What Is a Brand and Is Yours a Good One—A “Jack of Nothing,” How Diversified Should You Be?

Posted on August 7, 2011 at 10:01 am by
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This is always a difficult question to answer and it varies from person to person.  It stands to reason that if you do one thing and take it to the max, your chances of being superior to the person who does two or more things is enhanced. With a few exceptions most musicians who are at the absolute top of their field do essentially one thing really, really, really well.  Miles Davis didn’t have to know anything about the C trumpet or playing the Petrouchka excerpt.  Itzhak Perlman doesn’t have to know the chord progression of the Blues and Lang Lang doesn’t have to play ragtime (though his handlers might have him do that someday). Nevertheless, certain musicians have been able to excel in several diverse areas of music (read: Legos).  Leonard Bernstein and Andre Previn immediately come to mind. Wynton Marsalis is arguably another in this elite group.

Breadth and depth are essential.  Take one thing to as high a level as you can as you continue to expand your knowledge and expertise in related areas.  But if you stray too far from the core of your brand, believability suffers.  Going back to Lang Lang, it could well be that he could become a good ragtime pianist.  The music is written out.  He has the technique.  He would have to capture the style.  That is believable, but Lang Lang as a first-class improvising jazz pianist, playing with Joe Lovano isn’t.  Jazz improvisation is simply too far afield from the Lang Lang brand.

So–this ends our mini-series on brands. The lessons learned herte should be to maintain the core of your brand, and keep it at a high level.  It is easy to become a “Jack of Nothing,” when you stretch too far to master it all.  But that won’t happen if you always maintain quality, grow slowly, diversify, hire the best to teach you what you don’t know, be flexible and know your competition.  We’ll talk about these in other blogs.


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What Is a Brand and Is Yours a Good One—Key Measures of Success

Posted on July 27, 2011 at 9:57 am by
in Being a Professional, Musicans as Brands
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The ultimate measures of success are trial and repeat, and the buyer is the final judge. If a manufacturer of just about anything, from dishwashing detergent to automobiles, gets you to try their product, and you are satisfied and return to purchase again, that is success.  Using a music example, let’s say you get a last minute call to sub on a woodwind quintet educational concert in a high school.  That’s your trial.  If it goes well you are a hero, even if your playing isn’t absolutely flawless.  In a last minute situation the other players’ expectations are reduced, and they will cut you some slack.  They’ll be happy to get through the gig without any major train wrecks!  But even if you do a great job and impress the other four musicians they might not immediately call you back.  There just might not be another opportunity for a while.   That quintet already has a permanent member, and as long as he or she continues to do good work, it will remain his or her position.  However, the chances are very good that they will recommend you to other groups, or at least relay the story of how you saved the day.


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What Is a Brand and Is Yours a Good One—Brand Image Associations

Posted on July 16, 2011 at 9:50 am by
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It’s important to understand image.  Your brand exudes a certain image and is made up of the following:

Tangibles & Intangibles[i]

Tangible—Can you play accurately?  Do you show up on time?  Are you a good sight-reader?

Intangible—Do you have a beautiful sound?  Are you musical?  Do you make the notes come alive?  Do you add something extra with your presence in the group?

Tangible attributes are vulnerable to competition

The tangibles can be competed away.  Someone will always play faster, higher and louder, but the intangibles are less vulnerable.  If you have an incredibly beautiful, personal sound it is difficult to duplicate.  Think of all the top musicians who play your instrument.  You can usually identify them upon hearing just a few notes.  It’s the intangibles—their sound, phrasing, musical idiosyncrasies, the style of music they play and so on that sets them apart.

Points of Parity and Points of Difference[ii]

Points of Parity—These are the “must haves” just to be considered at all. They are sometimes called table stakes. Every musician competing for a certain job must have them just to get in the game.  For example, if you want to be an orchestra horn player, it is a given that you will be absolutely fluent with transposition.

Points of Difference—These are the things that raise you above the others.  Staying with the horn example, if you have a fantastic, never-miss high register and the endurance to go with it, the number of competitors is reduced.  You are elevated above the pack.

Know Your Image

This one is important.  Your image lives within the minds of the market, and not within your wishful thinking. You can try to put forth the image that you want, but your audience (again—co-workers, contractors, conductors, producers, etc.) actually creates that image.

Image, Identity and Positioning—What’s the Difference? Image is the impression that the market holds of you.  Identity is the impression you want to give the market.  Positioning relates to the elements of Identity that you present to various target audiences.[iii] For example, if you are a composer as well as a fine instrumentalist, you might present only your composer side when entering a composition contest.  But, when playing a recital you might program one of your own pieces.  The important thing is to know your image.  What do people associate with you?  Is it good?  Are you comfortable with it?

