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That’s The Way You Do It!

Marketing Lessons From a Street Musician

I don’t know for sure, but I’m willing to bet that my 14-year-old son Jonathan will never have a “real job.” Last month was a perfect example of why not.

We were up in beautiful Burlington, Vermont for a couple of days, visiting Champlain College. My wife Linda is an independent college counselor (she doesn’t have a real job either) and while she toured the campus and met with mucky mucks during the day, Jonathan, my 17-year-old daughter Emily and I explored the area.

The morning of our first day there, we strolled over to Church street, a four-block-long shopping area that’s closed to vehicular traffic. You know what I’m talking about — it’s the kind of spot where the jugglers, musicians and artists set up shop, in the hope of attracting tourists like us.

Jonathan took one look and immediately ran back to the car to get his guitar. 15 minutes later he was standing in front of a coffee shop, guitar case open, singing away. 45 minutes after that, he had $24 in his pocket and an invitation from the manager of a local restaurant to come and play on Wednesday nights.

I’m no Milton Friedman, but I’m pretty sure that works out to a minimum wage-crushing $32.00 an hour. Not bad for any kind of work; even better when you consider that he does the same thing for free every day at home (Jonathan I mean; I have no idea what Milton Friedman does).

Now let’s talk about you. And, in particular, how different Jon’s approach to working as a solo professional is from the way you and I tend to see the world. Three things stand out:

1. He didn’t wait for outside approval.

Prior to last November, Jon had never even picked up a guitar. And while he believes he can sing, it’s not because anyone in authority has ever told him so. Yet there he was, standing on the street, leaving it to “the market” to decide what he was worth.

How long do you think it would take you and me to do the same thing? How many lessons would we need? How many music degrees and/or certifications would we first acquire? How many experts would need to assure us that we were good enough to perform in public?

2. He was willing to make mistakes and learn along the way.

Actually, that’s not quite true. It never even occurred to Jon that there was any preplanning required. His guitar case kept flopping closed in the wind; his guitar was initially out of tune; we even learned the following day that playing without a permit is illegal.

Most solo professionals, by contrast, spend way too much time “setting the table.” We plan the web site, we plan the social media strategy, we plan the plan.

Nothing wrong with planning. But Jon has already figured out that nobody drops dollar bills in your case until they hear some music.

3. He knew he had nothing to lose.

About 10 minutes into Jon’s performance, I realized that I had been worrying about all the things that might go wrong. Were we too close to the keyboard player up the block? Would any of the dollar bills fly up and out of the case? Was he smiling and saying “thank you” to the people who gave him money?

But wait, my paranoia got even worse than that. When a woman came up to me, asked if I was his dad, and identified herself as a local restaurant manager (the one who ultimately invited him to play on Wednesday nights), my first thought was that she was about to complain!

This just seems to be the way adults think — we’re more worried about possible failure than we are energized by possible success.

In solo-professional-marketing-land, however — and this is really good news — the opposite of success isn’t failure … it’s anonymity.

A crappy newsletter doesn’t cause outrage, it just means people don’t notice. A convoluted explanation of what you do doesn’t result in laughter, it results in your being forgotten before you even finish talking.

But so what? If something doesn’t work, try something different — until it does. Mistakes are rarely noticed, let alone fatal.

Here’s the bottom line. I spent the first 40 years of my life learning how to follow the pack, follow the rules and mostly get in my own way. I’ve spend the last 13 learning how not to.

Granted, I’m still not as savvy as your typical 14-year-old.

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