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Point of View 

We asked exceptional Australian musician
and music educator, Andy Firth
to answer the following question...

Andy Firth

June 2008

The Question:
Australian musicians have to leave Australia to achieve success?

Response by Andy Firth share this - email, favourites, social bookmarks and more

Before any musician, regardless of where they are based, can answer this question, there is another more important question that needs to be answered.

Namely, what does success mean to each individual?

I am sure that my definition of success would differ greatly to many other musician’s ideas of what would make them “successful”. My own view of “success” is gaining recognition, respect and the reputation from my peers and fans for musical excellence in all that I produce. For me, it has very little to do with the money that I can make in the process of doing this. However, I am sure that for others this would be the first point of call to meet their own criteria of becoming “successful”.
In a nutshell, “success” for me, is being in a position, whether that be financially, personally or opportunity-wise to further and continue what I love doing.

The first thing that you hear not only from the public but also other musicians goes something like this. “Hey Andy, I hear you’re playing at (such & such) in the US this year! Wow! You’ve really made it big now!” The truth is that the fact I’m going to be doing the same thing that I do here in Australia in US, is by no means any guarantee that I will now be a successful artist at any level other than my own criteria of what success means to me. Fortunately being invited to play at places such as Carnegie Hall, International jazz festivals and other musically rewarding events does indeed fill my criteria for “success” or at least a part of what I need to feel “successful”.

If your priority for being successful is based on financial reward, then you might be in for a rude awakening. The cost to appearing at these types of events is usually funded by a generous benefactor, sponsorships/endorsements, Government & private sector grants or in the worse case scenario, by the musician/s themselves. If you are a “new player” in the overseas music industry, without a rich benefactor, large endorsement deals or major record label that has agreed in writing to cover all costs associated with the event, (this is a fictional scenario I think), well then you are not going to get rich by simply playing overseas! My advice is to understand that you are investing in your career, not simply spending money on a trip overseas and as such you need to approach the whole project with the same depth of planning and thought you would when deciding how to invest in any financial venture. I always try to appear and perform overseas with the mindset of being humble and grateful for the opportunity to appear at the event and I then make as many contacts and new friends as possible whilst I’m there. Then, if I can get the audience on their feet at the end of my performance, I may stand a chance of getting invited back.

However, appearing overseas as a featured artist is not as easy as you might think, so make certain that you understand all of your VISA conditions for entry to the country you are planning to travel to and get the contacts for the Australian Consulate in each place you visit in case you need them in an emergency.
Your desire for “success” overseas must never be allowed to over ride your commonsense and understanding of EXACTLY what is being expected and asked of you. Usually, you will be asked to sign a “standard” contract for your appearance. In my experience this is on average 10-15 pages in length and goes something like, “…the artist is responsible for…., the event organiser is not responsible for…., the artist must agree that…., in the event that any of these clauses, (sub-section A12-B34) is contravened, the event organiser can….to recover all costs associated with…” This is not directly quoted from the contracts I have signed, (as this is forbidden in subsection B654, paragraph…) - but you get the idea. Remember, the same opportunists and suspect operators that we can find in Australia, are overseas as well, the only difference being that there are more of them and they are not new to the music game!

You will also need to realise that becoming “successful” overseas, (no matter how talented or good you are), will take time and a considerable financial investment and you’ll probably need to appear at more than one event to be noticed at all. An economy airfare to the US will set you back $2,500.00 and unless a generous sponsor covers this, you will be paying for it yourself. Add to this your living expenses whilst overseas and other unexpected expenses such as ground transport, tips, taxes and airport taxes and you’ve just spent probably more than the event is offering to cover. Don’t expect to be handsomely paid for your services as a “newbie” performer on the international scene, it won’t happen. A lot of the time their own local musicians can’t get a reasonable fee, so why would you? Perhaps after your third or fourth performance and if the cards fall in your favour, you may pick up sponsorship or be awarded money from a grant that you applied for, but again, don’t hold your breath.
This is why I stress that you should approach your travels overseas to learn, see, experience and meet some great like-minded people, not for the money that it will make you.

