Marc Bristol and his Washington state homegrown music-making pals demonstrate how they make money with music on jugband instruments: the gutbucket bass, washboard, and jug (the axe at far right is a gag).
PHOTO: TOM ALLEN
Even homesteaders need to relax and enjoy themselves from time to time, right? And almost everybody these days wants to cut his or her cost of living. So how about a little do-it-yourself entertainment?
That's what this column is about. Homegrown music... and sometimes homemade musical instruments to play it on.
Since most anybody can use a few extra bucks every now and
then, I'm going to plunge right in and tell you how you
might be able to make money with music. By that I mean picking up an occasional job to finance a pair of new strings, pay for a trip
into town, or even cover the rent check once in a while.
However, before you attempt to parlay your pickin' into
cold hard cash, It's best to be sure that you've reached
the point in your study of music where you feel like
sharing it with folks other than close friends and
relatives. (Trying to play professionally before
your ability is up to the task can be a mighty
disheartening experience!) And, once you have enough
proficiency at your chosen instrument to perform "in
public," you still need to find an audience that's willing
to pay to be entertained.
And that's where this issue's column comes in. I've been
earning a share of my income by pickin' and singin' for
several years, so I can make some suggestions that might
just help you find a few of those groups of paying
I'd like to point out right from the start, though, that
I'm not promoting the notion that you can become
self-sufficient by playing music. In most cases (the
exceptions being mainly tiresome gigs in nightclubs or bars
that will support you for a year or so) the only
way to actually earn a living from music is to spend a lot
of time on the road.
Now, this sort of work could provide an acceptable
lifestyle for nomadic individuals who don't mind living in
a truck or school bus, but the constant wandering that it
requires would be pretty much out of the question for those of you who prefer to spend time around the home or
farmstead. On the other hand, If you already keep your
expenses to a minimum—either by growing your own food
or owning your home—an occasional "extra" source of
income may be all that you need. Either way, whether
you hope to become a full-time "pro" or just aim to feed
the cookie jar every once in a while, you'll probably
have to start at the bottom.
Give Yourself a Job!
And that starting point, in terms of playin' for pay, is
the kind of gig that you don't have to audition for,
because you hire yourself . I'm talking, of
course, about busking. Singing on the street! There's usually not a
whole lot of money in this sort of work. In fact, $20 a day
for three or four very strenuous sets Is about the best you
should expect unless your act is extremely novel and
you happen to be playing during the Christmas season.
Remember, too, that (for some strange reason) It's illegal
in many areas to just set yourself up on a corner and play.
So unless you've seen other "street acts" on your
intended spot, It's best to check with the police
department before you start to perform. Also, many places
(Seattle's Pike Place Market and the entire city of San
Francisco, for example) require a somewhat expensive
"street singer's" license, and I haven't heard of any new
permits being granted in the latter city at all.
What you'll be doing, should you decide to try one of these
"do it yourself" jobs, is singing and playing your heart
out—with your hat, guitar case, or whatever opened
invitingly—in the hopes that people will brighten up
and salt that container with a little spare change (or even
an apple or an orange!).
And don't feel that your unsolicited performance
constitutes begging! The world can always use another song,
and music on the streets adds a little culture to the
otherwise bland and sterile urban environment.
Sing for Your Supper
For a variation on the above theme, you could try to "sign
up" with a small restaurant, sandwich shop, salad kitchen,
or some such in exchange for a salary or even just tips
and lunch. If you see a likely place that doesn't have a
resident minstrel, approach the management with your idea.
It would probably be best to begin by offering your
services for lunch and a small fee. Then, if the
store owner won't agree to that plan, he or she may at
least be willing to guarantee a certain figure (again, $10
to $20 is probably as much as you can expect), and promise
to make up the difference if your tips don't equal that
Or, "Band" Together!
Better yet, if you get real tight with a bunch of your
homegrown musical friends (and I don't mean after
passing the bottle of homebrew around a few times), you
might consider looking for work at a local craft carnival
or other similar affair. My group has just finished an
extended period of playing these festivals, and we closed
off the "season" with our annual performance at the Western
Washington State Fair. This year, our pay ranged from $7.00
(in tips) and three T-shirts, to $250 for two 45-minute
In order to tackle this type of performance, you should
have a good, solid repertoire of at least 20 or 30 songs.
The average set, you see, will contain between 10 and 15
numbers (unless you get into long jams with several
extended solo breaks). Most craft or county fairs are good
for one or two shows, and they usually have enough money to
pay you pretty well for your services.
