Big Scout Project

Back to Work!

Friends —

I know exactly why girl scouts take summers off. Dagnabbit, all that darned fun gets a gal overheated. And so I confess to a small amount of badge fatigue after 9 months of work and 100 posts.

But that’s not the only reason for the absence. A number of you know that I’m also a songwriter down here in Austin, and I’m readying the release of a new disc. As any small independent business owner knows, readying a product for market is a whole lotta work–a CD release is no different.

But here’s the good news: there’s a badge for that!

In fact, there are so many badge tasks around careers, business, goal setting, marketing and more activities that are directly connected to the work of this CD release, that I’m definitely on board for a cross-pollination between that work and this project.

And with a lot of tasks at hand, I’m struggling a bit with how to organize content for the next several posts. For those of you who yearn for the days of kitchen science experiments and art classes, however, I’d say you might want to come back around the second week of November. We’re gonna be all-business for the next few weeks.


Let’s start with the Careers badge, shall we? The two tasks below are actually a lovely backdrop for the work that’s to follow in future posts. Check it out:

Task: Imagine doing something you love and earning money for it! Your favorite hobby can become a career! Ask five adults whether hobbies they had as children are related in some way to their careers. 

This one’s a piece of cake because:

  • Yes, actually, I can easily imagine making a living with music.
  • And yes, it was a favorite “hobby” as a kid, starting with my first guitar lesson at age 8.
  • And I know far more than five adults who turned the same youthful hobby into a career. Not necessarily a lucrative career, mind you, but a career nonetheless.
(Aside: it occurred to me in thinking about this task that I know far, far more men who started playing when they were young. My wonderful husband describes the bulk of his youth as spent sitting at a kitchen table, guitar in his lap and two cheap little portable cassette players in front of him. The budding engineer learned to mix this way: he’d record one part, then during playback, he’d perform a second part while recording both sound sources onto the second tape deck. That, my friends, is a devoted hobbits.)

Task: Pick a career you might like to have. Find out about the education or special training needed to get a job in that field, and the salary when you are starting out and after ten years. What clothes, tools, or equipment are used in this career? Is it hard to get a job in this field? Share this information with others.
Let me first point out that any of my musician friends reading this are, at this moment, laughing their asses off, and that’s because we all know the expression, “There are hundreds of dollars to be made in music!” But allow me to address this task’s questions with sincerity, at 50 years of age, as I’m “livin’ the musical dream”:

  • Education and Training: Wow, this is really important, imo. Yes, there are the rare few with supreme gifts, but they’re the exception, not the rule, and it’s folly to walk the world thinking you don’t need a lesson. Trust the rest of us–you do.
  • I truly believe that training is particularly important for women in popular music genres. I’ve often heard audience members say, “You play guitar really good for a woman.” But that’s a really, really troubling statement, isn’t it? Why is my sex a litmus test of capacity? True — we don’t see a lot of women shredding those guitar strings (and we can all hurl equally inappropriate sexist remarks about the phallus here), but I have to say that a lot of women I know really need to step up their core competencies on their instrument. Theory is not a dirty word, and just a little bit can help a lot. We don’t have to be Jimi Hendrix, we just have to be able to play well, and that means study and practice and invention. My two cents.
  • Beyond our primary instrument(s), I’m also pretty persuaded that songwriters should study songwriting. I really came to the game late on this one, but like I always say, the Lord loves a late bloomer.

