December 27, 2011 at 8:37 PM
Legendary jazz drummer Billy Hart once told me, “You’re more than good enough to be a star”. Just before he said that I had asked him, “what should I be working on to improve?”, thinking that if I could just become “good enough”, somehow this would translate into success as a jazz violinist.
In retrospect, I now understand his answer to mean that any artist, given a baseline of talent (i.e. “good enough”) can create a successful career, provided that he or she hustles hard enough (doing promotion, sales, marketing, networking, etc…) If you’ve been playing the violin for 10 years you’re probably more than good enough to succeed as well.
You don’t have to be a blues viola player or a rock violinist to build your distinct brand and succeed. But you DO have to work hard, and creatively, to build your audience, find your niche, and make a living playing music.
Check out Violin Monster in this video- He’s not a virtuoso, but he’s paying his rent playing the violin, and it seems like he’s having fun doing it.
Regardless of the style of music he plays, Mr. Monster fits my definition of a “creative string player”, because of the clever way he interacts with his community and makes a living making music.
How often do you hear people complain about how their community isn’t cool enough to “get” what they do? I really have a problem with this way of thinking. Just like teachers, doctors, lawyers and everybody else, we should be able to create a demand for what we do as artists. We can’t, and we shouldn’t expect to count on the “stability” of an orchestra job…
Being good isn’t good enough.
It’s not enough to be good at playing music. Most artists believe that if they’re good enough, success will fall in their lap. This amounts to a fundamental misunderstanding of the way the world works. Philosophers and historians have argued that major historical changes can only occur through a confluence of ready-made socio-economic/material conditions with the bold actions of visionary individuals. See Noam Chomski, Karl Marx and Georg Hegel. Consider the emergence of any major religion, World War 2, the Civil Rights movement, the Arab Spring…. All of these events involved not only the change in both popular thought and material conditions, but also the drastic action of strong-minded individuals which helped to create a Tipping Point.
To create your tipping point (building buzz for your brand), you’ve got to 1) take drastic action and 2) do it within a community that has the minimum necessary conditions to support/receive your efforts.
As I always say, living on a mountaintop with goats does not a jazz violinist make, and even if you live in a booming cultural mecca, it may take time to generate the reception you’re hoping for if you’re presenting a new heavy metal string quartet.
Creating your brand may take a little time.
So exactly how big/diverse does a community need to be in order to accommodate or support a “creative” artist’s expression? Consider Ann Arbor, Michigan, where Violin Monster is based. It turns out this small town has been the growing grounds of all kinds of creative string players and teachers.
Not more than 20 feet from Violin Monster, I met locals who remembered Grammy-winning Jeremy Kittel playing at the same farmers market when he was 8 years old. (Just an hour before, my friend Dana Leong and I jammed out in a free-jazz parade as part of Kerrytown Concert House's annual “Edgefest”) Check out the hilarious pictures on Dana's flickr page!
Ann Arbor is not a thriving metropolis, but it has enough of the necessary conditions to allow a courageous musician to build an audience.
The next time a fellow musician complains about how “the scene in this town really sucks”, tell them that they need to either MAKE their own scene, or move…
Don’t wait for a club to open that features jazz violin 7 nights a week. Open your own venue or work with management to transform an existing spot into something new. Promote shows in unlikely locations. Try stuff!
Kerrytown Concert House took advantage of everything its community has to offer over years of doing concerts and festivals (and free-jazz parades!) again and again, making Edgefest a staple of the international creative music community.
One of Jeremy Kittel’s teachers, Bob Phillips started the Saline Fiddlers in a little town outside of the city. Bob is one of the leading advocates for modernizing string education today.
Other members of the Saline Fiddlers such as Corinna Smith have gone on to play with Barrage, offer forward-thinking music education programs, and are defining a new era of Creative String playing today.
Other proactive and cool creative string players from Ann Arbor include Gabe Bolkkoski and Brandon Smith.
What’s the difference between these Ann Arborites and everyone other musician complaining how the world hasn’t caught up to their vision? They took a chance. They acted boldly. They had the courage to act on what probably seemed like a CRAZY idea. Now they are powerful brands succeeding at their art on their own terms.
Jeremy and Corinna will be coming back this June to the Creative Strings Festival, my annual Columbus, Ohio-based fiddle camp built on the unlikely idea/curriculum that every participant performs improvised music in public concerts throughout venues around the city. (All together, we perform over 25 concerts during the week!)
When we began ten years ago, I was barely sure whether it would work, but I took a chance, kept doing it every year, and found that the community, as well as the string players who come from around the world, make it better every year.
"It’s not enough to be good at playing music. Most artists believe that if they’re good enough, success will fall in their lap." I've been saying this exact thing in nearly the exact words for many years now, and it's the reason I'd like to someday (soon) begin teaching a class to performance majors on how to do "promotion, sales, marketing, networking, etc…" for themselves. So many of the musicians I know or have worked with seem to think that "If I win this competition, the calls will start coming to hire me as a soloist. All I need to do is win this competition." Sure, that helps, but really, winning simply isn't enough. There is a lot of blood, sweat, and tears (in other words, effort) that has to go into creating a successful career beyond what happens in the practice room and on stage. Self-promotion (the effort to be heard by promoters and producers over the clamoring of all the other thousands of voices trying to be heard) is an extreme challenge, one that takes practice, training, and dedication.
As a former Strolling Strings member under Walt Straiton in Williamsport, PA, a Music Education major at the University of Miami (Miami, FL), a former Barrage and Cirque Dreams violinist, and now a dual MBA/MA in Arts Administrator student at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, my successes have come only because I took chances. My Barrage audition, the Cirque Dreams audition, applying for an MBA program when my last math class had been during junior year of high school ... all of these things took guts and an acknowledgment that disappointment was a real possibility.
So you're right---so, so right. "What’s the difference between [successful musicians] and everyone other musician complaining how the world hasn’t caught up to their vision? They took a chance. They acted boldly. They had the courage to act on what probably seemed like a CRAZY idea. Now they are powerful brands succeeding at their art on their own terms." Just like you, Christian, and like Jeremy Kittel, Corinna Smith, and, it turns out, Violin Monster.
Great post! I re-posted it on my own blog (http://blueoctopusstudio.tumblr.com/). I completely agree with you. Marketing and branding is what I do on the side when I'm not teaching and it's great to see more and more musicians understand these concepts.
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