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Bluegrass Band Success?

Discussion in 'Bluegrass [DB]' started by Jeff Elkins, Oct 29, 2013.

  1. Jeff Elkins

    Jeff Elkins Supporting Member

    My traditional bluegrass band has been playing together for three years. Half of us were in college (non-traditionals, now graduated) and the other half taught in the same program. We've had a few membership changes, produced an album (three of the four members on the album are still in the band) and played all over the region (East TN, SWVA, Ohio, Kentucky, North and South Carolina).

    We play strictly traditional bluegrass, eschewing the newer music in the genre NOT because we don't like it, but because we have what we think is a niche:

    * We work a single mic setup, and vocals are one of our strongest points--our trio and quartet harmonies are sparkly. Good stuff.
    * Banjo, Upright Bass, Guitar, Fiddle/Mandolin
    * We write new music (songs and tunes) but they are still deep in the tradition.

    IME, the tendency for most folks (not here, necessarily) is to think of bluegrass as a back-porch hobby--and bg musicians as only hobbyists. But we really work to get this stuff just right. The banjo player plays just behind the beat, and knows how to drive--everything is in the pocket. Picking is great. Vocals are great. Really. :bassist:

    Also, we're fairly nice guys. :) We have a handful of places we play, and we always get asked back.

    The problem: We can't seem to make even a good part-time income doing this. We are moving into various stages of burnout.

    Most of us don't want to tour incessantly. We're good for summer festival season, but we're getting tired of driving 2 hours for a $125 (band) gig. The venues that used to exist locally have all closed, or find that they can book indie or new-old time bands for cheap (college town, singer/songwriters abound). The distant gigs are topping out at $500, except for special events (weddings/holidays), and usually $250 plus dinner/drinks is what we can find.

    But we feel like we're spinning our wheels because we can't find paying Bluegrass gigs nearby, and even the ones within a day's drive cost us more in gas/food/dog boarding than we make as a four piece. If we play a room with 400 people, median age 60, we can sell half a dozen CDs... adding $30 to the pot.

    I guess my question is: Can you make a part-time living playing solid, traditional bluegrass without playing 250 dates a year to build up a following? Can you even then? This band won't change its format. Won't. Individually, we have outside interests that we COULD pursue, but the band is good, and it's because we've focused on doing This music This way.

    Certainly there are other dynamics. Guitarist/lead singer has a hard time learning originals, also can become unfocused in a live performance. Fiddler has teaching conflicts, and can't commit to every gig (so we pick up fill-ins, or go three-piece). I'm tired as heck of booking, and my day job just picked up, so less of that is getting done. Banjo player (BL) won't book (phone phobia). But these are actually pretty minor compared to what appears to be a lack of avenues for success unless we're willing to throw down everything and go on the road.

    Would LOVE some thoughts on this. Have only just started thinking about approaching a pro booking agency (have had paid amateurs try to help us: FAIL).
  2. silvertone


    Nov 6, 2007
    SF, CA
    There is no money above the 5th Fret....

    I've been playing bluegrass in and around San Francisco for nearly 20 years.

    The only way to make a decent dime is to contract a lot of private gigs and shake the bushes / network into more and more of them. The public just doesn't consider this music worthy of a lot of bucks (unless your last name is Bush, Fleck, Douglas, Skaggs, Rice or Sutton).

    By comparison I played Swing Jazz and Jump Blues for a many years and made roughly 2 to 3 times the coin doing so to nearly the same sort of audiences.

    You cannot pay a Bay Area Mortgage on a Bluegrass income.

    My way around this is to get a decent job, still play as often as possible and set my sights on music as a way to have fun, not money. As long as I am realistic about this goal I tend to enjoy playing music.

    Good luck!

  3. Jeff Elkins

    Jeff Elkins Supporting Member

    Thanks, TS. I was wondering if the answer was location--I have heard that it's been a long time since Chicago, New York, and DC have been able to support this kind of endeavor, but I would have thought California would be different. Having said that, the west-coast bands that I hear about near the genre that are making a go of it are only NEAR the genre.

    Not that we want to relocate, anyway. We love where we are. And truly, we're not trying to pay the mortgage--we all have other incomes (though a couple just subsistence-level). But many months we barely break even after investing time and marketing efforts...

    It is fun. It's especially fun to play with good players and for the increasingly rare audience that really appreciates the old style. It's why we don't dilute what we're doing with nuevo-bg. Not that we couldn't--we just think we're rare enough that there might be a market slice for what we've got going on.

