Playing With Euros

I was at the Danish Consulate in Berlin just last night helping out with a German seminar for Danish marine officers. As a special guest and “non-business” representative for a citizen of Berlin, I was asked to describe how Berlin is treating me as an artist, especially, since I recently moved here from the States. First of all, their choice of a “non-business” oriented specimen doesn’t quite fit my profile: one of the important things I learned while living and working in the USA was that once you treat selling your art like a business, you can actually be a successful musician, artist, composer, whatever it will be.

Initially, I ventured into making a living as a musician with a pretense of “yeah, I’m going to be a guitar star and won’t have to get into this boring business, corporate, hierarchical rat race that every other conventional career has to offer.” I have to say that I got lucky in this respect by abandoning that notion early on. I got hip to business and started to accumulate logistics skills to the point of spending 2-5 hours on the guitar daily and the remaining time of 5-7 hours at my desk, or running errands, teaching, and writing music and materials for classes or for books and magazines.

Coming to Berlin in the beginning of 2001 was quite a shock. I think I would have had to get a day job if it hadn’t been for those business skills mentioned above. There were (and are) plenty of guitar players in this city. Most of them, like me, could play. But too many of them already had the gigs, and those take a while to get your hands on. So instead of getting that day job, I went on auto-pilot: I started doing a lot of research for my web based teaching, for German and European booking avenues. I knew exactly what steps to take for acquiring new students quickly and for creating other teaching situations, such as up-coming classes in Hamburg (ensemble workshops) and Idstein (guitar seminar). While my teaching platform started to take roots, I began to recognize the effects of having sent out tons of promo packs to promoters, booking agencies, clubs and festivals. Now I had a reason again to organize sessions with my German quartet. I created a podium for working on new compositions and projects I had planned for a while.

In comparison to leading a band in the US, the map of Germany, with mid-size to major urban centers so close together, allows a band to book gigs all over the country all the time. It takes 8 hours to drive from the northern city, Hamburg, all the way to Munich, located close to the southern border. While there may not really be any stops worth mentioning between San Francisco and Portland, Oregon, on the German route I can book dates in Bremen, Hannover, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, and at least three other cities of similar size – 300,000 plus inhabitants. On top of that, the funding for the arts offers quite a lot more help with such endeavors – a tradition that encourages European cultural exchanges, especially international ones.

Coming back to my point in business: I might sound like an entrepreneur when describing my approach to making a living with music, but I sure enjoy it. Take for instance the next couple of months: I’m finishing up several new compositions I had been working on with my rhythm section here in Berlin. My saxophonist lives in Hamburg, so I will email the charts to him a couple of weeks before our spring tour will start. We’ll meet a day before our first gig to look at those tunes in a couple of rehearsals, with everyone well prepared individually, and do six different cities in a week without too much driving. Then a recording session the day after to finish the whole thing off. That’s exactly as we did it for my last record “Hamburg – Port of Call”. Such a tour would pose some difficulties in the US, and it wouldn’t be possible in either place without six months of follow up calls to clubs and promoters who I had sent bunches of promo packs months before that. On the other hand, one needs to mention the gas prices in Europe (about four times the American standard), and high taxes let the already meager pay appear quite slim.

I have worked in plenty of bars in my days, from bar bands to Hip Hop, Rock, Funk and Dance. A modern jazz outfit really works no differently when it comes to what the venue wants: Drinking audiences. But it sure changes when it comes to soliciting federal or corporate funding or when preparing for the premiere of an art collaboration. The other difference is that an average bar band appeals to a much lower common denominator in club-goers. Modern jazz claims only about 2% of the music-enthused population as jazz listeners. It sure takes some business skills to bring your musical outpourings to the select few that might want to hear them and spend that buck – or Euro!