Watch out, though, for the old "we don't have much money
left in our budget but the exposure will do you good"
routine. That kind of arrangement can only go on for so
long before you realize that you're providing a valuable
service to the fair's management and receiving nothing (or
next to it) in return. Furthermore, if your only goal is to
get up and entertain people, there are plenty of more
pleasant ways to do it if you simply spread the word
You (or your band) could also just go ahead and promote
your own concert or dance. This idea should work
especially well in a rural area, where there often isn't
much entertainment available and where grange halls and so
forth can usually be rented at reasonable rates. If you
"start from scratch" in this way, however, you'll have to
plan to advertise. The best (and least expensive) way to do
this is to find a graphic artist (perhaps there's even one
in your group) and have some simple photocopied posters
made up. Remember, though, that these promotional materials
should be out where folks can see them at least two weeks
before the event, and make sure that the local newspapers
and radio stations know about your hoedown, too. Such
sources will often give you free publicity if you get the materials to them well in advance
of the performance.
Your self-promoted shindig will be a whole lot more likely
to succeed if you can avoid competing with other public
entertainments such as the "big" movies, local high
school dances, and so forth. Foreknowledge of other events
isn't always available, however, so you'll have to be ready
to just break even—or maybe go into the hole—
unless you're able to assure attendance at your
concert or dance by selling advance tickets.
On the other hand, the local movie theater can sometimes
work for you, too. These businesses are
occasionally willing to run a live music show—perhaps
at no cost to musician(s)—because of the money that
can be made by selling refreshments during the performance.
You see, the theater owner would ordinarily have to pay to
show a film (and he or she may be having trouble with
attendance on week nights), so this sort of symbiotic
arrangement could be to that person's advantage.
Community College Concerts
If you feel that your solo act or group really has
something special to offer, why not try for a concert at a
small college? Junior colleges have sprung up everywhere
over the past few years, and most of 'em offer free
entertainment programs (often during lunch hours) to their
students. In order to get one of these jobs, however, you
may have to put together what's known as a "promo package."
This packet would usually contain a photo of you or your
group, a tape recording or record of one of your songs, and
some sort of glowing description of the kind of music you
play. (A poster—which the college could print up and
place around the campus—would also be a big help.)
Junior college jobs weren't hard to come by a few years
back. Now, however (at least around my area), you have to
have your promo kit in the mailbox by the end of the school
year in order to get booked for either of the following two
semesters. Of course, the community colleges in your locale
may not be so "sophisticated" yet.
My original promo package consisted of a "photocopied
special" poster, including a couple of pictures and the
slogan "Homegrown Mountain Music," as well as a short typed
description of the kind of music I play. After a while I
had a newspaper clipping to add from the local
daily's article about my escapades in a nearby sandwich
shop. Even with this crude "kit," I was able to demand $50
for a one-hour performance, and many folks with better
packages were getting a good deal more.
Weddings and private parties also offer income
possibilities to the home-grown musician. All of the
above-mentioned job-finding methods will help you get
invited to play at such occasions, and you might also try
having some business cards printed. These "pocket posters"
won't cost you more than $20 and can be hung in all the
places where you see other cards (the ones that advertise
bulldozing, horseshoeing, and so forth) tacked up, or just
handed out to anyone who expresses an interest in hiring
you or your group.
Should You "Electrify" Yourself?
It's unlikely that you'd need your own sound amplifying
equipment for most of the jobs that I've mentioned
(assuming, of course, that you have an acoustic solo act or
group) as this paraphernalia either wouldn't be
necessary or would be provided by the sponsoring person or
organization. Of course, a sound system will definitely
expand your performing possibilities, but—unless
you're a good and patient "horse trader" or have the
electrical know-how to build the equipment
yourself—such accessories can involve a considerable
The realm of sound-reinforcement is a whole different ball
game from playing music, and I don't have the space here to
really go into it. Suffice it to say that— should
this equipment become necessary—it's a good idea to
keep some money out of each performance to finance the
microphones, amps, and so forth. Another workable plan
would be to have each member of your group pay for an equal
share of the equipment.
You'll notice that I haven't said much about the usual
tavern and bar gigs, and that's because I'm just not much
interested in those kinds of employment myself. I think
that playing for four or five hours in a noisy,
smoke-filled place (that doesn't even serve much that
interests me) is too much like hard work. If you have a
good dance band, though, these places are prime markets for
your musical services.
So, if you want to spread the good feelings that you get
from music around— either alone or with your pickin'
partners—check out a few of the scenes that I've
described. The opportunities are there (and more can be
created!). Just believe that the world should have more
music, and you'll begin to see the places where that need