My personal experience of gaining some small degree of “success” overseas goes something like this:

I first got noticed in the US in 1998 because of my clarinet playing, and usually because of the ridiculous speeds and high registers that I play in and at. I am realistic about this and in fact, from an early age, I planned it this way. I realised at the age of twelve that playing the sax for me was something that I would use as a change of sound from the clarinet, but that the clarinet was the instrument that I wanted to really specialize in. Now, there are more would-be jazz vocalists & saxophone players looking to appear at events than ever before. In fact the first thing many of the event organisers & record executives that I’ve met with say to me is, “Thank God you’re not another vocalist or sax player looking for work!” There is of course nothing wrong with being a saxophone specialist or vocalist, but you’ll need to be prepared to be competing with hundreds of top-notch like-minded and motivated artists, some of whom already are well-known, sponsored and established. I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t embrace this challenge, only that it is much harder to get a “foot in the door”, so try to offer the promoter something different and unique.

In 1999 I got the break I’d been waiting for-an invitation to perform at the International clarinet Symposium in the US. I pulled out all of my “tricks” and material that I’d worked on to a packed auditorium and was featured and billed as the final “must see” event for the symposium. That night there were major players in the clarinet world and music media there that were impressed and yes, I guess I got lucky in that one performance was written up in clarinet journals all over the US and throughout the clarinet world and soon I was being invited to perform at many major clarinet & saxophone symposia.

So now after five self-funded trips to the US and a few funded ones as well, I am gradually becoming known within the jazz clarinet and saxophone scene there. My latest invitation was to perform under my own name at the recital hall, Carnegie Hall.
This was a life-long dream and one that I personally feel very satisfied in having realized in my early 40’s. Even having achieved this, opportunities may or may not pop up for me to record or appear at major events here or overseas and if they do, I will always accept them gratefully. I will be armed with no expectations other than that of giving the best performance that I can and making some new friends and contacts whilst there. If something else comes of this than that’s great, but I have learnt not to expect it. This is of course a very expensive and stressful career choice that my wife & I have made and we have sacrificed many comforts for these opportunities and we know that there are no guarantees at the end of it all. However, I have made life-long friends and contacts in many states of the US and through their respect, friendship, advice and generosity, I have been able to improve myself as a professional musician and performer-one of my main criteria for “Success”.

I do think that it is important for Australian musicians to travel and perform with other internationally oriented musicians and events but it is not essential in order to be “successful”. Every country offers its citizens the opportunity to carve out a living doing something that the wider community creates a demand for. If you are able to fill this demand, you will probably make money and become successful doing what you do within Australia. Personally, I don’t think that it is healthy or reasonable to covet stardom or fame. I have toured and worked with many “famous” musicians and to me, unless you’re very personally insecure or a total egomaniac that can’t get enough of people recognising you in restaurants or asking for tips and contacts on how to make it in the music business, it’s not something you’d wish on anybody that you actually liked. That’s only my opinion, of course. However, If you do covet fame and are solely motivated by this desire, try reading Artie Shaw’s excellent book, “The Trouble With Cinderella”, it might give you a more realistic view point.

The one constant that I have seen, whether it is here or overseas, is that true talent and ability will always be noticed by someone at some stage. But until this happens for you, practice being patient. Nothing happens quickly in this game and the more you try to rush around making it happen, the less it seems to, in fact, people actually tend to avoid you. I believe that opportunities come to you because someone recognises your talent and it inspires them to arrange for you to be invited or included in an event not because of your resume or CD portfolio. Flashy websites, rave reviews, numerous CD recordings and big name-studded resumes may help to secure your reputation for excellence, but in this age of digital manipulation and graphics fabrication, no one that actually knows what it takes to be a great artist today believes or pays much heed to any of this. Every “Joe and Jane” out there has a website, CD, reviews and quotes from friends or artists that have felt inclined to graciously bestow on them. Those that can’t get them for real even stretch the truth and fabricate them! No one in the real world of artist management or booking actually believes anything they read or hear on CD these days-they only want to hear and see you do it live before they take serious notice and book you.

So having said this, this can happen in Australia or overseas and “Lady Luck” is a major player in whether you become “successful” from performing anywhere at any time in history, but you can always be successful if you strive for and achieve the things that fit your criteria of what success means to you. This thought should suffice to keep you sane and inspired until “your break” comes along.

In the meantime, keep writing, recording, studying, practising, believing in your talents and abilities and of course…waiting.

Best of luck to you all.

Andy Firth

© 2008 Andy Firth

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