Advice for “Making it” in the Music Business, aka Things I wish people had told me ten years ago.

This weekend I’ll be embarking on a trip to North Carolina to teach and perform with the students at the Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program at UNC Greensboro. I’ve had the opportunity to be a guest clinician at several colleges in the last few years – I guess I’m reaching the age where my experience is at a point of value for younger musicians. Often I feel as though I’m a completely different person after having graduated college ten years ago. So much has happened, so many changes, so many experiences. As I have recently created two startup companies in the music business, I reflect more and more on my past ten years and honestly wish that there had been more dialogue regarding the music business, getting gigs, releasing music and creating a path for yourself. Yes, college is for honing your chops, studying, and taking music classes; however, young hopeful budding musicians need advice and guidance on how to navigate the music world they are embarking upon.

Last night I sat down and compiled a list of advice that I, at the ripe old age of 33, would give to someone ten years my junior. I’m looking forward to sharing this list with the students at UNC, and am happy to share it with the masses, for what it’s worth. Enjoy…


Erica von Kleist

Advice for “Making it” in the Music Business …

aka “Things I wish people had told me ten years ago!”


Topic 1: Product


  • What you do is unlike anything anyone else does  – You will never be Coltrane, Bird, Chris Potter, John Faddis, Edgar Meyer, simply because you were meant to be you! What you do is unique – your sound, musical sensibility, ideas, technique. Hone in on this, strengthen it, and do it.
  • When you get hired for gigs, people hire you for that unique thing that you bring to the table. This is your product – it is what you are selling in order to make money. It’s very important to know what this product is, and to keep developing it to make it better and more valuable.
  • Stores sell multiple products because they need to be diverse for their customers. Sometimes musicians need to think the same way… being able to play an instrument as well as write, teach, do copy work, etc, will make you more diverse, and therefore more marketable.
  • Think about who you’re selling your product to – is it something people need? What do people like to buy these days, and whom do they hire? Although you’re an artist, remaining aware of your market is crucial to making a living.


Topic 2: Getting Sustainable Work


  • Networking is crucial – both inside AND outside musical circles. Go to gigs, concerts, rehearsals, parties, soirees, do charity work, do a 5K, do dodgeball, you never know who you’re going to meet.
  • Investing in projects as a sideman – We live in a time when producers and labels do not help fund projects/bands when they’re starting out. It’s important to invest time in projects as a sideman, simply because you never know where they might go. Make sure that the person leading the group is talented, competent, persistent, realistic, risk-taking and a good communicator. It’s OK to say “No” to someone’s gig.
  • Investing in projects as a leader – Like mentioned above, getting funding to start a project has to come from you, or from grants you can apply for. However, make sure you have a realistic budget as to how the project is going to develop. What kinds of gigs are your trying to get? Are you planning on touring? Making an album or EP? How are you going to publicize it? Budget for everything, and don’t anticipate profits based on tickets sales. Know what you’re selling.
  • Getting private party work (weddings, events) and getting represented by an agency – Have a GOOD press kit. VIDEO VIDEO VIDEO! Decent recordings of exactly what you’re trying to sell/promote, excellent photos (both studio and live), website or a NICE Reverbnation or Bandcamp site, business cards, have MP3 thumb drives, and don’t leave home without your press kit…you never know who you’ll meet. Always have gigs booked so people can come hear you, and see that you’re active.
  • Look the part You are the first thing anyone sees. Regardless of how good you are at what you do, invest in some NICE, tailored clothes that you wear out while networking/socializing. Doesn’t have to be a suit – just something that fits your personality and level of professionalism.



Topic 3: Keeping a gig (the devil’s in the details)


  • Be positive – people love to work with others that make them feel good when they’re around.
  • Be clear – know what you’re getting paid, how long the gig is, what the expectations are (food, drink tickets, etc). Having everyone be on the same page is crucial to maintaining a good vibe in a group, whether you’re the leader or sideman.
  • Be. On. Time. – needs no explanation.
  • Be cautious about drinking alcohol on the bandstand – the person who hired the band might not care, but I never hear anyone say “That band was great, but gee, I wish I had seen them drinking booze onstage”.  On the same note, don’t bring weed/drugs to a gig. Don’t smell like anything backstage, don’t bring it around, it’s not worth it and it’s dumb to lose a gig over it.
  • Come prepared – bring a stand even if the gig doesn’t call for it, dress well even if the leader is in tee shirt and jeans, know the charts, bring your doubles/mutes. Better to have it and not need it, than need it at not have it!
  • Help setup and tear down – Being helpful on a gig by wrapping cables and lifting a few cases goes a long way.
  • Always make the client feel like they made a good decision by hiring you – this means the club owner, booking agent, bride, tour promoter, etc.
  • Be positive on social media about gigs unless you’re prepared for repercussions.



Topic 3: Evolve


  • You aren’t the same person or musician you were a few years ago. Your dreams may have changed – maybe “this” isn’t everything you pictured it to be. Thanks OK!
  • You don’t have to be actively working on musical projects or gigs to be a great musician and artist. If you feel the pull to explore something completely different, go for it! It will only influence you as an artist and human.
  • From time to time, try something new, whether it be a new musical endeavor or taking up a new hobby. This will help keep things fresh and give you new things to think about.
  • When you leave college and your beloved teachers, you may feel the need for some leadership or mentorship. ALWAYS learn from people who know something you don’t know, especially those who are older than you.
  • Practice. NOW. Chances are you won’t have as much dedicated time devoted to your craft again in your life. Take advantage of this time to get some serious chops together, even if your heart is not in it right this second. You’re here for a reason, and paying for school… take advantage of your resources!
  • Take time for travel away from work. Go on a vacation without your horn, even for a night.
  • Dream big, dream crazy, believe in the impossible. If you have a desire to do something, every step you take is one step closer.
  • Failure is only finding out what you don’t know. Find out, and find out often. Then keep learning/growing.