[i] Kevin Lane Keller, Strategic Brand Management (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998), p. 5.

[ii] Keller, Strategic Brand Management, p. 357.

[iii] Aaker and Joachimsthaler, Brand Leadership, p. 40-41.


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What Is a Brand and Is Yours a Good One—It’s All about Connection

Posted on July 6, 2011 at 9:43 am by
in Being a Professional, Musicans as Brands
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Here is the third installment in this series of blogs that discuss the musician as a brand.  If you are new you can catch up quickly by reading the two previous posts.

You’ve probably heard the cliché, “To get ahead it’s not how you play, but who you know.”  Certainly having connections or a network of friends and acquaintances can help your career, but that’s for another blog.  What we will discuss here, for a moment, is the manner in which you connect, or bond, with your audience—the public, other musicians, contractors, conductors, producers, agents, etc., etc.  In the end your success will depend upon how well you and your brand bond with your audience, which can be on different levels.[i] It could be that you connect:

Cognitively—They are aware of you and are familiar with your abilities.  Do they consider you all the time?  Are you the only one they consider? Are you one of many, one of a few or not on their radar screen at all?

Behaviorally—They may consider many, but they always come back to you.

Emotionally—They like you.  They’ve hired you for years.  You are friends.  Or, they don’t like you.  They had a run-in with you years ago and have never forgotten it.

Fit—Do your abilities and personality fit the need of the occasion perfectly, somewhat, or not at all?   Are you well versed in the style of music required?  Do you have a good attitude about playing it?

In the next post we’ll discuss image.


FN: [i] Marianne Foley,  In-Market Validation of  Connections-Based Research, Harris Interactive, Inc. (executive brief) 2007.


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What Is a Brand and Is Yours a Good One—What Is Your Brand?

Posted on June 26, 2011 at 8:07 am by
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What Is a Brand and Is Yours a Good One—What Is Your Brand?

The last blog gave a few definitions to work with. Now think about your brand. And it isn’t just about your playing, but we can start with that. What do people think of when they think of you? Make a list and write it down. Here’s an example of a hypothetical musician.

Good player, great sound, terrific technique, OK sight-reader, inexperienced in orchestra and show work, a little unreliable, no car (you have to give him a ride), can be argumentative. Does this list describe a person you would hire to play a show? Maybe not. His brand has too many negatives, or liabilities. But in reality some of the listed negatives could be based on isolated incidences. The person who views this player as unreliable and argumentative could be basing that on hearsay or on just one observed occurrence.

Musicians who wear several different hats (read: Legos) may be able to extend their brands to adapt to various situations. For example, a person who is a fine composer could also be a great instrumentalist and make violin bows as well. It’s possible that some may be familiar with this person only as a composer and have no idea of these other talents.

I hope that it is clear here that the type of good brand building I am talking about is based on good deeds and good playing, both of which occur in an organic sort of way. I’m not talking about a brand that is artificially created by an agency for a movie star, pop-music artist or boy band. I’m talking about the reputation that everyday musicians build over time, as they go about their daily work.

As previously stated, a strong brand is identified with a message or image that is meaningful to the consumer, stands apart from other brands and that the consumer feels good about using. Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marsalis, Renée Fleming, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Bono are all strong well-known brands. These are the brands of music mega-stars. But, there are also strong brands that are known only by the musicians in a particular subset of the music world. Think of orchestral trombonists, flutists, concertmasters, jazz saxophonists or bassists. Within each small music business subset there are those who stand out above the rest. The musicians in that field know their names. This is true of every community of local musicians, for example in your town or school.

Your brand is built over time and is determined not only by how well you play, but also on how you handle yourself. Recitals, performances and publications all contribute (read: Legos), but even non-musical things play a part in your brand, as well. For example, the people with whom you associate, your appearance, as well as your personality all add to or detract from your brand. It takes a considerable amount of time to build a good brand, but it can be tarnished very quickly with sub-par performance or actions. It only takes one example of sloppy technique to create doubt in the minds of others regarding your expertise. There is probably truth in the old saying, “You are only as good as your last gig.”

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What Is a Brand and Is Yours a Good One—Some Definitions

Posted on June 16, 2011 at 8:15 am by
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The next several “lessons” will center around the professional musician as a business—a store—where clients can get musical expertise. If you buy into the idea that musicians are small businesses, you can take it a step further. Companies spend a good deal of time and money thinking about, developing and protecting their brands, and there are business professionals who think about this on a daily basis. What follows will be six, or so, blogs discussing musicians and brands.

