Guest Post: Frank Gulino

This month I am opening up my blog to feature a guest post by a good friend and colleague of mine: Frank Gulino. I first met Frank at Temple University when I was premiering one of his compositions with my friend Chris Shiley (watch it here). Since then we have shared many conversations about the challenges and opportunities within the modern music industry.

For those of you who don’t know him, Frank Gulino (@GulinoFrank) is a composer, bass trombonist, and business attorney living in the Washington, DC, area. As a composer, his works have been commissioned, recorded, and performed by some of the world’s foremost brass soloists, chamber groups, and symphony musicians at venues such as the Kennedy Center, the U.S. Capitol, and conservatories and universities around the world. As an attorney, Frank practices in the Entertainment and Music Industry Law group at Berenzweig Leonard, LLP, an aggressive and innovative business law firm located in Tyson’s Corner, VA. He received an ASCAP Plus Award in 2013 and holds degrees from The Peabody Conservatory of Music and George Mason University School of Law. Frank is an artist/clinician for the Edwards Instrument Company and performs exclusively on Edwards trombones.

Frank was approached by Gig Smarter (gigsmarter.wordpress.com) about a month ago to write a guest blog post about professional development for musicians. After sending me a draft of his article for feedback, I asked if it would be okay to publish on my blog as well. Frank has many excellent and common sense suggestions for aspiring professional musicians—many of which are too often overlooked! He also wrote this month’s “working musician” article for International Musician, the official magazine of the American Federation of Musicians (AFM).

With Frank’s permission, I am happy to reprint his article below:

The Age of Entrepreneurialism in Music: Implementing Good Habits to Help You Take Charge of Your Career

Musicians are among the most gifted, dedicated, educated, focused, and hardworking individuals you will ever encounter, and yet so many of them find themselves struggling professionally. There are a multitude of unfortunate reasons for this, including the declining number of professional opportunities, heightened levels of competition, and the systematic under-compensation of musicians across the board. One phenomenon in particular, however, stands out: the “art” of music and the “business” of music are more disparate today than they have ever been, and too many musicians focus exclusively on developing their art rather than taking the time to develop both facets.

When I say that the “art” of music and the “business” of music have diverged, what I mean is that it is now appreciably more difficult to make a living in music by working for someone else than it has been in the past, making it more necessary for today’s musicians to be entrepreneurial thinkers rather than solely artists. As recently as two decades ago, there were many more opportunities for symphony musicians, more tenure track professorships in music, packed orchestra pits on Broadway, full big bands on cruise ships, and live music was ubiquitous. There were enough opportunities that, by perfecting your art, it was feasible to win the audition or land the pit orchestra job without having to be especially entrepreneurial or business-minded. In recent years, however, with orchestras folding, tenure track professorships being replaced by adjunct positions, and the widespread use of synthesized theater music, opportunities to be employed by someone else in the music field have become few enough that simply being the best player or interviewee is no longer the most consequential determinant of whether or not you succeed at making a living in music.

While artistic qualification and ability can still carry the day at the very highest echelons of the profession (think major symphony orchestra auditions, or tenure track university job postings with inflexible objective metrics), the vast majority of musicians will need to allocate considerably more time to developing their “business” than they realize. Today, musicians have to be more prepared than ever before to work for themselves. And, as with almost anything else, the implementation of good habits is key.

Good Habits for Developing Your Art

On the artistic side, some of the most necessary habits are intuitive, but still merit discussion. Make the time to do each of the following on a regular basis:

1. Practice

There is no substitute for spending time with your instrument. No cutting corners, no feigning familiarity with the repertoire, no fooling anyone into thinking you’re prepared when you aren’t. Music directors, colleagues, and audiences alike will see through a lack of thorough preparation sooner or later. Practice smart and practice enough, but keep in mind that practicing your instrument is just one part (albeit an important one) of building your career.

I am a proponent of breaking up the day’s practicing into three sessions when possible. By practicing once in the morning, once during the day, and once in the evening, your body and mind will get past unhelpful conceptions such as the belief that “I can’t play first thing in the morning!” or “I never sound good this late at night!” You never know when you’ll be the person assigned to the 8:00 a.m. audition slot, or whether that wedding reception your band just got hired to play is going to last all night. Those become non-issues when you are accustomed to playing your instrument at any time of day.

The other benefit of the three-session practice routine is that you can accumulate a significant, productive amount of daily practice even if each session lasts only 45 minutes. Like cramming for an exam the night before, marathon practice sessions are counterproductive, reduce the likelihood that you will retain what you’re working on, and virtually guarantee that you will be unfocused during some of that time.

I also recommend taking one entire day off from playing your instrument each week, if possible. Your physical mechanisms need time to recover, and it can be psychologically refreshing to take a day off from what should otherwise be extremely focused, meaningful practice. By avoiding burnout, you will be more likely to stick with your routine long term. More importantly, there is no shortage of other career-related tasks you’ll need to be doing on your “off day.”

2. Improve Your Concept

Two players of identical innate ability and practice habits will be readily distinguishable from in front of the audition curtain if one has made a conscious effort to inform and improve his or her concept of sound, while the other has never given thought to the matter. Listen to the best recordings you can, attend live performances, study with great teachers, and continue to refine the sound you desire. Take advantage of comp tickets, and familiarize yourself with the variety of genres and styles in which your instrument is used. The more you listen to great artists, the more you will be able hone your individual concept of sound. The informed desire to sound a particular way is what will ultimately set you apart from everyone else who plays your instrument.

3. Stay Healthy

Music is more of an athletic pursuit than many give it credit for. Sooner or later, eating poorly, neglecting exercise, and depriving oneself of sleep will all have an adverse impact on your ability to make music at the highest level. Eat well, exercise, sleep enough, stay hydrated, stretch, read, make time for relaxation, and surround yourself with wonderful people.

