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THE ART OF BUSINESS & THE BUSINESS OF ART  -- talking points by Joel Mabus for FARM 2002 

Notes for workshops at the Folk Alliance Regional Midwest gathering October 2002.  These notes comprised three pages and were used in three workshops I was part of:  The Art of Business & The Business of Art, What to Do When They Say "No," and Do-it-yourself Websites.


How Art Is Like Business

Organize!  In creating art, whether a song or painting, keeping your ideas documented and in some order with a journal or sketchbooks is vital.  It’s as important as a businessperson’s ledger.  Keeping track of things is not antithetical to art.  (It is OK for a folk singer to own a computer, too!)

End results are directly proportionate to the amount of effort that goes into the effort.  Songs don’t write themselves, gigs don’t book themselves, and widgets don’t manufacture themselves.  Sitting down to write everyday – or practice your instrument everyday -- will make you a better writer and musician. 

Set realistic goals and assess them periodically.  Business people write a business plan and revisit that plan on a regular basis.  Likewise the artist benefits from having a clear goal in front of him or her.  “Be a big star” is not a goal, it is a dream.  Writing or assembling the material for an album by the end of the year – that’s a goal.  Saving the money for 20 hours of studio time – that’s a goal.

Learn from your peers and associates.  If you sell mufflers, it would be good to know who else sells automotive services in your town -- and how they sell mufflers in Los Angeles or Peoria.  Keeping in touch with other musicians or artists will keep you abreast of both arts issues and career opportunities.

Cultivate your standing in the community.  Any business person knows that goodwill does not come free.  Likewise, it takes a village to support an artist.  And it behooves the artist to be a good citizen in the village. Every performance needn’t be a benefit, but using your talents wisely for the good of your community will reap rewards.  The first reward is in a better community, but the bread you cast upon the waters will come back to you many fold.  Sometimes this means giving of yourself; sometimes it means simply doing the right thing as you go about your career.

There is a time to borrow, a time to hold, and a time to invest.  This is as true for creativity as it is for finance.  As an artist you can’t get away with merely “borrowing” ideas from others, just as a business can’t thrive in perpetual debt. But sometimes you need to borrow an idea to get a project going.  Likewise, when you are bursting with creative energy, it may be time to invest that creativity into a new project that may not see a speedy return. And while “nothing ventured nothing gained” is the truism, there are times when it is prudent to lay low and let the wheels turn at their own speed.

Diversify!   If you only perform waltzes on the nose flute, you may not get as many bookings as you want.  While knowing where your strengths lie is a necessity, and avoiding your areas of weakness is wise, you might want to put your eggs in more than one basket.  It is aa age-old principal of business and investment to diversify.  If you play the nose flute, you might think about selling nose flutes on the internet – and teaching nose flute in the schools.  Or you might learn to play the slide whistle too!

How Business can be an  Art

Flexibility is important. There is no one “right” way to do things.  Just as a potter “feels” the clay to determine the shape of the finished pot, a business plan needs to adapt to the vagaries of day-to-day existence.

Outcomes are often not what you expect.  The finished song is always a surprise to the songwriter.  The journey from start to finish is seldom clear and unambiguous.  Learning to expect the unexpected – good or bad – is part of business as well as art.

Just as an artist uses his or her unique talents to create a work, so does a successful business enterprise depend upon the unique skills and talents of the entrepreneur. When there is a task at hand, assemble all the assets you have to create a solution.  Don’t just do it “by the numbers.”

It is necessary to be different. In business or art, you don’t stand out from the pack by doing things exactly like someone else.  Find what is unique in your process or your output and let it shine.

Don’t let logic blind you to possibilities. Artists use all their senses.  So should a person in business.  While a level head and cool logic are great assets, so are vision and intuitiveness.

Success in business, as in art, is not simply a matter of dollars.  Just because McDonalds sells more hamburgers than anybody else, it doesn’t make it the best meal.  Define success in your own terms, not someone else's.

The Art of Booking and Promotion

It’s common sense to know your audience when you perform.  You would choose different songs to perform at a kid’s birthday party than at a nightclub.  Likewise it makes sense to think about who it is you are trying to impress with your promotional material.  The person who books a small club is not after the same things as a festival promoter.  A person looking to hire a band for a wedding – a once-in-a-lifetime talent buyer – has different criteria than a coffeehouse promoter.

Understand the difference between promoting yourself to get the gig versus promoting the gig once it is booked. To book the gig, you need to impress, sway and cajole just one person – or a small committee of persons.  To promote the gig, you will need to speak to the masses.  The hyperbole and hoopla with which you might promote the gig could be the very worst thing to approach a booker with.  Shouting on the streetcorner will draw a crowd, but a whisper in the ear is more effective one-on-one. 

