Costs associated with performing and recording music. 

Listen while you read to a few more new Panache tracks:

“The Dream is Over” (live in Beverly Hills, Feb 2010, c.2010)

“Resistance” (live @ Mr. T’s bowl, Feb 2010, c.2010)

“I Don’t Want to Go” (VERY rough skeletal mix)

Since I quit working as a professional side player and decided to shift my focus to my own original project, I have had a lot of learning and un-learning to do.

For the learning part, there has been an inconceivably vast amount of information to digest about how to not only market an original start-up project (musical resumes don’t travel well), but also the simple administrative aspects of dealing with original music once you put it in a tangible form after composing it, i.e., get it recorded; such as copyrighting the pieces, getting the recordings up for sale in accessible sales points, getting signed up with a PRO (Performance Rights Organization, i.e., ASCAP, BMI, etc.), registering the recorded compositions with your PRO, etc…it goes on and on, and that’s before the real fun even begins of trying to get people to take the time to listen to what your doing, and then hopefully like it and more hopefully still, actually buy it.  And all this in a global environment in which the prevailing belief seems to be that creative content ought to be free to the end consumers, and the only entities in the supply chain entitled to profit from it are the companies that make the gadgets to play it on.  Needless to say, my patience is wearing thin with this “entertainment should be free!” mentality, which as best I can tell only only seems to reinforce the disposability and absence of inherent value in creative content.

One of first things I had to un-learn is the assumption that the people closest to me would logically be the most interested in and supportive of what I’m doing, or more specifically, what I’m creating.  That is not necessarily the case.  It especially isn’t in my case.  I am fairly certain that my parents haven’t even listened to the album we gave them of our most recent release, a double album titled “10 Strings” that we released in November of 2008.  I feel sure of that because with the first recording Chi and I did together shortly after we met in Tokyo and released in spring of 1999, all my mom had to say about it was that she didn’t like it.  No surprise there – she has never liked anything I have ever done.  Don’t get me wrong – I love my mom very much.  She just seems to hate everything I do just on general principle.

Also, the manner of marketing an unknown start-up original project requires a substantially different approach than that for something “known”, like a traditional classical chamber ensemble, or a folk band that plays traditional favorites, tribute acts, and bands of pretty much any widely recognized musical genre that play popular favorites.  That was some more un-learning for me, and on the flip side, it certainly isn’t helping us any that we are essentially pioneering a style of music that no one has any a priori experiential reference to, which requires a massive audience development and promotion effort, which is a phenomenally time consuming endeavor with a precipitous learning curve.  For example, it seems practically everyone in this day and age has at least a vague idea of what a Celtic band sounds like – you know, like the bands that play in the pubs on St. Patrick’s Day; or the string quartet playing Mozart and Vivaldi at weddings and upscale hotel lobbies, or the classic rock band that plays at the local hot spot, etc.  All that derivative familiarity goes out the window with The Panache Orchestra.

Another learning curve agenda item involved sifting through available performance opps and screening for the ones that are worth doing.  There is no shortage of opportunities to perform pretty much anything anyone might want to play in public, but they seldom involve monetary compensation, or if they do, it’s typically nowhere in the range of what I was used to getting just to show up somewhere with my instrument.  One thing I have definitely learned during the couple years that I have been focusing my efforts on TPO is that the “showcase” gigs in L.A. that usually take place in bars (and recently restaurants also are jumping on that awful bandwagon), are nothing but a colossal waste of time, energy and money.  More about that later.  Accordingly, I have stopped bothering with them.  Chi was a little slow to comprehend my reasons why, but as of our most recent conversation on the subject, he seems to be getting the idea (after throwing a tantrum about it the other day).

Anyway, I keep a close eye on current trends in the independent artists’ side of the music industry, and have recently turned my attention to house concerts.  Here is a great site that explains what these are: http://www.concertsinyourhome.com/.  As part of this tactical shift, I approached an acquaintance of mine in San Diego (my hometown) about the possibility of doing a joint house concert, and asked if she knew anyone who might be interested in hosting such an event.  She seemed enthusiastic about it, and eventually put me in touch with a friend of hers to coordinate with since she had too much going on.  There apparently were some crossed wires, because when I contacted the other person I got a bit of a shock: a blunt and instant comeback essentially announcing to me that that person has no interest in supporting artists, and was only interested in local bands willing to play for free to entertain her friends.  Ok, very well.  To each their own, I thought, and composed a quick and polite “case dismissed” response and sent it off.  Mulling the matter over, I knew it would do no good to dwell on it, and told myself that for every person like that who doesn’t get it, there are others (like our friend who hosted the concert for us in April) who do, and I should just shrug this off and set about finding and connecting with the latter group of people.  In retrospect, I do have to admit that the honesty was refreshing, as I have had a considerable amount of my time and energy wasted trying to drill down dry holes thanks to people blowing smoke up my ass.  I am however getting better at sussing that out with experience.

