essay, /eˈsā/ n.
an attempt or effort.



Presented at the 2016 annual conference of the Southeast Region Folk Alliance (SERFA)

– Every year, I get to spend half a million dollars of somebody else’s money hiring musicians. My presenter’s background: Director, The Swannanoa Gathering (33 yrs.); Promoter, the Celtic Series Of Mainstage Concerts at the Diana Wortham Theatre in Asheville (25 yrs.); Host of A Natural Bridge folk program on local Public Radio (12 yrs.)

– My performer’s background: coffee shops in college, Hot Shandy (7 yrs.), the Magills (30+ yrs.); seasonal gigs at the Biltmore Estate (25+ yrs.)

Tips in no particular order – except for number 1.

1. On the road, two things you should never neglect to spend money on – your health and your vehicle’s health. If you’re sick, you can’t do the gig. If your vehicle’s sick, you can’t get to the gig. Either way, you lose money and reputation: the presenter with a room full of people doesn’t know or care why you didn’t show, just that you didn’t, and he will remember it.

2. By all means use contracts, but remember that contracts really don’t mean anything other than intent. For the kind of dollars most of us work for and the cost of attorneys fees, a broken contract isn’t worth challenging – unless, of course, principle is worth more to you than dollars.

3. Some money costs too much. No matter how broke you are and how tempting the gig is, don’t accept it if it locks you into a bad precedent regarding your fee or the performance accommodations you’re willing to make, because…

4. Pricing yourself well below your colleagues devalues the work we all do, and will also make it difficult for you to raise your rates in the future. The price range in a given market is determined by what others have charged and buyers are willing to pay, but an individual artist’s price is determined by the figure she ultimately agrees to. If a music gig in your city generally pays around $400 and word gets around that you’ve been known to play for $200 (which, BTW, brings down the price range for everybody), not only do you run the risk of alienating your fellow artists and have to play twice as many gigs to make what your peers make for one, presenters will be hesitant when you later ask for $400. Price yourself fairly and don’t take much less. Then, over-deliver. Then as your reputation rises, people will be more willing to pay you more.

5. Speaking of pricing, musicians get paid by the gig, not by the hour, and you may have to educate clients about that. This is from a recent email sent to a client who wanted to renegotiate and have us play a shorter amount of time for less money.

“We are paid by the performance, not by the hour. When we agree to play for a client, we dress for performance, load our vehicle with our equipment, drive to the venue, unpack, set up our equipment, tune and warm up and be ready to play at performance time. Every performance requires this same procedure and commitment of time whether we are to play for 15 minutes or two hours. In fact, once we are set up the amount of time we perform is (within reasonable limits) irrelevant to us. We’ve already gone to all the effort required to get us there and ready to play, so 15 minutes or two hours is all fine with us.”

After my email reply he agreed to his original figure.

One other thing to keep in mind regarding linking compensation to the amount of time we play: Thinking of it in terms of an ‘hourly rate’ does all trained professionals in every field a disservice. Would you want your surgeon, homebuilder or airline pilot to only work for an agreed upon time period, or would you want them to spend the time necessary to complete their task? Furthermore, the amount of time performing does not include the time spent in rehearsal, time spent learning any special music requested, time spent traveling to the gig, and most importantly, all the thousands of hours invested over years to achieve the level of skill necessary to be worth paying for. 

Some of you may remember Mark Knopfler’s brilliant satirical song, “Money for Nothing”, narrated by a couple of guys who install appliances, watching MTV: “That ain’t working’, that’s the way you do it, Get your money for nothing and your chicks for free.” All the musicians I know loved that song because it encapsulated the often clueless attitude of those we play for. I stopped telling friends and family what I got paid for a gig because their next question was always, “And how long do you play for?” Then they’d work out the hourly rate and think I was getting rich.

6. Your fellow artists are not your competitors. They are your collaborators, your support group, your brethren, your tribe. Every artist is unique and no one else can write your songs or sing with your voice. 

7. If you’re booking yourself, be aware of how long you can spend on the phone or sending emails before you begin to lose your good humor. Personally, I’ve found an hour or two a day is enough.