Getting to know people – and the people who know people – in the “business” is the best way to tell who likes shouts and who prefers whispers.  Sometimes nothing you can say about yourself will do – some bookers need to hear about you from their trusted sources.  Again, the more people you get to know will help in the long run.  At the most ordinary church-basement gig, sometimes it’s the soundman or record table volunteer that turns out to be the most valuable contact.  A few years later that person is on the committee of a festival or a conference and your name comes up…

So in promoting yourself to get the gig, do a little homework.  Ask what kinds of kits that person likes.  Sometimes a novice booker is impressed with glossy artwork and reams of reviews.  Sometimes a seasoned booker just wants a bare minimum.  Some like to be phoned, others abhore it and would rather email.  Pay attention to subtle cues.  It is as easy to oversell yourself, as it is to undersell yourself.  Knowing when enough is enough is an art in itself.  Cultivate the skill to sense it.

In the old days, when printing was expensive and done downtown, and layout was done with exacto knives and glue, most musicians had a single “promo kit” to fit all circumstances.  Nowadays, with computers and jet printers, it is wise to print promo targeted to your audience of one – to that person you need to impress to book that gig.  Have a “full Monty” version of your promo kit, but also have a cooler, sly kit that soft sells your act.  Keep things updated. At least once a year read everything carefully and update the biographical details.  It is good to have some informal biographical notes written in first person.  But also have a formal, third person narrative bio too.  It’s ok to write that yourself.  A standard cover letter is ok, but try to personalize each letter a bit.  And keep a copy of those letters you send. If you apply two years in a row to a festival, it is good to know what you wrote last year, so as not to repeat yourself.

Online promotion is a boon to the independent artist.  Your website can tell the world who you are.  Make sure you tell them what you want them to know.  Fans will visit your site, but also potential bookers and press agents.  Having your press kit online is a great way to cut down on repetitious and expensive mailings. Even photos are easily downloaded and reproduced.  Your stage layout, your press clippings, your bio, your housing requirements – these are all things you might want to have at your website.  But not on the front page.  Consider your website to be the book of you.  The cover and opening chapters should be about your art and should address your listeners.  Then can come the chapter on recording sales, the chapter on booking, the chapter on stage requirements, etc.

To learn what makes a good website, go on a virtual field trip.  Check out some websites of some other artists.  Put on a rabid fan’s hat and ask “Does this site tell me the things about this singer that I wanted to know? Will I want to come back? Can I order CDs or get a tour list?”  Then assume you are a casual browser. “Does this site pique my interest? Would I want to hear this person now that I’ve seen the site?”  Then put on the booker’s hat: “Does this site tell me what I need to know to hire this person? Do I know who how and when to contact to do business?”  And then walk in the shoes of a promoter looking for blurbs, quotes, bios, photos, stage requirements, etc.  “Is everything I need here ready to download at 2 AM on Sunday, when I am laying out posters?”

Some websites you will find that do all of the above. Others will just do one or two jobs well and not try to handle the others.  Browse and lurk for a while before you build – or have someone else build – your website.  Also keep in mind the “now” nature of the web. A website that is the same yesterday today and forever, is one that is easily dismissed as old news.  Keep current, fresh and updated. If that means doing the website yourself, then do it yourself.  It is easier than learning to read music!

Some Websites to Check Out for Style:



Three sites in one: selling archtop guitars, offering lessons (Guitar For Grownups) and performance bookings (Full Swing).  Seattle’s Joe Vinikow is the man behind all three. Joe plays guitar, collects and sells guitars, and teaches guitar.  His passion is swing style. Pay close attention to how he presents the various Swing Band combinations he offers.  He is marketing the music to weddings, bar mitzvahs, parties, private events, etc., rather than to established venues.  He pretty much stays in the Seattle area, and is not a traveling act.  Notice that simple black and white graphics work fine, and that the pages load fast.



Bob McCloy of Bath Michigan makes a living teaching and playing music for weddings, receptions, etc.  Notice how his site is simple, businesslike, and to the point, yet friendly.  The pictures on each page are perfect for the pitch: Bob the wedding musician is in tuxedo – Bob the guitar teacher is in a friendly flannel shirt.





Sally Roger’s home page, written by her brother, is primarily a place to sell CDs.  There is a very brief bio and then links to pages to purchase CDs, tour schedule and contact info for Sally and her agent.  However, Sally’s booking is all done with an agent, Joan Sherman. And at Joan’s site is the stuff you need to know to hire Sally.  All the promo pages are downloadable as PDF files.  Notice that Joan’s site is pitched to the professional talent buyer “looking to round out your season”  -- while Sally’s own site is pitched to the fan looking for Sally’s recordings, books and tour schedule.



This is the website for guitarist and one-man industry, Harvey Reid and is quite extensive.  Note that the main page is titled Woodpecker Records -- that being Harvey’s personal label –  the address www.woodpecker.com will direct you to the same page as www.harveyreid.com  (the www is optional).



My own website. Like Harvey, I run my own little label, and do my own booking.  I do very similar things at my site that Harvey Reid does at his, but with a different approach and a different look.  Take the time at both sites to navigate around a bit and see what’s there.  I’m always tweaking my site to make it easier and smoother and offer more content – not to make it fancier and slower for dial up users. (the “www” is optional at my site too).  I write my site using Microsoft FrontPage 2000 version 4.0xxx, and it is only a little more complicated than using a word processor. Once the short learning curve is mastered, it really is pretty easy.




Joel Mabus

October 2002

(c) 2002 Joel Mabus


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