43 Folders

Back to Work

Merlin’s weekly podcast with Dan Benjamin. We talk about creativity, independence, and making things you love.

Join us via RSS, iTunes, or at 5by5.tv.

”What’s 43 Folders?”
43Folders.com is Merlin Mann’s website about finding the time and attention to do your best creative work.

Guest post: Scott Andrew on "Productivity for the Practicing Musician"

Some time back, mathowie poked me about talking to our pal, Scott Andrew, about some of the productivity mojo he uses to keep his one-man acoustic pop army in line. Turns out that, in addition to being a terrific singer/songwriter, Scott’s got a mature system for booking gigs, promoting his work, and maintaining a lively relationship with his many fans.

Although there are tips here that will be useful to everybody (keep it simple; fear not lofi; provide great customer service), the musicians, artists, and other performers out there will most especially learn from what Scott’s got going on; as my friend Sean is fond of saying (in a booming, fakey showbiz-guy voice): "It's not music 'friend'; it's music business!"

Productivity for the Practicing Musician

by Scott Andrew

When Merlin approached me about writing a sort of “Getting Music Done” piece, I initially thought: buh? I’m probably the worst model for artistic productivity. After mulling it over, it occurred to me that I’m probably a very typical model. I have a day job. I have rent. I write songs on a used thriftstore guitar and record them when I can scrape enough gig money together. I spend my creative life in that emotional DMZ between self-assured, passionate DIY ferocity and vague, nagging career dissatisfaction. In other words, I’m just like most aspiring musicians. Perfect! So don’t please look on this article as advice from someone who’s “been there” — I’m still getting there.

I once read a rant by a punk musician who complained that if he had the time and ability to do all the stuff needed for a rewarding music career, he wouldn’t need a record deal. Well, yes. The unsexy truth is that some days you’ll feel more like a Post Office than a rock star. This pisses off some people who’d rather be working on, like, music, instead of bookings or publicity. But that’s okay, because the worst that can happen is: nothing happens. Eventually you get tired of nothing happening, and you resign yourself to the “business” side of the music business. Sigh.


So let’s say you’ve been woodshedding away and you’re finally ready to take your garage-rock masterpiece on the road. Once I made the jump from the bedroom to live music circuit, I found most of my activities consisted of searching for new opportunities and staying on top of existing ones. I call the former “filling the funnel,” which is any activity that gets me gigs, interviews, publicity, CD and t-shirt sales — in short, anything that leads to work, money and/or fans.

Getting such work is just the beginning. Gigs must be confirmed weeks in advance and promoted with flyers, press releases and reminders to my mailing list. Music festivals and competitions have submission deadlines and requirements. Music writers are always on deadline and even weekly calendar listings have a window. With every opportunity there’s a whole slate of peripheral tasks that must be addressed. And somewhere in there I have to rehearse and bang out a new song every so often. When you are a working musician, your to-do list is always full. Always.

Personally, I don’t like automatic syncing between devices — it’s brain-dead. Manually transferring the information at least once allows it to tickle my brain a bit and stimulate new ideas. It’s sync with a built-in review.

After a while I realized I needed some serious-yet-simple organizational fu to keep things moving. I recently became enamored of Jim Munroe’s “Time Management For Anarchists” and his penchant for agenda books, so a few years ago I started the haughtily-named “Book Of The List,” which is a Mead Fat Lil’ Notebook containing a forever-running to-do list. When I have a task or idea, it goes on the list. There’s really nothing special about it, except it’s fun to look back and see that the very unsexy “get more 9×13 padded envelopes” was once very important in the fall of ‘03.

Inevitably, some stuff on the List gets skipped over and buried. I try not to worry about these items and either prune them out or move them to a new position at the top. The only time I get nervous is when the List gets empty — that’s when I know I’m not spending enough time filling the funnel.

For time-bound tasks, I couldn’t live without my Yahoo! Calendar. It’s truly my outboard brain. I’ve tried far sexier apps, but honestly, I don’t need the distraction of a shiny Ajax-enabled funhouse. Y! Calendar is free, offers multiple calendar views and unlimited (AFAIK) email and SMS reminders. The reminders are crucial since I often get drawn into day-job minutiae and forget that Rizzo the Talent Buyer can only be reached at the club between 2 and 3 on Mondays. I usually put contact numbers and brief notes in the subject line and route the reminder to my cell phone so I can take action even when I’m away from a computer.

I review the BOTL and my Y! Calendar several times a week and love transcribing tasks between the two manually. Personally, I don’t like automatic syncing between devices — it’s brain-dead. Manually transferring the information at least once allows it to tickle my brain a bit and stimulate new ideas. It’s sync with a built-in review.

Filling The Funnel

Enough about tools, let’s talk gigs. I’m going to assume you already know how to secure a gig for your act, but there are always ways to grease the wheels. What follows are some general ideas that have helped me keep my gig calendar full.