8. Don’t pee in your own pool. The folk world is a small community and what goes around, comes around. A bad experience with a venue, promoter, festival or agent doesn’t need you to gossip about it. A bad character will usually get exposed fairly quickly without your help, and your negative attitude might just as easily make you look like a jerk – especially among those who don’t know the whole story, like other presenters.

9. Make yourself someone that venues, promoters, festivals or agents want to deal with. If you get thrown a curve, remember that “WTF!” can just as easily mean “Why, That’s Fantastic!” It’s your choice. Here’s one artist’s story of what not to do.

He pitched himself to me in October. When I didn’t reply immediately, he wrote again four days later. We get lots of these and normally we’d send a form letter, but I wrote back: “It’s good to know of your interest in our programs. We’ll be happy to consider you for any staff openings we might have but please note that we always have more applicants than we have openings. Staffing for next summer’s 25th Anniversary workshops will be particularly competitive. Thanks for reaching out, and all the best in your musical endeavors.” In January he wrote, “I know it has become the custom in folk music promoting to not answer emails. I don’t care if your answer was to be ‘No-not interested’ or even ‘Never, now go away’ but I would appreciate your reply so I can finalise my summer touring plans.” I wrote back: “Referring to my previous email, you’ll notice that I said that we would consider you ‘for any staff openings we might have.’ In fact, most of our staff had confirmed and there was only one open position, and we filled it with Mary Gauthier. I thought you would understand that I wouldn’t be contacting you unless I had a position to offer. We get many emails from those wanting to be on our staff and don’t see the need for extended email conversations unless we have a position for the artist. If you expected a further reply confirming our ‘non-interest,’ then I apologize. We draw students from all over the US and beyond, and it is important for most of our staff positions that we fill them with people with national and even international reputations in order to attract the requisite number of students. We want to be known as the finest workshops of our type in the world, so we try to recruit the finest artists in the world to be our instructors. A glance at the folk icons and multiple Grammy-winners on next summer’s staff should confirm that.” He wrote back: “There was no need to insult me by comparing me to people who had professional management help them become ‘world famous.’ … I could, if I had no scruples, drop the names of many of your past faculty and others who are close friends and fellow performers. But no… like thousands of folk musicians who can never in today’s world ever achieve the notoriety of some of the people you mentioned, I do recognize courtesy and collegiality.” I went to the guy’s website and listened to a few tunes. He was pretty good but didn’t knock my socks off. I looked through his photo gallery and couldn’t find one picture of him smiling. Even if he’d really impressed me I wouldn’t hire him because I don’t need a problem child on my hands.

10. View professional problems as just logistical challenges to be resolved, not personal attacks or the Universe messing with you. It’s just business, and if you’re going to be a professional you need to grow a thick skin.

11. Take your work/art seriously, but not yourself. Even then, keep some perspective. If you write a great song, just remember that a billion Chinese won’t give a shit about it, so how important can it be, really?

12. Everybody’s job is to make the boss look good. I’ve been both an artist and a presenter, and those I like to hire make my life easier, and make me look like a genius to MY boss. Similarly, when I play a gig, I want to make the one who hired me look like a brilliant judge of talent to those THEY answer to.

13. The performance begins not when you step onstage, but when you arrive at the venue, and it ends when you’re in your vehicle driving away. Your interactions with the promoter, the sound tech, the bartender, waitress, merch seller etc., and everyone after the show all contribute to the impression you’ll leave behind, so give all of them a good performance because…

14. You always have two audiences: those waiting to hear you, and the person who’s going to be paying you. If you’re a professional, which is the more important one to please? Hint: it’s not always the same answer.

15. Socializing after the gig is a part of the performance, but know when enough is enough. The Road is tough and unforgiving. Pace yourself.

16. For a live gig, your job is not to play your music perfectly, but to entertain the audience. Even if you screw up, turn it into an entertaining moment. It’s good to have some amusing anecdotes just in case, because when you laugh at yourself, those mistakes can often endear you to the audience. And remember…

17. Live music is a ‘performing art.’ This means that unlike painting, sculpture, literature, film or even a CD, a live performance is not in a fixed unchangeable form that can’t be revisited. Good or bad, once it’s done, it’s gone. So your songs can evolve with each performance, and especially in the case of a less-than-great rendition, no matter how badly you may have played it, cheer up, because now it’s gone, and you always have the opportunity to get a little closer to playing it perfectly the next time. Don’t beat yourself up over it.

