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Sharpen your skills and mindset to get more and better paying gigs

The holiday season is here once again and so are more opportunities for musicians to play and earn money. I want to help by sharing some tips with you on soliciting more and better opportunities for gigs and negotiating fear and guilt-free for more money. I’m writing this preparing for the holidays, but everything here pertains to the rest of the year as well.

My first tip is for you to just get out there and talk to people about playing in their venue. Have you heard the famous quote attributed to Woody Allen that 80% of life is just showing up?

I made a career decades ago from cold calling business executives and pitching them on large corporate deals. I learned early on just how much opportunity there is by just showing up and asking for something. You would be amazed.

Eat out at a local restaurant in which you’d like to play. Look around and confirm there is a space for playing and that the atmosphere seems right for your music. Then find the owner/manager and ask about an opportunity for you or your group.

One big mistake people make when ‘selling’ a person on something is to focus on themselves rather than on the benefit to the person with whom they’re speaking. I hate to break it to you, but in business, people don’t care about you. They only care about how you can make their lives better. Be honest, you are no different.

People don’t buy a drill because they want a drill. People buy a drill because they want a hole. Be aware of what benefit you can provide to the venue and to the person with whom you are speaking. What do they want? They don’t want your band, they want to increase the number of customers and the additional money they can earn from those meals and drinks that come to them through the people wanting to hear your music. Or they want to provide a better experience for the people gathered at their event. Either way, they have needs. Your job is to discover them and demonstrate how you can deliver them.

When you get the opportunity for a conversation with the owner or proprietor, talk about yourself and your group but do so within the context of how the other person benefits. For example, your group has played together for several years and has won awards and recorded an album or two. But frame those things in terms of the benefit they provide to the venue.

“We’ve developed a pretty big following, many of whom I know will come to hear us play. We have over 1,000 facebook fans living in this city who love hearing us live, and once we announce our performance, they’ll want to come here to see us.”

Far too many people think that selling means blowing the other person away by telling them how wonderful you are. No. The first step is to show up and then focus on what the other person wants, not how super you and your band are.

Guy with super open shirt

Decisions are hard. How many things are you putting off that perhaps you don’t want to say ‘no’ to or honestly can’t decide on? We all go through that.

So how will you make the venue owner’s decision easier? Well, help them understand the benefit they will get by hiring you as I described above.

Another way is to have information easily available to them that they’ll want and need-information that will motivate them to say “Yes”.

Do you have a website that provides samples of your music and testimonials from fans and venue owners? Do you make it easy for people to contact you? Think about how many times you’ve been approached for a decision and rather than make a quick decision, you’ve asked to have something to look at? You’re buying time plus you’re asking for something that will help you make the best decision.

It seems strange in 2021 to have to convince people of the benefits of having a website. 20 years ago, it took professionals and several thousands of dollars to make your presence known online. Today there’s no reason not to have a good website.

Yesterday I spent a few hours putting together a simple website for a new jazz trio I’ve organized – piano, bass, trombone. This post was actually motivated by the things I’m now doing to get work for me and my two friends. I recorded a simple 3-minute demo in my studio, and crafted a very basic website. Now I am sending the link out to the people with whom I’m following up my conversations.

I see two things happening with musicians struggling with their online presence.

One problem is not even having a website. In my opinion, Facebook is not enough. You’re renting space instead of owning it. A friend of mine was just kicked off YouTube. His presence is gone. It’s pretty hard to get kicked off your own website.

And if you can’t build your own, hire someone cheap at Fiverr to do it for you. Tell them what you want and when you want it or ask for their advice. Then just get it done.

The other problem I see is that people take months and months to release their shiny new site. (Or many never ever get it out the door.) It’s perpetually never quite right. “I’m still working on the demo.” or “I’m still editing the band profile page.” Have you ever heard the saying, “Perfect is the enemy of good”?

Steve Jobs once famously said, “Real artists ship.” By ‘ship’ he meant release version 1.0 of whatever you’re creating. Do you remember the very first iPhone? Imagine if Jobs had waited for it to be perfectly bug-free, or said to his developers, “It must first have 10,000 apps registered to the app store.” The iPhone would never have seen the light of day!

In both your playing and most everything else in your life, resist the need for version 1.0 to be perfect. If you’re a brain surgeon, please ignore my advice, but if you are a musician, come up with a cool website address from GoDaddy, build your website, and publish it before going to bed tonight!

Do you struggle asking for money? If so, you’re not alone. Artists often make the mistake of asking for less than they could have gotten.

My 17-year old son is starting his little photography business. A boy at his high school asked my son if he would take photos of him and his girlfriend, and asked what my son would charge.

He came home and shared with me his nervousness about asking for money and his hesitation to take on the job in the first place. I asked him, “What number would make your hesitation disappear?” He said $150. “Then ask for $150”, was my reply.

The next day he came home shocked that his friend even considered that number, but that his friend asked for $20 less. “How should I respond, Dad? You know I’m not good at negotiating.”

