Making a living as a musician touring the college circuit

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Touring the college circuitWhat’s Working in Indie Music Today: Lessons in Success from New Artist Model Member Mike Sullivan

By Dave Kusek and Lindsay McGrath. Sponsored by the New Artist Model: Turn your passion for music into a rewarding career.

One of the best ways to get new strategies and ideas for your music career is to look at what other musicians are doing. So I’m going to be bringing you a series of case studies from really talented and successful musicians who are all pushing the envelope in the world of indie music. You can read the full article on New Artist Model.

Musician Mike Sullivan makes his living touring colleges.  The Los Angeles based independent singer songwriter has made the grade on the college circuit playing more than 250 gigs over the past 10 years.

Mike loves playing schools.  He likes the kids, the travel and the fact that some of his favorite musicians like John Mayer, Dave Matthews, Sting and Prince got their start traveling the same road.  But he is also working to help his career graduate to “the next level” so he can share his work with current fans while winning new ones.

Mike is off to a good start with some impressive licensing deals.  Hello Toothpaste uses his music in its national television commercial, and Virgin Airlines now includes him on its inflight playlist.  Mike’s music is featured in the “promotional toolkit” for the Dreamworks movie Kung Fu Panda III.  In addition, one of his songs was featured on the CBS daytime series “The Young and the Restless.”

While Mike secured the Virgin deal himself, the other placements were made through “music libraries” in Los Angeles including Music Dealers and Crucial Music.  These companies market independent music to film producers, advertising firms and other businesses that need songs and soundtracks for a fee.

“It’s time for me to take things to the next level,” says Mike. “I really want to get a good manager, booking agent, sponsor and label,” Mike says, adding he currently handles all his own booking, social media and marketing. “I am up at 6 am every day calling and emailing.”

“That’s why I signed up for the New Artist Model. There is a ton of value in the program, he adds.  “I’ve already learned about new ways to support my music with crowdfunding on Patreon. I am also finding out about sponsors. I didn’t know companies like Red Bull, Mountain Dew and Converse have their own record labels. I have a hunch something extraordinary will come along because of all I’m learning from Dave.”

Mike Sullivan started doing college gigs after a record deal fell through. He had never played a college before.

“I was so naive. I didn’t even know that colleges paid bands,” he says, adding a Chicago Tribune newspaper article opened his eyes to the college market for music.  “When I was in school I went to lots of great concerts and figured that the bands made their money off merch.”

Mike got in touch with the National Association for Campus Activities (http://www.naca.org) and the Association for Promotion of Campus Activities (http://www.apca.com), two agencies that hold “showcases” around the country where college activities directors and students check out talent to book at their schools. The agencies showcase many different kinds of acts in addition to musicians.

After submitting a demo, Mike earned a 15 minute set at a national APCA showcase. He nailed that first appearance and got another 25 gigs right away. He looked for a good agent to help him get more but ultimately decided to book dates himself.

“One agent told me she had 30 or 40 colleges interested and would set up a tour but didn’t follow up,” he said. “Fortunately, schools started calling me directly and I booked the gigs myself. It was a huge lesson.”

“You can make a great living playing colleges. You know every year my price has gone up,” Mike says. When he started out in 2005, he charged $1300 for a gig. Today, he gets $2500.

“It’s a paradox,” Mike says, “but smaller schools sometimes pay more than big ones because it is harder for them to attract acts. A lot of community colleges feel neglected and they have budgets to spend,” Mike says.

When an artist works with NACA or APCA, they can take advantage of their “co-op” system when booking or “routing” their tours. This system allows individual schools to work together and get a discount when they book an artist around the same time — and it gives artists the chance to make good money.

“The more gigs you put together in a row, the less you charge and the more school saves. Everybody wins,” Mike says. “When it works it’s awesome. Getting three or five gigs in a row is when you can really make a fantastic profit.”

Mike books 20 to 35 college gigs a year for audiences of 50 to 200 people.  His sets run from one to two hours. He’s played intimate coffee house settings, in theaters and even in a hallway.  “It can be all over the place — a regular concert or a huge party. One time there was a clown blowing up balloons right beside me while I played.”

Some of the schools he has played include Hawaii Pacific University, Odessa College, Indiana University, Purdue University, Green Mountain College, Shenandoah University, Embry-Riddle University, Lipscomb University, Spokane Falls Community College, and many more.

Flexibility is key when it comes to getting asked back to play at schools, Mike says. “Colleges have good and bad budget years just like any other organization, so be open to being the act the school needs. If you usually bring a band but money is tight, offer to do a solo or duo performance instead. You’ll keep your connection to the school alive and generate lots of goodwill.”

You can read Mike’s full story on New Artist Model.

For more information on Mike Sullivan visit his website at: http://mikesullivanmusic.com

New Artist Model is an online music business school developed by Dave Kusek, founder of Berklee Online. The online school is a platform for learning practical strategies and techniques for making a living in music. Learn how to carve a unique path for your own career with strategies that are working for indie artists around the world. Learn to think like an entrepreneur, create your own plan and live the life in music you want to live. New Artist Model provides practical college-level music business training at a mere fraction of the cost of a college degree. Programs start at just $29/mo. For more information visit http://newartistmodel.com

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