18. When you’re onstage, what you want to play is not as important as what the audience needs to hear. You need to establish a rapport with them and keep taking their pulse throughout the night to know what they need next. And that may not be your latest magnum opus that you poured your heart and soul into and is so desperately important – to you. If it’s not right for the moment, save playing your own favorites for the motel room afterwards.

19. If you’re fortunate enough to have well-known songs, don’t avoid them just because you’re tired of them. And if it’ll help you get into them, remember that there may be some in the audience who will be hearing it for the first time. A good song will always be a good song; it’s up to you to make its performance good each time also. Most of us would kill to have a song or two the audience already knows by heart. Which leads into…

20. You may have sweated blood to get your song lyrics just right, but not everyone in the audience will hear them because some (the guitar players) may be watching your hands; some may be thinking you’re really hot – or really not; some may be wondering what their date is thinking, or why you keep dipping your head that way, or where you bought those shoes, or where the waitress may have disappeared to, or a million other things. Remember what Maya Angelou once said: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” So don’t fret so much about getting your lyrics across, instead focus on performing the song in a way that makes the audience feel the way you want them to. They can get the lyrics when they buy your CD.

21. Unless they were a professional agent before you met them, having your significant other be your booking agent is almost never a good idea. Keeping all the income ‘in-house’ and not having to pay any out to an agent has an obvious appeal, but professionals like to deal with other professionals. To pros on both sides of the negotiating table, the fee is just another logistical issue to be settled; but to a significant other, it may be a measure of their man’s (or woman’s) worth or level of respect as an artist, or they may be making plans on what to do with the money and need a certain figure to complete those plans which may have nothing to do with reasonable performance rates, etc., and things can get personal and messy very quickly. But it’s not personal; it’s just business, and in my experience, agent-spouses usually seem only to complicate things. There are some artists I will avoid for this very reason. 

22. A talented young singer/songwriter once asked me if I had any tips for a young artist just starting out and I told her in all seriousness to consider getting a degree in engineering. This was just my variation on “Don’t give up your day job”, meaning that you’ll feel a lot less stress if you play music on your own terms as a sideline to a regular job, then, if things are taking off for you, you’ll know when to go full-time. A lot of young musicians don’t want to hear that, because, hey, they’re young, it’s all new and exciting, they don’t have a lot of expenses or life responsibilities yet, and they’re out there living their dream and ‘paying their dues’. This is the path I took. But if you eventually want to have a house and family, put your kids through college, and have enough to retire on someday, the life of a folksinger is a pretty tough way to get there… Keep on the lookout for other, more mainstream ways to generate income.

23. Every genre of music has its own payscale loosely correlated to that genre’s commercial viability – old-time on the low end to blues, country & bluegrass on the upper end. I know the most about Celtic artists, and the very finest Celtic artists in the world are probably making a comfortable income, but they have to stay on the road constantly to make it and nobody except maybe the Chieftains is really getting rich. I had some friends in a rock band from a large, midwestern city who struggled trying to make it in a market crowded with rock bands. So, they made a conscious decision to transform themselves into a campy country band and were able to get a lot more work. It wasn’t necessarily the music they loved to play, but they made it fun, and it’s what paid the bills. Consider this when you think about the kind of music you want to try to make a living playing.

24. I knew a couple of guys who had a mobile recording studio in a trailer they’d haul around and do recording on location. I remember they had a sign mounted on their mixing board that said, “We are professionals. This is not a rehearsal. This is the Big Time.” I liked that and I used to recite it to myself before I’d go onstage. It’s like Yoda’s “Do or do not do. There is no try.” So I’ll leave you with that little mantra:

You ARE professionals.
This is NOT a rehearsal.
This IS the Big Time.




