A while back, one of our Schwilly Family members, Adam Price, wrote me an e-mail to tell me how he is making a living playing music in nursing homes. I thought it would be a great idea to share with you all, so I interviewed Adam to find out how he got started and where it has led him. I know you’ll get some great information out of his answers!
Thank you very much, Adam, for sharing this idea with us and taking the time out to answer my questions. Let’s start at the beginning. Why did you start playing in nursing homes?
Actually, life threw me a curve ball. I was a marketing consultant working 18 to 20 hours a day and it nearly killed me. I had no time for music or for anything else except the business. After a time, I fell ill and was sent to the hospital. While I was there in the hospital, I realized that at least I would be able to get out, but many of the people there had only one way out and that was in a box. These are people who have built our local cities, business people, doctors, white and blue color workers, and many of them were lonely and didn’t have anyone.
While I was in the hospital, I LOVED seeing a new face. Being in isolation is extremely hard and lonely . . . and that is my WHY. The joy I give to the people in the nursing home is the joy I get out of playing my music to them.
What did you do to get started?
When I first started, I got in touch with the homes and quickly found out I needed to ask for their “Activities Director.” Many homes have more than one, but I speak to one and go from there. I needed to be ready to answer questions such as:
- Where are you from?
- Do you have insurance and tax forms for payment?
- How much do you charge?
- Do you have a criminal background check?
- What type of music do you play?
Very early on when I first started, there was no payment for such gigs, only a $10 or $20 gift certificate or perhaps some money for gas. This is where some artists might think, “Oh, there is no money in nursing home gigs,” but over time I built a reputable name for myself as a professional entertainer who specializes in aged care and senior concerts.
After about 2 years of building up my name, I told them I couldn’t keep going without payment. When I set up a price range of $80 to $100 for an hour show, they were happy to oblige since their residents were already relying on my shows.
I also approached local businesses and got sponsorship from those who wanted nursing homes as their clients. Music was the perfect gift for the business to give to the residents and their business cards were left with the homes: A win-win situation for both (and for me).
Sure sounds like it. So, let’s get down to specifics. How often do you play? How long is a normal set? What is your audience like? How much do you get paid now?
I play 10 shows a week at nursing homes, mostly on weekdays. This is now a full-time income for me and makes up the bread and butter for my music career in between gigging on the weekends.
Typically a show goes for 1 hour and fits in with the nursing home schedule which is usually from 10:30 to 11:30 in the morning or 1:30 to 2:30 in the afternoon.
In a nursing home, typically you’ll have anywhere from 20 to 50 residents attend, but if you’re new, don’t expect too many to come. But over time, as they grow to like you and your music, they don’t want to miss your shows.
But it really varies. I’ve sung for a room with three elderly citizens in it (two of them dozing off to sleep but waking up to clap at the end of each song—hilarious!), and I’ve also sung for a room of 200+ seniors in local clubs where morning tea shows are held and attended by all the nursing homes in the areas.
At the moment, my rates are as follows:
Weekday shows – 10 am to 4 pm – $80 / hour
Saturday shows – 10 am to 4 pm – $100 / hour
Sunday shows – 10 am to 4 pm – $150 / hours
The important thing is to have a rate card ready, but DON’T talk turkey until after they’ve at least heard you play or you will shoot yourself in the foot and possibly close the doors before they even open.
I did shows for free to a very little ($30) for the first year or so to get booked solid, then I told them I needed to up the ante to $50 / show for the following six months. After that I increased prices slow to get to where I am now.
Great! Now, tell us what kinds of adjustments you need to make in your show when you play in a nursing home.
You really need to think about repertoire and how you can get the residents (especially the high-dementia patients) out of themselves and reacting to the music you’re playing.
It is important to remember that it’s not about you or you music in the homes. It’s all about how skilled you are at holding their attention, interacting with them and making them come alive. If you do this, you’ll gain a place in the hearts of the nursing home activities directors and the managers as someone who is therapeutic to their residents, and you’ll NEVER be without paid work.
As far as volume goes, always ask the activities director if the volume is OK. I crank the volume up at some places but others need it at a whisper. But you will find that residents with hearing aids will cover their ears, not necessarily because you are a bad singer but because the loudness hurts their ears.
As for pace, do a mix of slow older songs (Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Englebert Humperdinck) and then mix it up with some faster rock ‘n roll and country rock—anything with a good beat they’ll like once you connect with them.
For interaction, do singalong songs such as “Let Me Call You Sweetheart”. Look up singalong songs on Google and you’ll find tons of them. The key is to ask the residents what their favorite songs are. You’ll get golden nuggets of songs you’ve never heard of before, but when you learn the song and sing it for them the next time, their families and staff will be amazed at how they “wake up” to their favorite songs.
That must be an amazing feeling to see that. Another question: have you been able to book other shows as a result of playing in a nursing home?
