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My name is Casey Sagolla-Slamp, and at 22 years old, I started a music business in Raleigh, North Carolina. Now I am a professional musician and owner of CSPercussion, a company which serves as the figurehead for my performing, writing, and teaching career. Through my experiences with starting a music business, including creating and managing this company, I’ve had the opportunity to build an international career as a professional musician. I’ve learned that the key to success stems from a number of areas: building a successful brand, keeping clear communication, establishing a website, growing a client base, sharing your resume, and saying “yes.”
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Mostly everyone is familiar with the concept of the “American Dream,” an optimistic and ideological view of how anyone with hard work, determination, and a developed skill set can rise through society’s financial ranks. This term was first coined as a direct result of the newly robust American economy during the 1920’s. A working-class American was able to significantly improve his or her financial situation due to the increase of American goods being exported around the world. Small businesses began to flourish as a result of the now largely employed population and served local communities throughout the country. Though the American economy is different today, there is still a large niche, which can, and should, be filled by small businesses.
Here’s the point
This article aims to provide certain properties by which all successful small businesses can flourish. The term “small business” defines any individual or company who meets criteria set by the U.S. Small Business Administration. Some of these criteria include net worth, number of employees, amount of goods produced and so on. I am primarily going focus this article around “freelancing” or “per diem” work, which are companies typically run by an individual. I am going to outline certain steps I took to create and develop my small business, with the hope that current freelancers can adopt some of these principals and utilize them in order to grow their business!
Hit the ground running when starting a music business
Before going through the list of properties I used when starting a music business, I want to provide a bit of background about my line of work and experiences. I am a professional percussionist and I operate my own company, CSPercussion, which I founded in 2016. My company is based in Raleigh, North Carolina and is comprised of three entities: performance, education, and composition. On a weekly basis, I perform professionally, run a private music studio and compose music for several different performing ensembles. Ever since I was a kid, I always wanted to be a professional musician. I studied music at James Madison University and was fortunate to participate in many different performance opportunities. Becoming a freelance musician intrigued me because of the flexibility of the schedule. I was in love with the variety a musician experiences on a daily basis and couldn’t wait to start building a career. Though most musicians aren’t multimillionaires, there is a misconception about the career and potential earnings. There are many lucrative opportunities for musicians; however, one must be willing to adapt to thrive in the music industry.
I truthfully couldn’t be happier with my career choice and I am excited to share my experiences with you!
Find your passion
I sincerely believe most people end up starting a music business — or any small business — in order to satisfy a passion someone has in order to solve problems in the world around them. For some, it’s noticing a cultural void in the local community and wanting to fill it with art, music, or dance. For others, it’s trying to capture the political turmoil or conversely, the beauty of life, through film and videography. Whatever your passion, there are several tips I’d like to share in order for you to enjoy starting a music business and get it up and running.
What’s the first thing people think when they hear your name or business? Do they think sleek and modern? Timely and organized? Responsible and dedicated? One of the absolute most important components to any small business is the brand by which your customers associate your work. My recommendation is that you make effective and consistent communication a part of your brand. This sounds so trivial, yet can make a huge difference in getting work.
My advice is to get in the habit of checking your email several times during the workday.
As a freelance musician, I get emails from symphonies addressed to multiple players asking for a percussionist for a particular gig. I have been successful in getting those performance opportunities simply because I was the first to respond. I check my email every hour or so in order to capitalize on these opportunities. You’ll never know when work needing a time-sensitive reply becomes available last minute, so be prepared by scheduling a consistent time to check all lines of communication.
Maintain the network
Once you get work after starting a music business, maintain those lines of communication. Customers like to know they can reach you with questions, concerns, or advice. I run a private music lessons studio with 20-25 students. Parents contact me daily to ask for progress updates, equipment advice, or to reschedule lessons. By responding to those emails in a timely manner, I’m able to provide high-quality customer service. This is also equally important when it comes to deadlines. Ensure you always communicate during the creative process so your customer feels as though they are a part of the development. This will garner a greater appreciation towards your work at the end of the process and will set you up to continue working with that particular client.
Websites are key
Freelancers also need to consider the tangible forms of branding with regards to creating and managing a small business, especially when starting a music business. Due to the access of technology, it is almost a necessity to operate a website in order to connect with future clients.
The site should be clean, easy to use, and optimized to be found easily via a search engine (also known as SEO).
There are many professionals who specialize in Search Engine Optimization (SEO), which means they help you structure your website with text, pictures, and relevant information to ensure your website comes up towards the top of a generic subject material search. For instance, if I search “Percussion Lessons in Raleigh,” on Google, I want to ensure my website is connected to as much of that information in Raleigh as possible so my website gets the top hits. Otherwise, I’ve spent a lot of time starting a music business for little to no gain. There are many different website building platforms, spend time reading through which may be the best fit for your business. Most do not require experience in website design, however, the SEO portion is very important and might require you to seek professional advice. I have used the Wix and Squarespace platforms and have found both to be pretty accessible for first-time users.
Building a client base
When I moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, I knew no one in the area or in the music industry. So, I took some time to research the area and think about who my initial target client base should be. After spending time reading art blogs in the area and looking through performance catalogs, I realized that the first revenue source I should really pursue is private teaching (30 or 60-minute private percussion lessons to students of all ages). The question then became, “How do I connect with students and parents without having any leads?” I decided building relationships with public school music teachers would prove to be a good starting point. So, I contacted 10 public high schools and offered to give a masterclass and recital for their percussion students. Half of the directors responded and I scheduled the events.