Life is simply astonishing. But as unexpected and full of wonder as Life is, mere existence, however comfortable, seems insufficient for human happiness and contentment. At our core, there is a restlessness, driven by desire/craving – that constant dissatisfaction with what is – and the suspicion that there must be more. We want to know what it all means

The quest for meaning is a quintessentially human activity. We are symbol-making creatures. We name the things of our experience and the names mean those things. If we name a spherical object ‘ball’, then when we hear the word ‘ball’, we can picture it because ‘ball’ means a spherical object. We apprehend the things of the world and want explanations for them, and those explanations, what they “stand for”, are often what we take for their meaning. Our assignment of meaning to things, within and without, defines us as human. What we find meaningful is what we find relevant. For us, all things contribute meaning in our quest for the greater “Meaning of Life”.

Is meaning an intrinsic quality of the things of the external world? Entire schools of philosophy have arisen to say both ‘no’ and ‘yes’ , but we have other, perhaps better tools with which to explore the question.

Determining whether meaning is an intrinsic, objective quality of reality and not merely assigned to it by humans is a perhaps under-appreciated consequence of Science, which describes the world so that we may understand, a prerequisite for the discovery of meaning. 

Science pursues Knowledge, those things we can say we know to be true because we have supporting evidence  – objective, observable facts that can be tested for their validity. In the presence of evidence, belief is unnecessary. Gravity works whether you believe in it or not.

Faith takes it as a given that meaning is intrinsic to life, being a product of divine creation, so the subjective reality of the faithful becomes one with the objective: My belief is proof of God.

Faith simply requires, well, faith – the belief in things unseen; things for which evidence is not required, since, in many if not most cases, there is none. Indeed, persistence of belief despite the lack of evidence is what ‘tests’ one’s faith, and is considered a great virtue among the faithful. In the presence of belief, evidence is unnecessary. Faith says God exists whether he gives us evidence of him or not.

Science seeks an understanding of the ultimate nature of things. The faithful replace this goal with an acceptance of a divine Mystery beyond our understanding. For the faithful, this is a position of humility and worship; for the scientific, the idea that something should be excluded from inquiry and examination because it is unknowable is unthinkable, and a denial of our nature.

Science accepts that there will always be plenty of mystery in its investigation of existence and that it might never find the answers to all of our questions, but it also says we don’t yet know what we can’t know, so let’s see what’s out there.

Faith may say, “The answers to life’s greatest mysteries are unknowable, for no one can know the mind of God”, while science may reply, “Just because we don’t yet know the answer doesn’t mean there isn’t one.”

As Christopher Hitchens has said, “It’s called Faith because it’s not Knowledge.”

For those who wish to know rather than simply believe, for whom truth must be objective before it can be subjective, evidence is required before belief can be embraced. Although it is a position that values facts over conjecture and will not accept super-natural claims without evidence, it need not be as nihilistic, despairing or devoid of meaning as the faithful might suggest, for if  meaning’s objective reality is unconfirmed, its subjective reality is unquestioned.

Each of us has life, that we may spend our days populating it with what we find meaningful. It’s what we do. Each of us discovers, creates, the meaning of our lives and contributes to the meaning of others. That’s human nature, and an absolute “Meaning of Life”, may simply be what each of us makes of it.



‘Social media’ is a contradictory marketing term invented by its developers.

Socializing is what people do face to face, a rich experience involving language, tone of voice, eye contact, touch, facial expression, body language, etc. It has been the definition of human interaction for millenia, and neither involves nor requires electronic media.

At best, ‘social media’ is mere communication, a substitute when socializing is not possible, although the argument can be made that social media has now been around for so long and is so ubiquitous, that it has become its own distinct method of interaction with its own language of abbreviations and acronyms (WTF, LOL, etc.), images (emojis) and the like.

I’m by no means a Luddite; I have been working with computers since the mid-’80s, so when smartphones and social media came along, I was long past the point of being automatically dazzled by tech’s latest gotta-have-it-new-and-shiny thing. If I didn’t think it would make my workflow more efficient, or make my life working with computers easier, or generally improve my life and the lives of others, I wasn’t that interested. This set the bar for my adoption of any new tech: it had to be an improvement.