What Is a Brand and Is Yours a Good One—Some Definitions

What is the first thing you think of when the company Coca-Cola is mentioned—how about Apple or Mercedes? These are all strong brands that have distinct images associated with them. As a musician you also have a brand. You, Inc. means something to those who want to hire you. Let’s think about that in business terms for a minute. Put on your business hat again. Here come some definitions.

“A brand is a trademark or distinctive name identifying a product or a manufacturer.”1  And brand equity is a set of assets and liabilities linked to a brand (name and/or symbol) that add to or subtract from the value provided by a product or service to a firm and/or to that firm’s customers. 2  Whew! Even I have to read that last sentence twice! As musicians we don’t often think in these terms, but whether intentional or not musicians develop their brands too. Some would call it your reputation or image. Picture a musician like Yo-Yo Ma. What do you think of when you hear his name? It could be—he’s at the top of his field, artistic musician, wholesome, diversity, multi-cultural, wide-range of music, personable, good guy, etc. How about Wynton Marsalis? It could be—cultural roots, has respect for the history of jazz music and its preservation, great classical as well as jazz musician, Lincoln Center Jazz, Juilliard, etc. (read: diverse Legos). If Miles Davis is thought of in the same manner it could be—innovative, legendary, cool, hip, bad boy, eccentric, etc.

In business a strong brand is identified with a message or image that is meaningful to the consumer. It stands apart from other brands and the consumer feels good about using it. Marsalis, Ma and Davis are all strong brands. It could be argued that there are other musicians who are equally talented and artistic, but the brand of these three musicians sets them apart from the pack. Some might perceive Davis’s brand as having some negative descriptors, but remember what is perceived as negative to some can be positive to others (or reason to go to a concert to see and hear what this person is about).

When people consider going to a Marsalis or Ma concert or purchasing one of their recordings, they base much of their decision on past experiences with these artists. For example, they saw Wynton on television. They liked what they saw and heard, and therefore decided to check him out in a live concert. This potential concert-goer was linking back to past experience in an effort to predict future outcomes. “I like his recordings. I’ll like him at a concert. We’ll have a good time. Let’s buy a ticket.”

We will talk about your brand in the next blog post.

FN: 1 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000

2. David A. Aaker and Erich Joachimsthaler, Brand Leadership (New York: The Free Press, 2000), p. 17.

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Rethinking Music: A Solutions Focused Conference

Posted on April 26, 2011 at 7:31 am by
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An interesting conference for musicians will take place on April 26-27, 2011.  The presenters call it, “Rethink Music: Creativity, Commerce, and Policy in the 21st Century.” It’s billed as a “solutions-focused conference,” and the presenters are the Berklee College of Music and MIDEM in association with the Harvard Business School.  Get more information here.

Allen Bargfrede is the Executive Director of Berklee College of Music’s Rethink Music Initiative, and in a guest blog in Billboard he sets the stage for what to expect at the conference. The issue of copyright and the changing manner in which music is delivered should concern all musicians. It’s not just a commercial or pop music problem. Certainly the creator of a song or a symphony that is pirated is most impacted, but there is a trickle down effect that impinges on all musicians in direct or indirect ways.

Below is Professor Bargfrede’s take on the current situation or read it here in Billboard.

Rethinking Music

Few people would argue with music’s impact on our lives, so it should be of tremendous concern to everyone that the recorded music industry continues to be in trouble. Global sales of recorded music fell another nine percent last year, according to the IFPI (International Federation of the Recording Industry). Various estimates put the drop in annual sales over the last decade at somewhere between 60 and 70 percent, and IFPI estimates that 19 of every 20 tracks downloaded is pirated.

Fewer new artists are breaking through, too. Sales by debut artists in the global top 50 album chart in 2010 were just one quarter of the level they achieved in 2003. Those that do succeed are frequently lamented for a perceived lack of talent. Given all this, how can a young performer hope to live his or her life through making music? At Berklee, this is a specific concern to us, as we want our graduates to not only survive, but also thrive in life as musicians.

These trends clearly indicate that the music industry needs to adapt to a very changed world. New music business models are dependent on several things. First, there must be a ready adoption by consumers of new methods of music consumption. While digital sales continue to grow, some business models, such as unlimited music access on-demand for a flat fee, continue to languish. Among new business models, Pandora is a bright spot; around since 2005, the company has spent the past few years dealing with losses, licensing hassles, and technical challenges integrating into different devices, but recently filed for an IPO. The company now has a user base of 80 million people and “adds a new user every second,” according to SEC filings. Despite continuing losses, investors seem ready to rally as rumors swirl that the offering will be oversubscribed.

