The Big Fish Strategy

 © 2010 Vinny Ribas

We’ve all heard stories about the hometown queen/aspiring actress who moved to Hollywood to be a star, only to be lost in an endless sea of other wannabes. The reason they make this life change is because very few people can make a living as an actor or actress if they are not in the major film, TV or live theater meccas. As the saying goes, they move from being ‘a big fish in a small pond’ to being a ‘small fish in a big pond’. The same stories are told about the aspiring country singer who moves to Nashville, or the aspiring rapper who moves to LA. However, there is one big difference between the acting industry and the music industry. It IS possible to make a living, and a very good one, by carving out a niche no matter where you are. You can start out as a small fish, and purposely grow into a big fish instead of waiting to be discovered! Let me give you some examples.[private_freebie]

A really good, popular wedding and convention band can play at least 80 gigs a year. If it averages $2,500 per gig, it brings in $200,000/year. Let’s say it’s a 5-piece band and the leader makes twice what the other players make. That breaks down to approximately $66,700 for the leader, and $33,300 for the other 4 members. They are doing what they love and working 40-45 weekends a year. Now add in CD sales, singing at the wedding ceremony, doing session work during the week etc., and the result can be quite satisfactory.

Let’s make the pond a little smaller. Let’s say that you are a solo piano bar entertainer. You hone your craft to where you become really good at making tips. You land a local house gig 3 nights a week and average $250/night (including tips). That comes out to $37,500/yr. You also play for private parties and pick up an extra $1000/month. Now you’re making $49,500/yr. However, you realize that there are a lot of piano players who don’t know how to increase the amount of tips that they get, so you put a training CD and e-book together called ‘Double Your Income By Tripling Your Tips”. You sell them to piano players via a website. With a little social marketing, you wind up selling 200 per month at $20 a pop. You now bring in an extra $4000 a month, bringing your total to $97,500/yr.!

I know that neither of these scenarios is the equivalent of what a big movie star or music star would make. But it may be enough to satisfy your desire to play music and even earn enough to support yourself and your family on. It may be ideal if you don’t want to be on the road 40 weeks out of the year. These days, more and more indie artists are finding ways to carve out their own niche and making it pay off financially. Just covering a little bit bigger of a region, or creating enough of a demand for your act to increase your fees could provide a substantial income. In other words, being the big fish in a little pond may be the ideal strategy for you. If you do decide that going for broke by moving to a major music city just isn’t your style, here are some tips for making your name on a little bit smaller scale:

  • Find a niche that either a) no one has filled, or; b) you can fill substantially better than anyone else. Be sure that it is still big enough to sustain you.
  • Perfect your craft. Become the ‘expert’, and therefore, the ‘go to’ person or act.
  • Be certain that the role you specialize in is one that you enjoy, because you may be locked into it for a very long time.
  • Make it well known that you are the best, or one of the best at what you do. Do this by getting reviews, endorsements and/or written recommendations from clients. Ask your clients for referrals.
  • Capitalize on something unique or special that you do, or that someone else says about you. It doesn’t even have to be about the music itself. A good friend of mine, Amber Rubarth, got a write-up in the Boston Globe. One thing they said about her is “you will leave with a crush on her”. That’s an awesome branding quote, and she uses it on the home page of her website (, in her newsletters etc. Doesn’t it make you want to see her for yourself?
  • If you do things that are a departure from your primary niche, consider doing them under a different name. I have been in bands that played under several different names depending on the kind of music our buyers wanted.
  • Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Diversify your incomes as many ways as possible. That way, if one income stream dries up, you’re not going to tank financially.
  • If possible, invest some of your income into non-music related opportunities, such as real estate. Of course, educate yourself thoroughly about any form of investment you consider.
  • Plan for retirement. Musicians are notorious for believing that they will just play music until they die and therefore always have an income. Unfortunately, sometimes life gets in the way. For example, you may have health challenges, or the venues that want your kind of music may dry up.
  • Always have a ‘Plan B’ – Know what you’ll do if your primary pursuit doesn’t pan out.
  • Manage your money carefully, putting some aside for the slower season(s).
  • Have back-ups to act as placeholders for you in case you get sick or can’t perform for a short time. In other words, if you’re a guitar player, make an effort to have other comparable players that you could call on in an emergency. It will help protect your position in the long run.
  • Don’t skimp on your marketing. Do whatever it takes to get the word out about what you specialize in. Refer to yourself as a specialist or the best in your niche, without making it sound like all hype. Give valid reasons why you’re the best.
  • Network both on and off the Internet to help you create a buzz. Online, find the social networks that your customers are using and establish your presence there. Also find the live networking events that they attend, such as Chamber of Commerce meetings. Join a civic club like Rotary or Kiwanis. Don’t just sit around waiting for the phone to ring.
  • Be proactive in building and cultivating relationships. This will ensure that you have return engagements.

 When you break it down, carving out a small niche follows the same path as any other business. Have a great product or service to offer, build strong relationships with your current and potential customers, market yourself widely and wisely, diversify your streams of income and protect your assets. Following this course of action will go a long way towards ensuring success and longevity in the business.


About The Author

Vinny Ribas

Vinny Ribas is the founder and CEO of Indie Connect, an artist management, consulting and training company. The company also hosts networking and educational events and has published an app that connects people to the Nashville Music Industry. During his 40+ year career, Vinny has been a full time musician, artist manager, booking agent, songwriter, studio owner, producer and the Entertainment Director for the NV State Fair. He has also coached over 1000 artists and songwriters. He is a sought after speaker and has authored over 400 music industry articles. Vinny is also the CEO of Top 4M Entertainment, an independent film and television production company.