So, I gave smartphones and social media a long and sober look.

Smartphones and social media have always had a symbiotic relationship.  Smartphones needed a ‘killer app’ to convince the public it needed this new, higher priced ‘phone-and-so-much-more!’, and social media needed a device that would keep its users connected 24/7, so they fed each other’s growth.

The tandem was certainly flashy, and I could immediately perceive its addictive quality, and its potential to become the biggest time-waster since Solitaire. I concluded that not only was its claim to improve our lives dubious, I had concerns that the tech was evolving faster than our ability to adapt to it in a responsible way. I decided to give it a hard pass.

I trained to be an anthropologist, so I tend to look at how things affect populations and social groups. This seemed to me to be a technology whose implications for our society and culture had not been completely thought through, but hey, it was cool, and Big Tech saw there was a buck to be made. 

Over the years, with each new story about social media misinformation, disinformation, character assassination, data hacking & theft, election tampering, trolling, bullying & teen suicides, loss of privacy, ‘Incels’ and the further isolation of those with poor social skills, hate speech, silo-ing, the undermining of our democracy, the loss of our ability to respectfully relate to those we disagree with, the abandonment of legitimate news sources in favor of social media sources, the incitement to violence, the enabling of our enemies, foreign and domestic, to organize against us, the enabling of criminal fraud and other online scams, political polarization, deepfakes, ChatGPT and other AI intrusions we may be unaware of, etc., etc., I am confirmed in the wisdom of my decision.

Imagine how different our experience of the Trump presidency would have been without Twitter. Without social media replacing legitimate news sources, and feeding the fears and conspiracy theories of his supporters, the argument can be made that he might not have been elected at all. 

Social media is not the public marketplace for the free exchange of ideas that its champions originally claimed. Much of it has become a swamp for some of humanity’s worst ideas, and another method of manipulation by those with questionable agendas.

We have an entire generation (or more) who have substituted social media for a large part of their interaction with others. Of course, they interact in the physical world, but their social media presence is an increasingly large part of how they and their friends define themselves.

In any situation where people are not otherwise engaged, like on public transportation, in train, bus or air terminals, in a doctor’s waiting room, walking down the street or simply standing in line, chances are that many will not be reading, chatting or even making eye contact with others but staring at their phones, thumbs a-flying. Few will simply wait, being present in the moment, but must fill that moment with the latest from their phone. Staring at your phone has become an accepted way of isolating yourself when you don’t want to be in community with those around you.

Friends and family are quick to point out all the positive things smartphones  and social media are capable of, which I readily acknowledge. They consider my preference for a simple phone to be ‘quaint’ (ironic since I’m still the one that answers many of their computer questions). On my computer, I can ignore social media, but phones are a different story.

As a device, a smartphone is clearly superior to my basic phone, and when I recently had to upgrade, I was perfectly willing to buy one… as long as I didn’t have to buy the data plan and the slippery slope to phone addiction that comes with it. But that is not an option.

Smartphone vendors require you to have both, because that is how phone companies and the developers of phone apps make their money. If you buy one of their phones with all its capabilities, they think you’ll eventually use them… and then you won’t be able to live without them. It’s ‘Marketing 101’: continue telling the public they can’t live without your product and eventually you’ll be right. 

As much as possible, I try to be aware of marketing and don’t let it affect my choices. I try to evaluate things on their merits, which is why, taken as a whole, the negative consequences of smartphones and social media still appear to clearly outweigh the advantages.

On the whole, social media has not been a good thing.

And some have begun to realize this.

When I was shopping for a new phone, and reading reviews of various brands of basic phones, one of the most common comments was from those who bought one because they were finally tired of all the time they wasted, and all the ‘noise’ that came with owning a smartphone. They just wanted a phone.

A recent article described young women who constantly responded to their phone when they went out at night with friends and found themselves distracted and sometimes upset by what they read, spoiling their evening. Their solution was to buy a simple ‘burner’ phone, whose number only their friends know, to use when they go out. Leaving their smartphones at home and just using a basic phone improved their lives

The creeks are the world with all its stimulus and beauty; I live there. But the mountains are home.

– Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

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