There also must be willingness by rights owners to venture into unknown, yet promising, waters. Radiohead has experimented with distribution, most recently announcing on a Tuesday that their new album would be available the following Saturday, rather than waiting for a Tuesday release date weeks in the future. This offset piracy of advance tracks by those who didn’t want to wait to acquire them through legitimate means. However, criticism of many rights owners for failure to embrace new technologies is valid despite the fact that there are a number of different legally licensed distribution mechanisms.  They must go further, competing with “free” and adopting even more creative approaches to licensing and rights exploitation, while working hand-in-hand with distributors to ensure listeners have the ability to experience music via all technologies.

Finally, there must be a movement to update copyright law. The Internet has brought with it an unprecedented capacity for the distribution of content on an instantaneous basis. Copyrighted material is now the largest export of the United States. In order to sufficiently protect our creative works, any changes to copyright must be technology-neutral, global in nature, and place some responsibility on those who control the gateway to access (Internet service providers) for the content that flows through their pipes, without impacting net neutrality. Licensing must be also become an easier process. While Pan-European licensing and the proposed Global Registry Database (which will provide a long awaited database of rights owners) are steps in the right direction, Pan-European licensing still seems an experiment rather than a reality, and in its currently designed form, the GRD doesn’t go far enough.  It should offer the ability to actually license those works.

I firmly believe in music’s ability to impact our lives, and I believe that it is impossible for us to remain silent at this critical juncture in music’s history. Whether a song is provided as a product or a service, people will always want to listen. We must find a way to give them what they want. We must rethink music.

(Allen Bargfrede is the Executive Director of Berklee College of Music’s Rethink Music Initiative and Assistant Professor of Music Business. He can be reached at abargfrede@berklee.edu.)


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Tax Time–1099s and W2s

Posted on March 29, 2011 at 7:46 am by
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Let’s assume that anyone reading this knows that the sum total of all the money an individual earns is called the gross. It is reported by your employer to the Federal Government in the form of a wage and tax statement called a W-2, and a copy is sent to you each January for the previous year’s work. It shows wages earned and taxes taken out by your employer. In contrast, for self-employed income you receive a 1099 MISC form, but if you are a private music teacher, for example, you will receive no for and consequently you must keep track of your total income yourself. The person or entity who hires you as an independent contractor is required by law to send the 1099-MISC if he paid you $600 or more in the calendar year. Since you are not on his regular payroll, no taxes will be taken out, but nonetheless you will be responsible for them at tax time. It is a misconception that if you do not receive a 1099 and make less than $600 you don’t have to report it. As a U.S. citizen, income from all sources is taxable regardless of the amount and where it is earned in the world. Here’s a case in point.

A former student of mine took a cruise ship job right out of college. He worked on the ship the better part of a year. For some reason he didn’t receive a 1099 from the employer, but the income was reported to the Internal Revenue Service. (My guess is that the cruise ship line had an old address for this person and though it was mailed, the form never got to him.) Anyway—my student thought there would be no tax due, since he was “at sea.” Guess again, Sinbad. The IRS caught up to him and hit him for the tax due on his earnings plus interest and penalties! The amount was substantial and he had to make arrangements with the IRS to pay it back over time. In truth, he was lucky not to have been slapped with a fraud charge.

So, we all have our income reported to the IRS via W-2 and 1099 forms, with copies sent to us. Looking at the W-2 you will see in box 5, “Medicare wages and tips.” The number found there is the gross—the total amount you made from that employer. If you contributed to a retirement account such as a 401K or 403b, that amount will be deducted from your gross (box 5) and the remainder will be shown in box 1(wages, tips and other compensation). There are many benefits to reducing your gross income by contributing to a retirement account, because you get to pay less taxes and the money in the account grows tax-free. (But that’s a subject for another blog.)

In order for you to pay less tax (your goal) you must get your total income down to a lower level. Claiming deductions does this. Some deductions, such as moving expenses, student loan interest, certain retirement plans, etc., directly reduce total income. These deductions are called “adjustments” and after subtracting them from total income, the result is Adjusted Gross Income. Other deductions, like contributions to charities, mortgage interest, loss from fire or theft and medical expenses in excess of 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income are available to all tax filers, and are called Itemized Deductions. While all taxpayers may deduct non-reimbursed employee business expenses, musicians tend to have more expenses, many of which are unique to them. Here are a few:

• Office in home

• Supplies—items such as drumsticks, reeds, strings, cables and office supplies

• Concert tickets

• Recording costs

• Accounting fees

• Lawyer fees (only business related or to produce income)

• Music books and CDs

• Subscriptions to trade magazines

• Internet access and email (subtract any personal use)

• Telephone—have a separate business line (Your primary phone line is not deductible, but features may be, like call waiting, messaging, etc.)