YES . . . Weddings, 60th to 100th birthdays (mind you, 100th birthdays play BIG TIME, like $1,000s for a couple of hours), engagement parties, special event days, etc . . . All of these facilities have staff and the residents have family members who have seen you play.
You can also take CDs/DVDs to sell at these places and they will buy them by the bucket load at some of them. At others not so many, but it all adds up.
Great ideas! I know that the Senior Center here in town has music for their lunch hour and many different holiday celebrations. I imagine that is similar to the morning tea shows you mentioned before.
Yes, any place or activity where seniors are specifically invited can be a potential gig. I would like to add, though, that it takes a special personality to get along best in this type of venue. You must be someone who GENUINELY cares about senior citizens and their well-being and who likes the crooning songs, old time favorites, and singalongs that they enjoy.
I once got some feedback about a band that said to the audience, “Don’t sing. We are the singers and you should be listening to us.” If you’re one of this type of entertainer and don’t want to hear the residents singing or yelling out of tune back at you, then DON’T DO nursing home shows!
One of the funniest times of a show is when the nursing home staff get involved and dance and try to sing along with me. The residents absolutely LOVE it when the staff they know get involved in a show, and so do I!
Thank you so much, Adam, for the great information. Do you have a website or e-mail address where other musicians might get in touch with you if they have any questions?
You’re welcome. Yes, they can get in touch with me at: AdamPriceCountryMusic.Com
Facebook Live is a pretty cool thing.
Today, I used it to facilitate my first group Q&A with my subscribers in our Secret Facebook Group.
I think it turned out pretty sweet. But I’ll let you be the judge;)
If you’re not a subscriber, go ahead and enter your email address on the right side of this page to join our community!
I’m subscribed to Shannon Curtis’s email list.
And last month she shared what I consider to be an absolute perfect example of a fan engagement project.
Shannon invited her subscribers to participate in the first video for her upcoming album.
The premise was very simple: Just record a video of yourself in front of your computer holding up a piece of paper expressing your personal struggles.
The results were AMAZING!
It’s easy enough to put together a video like that. In fact, it can all be done inside YouTube’s own video editor.
The payoffs were:
-A Ton of Views. I can’t say the number because it’s still growing daily!
-Delighted Fans who are now connected to her musical community on a much deeper level. They are now more personally invested in her career, thus more eager to invest financially in her music.
-A Boost of Support for her Crowdfunding project.
-An Interactive Art Project that facilitates ongoing participation from her fans!
If You Consider Yourself A Musicpreneur:
You should definitely take a play from Shannon’s playbook and create an interactive, fan-participation video to dazzle, delight, and engage your fans right now!
And when you do, make sure to share it with the rest of us;)
[Tweet “May we all inspire each other to be the best that we can be!”]
As the band was packing up, I brushed by and could hear the owner spouting his contorted excuses about why he couldn’t pay the guarantee. I’ve heard it all before and I’ve felt that crushing feeling of not knowing how I would make it to the next town because an owner or promoter let me down. I was glad it wasn’t me in that position that night.
That’s why it surprised me to see that Tony just nodded and smiled as he listened the news!
It all made sense twenty minutes later when I saw him packing up the merch booth. As he stuffed an impressive wad of cash into his guitar case, he gave me the most valuable piece of advice I ever heard on tour:
“Don’t rely on the promoters. As long as you put on a killer show and have killer merch, you’ll always have enough gas to make it to the next stop.”
The bottom line is that if you want to be a professional musician, you should have a solid merch setup and promote it effectively at your gigs. Because it might be the only money you make that night.
What constitutes a solid merch setup?
The first thing you need to consider when developing your merch strategy is who your fans are. It should go without saying, but you’d be surprised at some of the misdirected merch attempts I’ve seen. So make sure to offer items that your fans want.
Don’t assume you know. Ask them. Not only is it a great opportunity to engage with your fans, it’s a solid icebreaker topic if you’re shy about starting conversations with them.
The more you get your fans involved in the development of your merch the more eager they will be to buy it. In fact, fan-designed merch (especially t-shirts) almost invariably outsells everything else on the table.
The other thing you need to consider is who the purchaser or decision-maker is. A great example is children’s music. The kids may be the consumers, but the parents are the purchasers.
Although your shows may be filled with equal parts men and women, do the merch buyers tend to be from one group more than the other? Pay attention to that and provide merch that suits the buyers.
Set up your merch booth professionally! Here are some quick guidelines to make sure people know you mean business:
- Have an actual, packable, portable, merch table. It should be part of your regular gear and kept with your amps and guitars to that it’s with you wherever you go. Invest in a banner and tablecloth or whatever else you need to make it look nice. The investment in a professional quality merch table will pay for itself almost immediately.
