The Long Haul: Chris Smither

The concert business likes hot, new acts that everyone hopes will eventually fill arenas. And, when those acts stop making money, we look for other ones. But the backbone of the concert business is the working-class heroes – the ones that tour every year without radio or tour support or a big feature in Blender. These acts may not be as sexy but they’re the foundation of the business. For the next few weeks Pollstar will hear from the artists who have sustained touring careers and don’t give a rip about the future of the recording industry or amphitheatres or ticket prices. We figured folk/blues singer, guitarist and songwriter Chris Smither, who averages around 200 tickets per show, was a great place to start:

I go and teach at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp in Ohio every year and I talk to a lot of younger types who want to know how to make it in this business. One of the first pieces of advice I give is, "Never learn how to do anything else." If you don’t know how to do anything else, this is what you’ll have to do.

The other point that I try to make is you don’t have to be a household name. People come up to me all the time and say they’re surprised they’ve never heard of me. I look at them and say, "There are tens of millions of people who’ve never heard of me." You don’t need to have those many people to make a living – a really good living. I’ve got two cars in the garage and I’ve put the kids through school. You just have to be willing to forgo having your face on the cover of whatever magazine you care to name. It all comes full circle when somebody like you, from Pollstar, will call me up and say, "What do you think about all of this?" Well, it blows my mind that I’m known enough for that to happen! In terms of my 40-year career, it’s a recent phenomenon.

I made my first record when I was 25 and I was dying to sign to a label. I did three albums, two of which were released and then I got dropped. At the time, it was the end of the world; I didn’t realize what a favor had been done to me. The kind of contracts the majors offer to people are the kind of contracts that only a kid would sign. If you’re in it for the long haul, you gotta be prepared for your audience to get old along with you. I’m 62 now and my audience is still growing, but the demographic runs from about 40 to 10 years older than I am. You have to keep that in mind. You have to play to your own demographic. People think it’s a young person’s business, but it doesn’t have to be.

The publicly visible aspect of this business isn’t geared to artists like me at all. It’s just silly how irrelevant I am to a record company that depends on having the occasional five- to 10-million seller. And there are booking agencies that can’t afford to carry an act that doesn’t sell at least 200,000 records. My economic scale is beyond their comprehension. And I understand that – that’s the way they’re built. On the other hand, those agents might have a hard time believing just how well people like me can do. They say, "How much money does this guy make?" Well, he makes a lot. He makes a lot of money but he just doesn’t do it the way you think he does. When people say, "What about the good ol’ days?" I say, "These are the good ol’ days!" I’ve never done so well in my life.

Once you get past those obvious economic indicators about what produces longevity, there are personal things and business things that play into it. The personal things are just staying healthy, and that’s hard – because when you’re young, half of the reason why you got into this business was to party.

When you figure everything out, it ceases to be a boom-or-bust business. There’s a steady climb. What you want to see is steady growth. It doesn’t matter if there’s a sharp uptick or not, as long as you’re staying relevant. There has to be a perception among your fanbase that you’re still interested, that you’re still willing to grow and to work.

I’ve got a couple of instructional DVDs now and I didn’t make them to make money. I made them because people asked me to. Well, it’s turned into a tidy little moneymaker. It’s not gonna buy you a new house or anything but it’s a welcome addition to the income.

Ask, "Does this make sense with who I am and what I’m trying to do?" It’s a tough question when you’re young because your image of success is so limited that it’s hard to imagine how well you can do just being yourself.