While writing "How to Make It in the New Music Business" in New Orleans last fall, the time the writer/musician spent on Frenchmen proved instructive.
Ari Herstand found the peace he needed at District Donuts. The musician who writes the music business advice website Ari’s Take had a deadline looming for a book based on his writings, but life at home in Los Angeles proved to be too distracting. When a cousin offered him his Garden District guest house for a few weeks, Herstand jumped at the chance. Once there, he developed a routine.
“I went to District Donuts and Sliders and wrote there every day for 10 hours a day,” he says. “I got to know the entire staff. There’s a table at the back, and I’d sit at this table away from everybody else, planted there for 10 hours. I’d have my morning coffee, then I’d get my sandwich, then I’d get my afternoon chai.”
The product of his labor is How to Make It in the New Music Business, and Herstand will be at the Garden District Book Shop from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday for a book signing party. Instead of a reading, he’ll talk about making it to trombone player Evan Oberla, who gigs regularly in town and plays in R&B singer Allen Stone’s horn section.
Herstand’s book is subtitled, “Practical Tips on Building Loyal Following and Making a Living as a Musician,” and his advice makes sense and appears to be applicable anywhere. He doesn’t assume levels of access to the industry that people outside of Los Angeles, New York and Atlanta lack, and most of what he writes is possible and logical. Herstand’s ideas aren’t tied to any technology or social media development, so nothing reads as faddish but they’re not romantic either. He doesn’t have any more thoughts on how people can become stars than the record company executives who gamble daily and usually unsuccessfully on signings they hope will be stars.
“If success is only defined as winning a Grammy or only becoming a star, you have a very slim chance at that,” he says. “If success is being a full-time musician, you have a very good chance at that. You can actually work toward that, and there are clear steps that you can take. You don’t need luck to have a full-time music career. It takes a lot of luck and the stars aligning to become a superstar.”
Herstand is good ad for his writing. He’s a singer/songwriter with four albums and an EP who started in Minnesota, where he also taught band and took music business classes. The classes in 2004 were built around the idea of record deal started everything, but it wasn’t until he put an album out and saw that nothing was happening that he realized that those ideas were outdated. When Herstand talks about his own career, it almost sounds as if it was a Pietri dish for his DIY ideas about the industry. When nobody cared about his album, he realized he needed to promote it himself. When people showed up for a gig, he analyzed why, what was different from show to show, and built on those efforts. He illustrates How to Make It in the New Music Business with stories of his own efforts to further his career, none of which are tales of grand conquest. Instead, most follow the general idea of Here’s a thing I accomplished in a city where people don’t know me any better than you do. Those stories aren’t romantic, but they’re real.
“It was figuring out how to achieve these little goals,” he says. “Okay, I want to sell out this venue. How do I do that? I can’t fill an 800-seat venue right now because I’m only bringing 50 people to my shows. I’ll play this club and this club and this one, and by the time I left Minneapolis, I was consistently selling out this 800-seat room.”
In some cases, he had to be creative. The first time he played Denver, he had no established fan base so he took advantage of his experience teaching to pitch the idea of talking to music students in Denver schools. He used the schools tour to help leverage an all-ages show, and at each session he invited the students to the concert. When he finally played on the weekend after a week of talking to music students, he had a full house. He then used that success to set up similar situations in other cities. There was no equivalent scene in Almost Famous, but the Denver plan got Herstand in front audiences that had never heard of him or his music a week earlier, and it helped him stave off a day job.
Goals are crucial, he thinks. Not wishes or hopes but clear, quantifiable goals. Without them, Herstand says, “you don’t know what you’re working toward.” Part of Herstand’s unstated goal is to help musicians shake off the influence of the ‘70s and ‘80s, when a major label deal and its accompanying album/tour cycle was at least a plausible if improbable dream. Today, not only does a major label not mean what it once did, but releasing an album every year or two is too infrequent for the ADD marketplace.
“Artists can’t operate anymore in the same album structure that they did 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago, releasing one album every three to four years because people think you break up,” he says. “To stay relevant, you have to be constantly releasing content. Whether that’s a behind the scenes video or an acoustic demo or an acoustic performance, little blog sessions here or there—sure, if you’re creating a masterpiece, you can put the masterpiece out, but it shouldn’t be the only thing you’re releasing.”
Ironically, Herstand wrote his book in a city that is as celebrated for good music as it is notorious for being bad at music business. Part of the rhythm of his writing day meant going to Frenchmen Street every night. When he introduced himself to musicians, he discovered that many recognized him from Ari’s Take, and as he connected with them, he was able to see more and more of New Orleans’ musical life. He ran into Oberla, who he knew from Los Angeles, on one of his nights out, and he saw things on Frenchmen that he found reaffirming.
“It was nice to stay grounded and to see the joy that musicians had when they were performing, and the people that were in these bars and clubs who were in the music, and to see the connection,” he says. “It helped me remember why we do it. Why we have music. Why there’s a music business in the first place, to have that connection and for those kinds of experiences.”
One thing he admired was “how brilliantly” musicians worked the tip jar. “They got the tip jar down,” Herstand says. “I watched the trumpet player hop off the stage and go around with this big bucket to every person in there, and that’s one tiny little aspect of the big picture of what it takes to make it work. I sat down with him and asked for the philosophy of the tip jar, and he said, When he have it on stage, nobody puts money in it. As soon as I start walking around holding my trumpet in one hand and the tip jar in the other, people start dumping money. I know who to go to. I know these tourists tip a lot, these won’t. I know the locals won’t tip so I won’t go over there. He had this whole thing down. Sometimes they’d pull $800 for a three-hour set. That’s serious cash. He’s got an eight-piece band onstage and they’re walking away with $100 each.”
Herstand wrote in New Orleans in November, and after seeing Nigel Hall, Rebirth Brass Band, and a month’s worth of music, the visit had an unexpected consequence beyond a completed manuscript.
“I’ve been an acoustic singer/songwriter my whole career, but after that, I want to focus on horn-heavy funk music,” he says, laughing. “When I left New Orleans, I thought, This is what I need to be doing.”