    And interesting you say that about Swing/Jump. I have been considering a change because I have some friends that found that niche and hour south of me! But I've invested three years in this specifically (plus 20 before in my general ability), and it's depressing to think about starting over.

    Instead of looking for venues, I've started spending my time tapping the network of folks one level removed from me. I'm hoping to learn something outside of my current circle through that effort!

    Thanks again.
  4. silvertone


    Nov 6, 2007
    SF, CA
    Flexibility is where it's at for me.

    I get all sorts of gigs playing upright bass, electric bass and now fretless bass. Also lots of mandolin (from trad bluegrass to progressive to amplified electric mandolin in various contexts) and as a guitar player pickin' a flat top martin, strat or tele.

    I play bluegrass, swing, blues, jump, boogie, folk, jamgrass, psychedlic and funk.

    If it's fun I'll do it.

    Expand your foot print and try other styles.
  5. I also dearly love traditional bluegrass, both playing and listening to others play. Most of the accomplished BG players I know are exceptional musicians and could play almost any kind of music if they wanted to, but they just aren't interested in branching out.

    In my limited experience "amateur" players like me - and virtually all of the other musicians I know - can't get by without a day job regardless of how well they play or what genre they play.

    I play in a trio also with a very accomplished guitarist/singer. We play an eclectic mix of acoustic music (blues, swing, light jazz, bluegrassified country, classic rock) which is pretty well received by the public and we are much more in demand than the BG folks I play with, but the pay per hour is lousy! We are lucky if we make $100 each for a gig.

    There are a LOT of amateurs out there who are not that great but will play either for free or close to it, and the venues know it. That said, when they want something special they are willing to pay a higher price but it is still chump change unless you are living in your van.

    If for some stroke of luck we start making big bucks I MAY give up my job. In the meantime, I am proud of what and how we play even if it won't support our families - and I am having a gas doing it!
  6. I can offer another data point: Even well established (i.e. Grammy winning) traditional bluegrass bands don't seem to make a ton of money - at least, not if what the sidemen are making is any indication. I've (inadvertently) seen the pay stubs for some of these guys, and realized that I typically make more by putting on a tux and playing background music for a convention than they make playing a large festival...
  7. jazzbill


    Jun 4, 2010
    Richardson, TX
    If your band is capable of newer styles, why not create a second name and save your original name for old timey stuff and book under a different name for the newer. That way you won't dilute your niche but open possibilities.
  8. bkbirge


    Jun 25, 2000
    Houston, TX
    Endorsing Artist: Steak n Shake
    You need to release more records, make it feel fresh and vital again. Since you guys have worked so hard on a very particular and groomed sound then I say double down on that and really explore it by releasing records. See how deep you can get into your sound and stake your claim to it in the bluegrass world.
  9. sevenyearsdown

    sevenyearsdown Supporting Member

    Jan 29, 2008
    Sanborn, NY
    I play in an old time band, though not straight blue grass by any stretch. We are just local amateurs not concerned with money gigs. Booking is still an uphill battle.

    But having said that - the biggest hurdle we have is trying to explain to places what we do. I live in a classic rock and top 40 cover band town. The average bar owner/patron in my neck of the woods doesn't know that anything other than rock music exists. It's a hard sell.

    One thing that was helpful for us was getting familiar with the Irish community/celtic bands (Buffalo has a huge Irish community). That type of music is like an early distant cousin for traditional/bluegrass ya' know. The crowd will appreciate what you do much more than an average rock crowd. The guys I've made friends with have been super helpful in helping us with gigs.

    So if there are any places around you that book a lot of traditional celtic stuff, it might worth a look.
  10. Jeff Elkins