  • Salaries: A-HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!  (And having just picked myself up off the floor and wiped the tears from my eyes, let me acknowledge that I’m speaking strictly of popular music genres here, including singer-songwriters. I am not speaking of symphony players, or musicians in the pit at a Broadway musical. Got it?)
  • There’s much more to come in future posts about the music economy and the monetization of music, but salaries don’t really apply here — and that’s because musicians are contractors. Every gig we play is simply another contract. It could be for free, for tips, for a percentage of the door, or for a set fee. We choose to play a gig based on its relative merits; the gig may not pay, but it might offer great exposure. Conversely, it may be a really stinky private party, but the money’s great.
  • Pay scales for gigs, at least in Austin, haven’t risen with the price of inflation, and I’m pretty sure there’s universal agreement on that among players. Anecdotally, many pros I’ve met here in Austin report that it used to be far easier to earn a living wage twenty years ago than it is today.
  • I went to to see how much full-time working musicians in this town average, and it’s around $28,000 a year. They define this position as a professional sideman who can step into pretty much any gig on stage or in the studio. Please note: singer-songwriters (the ones who have to pay those sidemen at gigs), don’t even register as a profession. So musicians aren’t getting rich, and for those who are “making it” professionally, good luck “making it” on $28K in Austin.
  • There are ways to make a steadier income, or to fill in the gaps in between gigs. Teaching comes to mind; Charles picks up students throughout the year, and it helps fill out the calendar. For songwriters, we might receive income for radio airplay from our Performing Rights Organization (PRO). And we might really increase our chances for income by pitching songs to other artists or to film/TV placement. All of these generate what we like to call “mailbox money.” But a big placement is, to me, the holy grail.  It’s part of my business plan — more on that in later posts.

  • Clothes, Tools, and Equipment: There’s no uniform, per se, but most artists or bands like to have some kind of look, I suppose–anything from grunge to chic to emo to, well, you name it. I don’t think I’ve got much of a look, and that’s something I should give some thought to. Charles has to wear a black jacket at just about every gig he plays, so he goes through a couple of those every year just because the right sleeve gets shredded by guitar strings.
  • So, while clothes probably aren’t breaking the bank for any musician, instruments and gear is another story. I don’t know a single player or artist in town who hasn’t dropped some coin on quality instruments and gear. It’s not vanity, it’s necessity. These are the tools of the trade. We’re better because of them. We’re not collectors whose beautiful pieces go unplayed. We own lots of instruments because we need the right tool for the job. And we maintain them, we change those strings, and we get the pianos tuned because the words, “It was in tune when I bought it” don’t cut it on stage.
  • But wait, there’s more! Once we’ve got the songs, we need to record the music. An artist can record it on the cheap at home with Garageband (oh, wait — they had to buy a Mac for that), but if we’re bucking for some airplay and promotion, we’ll probably need the help of an engineer, in a studio, and that adds up. Add in costs for the band, mixing, mastering, CD artwork, and duplication and it’s a major investment.
  • Bands and solo artists drop some real coin in promotion as well. At the very minimum, we need websites, posters, and enough money left over to send those new CDs to radio stations and music publications. If someone’s died and left you a lot of money, you can hire quality help for radio promotion, public relations, and more.
  • I’d just like to mention another piece of gear that every musician really needs: a reliable car. Yeah, I know, everyone needs a reliable car, but you really, really need it when you’ve got a couple of guitars and a P.A. system and the bus just won’t cut it.

  • Ease of employment: Is it hard to get a gig? Well, if you’re a good sideman and you don’t mind hustling up some jobs, you can probably find fairly consistent work here in Austin. The pay may not be great, but the gigs are here in the self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World.
  • It’s a little tougher for singer-songwriters, I think. There’s a buttload of us, mostly talented, all looking for slots at the same small handful of clubs. We pay our bands and pull out the promo machine in the hopes that the fans will come out, pay the $5 cover, throw money in the jar, and buy a CD or two.  In this way, sidemen always come out with something in their pockets at the end of the night, but the songwriter runs the risk of losing money.
  • AND… it’s tougher for women songwriters of all ages. I’m not guessing on this one — I crunched the numbers. Women artists booked only 14% of high profile gigs in Austin between mid August and mid September. More on that little data study in a later post.
So let’s sum it up. If you’re a sideman, and you’re damned good, you can average $28K in this town. Your biggest expenses will be in the acquisition and maintenance of your gear. If, however, you’re part of a band or solo artist trying to get attention, you can count on needing major capital to invest in recording and promotion. Band mates can often share the burden of expenses, but solo artists shoulder it all–and more, if they pay band members. Add to that my data-driven suspicion that women artists of any age in Austin have an even harder time getting high profile gigs than men do.

That’s more than enough for now. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the tasks at hand, but at least these can help paint a picture of what it looks like to live the dream. Those of us who keep at it love it far too much to even think of putting it down.  


One thought on “Back to Work!

  1. Pingback: Happy Birthday, Big Scout Project | The Big Scout Project

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