of their coffee to all the houses I play and drop them off. If the venue places an order for coffee, the roaster covers my lodging and meals for the trip. Pretty sweet right? Necessity is the mother of invention.
If you truly want to make your living performing, all of the above will help. However, if you are not willing to risk it all, don’t bother. I don’t want to rain on your parade and I understand we all have obligations. But if God has put a true calling in your life, there is nothing that should stand in your way. It is too easy to find excuses. I did it for years. And I was miserable playing part-time and experiencing small successes. Every second I wasn’t doing what God put on my heart, I felt disobedient. If you don’t feel the same way, that same indescribable pain that is in your heart, the pain that affects everything in your life, your work, marriage, relationships, etc.
Full-time isn’t for you. And you know what, that is ok. Accept the truth if God calls you to part time ministry. Make the most of it. You can not force God’s will. But for those of you who know that it is all or nothing. I salute you and pray that God gives you the courage to answer the call and leave all reason behind. I’ll see you on the road!