• Lessons and coachings

• Education expenses—things that will further your career

• Advertising

• Website

• Instrument repair


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Tax Time–Musical Instruments and Depreciation

Posted on March 24, 2011 at 7:06 am by
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Musical Instruments

When a musician buys an instrument or equipment that has a useful life of longer than one year, he or she can depreciate it over the tax life of the item—usually seven years. This has the effect of spreading out the deduction over time. An alternate course would be to expense the purchase (deduct the price paid) of the instrument in one year using Section 179 of the IRS tax code. This provides an immediate and one-time write off of the item. Whether to expense the instrument or to depreciate it is a question for your tax advisor, since there are conditions that must be met for both. For example, the Section 179 expense cannot be greater than total earned income.

If you sell something for more than you paid for it, you have a capital gain, on which the IRS requires us to pay tax. The good news is that, at least for now, the capital gain tax is generally less than the taxes we pay on our income. But, let’s say we bought a saxophone for $5,000, and over seven years we depreciate it down to zero. We decide to sell the instrument and we find that these instruments are in greater demand now than when they were new! They have actually appreciated, rather than depreciated! We are pleasantly surprised to find we can sell the sax for $7,000, which we quickly do. But as we walk away, counting our $2,000 profit, a thought stops us cold. We don’t just have a $2,000 capital gain on which to pay taxes. We have to add, into ordinary income, the total depreciated amount—$5,000. That results in a capital gain of $2,000, plus ordinary income (taxed at a higher rate) of $5,000. What’s more, even if the instrument did not appreciate and we sold it for $2,000, we would have ordinary income of $2,000, since we depreciated it down to zero.

Here’s another example of instrument appreciation. If you have old string instruments beware! In William T. Hunt’s excellent article on Polyphonic.org he writes:

In the past, the IRS has taken the position that old string instruments are antiques that appreciate in value and therefore are not depreciable. There have been several court cases involving this issue. The most recent rulings have maintained that antique instruments used in a trade or business are subject to the same wear and tear as any other property used in a trade or business, and therefore are deductible. Based on these court cases it appears, at least for the present, that all musical instruments, including old string instruments, are deductible as long as they are actually used in a trade or business (i.e., having the instrument in a display case or hanging on a wall would not satisfy this requirement). However, the IRS disagrees with these decisions and may still disallow the deduction outside of the judicial circuits where the cases were decided.

This discussion of depreciation has been from 40,000 feet. When you get down to street level there is much more to learn and absorb. For example, there are several methods of calculating depreciation. In my opinion, that is why you seek the advice of a tax professional.

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Tax Time–Musician’s Office in Home

Posted on March 15, 2011 at 10:47 am by
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Office in Home
In our homes or apartments, musicians all have a room in which they practice or teach, but for that room to be considered a home office and deducted on our taxes, it must meet certain requirements established by the IRS. For example, that part of your home must be used regularly and exclusively:
• as your principal place of business for any trade or business; and
• as a place to meet or deal with your patients, clients or customers in the normal course of your trade or business; and
• in the case of an employee, the home office must be for the convenience of the employer.

If the room is used for any other purpose like watching television, playing pool or entertaining, it will be disallowed. The space must be used for business purposes only. For the musician who has a space that is regularly and exclusively used for teaching there is little question. It qualifies as a home office. But for a performing musician who uses the
space as a practice room there has been some back and forth—yes, no, yes. At the present time musician’s practice rooms do qualify as home offices. Again on polyphonic.org William T. Hunt writes an informative article detailing the back and forth history that musicians will find very relevant.

A home office can be very benefi cial to the musician. Calculate the square footage of the office then divide it by the total square footage of the home or apartment. That will give you the percentage of the home that is used for business. Let’s say that 10 percent of your home is used as a home office. You can then write off 10 percent of your home expenses to your business. Things like:

• Mortgage interest
• Property taxes
• Casualty or theft losses
• Homeowners insurance
• Rent payments
• Repairs and maintenance
• Utilities

If you make a capital improvement to the offi ce by painting it or putting down a new carpet, those expenses can be fully deducted. Home offices are a good thing. Tax audits are a bad thing! Keep impeccable records and make sure your particular room qualifies as a home office. There are other subtleties beyond what we have discussed here, so consulting a tax professional is advised.

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