- Make sure it is well lit. I like to use flexible tube lights with a spattering of blinky buttons. The merch booth should be second only to the stage in spotlight coverage.
- Position it in a spot that is visible when coming and going. As close to the smoke-break route as possible.
- Have someone stationed at the table during the show. Placing an honor-system bucket on the table while you’re on stage is not nearly as effective as having an actual person there who is motivated to sell. A cut of the profits is a great way to motivate someone. Don’t take advantage of your friend’s kindness to run your table for free. Cut them in and you’ll feel the results in our wallet. Pay your money-maker. Don’t treat them like crappy promoters treat you.
- When you’re not on stage, be at the booth. Make sure that is the area to party with the band. Not backstage. You don’t make money there. Backstage is where you get swarmed by groupies that drink your beer and distract you from the show. If you bring that party up front, some of those groupies will probably leave with t-shirts and CDs instead of (insert dirty groupie joke here).
- The merch table should be the last thing you tear down. Not only do people hate carrying stuff around all night, it’s at the end of the night that they cash out at the bar and have their credit cards in hand. PS: Accept credit cards.
- Pay attention to profit margins. Please don’t do mental math. Keep track of ALL costs (including paying you merch girl). Even if you don’t have an advanced understanding of accounting, by keeping track of all the numbers you will learn to understand and optimize your profit margins.
- Don’t over order. The money you save by purchasing 1,000 CDs does you no good while those CDs sit in your garage. You might need that money to re-up on t-shirts or flasks or get your guitar fixed. The profit from having more variety in your merch will make up for missing out on that bulk discount. Use companies that provide fulfillment-as-you-go like Kunaki for CDs. Support local business (like screen printers) whenever you can and you’ll find they will return the favor.
How do I promote my merch effectively at shows?
Now that you have a bunch of great merch and an attractive table, what can you do to get that stuff off the table and into the fans’ hands?
If you want to be a professional musician, you’ve got to get out there and do your job. As with any other business “do your job” refers to more than making music.
You are responsible for all the activities associated with turning your music into money. That’s the difference between a professional and a hobbyist.
This is why it’s crucial that instead of basking in your rockstardom with a herd of groupies or hiding in seclusion backstage, you need to be where the money is being made. The math is pretty basic: As the star of the show, people will gravitate toward you. So be where they will spend money.
What makes people want to buy? Here are some quick tips to help you move that merch:
- Rotate your merch. Having the same stuff all the time discourages repeat buying. So switching it up and offering limited edition merch will go a long way. Anyone with a business degree knows that it costs 6 times more to get a new customer than a repeat customer. Since you probably don’t have a business degree, I reckon that’s an important statistic for me to share with you;)
- Announce from the stage that you have merch AT LEAST twice per show. Here’s an idea to try: “This next song is from our new album, ‘___’! And until we finish playing it, ANY of our CDs will be available for $5! Just go talk to Jason at the Merch table!”
- Price individual items higher than you think you should so that you can offer discounted bundles. “CD’s are $15 or 2 for $20.” Yes, this can even work if you only have one CD. People still buy music as gifts. Maybe even have some pre-wrapped gift editions on display to “plant the seed” in their minds.
- Design, commission, or otherwise achieve really good album covers. Those still make a difference, but there are some new considerations. This image should look good on an MP3 player. So crazy, intricate designs don’t do well for that.
- Don’t skimp on the quality of your merch (especially t-shirts). Your merch represents your music very directly and very publicly. You should want the world to know that you provide quality products (music AND merch), not that your out to make a quick buck.
- Have a cool shirt. Unless your logo is so cool that it stands alone (Rolling Stones, Misfits) you have to spruce it up. Lyrics on t-shirts sell well (let your fans pick the lyrics). Also fan-designed shirts, as I mentioned before.
- Display your awesome shirt on the stage. Drape it over a speaker. Have hot chicks wear your shirts and sell them right off of their backs (LITTERALLY)! Get women’s t-shirts and onesies (both very neglected yet highly in-demand products).
- If someone buys a t-shirt, thank them form the stage. Point them out. “Look how cool Jerry is in his new t-shirt!” Buy him a beer. That’s a MUCH BETTER use of your drink tickets than getting wasted and falling off the stage. In fact…
- Use your drink tickets to sell merch, NOT to get drunk. Some places will even sell you additional drink tickets super cheap. You can get pretty creative with that. Or you can simply hang out at the merch booth, mingle with fans, and buy drinks for people that buy merch.
- Put a stack of CDs at the bar or cashier and make arrangements with the staff so that they can buy a CD when the pay their tab.
- Have change on hand. It really bites to lose a sale because you couldn’t break a $20.
Ultimately, it’s important to note that marketing is not sales. Marketing is all the stuff you put into presenting your products professionally, and effectively engaging with your fans so that they want to buy. This should be part of your whole thought process and routine.