Instantly, I had students asking to take lessons.
Once the band directors saw how successful the events were, they began to talk to their colleagues around the county and I received more invitations to teach and perform for students. Within 3 months, I had 30 private students. My rates were $25 per half hour and $40 per hour. Doing the math, not a bad place to start.
The good and bad of working for free
One of the most important things when moving to an area is the initial investment. A fundamental aspect of being a successful freelancer is knowing when “free work” can lead to lucrative opportunities down the road. My public school performances and master classes were free to the school and students. However, those opportunities connected me with the students and parents to produce a strong revenue stream a few months later. Now, this is a tough topic because there can be a negative backlash. Freelancers have to be careful they don’t start to devalue themselves and others in the same field. For example, if I continued to give free performances for a few years, the community would become accustomed to that experience and therefore would potentially stop paying for other entertainment opportunities (Symphony, Ballet, Live bands, etc.).
My advice is to gauge how much free work is necessary in order to get a baseline revenue stream.
Then, promptly refrain from continuing free services. In my experience, 6 months of that initial “free” investment led to enough money in order for me to stop holding unpaid public performances.
With regards to paid performance opportunities, my approach was simple. I created a performance reel (video), cataloging me performing on many different percussion instruments. I then did a reel and resume blast to no less than 45 performing arts organizations. Initially, I heard back from 4 and I soon began performing with those groups. As my resume of experiences grew, I started getting calls to perform with more and more groups.
My first 2 years in North Carolina, I did this “blast” every 6 months, each time getting more responses.
After having done that, I am established enough within the state to feel comfortable with the number of performance opportunities I have available. However, each year I’ll send my materials to performing ensembles across the country and abroad in hopes of gaining different experiences. Just this year I won a solo competition, which is allowing me to perform in Taiwan this coming summer. My advice is to always seek out opportunities even when you’ve established a strong local network. Growth always comes from new opportunities and experiences.
Respond with a “yes”
Lastly, I became a “yes” man. There are different viewpoints on this topic, but I wholeheartedly believe that initially, no gig is too small. I worked crazy hours teaching groups and playing gigs just so I could meet different people. At one point, I was performing with Symphonies in 3 different states, with rehearsals and gigs each week! Though sometimes inconvenient and nearly downright insane, I believe my experiences performing all over the east coast helped me establish the performance career I have today. The late nights and crazy schedules led me to a place where I can finally pick and choose what I do and when I do it.
I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything because of what doors they opened in the future.
I hope by sharing some of my experiences, you have a stronger understanding of creating and managing a small business. My stories above were all relatively positive, but during my journey, I also experienced some hurdles. Each freelancer will experience different problems in his or her industry.
The most important thing to remember is that rejection and failure are never bad.
In order for you to grow, you fundamentally have to fail along the way. In the beginning, my resume blasts yielded a small response rate. My private students cancel lessons and reschedule all of the time, making my daily schedule ever-changing. I had to invest a lot of money upfront to purchase equipment and then had a debt to pay off. I was passed up for gigs because there were several musicians who have been established in the area for a long time. The list goes on and on, but I never deviated from my plan.
- Root your brand in effective communication and a quality product, and you’ll be successful.
- Systematically approach your target market with a strong initial investment of “free” services, and you’ll be successful.
- Catalog and create a portfolio that encompasses what you can bring to a locale or what problems you can solve with your work, and you will be successful.
- As I said before, I believe all small businesses are rooted in passion. If you continue to work hard and excel at what you do, you’ll be successful.
Create a portfolio
This portfolio includes your resume, CV, awards/endorsements and examples of your work. Here is a good resource for formatting a music resume or CV.
Build a website
I’ve had positive experiences with Wix and Squarespace, but be sure to look into all options.
Research local area and target market
A simple Google search here should do the trick.
Blast your resume
Create a performance reel (video), cataloging different instruments. Then do a reel and resume blast to performing arts organizations.
Make the initial investment (free performances, mural for a school, video for a church, etc.…)
Look into community events and work to become involved to share/market your craft. There are loads of music festivals in North Carolina each year so I am sure to check them out and attend as a performing artist. As an example, I’ve included a link to a non-profit organization in North Carolina that specializes in preserving folk music heritage all throughout the state. They hold concerts and educational events throughout the year aimed at bringing performing artists and students together.
Establish and maintain effective communication
Be sure to have a strong email platform. I use Google, including Gmail, Google Drive, and tons of other apps and extensions.
About the Author
Percussionist, Educator, Composer, Small Business Owner
Casey Sagolla-Slamp is a percussionist, educator, and composer residing in Raleigh, North Carolina. As a freelance percussionist, Casey performs with the Richmond Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle, Carolina Philharmonic, Florence Symphony Orchestra, Raleigh Symphony Orchestra, Durham Symphony Orchestra, Tar River Orchestra, and Triangle Brass Band. Additionally, he was a member of the 2012 and 2013 Cadets 2 Drum and Bugle Corps, performing as a marimbist in the front ensemble. Casey won the 2019 Taiwan Percussion Arts Alliance Solo Competition, placed second in the 2018 NABBA Percussion Solo Competition and placed second in the 2019 Taipei World Percussion Championships Solo Marimba Competition; winning the Silver Medal.
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