Interview:Deborah Liv Johnson
Gigging for a LivingBy Steve Denyes
Once again we excerpt a section from Steve Denyes revealing book entitled Gigging For A Living.
Deborah Liv Johnson is a singer-songwriter based in San Diego, California. Her success as an independent touring act is a testament not only to her music but to her sheer determination to succeed and her commitment to quality in every aspect of her career.
Q: How did you develop such strong business skills?
DLJ: Part of it was observing a business with very high standards. For seven years I worked for an outdoor outfitter called Adventure 16 in the capacity of editor and department manager. They did everything well—advertising, product labeling, customer service, and merchandising. I was surrounded by excellence. And that is what I came to expect of myself and my newly formed record label. I learned to work with designers and printers, how to write a press release, and how to experiment with "guerrilla marketing." Prior to that job, I was fairly clueless about business. Fortunately I landed in the midst of creative people who demanded quality. I learned to expect the best from myself and others.
Q: What types of venues do you play?
DLJ: It really depends. I rarely do bars anymore unless someone wants to pay me a lot of money. I do a mix of college venues, coffeehouses, churches, and house concerts. In the past two years I've been doing a lot of memorial services. Because of my background of growing up as a Lutheran minister's daughter, I feel comfortable in a church setting. It helps when I'm asked to sing for weddings and funerals.
On occasion I am asked to do the special music for a Sunday morning service. Sometimes that's the best gig around. I'll sing two songs at two services, receive an honorarium, and sell CDs. I've sung in churches with attendance as low as 35 people and as high as 8,000. It's always an interesting experience.
Q: What are the house concerts like?
DLJ: House concerts have been going on forever but in the last five or six years they've become really popular all over the United States. Sometimes they're open to the public and sometimes they're private with the host inviting his/her friends. Fees for the artist vary. Usually I suggest that they charge $10 per person. This can change depending on location and whether or not it's a regular concert series with a following. In most cases, the artist gets the majority, if not all, of the door money.
If I've asked someone to host a house concert, I always offer to pay their mailing costs for sending out flyers and providing refreshments, unless the refreshments are more elaborate like beer and wine and heavy hors d'oeuvres. Some folks appreciate the reimbursement and some prefer to pay out of pocket. They consider it their "home entertainment" costs. People who attend house concerts love them because they are so intimate.
The hardest part about doing house concerts is assuring the host that he or she need not fret about the attendance. I usually say, "Hey, if ten people show up, we'll have a good time." It's important to keep things relaxed and enjoyable.
Q: How important is selling CDs to your bottom line?
DLJ: Selling CDs is very important to me. CD sales make up two-thirds of my income. I've had new listeners come up and buy a copy of every CD I've released. They don't even know what I sound like on CD but they're excited and buy a copy of everything.
I accept credit cards at my shows. I believe my sales are much greater because I take plastic. One time I was doing a show in Denver in the midst of a terrible blizzard. There were twenty-five people at the concert and four performers on the bill. I was the only artist that took credit cards. They each sold a couple CDs and I sold $400 worth.
To date, I've sold 35,000 CDs. In the big world that's small potatoes but for an independent artist it's fairly respectable. Unfortunately, most independent artists never sell the first thousand of a given title. My CDs have cost me anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000 to produce but I've been able to turn a profit on every one. It's a slow process at times but my motto is, "One CD at a time!"
Q: What is the most money you've earned in a year as a musician? What is a typical year like?
DLJ: The most money I ever made was between $50,000 and $60,000. After all the bills are paid, I've had years where I've only made $10,000. It all depends on whether or not I've released a new CD, the amount of touring, and sometimes the state of the economy. If I'm touring really heavily for a couple of weeks and selling a lot of CDs, it's possible for me to make almost 10 grand before expenses and most of that is CD sales. One must manage one's money carefully because it can be a "feast or famine" routine.
Excerpted from Gigging for a Living: Candid Conversations with Independent Working Musicians by Steve Denyes. For more information visit www.giggingforaliving.com.
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