I told him to stick to his number. “Tell your friend exactly what he will get from the job and how he and his girlfriend will have something that will remind them of the moment you will create that will last forever. (Tell him that his girlfriend will love him for hiring you!)” He did and the next day he had his first $150 customer, who, by the way, has since referred three other people to my son, one of which has led to a family Christmas card photo gig!

We make the mistake of overestimating the resistance people have toward price. Price is so much easier to ‘sell’ once you communicate the benefits of hiring you-benefits that the other person really wants.

What happens when you approach a restaurant owner or venue manager who claims to have a set amount and that’s all they’re willing to pay? Add to that, you feel like you need them more than they need you.

Maybe you accept that offer and by bringing more people into the restaurant, you earn the right to eventually ask for more. That’s one option. but be sure to eventually ask!

Another option is to find something they will let you do that adds to what you get from the gig. Can you set up a table to sell your CDs while your son/daughter or friend mans the table? Can you give the venue printed cards to put on each table that promotes your stuff?

Can you provide something to the venue that will add value for them that won’t cost you much if anything? Perhaps you have design skills and offer to create an ad for them that you’ll post on social media and share with others.

Maybe you offer to come in an hour earlier to play a solo cocktail set. Yes, that costs you time, but consider the goodwill that might earn you. Sometimes you have to give to get.

Think of how you can go above and beyond for the people who pay you.

Point out to the venue after the gig that more people stayed for dinner and at the bar than normal. That’s one reason to visit the venue beforehand to see what their normal traffic looks like. Make friends with the staff to get more of the inside scoop.

There’s probably a lot more earning potential out there for you if you just do some of these things and elevate your mindset about trading value. It also helps to develop a little more courage and business creativity in order to find those opportunities.

Good luck with this holiday season and beyond!

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11 thoughts on “Sharpen your skills and mindset to get more and better paying gigs”

    1. Yes, and you could take it further and say what they really want beyond butts in seats is the revenue that comes from those butts eating and drinking. More paying customers translates into greater success, so by hiring you with your ability to bring in a following you’re helping provide the venue with greater success and longevity.

      The point of all of this is to help musicians/bandleaders become clearer on the real benefit they provide to the people hiring them – in the eyes of those people. If you make the mistake of soley focusing on and ‘selling’ how tight your band is, you may miss the real benefit the venue is looking for. A less tight band might get hired because they’ve convinced the venue that they’ll put more butts in the seats and in so doing, increase revenue for that night.

  1. Loved this post. These are very important things which few people in our area talk about.
    It has inspired me.
    Thank you!

  2. Spot on! Don’t call – visit! Priceless! 30 years in sales and sales management – I earned so much business by meeting those who could make the decision to buy my products or services, it was incredible. Relationships are king! Referrals become automatic, as well.

    Michael – your listening mantra is a tremendously huge element with vocalist/pianist Aimee Nolte.

  3. That was a great read. Every issued addressed in this piece is applicable to my current projects. Great advice and right on the money. Thanks

  4. Avatar
    Joquithe Manricks

    Great read. Love the drill/hole analogy and the Steve Jobs theory. Wesley summed it up very well with his ‘bums on seats not a band’ comment. Could not be more appropriate. Thanks for your articles. There is more to being a musician than just playing your instrument and your articles contribute to the macro picture of being a musician.

  5. This is some great advice Michael. It is way too easy to just back and wait. Making those contacts in person are so important, but having a website seems like a no brainer. So why haven’t I done it already?Music schools should consider adding in a business course designed to teach these concepts! Thanks for the tips.

    1. Randy, thanks for the comment. One of my future projects is to create a business course for musicians. There are a few marketing courses out there geared toward musicians, but rather than talk about how to sell your t-shirts on social media, I’d rather address some fundamental ideas like persuasion. How to attract a venue to hiring you and to make the most of your gigs from a marketing perspective. There’s always been a bit of a rub between artists and commerce, and I’d like to break through that barrier to guide musicians in how to be more materially successful with their music. Business is not a four-letter word!

  6. Hey Michael this is Ken Boome pianist composer in Dallas Texas. I’ve done over 20,000 gigs in this DFW area since the very early 80s. Your article was EXCELLENT. Your experience in the business world has shaped you in all the right ways to disseminate the most important fundamental and cutting edge ideas to make a difference in an artists life immediately. Keep up the good work——

  7. Hey Mike,

    Thanks for the great insight! My grandma was always telling me “are they paying you properly?” since I was starting to move around with my trombone and now, even if I didn’t understand at that time, I know how important it is to have someone that reminds you how crucial it is to not underestimate us and most of all our time. I need to say, this thing closed me different doors but I’m happy where I am and I’m constantly improving myself and my business without any regrets. As you said: “What number would make your hesitation disappear?”, go for it.

    Thank you and “Mountaintop Jazz” looks just great by the way,

    Cheers from Italy,


  8. Mike thanks for the great article. I just happened to stumble upon it and it was very informative. When I’m ready to get back out there and gig I’ll be better prepared by first getting my rump out of the seat and visit the venue.

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Michael Lake

Trombonist, author, marketer, & tech guy

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