Beyond the fun, playing in a band is a business

schandler@newsobserver.comSeptember 25, 2013 

Lorraine Jordan has a formal budget for her bluegrass band, Carolina Road. Each member has assigned business duties such as booking shows, setting up the merchandise table and doing media interviews. If money’s left over at the end of the year, everybody gets a Christmas bonus.

If it sounds a bit like a corporation, that’s because it is: Carolina Road is a multiple IBMA award-winner, a well-known name in traditional bluegrass … and a company.

You’ve got to have talent and passion for the music to make it in the bluegrass world. But that’s not all it takes.

According to Bev Paul, former general manager at Durham-born Sugar Hill Records and now a consultant based in Efland, a lot of bands struggle because they’re all heart and no head.

“They can’t quite wrap their heads around the fact that they’re literally starting a little small business,” she said. “Just doing that little bit of accounting work – which nobody enjoys – can make a big difference long-term about where you stand.”

One important strategy, Jordan said, is to set sensible goals.

“I think a lot of people that start bands just say, ‘Hey, I want to get a band, I want to play,’ so they just throw some musicians together and here we go,” said Jordan, who lives in Garner. “And then the first thing they’re wanting to do is buy a bus.”

Find good people

Much better than focusing on things, she said, is focusing on the people going with you on this journey.

“You’ve got to surround yourself with good people,” Jordan said. “And then you’ve got to set everything up and organize it and have a plan.”

Another mistake bands often make, according to Paul, is to set their sights on a record deal.

“A lot of musicians think getting a record deal is an end goal, that if they get a record deal, all their problems will be over,” she said.

Money from a record company is certainly helpful for financing the production and promotion of an album, she said. “But in the end, the record label is not going to take on a project that they don’t think they can make money on.”

Labels are looking for artists who already have an audience, she said, and that’s where the Internet comes in handy. YouTube is an easy way to get songs and videos out into the world. Facebook allows fans to keep tabs on a band’s tour or recording process. And Instagram and Twitter offer intimate glimpses into an artist’s daily life. That adds up to a whole lot of free publicity, and the payoff is handsome.

A DIY approach

Bluegrass music rarely is played on commercial radio stations, though there are many shows on public and college radio nationwide and a dedicated bluegrass station on SiriusXM satellite radio. So the way to get the music to an audience is to play it live.

“A bluegrass career is based on touring, primarily festivals,” Paul said. “There is a wealth of local, regional and national festivals across the country. So the way to get your band started is to start working your way up through those ranks. Everything else flows from that.”

Big-name bands have managers, accountants, a sound crew and people to sell CDs and T-shirts during concerts. For everyone else, it’s do-it-yourself.

At the IBMA conference, Jordan will talk about “How to Run a Band Like A Business” on Saturday, while Paul’s “Mind your Business” session Tuesday will talk about “what things actually cost,” emphasizing details bands tend to overlook, such as song licensing fees, maintaining the vehicles they use to get to gigs, and the cost of mailing out promotional material.

Have a plan, Paul said, but accept the adventure.

“You cannot be risk-averse and be in this business,” she said.

Chandler: 919-829-4830

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