If you absorb that into how you manage your business, you’ll never have to ask for the sale, which I know is the hardest part…
I was invited by Yann Ilunga to have a conversation about how applying entrepreneurial principles to your music career can carve your path to success.
You’ll love this one because there are tidbits that you can apply to your career and see results right away!
And check out The Jazz Spotlight for more great conversations with leaders of the independent music movement;)
I was in a band that got lazy.
We had a solid stable of clubs that we played regularly. We were growing and starting to make decent money.
Well, we stopped scouting new places in order to focus on building our fanbase in the clubs where we were regulars.
Not a good idea…
We were no longer relentlessly marketing. In fact, we weren’t marketing at all. We had become complacent.
By and by one bar went out of business, one quit having bands, and one now only has bands once a week.
There are a lot of dangers out there that will cost you gigs if you’re not marketing yourself relentlessly. In addition to the reasons that I mentioned, you need to realize that a DJ or Karaoke host will charge a club between $150-$300. So if you don’t pull in a crowd you can easily be replaced.
So if you are gaining momentum with your gigging don’t ever stop marketing relentlessly because it will stall or even completely derail your momentum.
Have you ever lost a gig due to an oversight? What happened? How did you recover?
“We were a band of white boys from Ohio that hitch-hiked our way to New York to try and make it big. Needless to say, by the time we arrived we were completely broke. We had nothing but the gear we hadn’t pawned yet and the clothes on our back. So when it came to finding a place to stay we were limited by the budget of what we were able to scrape together by busking in front of Yankee Stadium and ‘donating’ plasma.
Our first stroke of luck came in the form of a cab driver that was inspired by our tenacity and offered us the spare room in his townhouse in Queens. So we found ourselves the proverbial ‘fish out of water’ in a neighborhood that was racially, culturally, and financially worlds away from anything we had ever known.
Honestly, we were scared and intimidated. We really weren’t sure we were in a position to find any success in such unfamiliar territory. What we discovered was that music is a bond that builds bridges across unknown expanses. Beyond the differences separating us from the community that had taken us in, we realized that we were all blue-collared Americans looking to blow off steam after a hard day’s work.
We quickly established a reputation as the neighborhood good-time band by playing house parties and getting paid with fried chicken and cheap liquor. And from there it snowballed into steady gigs at the hottest clubs in the city and a national touring circuit that took us places we never imagined. We became more than just a band of musicians. We became cross-cultural ambassadors for sonic manipulation!”
It’s true that there are bands out there whose music is so compelling and instantly connects with such a mass audience that the story doesn’t matter. But that’s a one-in-a-million shot. You would be better off buying a lottery ticket. But then you’d have a story to tell.
The truth of the matter is that if you want to take a proactive approach to getting attention for your music you have to think about that kind of stuff. Whether you are looking for some press or simply to connect on a deeper level with your fans, your story matters.
That’s right. Not only do you have to write and record the songs, but you also have to tell an engaging story.
What stories are people looking for?
Press and fans alike want to know what makes you stand out, what makes you unique. Your awesome voice and catchy melodies simply aren’t enough to make you stand out from the rest. That’s not to say that skills don’t matter. Your musical ability is the first thing you must master on your way to becoming a professional musician. However, it is the context with which your present your music that will give you the edge when it comes to getting the gigs, fans, and attention you will need in order to sustain your career.
The good news is that the stories are already there. All you have to do is develop the narrative. Think about that throughout your creation process so that it doesn’t sneak up on you. What you will discover is that you have a way to present your music with context.
Did your crazy producer help you develop your sound by locking you in a basement full of vinyl and throwing hammers at you? Did your neighbor call the cops on you because of your noisy rehearsals, thus inspiring you to steal his girlfriend and write a song about it? Was growing up next to the airport the catalyst for your love of tube screamers? Did a spiritual journey to the homeland shape your vision of the world? The key is that you have to dig deeper than, “We showed up in New York and paid our dues.”
The stories are imbedded in your life, your music, your career, your lyrics, and your inspiration. All you have to do is apply a simple process to formalize the narrative. Then you can string a thread from all of those pieces that illustrates an overview of your entire career and creates a philosophy that resonates deeply with your fans.
Go though every song you have ever written or played and ponder the most interesting thing about each one. It could be something you are doing musically, a technique you are using, your inspiration, or an idea you are trying to articulate with the song. It could have something to do with the instrumentation, the lyrics, the arrangements, the context of the music, or the band dynamics when you recorded the song. It could be about the traditions that you are drawing from, adapting, or changing. It could be an experience from your tour or feedback from a fan. Well, I think you get the idea.
For each song, write that singular element on a post-it note and stick it on your wall. Then rearrange, expand, and rearticulate the narrative as your catalogue grows and your music matures.
That is your story: A living, breathing, evolving, aspect of the art that you have been creating the whole time.