Point of View
We asked exceptional Australian musician
and music educator,
to answer the following question...
Do Australian musicians have to
leave Australia to achieve success?
by Andy Firth
Before any musician, regardless of where they are based, can answer
this question, there is another more important question that needs to be
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.
© 2008 Andy Firth
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