Nevertheless, I couldn’t help thinking about it, and thinking about it, and thinking about it some more, and the more I thought about it, the more annoyed I got.  From this I learned that people who are not instrumentalists themselves who also compose and record their own original material have absolutely no conception of the scale of investment required to first of all learn to play an instrument proficiently, or for that matter, purchase a decent-quality instrument to learn on and play in the first place, moreover compose music that any right-minded person might actually want listen to, record the music at broadcast quality, and simply maintain a musical instrument in a performance-ready state of repair.  We’re not even talking about sales and administrative expenses yet.  Again, it just goes on and on and on.

Given the large number of singer/songwriters plying their trade these days singing solo in public thoroughfares and coffee shops, typically accompanying themselves with an inexpensive guitar with strings badly in need of replacing, the public could be forgiven for thinking that the cost of simply composing and performing music is negligible to nonexistent except for an initial investment of a couple hundred bucks.  Let’s break it down: Chi has to change his strings before every performance, and usually changes them after every third rehearsal or so.  His particular style of playing features pronounced rhythms that tend to wear through strings pretty quickly.  Strings vary widely in price and quality, but he tends to use relatively cheap ones he buys on sale in bulk for I think around $5 – $7 per set.  Along those lines, he also goes through picks very quickly, but those only cost a buck or so each for the type he uses.  Nevertheless, it adds up over time.  For comparison, the band leader/singer/guitarist of a Celtic and jazz ensemble I used to work with had to bring a minimum of two guitars to every performance because I’ve never seen anyone break so many strings per show as he usually does, and his group performs pretty much constantly.  Conversely, I have only seen Chi break one string one time.  It’s due to a difference in technique and musical style.

On the other hand, the strings I use cost around $30 – $80 per set, depending on whether I am using them for knock-around, outdoor “whatever” gigs, formal concerts, or recording.  I can normally get about 15 playing hours out of a set of strings before they start to lose their edge, but still have to put fresh ones on for recording work and important concerts, as there is nothing like the bright, clear tone and ease of pulling it out of the instrument that you get with new strings. On top of that, I have the additional expense of having to also change the hair on my bow, which typically wears out after about 80-100 playing hours depending on what I am playing, and costs around $75 to get the bow rehaired.  We rehearse pretty much every day, and have been playing usually at least two shows per week of varying lengths, often more, and average about 30-50 playing hours per month.  Do you see where this is going?  It costs The Panache Orchestra well over $100 per month just for basic maintenance of our instruments.  It should be noted that Chi uses several different guitars, all of which need strings, and I have two violins I use regularly, and we’re still not counting more involved maintenance or repairs for damage, or the original purchase price of our professional quality instruments at current replacement cost.  For what it’s worth, these were the only costs I was familiar with before I started to seriously pursue doing original music and recording it myself instead of getting paid to record on someone else’s project or perform as part of an orchestra or chamber ensemble.

Let’s look at some other costs incurred by performing.  Gas has gotten quite expensive over the past few years, and if the gig is further afield than just down the street, that cost can get quite high.  In our case, we live together and thence travel together, consolidating the transport cost.  For example, it costs $50 for Chi and me to get from Los Angeles to San Diego, so any gigs we play there should at least cover that, plus enough to reasonably compensate us for four hours of travel time.  Gigs almost invariably incur the added cost of meals eaten out.  It’s often possible to prepare food at home and eat before we leave or bring something with us, but that is usually not very practical when working a full-time day job or dealing with logistics once we’re at the gig.  In L.A. especially, gigs often stick the performer(s) with the added cost of parking and overpriced drinks at the venue.  (Believe it or not, even as side players, we have been nonplussed at being told we had to pony up a minimum of $10 for drinks or food each after driving all over hell to get to the gig to accompany a “featured artist”!  WTF???!!!!!)

Now let’s talk about the recording side of this.  The average singer/songwriters mentioned above typically have CDs for sale that in many cases are obviously home-baked jobs with, um, “very low-tech” packaging, and these of course can be produced at minimal cost.  You can put together a simple home recording set-up for a few hundred dollars, and most standard issue computers at least come with a CD burner, and you can buy all the raw materials at Office Depot and get a basic music editing software package off Amazon.com for a couple hundred bucks or so.  Suffice it to say, putting together a set-up sufficient to produce broadcast quality recordings is quite expensive, and acquiring the expertise to operate the equipment and engineer a broadcast quality recording requires quite a few years of study and experience.  We have some half-decent recording equipment and are in the process of figuring out how to operate it, and while we might be able to produce simple recordings that scratch the rock-bottom end of broadcast quality (we also have some decent studio mics and preamps), the main intent of our home gear is to do our experimentation with various arrangements and ideas at our place instead of on the clock at a professional studio.  We can get a steep discount on engineering time for a variety of reasons, but we still have to pay full fare to get the album mastered and duplicated.  We also have the advantage of both of us playing several instruments competently, which eliminates or greatly reduces the need to hire session players, and we know some great ones who will work with us for a reduced rate.  We pay professionals to design our cover art too.

Ok, I feel better now.  I think I’m going to go work in my garden for awhile.  At least that’s something real that I can make sense of, and I get a reward from it that’s directly tied to the effort (or lack thereof) that I put in! 🙂

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