Thursday, February 28, 2008


The Life of a Singer-Songwriter: Not Just Singing and Writing

Originally published in the New York Mills Herald on 1/9/08 and credited to my alternate identity, Elisa Korentayer.

Many people are surprised to learn just how unglamorous the life of a singer-songwriter is. Before I started pursuing a career as a singer-songwriter, I had no idea what that life involved. Like some, I had the vague impression that it would involve writing songs and performing them. But that’s as far as my insight went. I was very surprised when I started living the daily life of a singer-songwriter.

I find that most people who are not involved in the arts are surprised at the amount of work and effort that goes into being a professional artist of any stripe. There is an idea, among some segments of society, that the life of an artist is easy and, along the same lines, that many artists are lazy. Some may be, but many professional singer-songwriters I know are among the hardest working people I’ve ever met. Most surprising of all is how little time is spent on the part of the career that most people associate with it. In fact, some of the skills professional singer-songwriters need are generally not associated with the arts.

A successful independent singer-songwriter has to be able to do the following: write press releases, book gigs and media events, coordinate multiple venues with multiple dates, make travel plans, budget, interview well, market to existing fan base, build new fan bases, and manage multiple contacts in multiple industries and locations. If the singer-songwriter does not have these skills, he has to find someone else who does. In the competitive marketplace of the arts, that means that the singer-songwriter either pays someone else to do these things for him or makes enough money as a musician that 15% of his income is a good-enough salary for a booking agent or manager.

To illustrate my point about the daily life of a singer-songwriter, I thought I might write about my process of preparing for a concert I’m performing, under my stage name Elisa Korenne (, at the Holmes Theater in Detroit Lakes on Thursday, January 10th. This, by the way, is a blatant plug for that performance. The performance will be from 5:30pm to 7:30pm. It will be an informal and relaxed atmosphere, and audience members can come or go as they please. $5 per person to enter. Everyone is welcome.

Now that I’ve done my official ad for the show, I can tell you about what else I’m doing to prepare for it. This concert is the first I’ve performed in some time, so it has required more practice than a gig in the middle of a tour might. My old vocal coach used to quote the great guitarist Andres Segovia about the importance of practice. He was purported to have said, “When I don’t practice for a day, my fingers know it. When I don’t practice for two days, I know it. And when I don’t practice for three days, my audience knows it.” When I haven’t practiced in a while, even my cats know it. As a professional performer, I owe my audience—whoever they are and however many show up—a professional caliber concert. Every person who has walked through the venue door has paid and taken the time out of their lives to be there. This means that I owe them something in return for their investment.

A two-hour concert requires that I perform somewhere between twenty-two and twenty-seven songs, plus verbal introductions. The great majority of songs I play in concert are ones that I’ve written, but that doesn’t mean I remember them all. I have written hundreds of songs in my career, and, when I haven’t played one in a while, I usually have to consult my lyric sheets to remind myself what line comes next. Along with lyrics, each song has its own melody to remember and its own set of guitar queues to go along. Getting lyrics, voice, and guitar in sync requires a good bit of practice for each song. There are some out there for whom music comes more naturally than for me. There are others who spent so much of their teenage years playing guitar instead of doing homework that playing is easier than breathing. Unfortunately, that wasn’t me. So, I have to practice, and practice diligently. I placate myself by remembering that even the best performers, some of my heroes, spend time practicing.

Practice is only one piece of the concert-preparation puzzle. The other equally important pieces are booking the gig, publicizing the gig, and preparing gear and myself for the gig. Booking one gig can take many hours of work. As an independent performer, this is work that I must do if I want to perform at all. For the Holmes Theater concert, I got lucky. The executive director saw me film a live television performance, and offered me a Holmes Theater gig some months later. If she hadn’t, I might have had to go through numerous rounds of emails and calls to venues in the area to find one that was willing to host a performance.

Once the performance is booked, there’s no getting around the need for publicity. Without publicity—this column included—no one would know about the show, and therefore no one would come. In the case of this gig, the Holmes Theater did a lot of the publicity outreach, but before they could, I had to create a press release giving out information about me and my history. After word is out to the media about the performance, then I must follow up with interviews and appearances and work with the venue to coordinate promotional events. Last week I had a telephone interview with the Detroit Lakes paper. On Tuesday, I will spend the day in Detroit Lakes doing a live performance on the radio, a live performance for the Kiwanis club and an after-school workshop at the Detroit Lakes Community and Cultural Center. Once the word is finally out, then what’s left is to prepare my gear, and myself, for performance.

To prepare my gear for a performance, I need to think about a variety of things. First, I need to consider the readiness of my instruments and other gear. Before Thursday, I will need to change the strings on my guitar and make sure the batteries in my tuning pedal are working. I will need to be sure that I have enough cables and guitar picks along and that I bring a guitar stand, microphone, and other sundry sound items in case they are needed. Second, I need to think about my merchandise. A large portion of a performer’s income is made by selling their merchandise. Some artists sell T-shirts and stickers. I only sell my CD Favorite. I need to be sure I have enough copies of the CD, and that I have the marketing materials that go with them: a flyer with reviews, a CD player and earphones so people can listen, and the metal lunchbox that I display the CD’s in.

Finally, on the day of the gig, I need to prepare myself mentally and physically to perform. Ideally this starts with a couple hours of peace and quiet during which I can meditate and center myself. About two hours before I need to leave for the venue, I will dress and make myself up. Then I will spend an hour warming up my voice and hands. I make sure to leave enough time to travel safely to the venue, including a cushion for a mistake in directions or that wrong turn that can’t be undone for miles. I make sure to arrive at the venue at least an hour in advance of the show, with enough time to set up my merchandise table and my gear and do a good sound check to get the levels correct.

I added up the hours I will be spending on what may seem to the audience to be only a two-hour performance. It came out to about 60 hours. For this time, I will be remunerated solely in my percentage of ticket sales and the money I make on CD sales. Yes, my father was right long ago when he wanted me to be a lawyer because there’s more money in it. There’s not a lot of money in being an independent artist, but there can be a lot of satisfaction.

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