  • You should have a good website. I won’t presume to tell you how to build a good website, but I will say this: if you don’t have a few full-length, downloadable MP3s on your site, do it now fer cryin’ out loud. A lot of talent buyers simply don’t have time to listen to CDs, so make it easy on them and yourself. And make them streamable too, since not all venue owners have broadband.
  • Mercilessly plunder other artists’ websites for information. Find similar artists in your area, steal their calendars and find where they intersect (both MySpace and Garageband are great resources for this). Or, just flat-out ask for referrals. Most artists enjoy info-sharing and the accompanying ego boost. Well, it works on me (I’m writing this, no?).
  • You’re going to be sending a lot of email to strangers and asking the same questions over and over. A good email program (I use Mozilla Thunderbird) will let you design and save email templates for these tasks. I have standard templates for booking inquiries, press releases, thank-you notes, introductions to other bands and a few others.
  • I like to put identifying text like “[booking]” or “[calendar]” in the subject line of the email inquiries I send. It signifies the topic, and allows me to filter any responses into corresponding folders. If I’m expecting a response, but don’t get one, I usually follow up with a slightly altered subject line, such as “[booking] 2nd try: openings in January?” to indicate friendly persistence. Don’t forget to schedule your follow-ups immediately — again, this is where a calendar with reminders can be extremely handy.
  • Google rules. I use Google Maps and Google Local to find alternative venues to enhance existing gigs. If I have a gig in a particular city, I could use Google Maps to search for the nearest Borders and set up an in-store performance during the day. Ditto for indie record shops, college campuses, radio stations, etc.
  • If you seriously want to increase the number of shows you play per month without exhausting your audience draw (I call this “overfishing”), I highly recommend the “zone strategy” developed by Joe Taylor in his book “More Gigs Now.” It’s a clever way of exploring the geography of your area to find more gig opportunities by subdividing it into “zones.”
  • Be helpful. Hook others up with gigs and contacts when you can. If you have time, be a street team member for smaller out-of-town acts you’d like to swap gigs with. This stuff will come back to you in a good way. I once landed an awesome gig opening for a nationally touring major-label act, all because I forwarded some useful info to a promoter I met on a plane.

Weeding The Garden

Fans are the lifeblood of any music career, so I regard anything that doesn’t square against either goal with extreme prejudice. This saves me tons of time which I can then devote to more creative stuff.

A gig should serve a purpose, a reason for you to bother with it. As opportunities come your way, you should be gauging each one against your goals. You do have goals, right? Are they written down? Well, how do you know you’re making progress, then?

Goals don’t have to be awe-inspiring like “perform at Red Rocks.” I prefer my goals to be smaller, easily measurable and ongoing. As a performing musician, I have two very straightforward goals:

  • to win new fans
  • to keep existing fans interested and happy

Fans are the lifeblood of any music career, so I regard anything that doesn’t square against either goal with extreme prejudice. This saves me tons of time which I can then devote to more creative stuff. Here are some other points that have saved me time, energy and worry:

  • Prune out tasks that aren’t relevant to your goals and your musical style. If you’re a jazz ensemble, don’t spend your energy trying to get the local indie-rock rag to write about you. Don’t bring your punk act to a coffeeshop. Don’t post flyers for your true metal band in Barnes & Noble. Think hard about the style of music you play and the type of people who would like that style. Where do they hang out? What do they read? Focus on those people, ignore everything else.
  • When was the last time you went to see an unknown band because you saw a flyer? I’m guessing not often. Flyers are “due diligence” promotion. Venue owners expect you to provide flyers even though it’s well-known that flyers do little to attract a crowd. Look at your gigs and decide which ones deserve more attention than others. Some may not warrant a full-court press of promotion. I personally like sending color postcards labeled with the date of the show. They look great, and people can shove them into their pockets and take them home. I get mine done at 4over4.com.
  • I try to divide my week up according to activity types: Mondays are for press and promotion, Tuesdays are for booking, Wednesdays are for networking, etc. This lets me concentrate on related tasks so I don’t have to worry about spreading my efforts. I use a kitchen timer to maintain concentration: fifteen minutes of answering email, then — ding! — time to switch over to booking tasks for the next 30 minutes.
  • Ignore everybody. Does seeing others succeed inspire you? Or make you miserable? Sometimes it’s a real energy drain to see another artist achieve his or her goals while your own still seem out of reach. If this is you, learn to put blinders on — stop reading the “On The Scene” column of your local A&E weekly, unsubscribe from Pitchfork and focus on what’s working for you.
  • Learn to say no. Some bands will take any gig. This is a mistake, and I know from first-hand experience that no one will show up to your gig on Easter Sunday in Kent OH, nor will they show up at back-to-back gigs at the same venue unless you are already wildly popular, or very hot.

And so…?

Here’s the takeaway: if you can devote just a few hours a week to the mundane tasks, you’ll probably be doing more for your music career than most musicians out there. You might even discover, as I have, that you enjoy the sense of accomplishment and — gah! — professionalism that comes from mailing out press releases and promoting your gigs effectively. And if you can stay mindful of weeding out the tasks that don’t fit your goals or don’t get the results you want, you’ll have more time to spend on the stuff that does work. You’ll become a better judge of which activities are worth doing, and which are wastes of time or ego-stroking.

Let’s be clear, though: if you’re anything like me, you’ll fall off the wagon a lot and find yourself spending a few days waving your flippers in the air helplessly. The key is to allow yourself to mope for as long as necessary to recover your resolve, then get back on it. Keep at it long enough, and maybe someday you’ll impress and attract people who’ll do this stuff for you.

Oh, and don’t quit. Never quit.

Scott AndrewScott Andrew began his professional music career years ago in Akron OH, playing Police and Pink Floyd covers to drunken college students in a cover band called Cartoon Freeze Tag. He has since relocated to Seattle, where he ekes out a schizoid existence as a web developer and frustrated acoustic pop superstar. His music is available on his website under a Creative Commons license. Scott also has several CDs available, for money.

About Merlin

Merlin's picture


Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




An Oblique Strategy:
Honor thy error as a hidden intention


Subscribe with Google Reader

Subscribe on Netvibes

Add to Technorati Favorites

Subscribe on Pageflakes

Add RSS feed

The Podcast Feed


Merlin used to crank. He’s not cranking any more.

This is an essay about family, priorities, and Shakey’s Pizza, and it’s probably the best thing he’s written. »

Scared Shitless

Merlin’s scared. You’re scared. Everybody is scared.

This is the video of Merlin’s keynote at Webstock 2011. The one where he cried. You should watch it. »