4. Play With Others

No amount of solitary, technique-focused time in the practice room will equip you with the ensemble skills necessary to play in most professional settings. Achieving a desired dynamic result with a decibel meter in the practice room does not mean you will be able to achieve the perfect dynamic balance within an ensemble; similarly, tuning a note to a tuner in the practice room is not the same as tuning a chord with other musicians. There is no substitute for making music with other people, and ensemble skills are absolutely essential to being a complete musician.

Good Habits for Developing Your Business

Although reaching an elite level of artistry takes years of hard work and dedication, the market is nonetheless saturated with an impressive number of highly qualified artists on every instrument. Today, the musicians who distinguish themselves are the ones who, in addition to maintaining a high level of artistry, have outstanding interpersonal skills and business habits. While the basics of professionalism go without saying (e.g. show up on time and be prepared), it is worth addressing a few of the business-side habits that, if adhered to, can eventually set you apart from the competition.

1. Be Involved

I have never been a proponent of the term “networking,” per se. It’s a nebulous, all-encompassing word that can take on any variety of meanings depending on your perspective. To some, “networking” simply means seeking out opportunities to be in the same room as others in your field; others perceive it as behaving like a used car salesman with an over-rehearsed elevator speech about what makes your product so unique.

Instead, I like to think about “involvement.” Frequent places and events where your type of work goes on. Interact with others who do what you do, especially if they are at a more advanced place in their career than you are in yours. Think about engaging actively rather than existing passively; if you cross paths with someone in your field whose work you respect, there is nothing wrong with being friendly and introducing yourself. There is a good chance you will be crossing paths with them again, and it will be nice to see familiar faces going forward. If you genuinely make an effort to get involved, you will find yourself forging real friendships with your professional colleagues before you know it.

It should go without saying, but always conduct yourself professionally and courteously, even toward colleagues you perceive as having little to contribute to your career development. Every musician you encounter will have something to offer and something you can learn from them; plus, you never know who might surprise you by sending a gig your way or putting in a good word with a contractor. Make an effort to meet as many colleagues in your market as possible, and be kind to all of them. Your reputation for being a friendly person will go a long way.

2. Carry Business Cards, Make Connections, and Follow Up

Always have business cards on hand. They should be tame but not boring, informative but not overwhelming, and provide the recipient with a unique way to remember their interaction with you. I choose to include my picture on my business cards. That way, somebody I meet on a gig need only glance at the card in order to remember who I am, even if the extent of our interaction is a handshake and a fifteen-second conversation after the show. Give colleagues and contractors an opportunity to put a face with your name. Whether you’re armed with traditional business cards or high-tech ones, be sure that that you are proud of how they portray you and your work. You never know when a colleague, music director, contractor, or prospective student may ask for a card, so make a habit of having them ready to go at all times. These encounters form the basis for growing your professional network, and you never want to appear unprepared.

On a related note, if you have a particularly good conversation with someone you meet on a gig, follow up with them by email. Even if it’s just to say that you enjoyed meeting and playing with them, a follow-up email is a nice gesture that will keep you on their radar. Anybody can make the time to shake a hand and pass out a card, but how many take the time to sit down during the next couple of days to craft a thoughtful follow-up? Doing so can reinforce someone’s impression of your interpersonal skills, give you a crack at making a good second impression before too much time lapses after making your first, and set you apart as someone who is on top of things, genuine, and committed to establishing professional relationships.

3. Set Business Goals

Whether you hope to give a certain number of performances in a given year, command a certain dollar amount per performance, record a CD, or increase your teaching studio to a certain number of students, writing down concrete goals will increase your chances of reaching them. Nothing happens overnight, but setting goals can give direction to efforts that might individually seem inconsequential. Creating timelines for reaching your goals can provide motivation and give you a meaningful way to quantify and track your progress as you forge ahead.

4. Maintain a Current, Professional, Online Presence

Your website is the public’s window into your work and your career. It should be the most comprehensive, centralized resource for making your media, biography, schedule, and contact information available to those who might be looking for it. As artists, we are trained to pay attention to even the smallest details; if someone browsing your website sees that your list of “upcoming events” hasn’t been updated since 2011, they will understandably question your attention to detail, and maybe even your dedication to your career. Take pride in your website. If you keep it current and informative, visitors will appreciate it. Consider adding a blog or other regular update mechanism; if content is updated regularly, visitors will have a reason to return to your site again and again.

5. Seek Advice When Necessary

Nobody ever said running a business was going to be easy, and yet that is essentially what you will be expected to do, all while maintaining the highest level of artistry. Whether you’re unsure of how to copyright a new song, avoid infringing on the copyright of another, navigate a contractual relationship with a venue or publisher, collect royalties, or take advantage of the tax consequences of depreciating your instrument and deducting business expenses, there are resources available to assist you. Whether you need the guidance of a professional or simply the advice of another musician who has already faced the issues you’re dealing with, there is no harm in seeking help when you need it. Consider it a part of your continuing education. Not only will soliciting this sort of advice help you navigate your own career, but you may also find yourself in the position of being a resource for others in the future.

The Bottom Line

The above lists are not exhaustive. There is always more you can be doing to enhance your career and reputation, both with and without your instrument, and building a successful career takes time and consistency. These days, being an exceptional performer is a given; the artists who are truly able to distinguish themselves are entrepreneurial thinkers with robust professional networks and a commitment to the good habits necessary to develop both their art and their business. If you begin to consciously allocate time and effort to implementing those habits, you will be laying the groundwork for a successful career as a musician who is valued and respected by presenters, colleagues, audiences, and the community at large.

Leave a Comment