Work Your Schtick

  • 01/18/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC

Shtick is a funny word. It’s your gig, your hook, the thing you do that makes you who you are. It’s also the thing that’s going to get your career as a musician off the ground.

Think of Shtick as a shop door that’s already half open. It’s so much easier to see what’s inside and then decide if you’re going to walk in or not. If the store’s door is closed and it has no windows, it’s pretty hard to get excited about going in to browse.

Meet Mae Robertson, a charismatic singer/songwriter with great style and a sharp business mind to match. For years, she’s run a children’s clothing shop. One day, her musical partner suggested that she make a recording of lullabies to sell in the store. Mae had always sung lullabies to her children, but when the CD hit the counter, it became more than a fun project – it became a career springboard.

The CD started selling immediately, and was even noticed by the American Library Association, who designated it a “notable recording for children.” Lullabies became Mae’s marketing niche, her Shtick. She’s sold tens of thousands of copies, and they’re still selling. The next step was logical: another lullaby CD. Then another one. Then she made a Christmas CD. All marketed specifically to an audience of mothers that don’t necessarily buy CDs for themselves, but they buy CDs for their children. Especially after Mae re-did her artwork to include cute sleeping babies on the covers.

After all that, Mae finally had the money to make the CD she really wanted to make. “A real CD - of original music,” she said. “And I finally got to have a Hammond organ,” she beamed. “But I couldn’t really sell that CD. There was no niche market for it”

Mae’s lullaby Shtick became like an open shop door with inviting window dressing – very approachable. And a CD of lullabies is easy to buy as a gift. Now Mae’s hired an agent who’s taking the CD to gift fairs. One can easily guess what’s going to happen to her sales figures.

Then Mae told me about Pete Huttlinger. Pete is a singer-songwriter who’s also a fly fisherman. He’d go to rivers to fish, then he’d sit on the bank and write songs. Where’d Pete sell his CDs? At fly fishing conventions. He put fishing lures on the cover of his first CD, titled “Catch and Release.” Pete entered a world where he was a proverbial big fish in a small pond – one of very few songwriters marketing directly to fisherman. It paid off. Suddenly, an audience that normally doesn’t buy music did. Pete had built himself a market. Have a look at Pete’s website to see how he’s built his career since.

“The closer you are to just a singer-songwriter,” Mae said, “the harder it’s going to be.”

She’s right. What makes you unique, and how can you capitalize on who you are in order to be noticed? What makes your favorite songwriters stand out? What do they have to teach you about Shtick? If nothing makes you stand out from the crowd, odds are good that you’re going to remain part of the crowd for a long time. If you’d like to be a successful musician, working your Shtick is inevitable.

Grab a pen, and let’s start now. Write down ten words that describe who you are. They could be as complex as “neurotic” or “pessimistic,” or as simple as “funny” or “nerdy.” Don’t laugh – the nerdy Shtick has made millions for Moby. Find the words that really describe you. Ten of ‘em. Keep digging until you find ten, or more.

Next, think of your ten favorite performers and figure out why you like them. Can you boil it down to a few specific things? You might like Josh Groban for his voice, or Jack Johnson for his mellow laid back style. You might like Ani DiFranco for her passionate independence or Christine Lavin for her honesty and humor.

Now compare your lists – what on your first list looks like it could go on the second? If you’re funny, maybe that’s the thing you want to be – like Jack Black. Maybe you’re a percussive open tuning partial capo player like Willy Porter. Maybe you’re a poet like Jewel or a storyteller like Dave Carter. Something makes you different, and that’s probably the side of you that you want to show most often.

And hey – if you play another instrument that’s not a guitar or a piano, do that, too. Work it – then email me with your success stories. I’d love to hear how it’s going.