    Jeff Elkins Supporting Member

    What a FABULOUS collection of feedback.
    I really appreciate you all. Getting the blues about this makes the BL and I cloudy about things, and we had a good conversation last night about getting back to the fun. I know from other experiences that being passionate about a thing not only has its own rewards, but it makes you more "attractive."
    I've taken good notes (and here are some comments) :
    1. Go back to having fun and don't sweat the money so much. It's not there anyway--accept it! :)
    2. Branch out in an undercover way (to avoid dilution). We've actually discussed this--instead of new styles, though, we're thinking about playing old-time--the banjoist is a crack two-finger player, and loves old time music. He's just never tried to do it for pay. The fiddler is similarly skilled. If we can find a good sound that includes the bass, we can do this. We actually know a lovely and talented contra dance caller... THIS would also be fun.
    3. Put out another CD! We also discussed this last night with a successful booking agent. I sent an email offering to trade coffee and dessert for an hour of his time, and he was extremely gracious. A new CD was his suggestion also. We have material--we just need to do it. You're absolutely correct about it helping solidify our stake in the scene. (Dude also told us that as soon as it was ready we need to make friends with all of the DJs that chart--a cash outlay, to be sure, but if we can swing it, we'll be sending out free downloads and/or 200 CDs to these folks).
    4. Consider venues that book Irish bands. I thought about this once. A long time ago. And there are a handful within a 4hr drive... On It.

    Thanks. A LOT. Y'all let me know if you're ever forced to travel through East TN; I'd be happy to turn you on to the few gas money gigs over here!
  11. Zoa


    Dec 28, 2009
    The contra dance thing is a good idea, North Carolina at least has a strong contra scene. PM me and I can give you a few places to look for contra gigs. I'd recommend branching out from straight old-time in that scene though, NC contra is evolving fast from its traditionalist roots.
  12. statsc

    statsc Supporting Member

    Apr 23, 2010
    Burlington, VT
    From what I hear, the REAL $$ is in the contra dance circuit!
  13. The joke around here (Austin, TX), is you can make tens of dollars each month playing bluegrass. I love it, but there's not a lot of money in it around here. Most of the folks I know making money playing music are playing in C&W cover bands AWAY from Austin. They live here, but travel for most gigs.

  14. Around here, we joke that Bluegrass means driving 300 miles in a $300,000 RV so you can pay $300 to jam with the same folks you do at home.
  15. neddyrow

    neddyrow Captain of Team Orange Jacket Supporting Member

    Apr 21, 2011
    Cortland, NY
    I have really enjoyed reading this thread! I feel myself and our band are in the same boat. Pretty tight, great vocals and quality soloists. We live in central NY and have always said that if we lived a little north in Canada or in The South, we'd really be getting those well-paid bluegrass gigs. I guess I may be off the mark a little.

    Luckily we have a bunch of nearby places that have us play frequently and they are lots of fun - which makes up for the low pay.

    This winter we plan to do a little recording to break up the same routine and help with the focus. We hope to have a CD to sell which may help the banjo player's travel cost.

    Luckily, all of us in the band get along real well and are practically family (actually my wife is our lead singer). We had more members but with them missing practice and drama, we cut the others and focused on playing and having fun. Fortunately bluegrass is about the most fun you can have playing music. And we all decided that was most important.
  16. I cut my teeth on upright with a buncha guys I met in college. We had a pretty tight little bluegrass band with kinda a Newgrass sound for the time(80s-early 90s). We all had day jobs of course but at our peak we were playing corporate gigs @$1000 a pop, altho not too many of em. We got on the bill at just about every decent festival within 200-300 miles, and even put on a couple ourselves.

    What we loved, and got a lot of were private parties. We found we could easily make $100/man, get free beer and food, and not even bring a PA to most of em. We'd stake off a corner, pick and sing and entertain those who cared to listen and make the host even happier than if we brought a full PA.

    We still suffered thru more $300 hot afternoons on trailers at small town festivals than you can count. Based in Central Alabama, it was a hard sell then and its a hard sell now. Our banjo player was a big extrovert, a hot picker, and excelled in networking and gig getting.

    One comment by our guitarist/lead singer I'll never forget. After playing our hearts out for 2-3 hrs under a blazing AL sun at a small town street fair, as we were loading up he said:

    "Thats it guys, I'm never again gonna sweat this much to play to fat women in flip flops!"
  17. BobKay

    BobKay Supporting Member

    Nov 5, 2012
    Estero, Florida; USA
    You guys are so off the mark. I now have a small fortune from playing bluegrass. Of course, I started with a large fortune :)
  18. jeepnstein


    Dec 6, 2013
    Not to burst your bubble but I just saw a post on Facebook about Tony Rice coming to the realization he can't play any more and he's pretty much broke. It's a tough way to make a living. That's why Ricky Skaggs crossed over into mainstream country. I gave him a hard way to go about it when it happened. Keith Whitley had to cross over as well. I'm not terribly convinced that Ralph Stanley made a fortune during his career.


    Do it because you love it. Get paid if you can.

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