In the ECE Coffee Talk series, one of our agents or artists shares a more personal post full of musings and/or insight – basically, talking and rehashing life as if you were sitting across from each other sipping coffee. Today ECE Asheville agent, Ellie Schwarz, shares with us her background and why she has chosen a career in the entertainment industry. Grab your mug and pull up a chair.
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Many musicians start young. Some have an incredible natural gift. I started learning violin using a Cracker Jack box and a pencil. At first, I practiced holding the “instrument” correctly, holding the “bow” correctly, and standing correctly. After weeks of memorizing how to shape my body around my instrument, I eventually graduated to a very small, one-eighth size real violin. Every single night, I listened to taped recordings of the songs I was learning. The music became imprinted onto my tiny baby brain.
For every day that I practiced for 30 minutes or more, my Mom gave me a sticker. Thirty minutes a day to a kindergartner feels like an eternity! A week’s worth of stickers equaled a special prize or a trip to the ice cream shop. Lessons were expensive, often involving many hours in the car to get there and back, but always surrounded by music. I quickly realized that unless I showed my parents that I was truly dedicated to playing the violin, they weren’t going to keep paying for expensive lessons. I kept practicing and progressing and eventually I became involved in the high school orchestra and The Metropolitan Youth Symphony Orchestra in Atlanta, GA. Fourteen years of dedication and the support of my family paid off when I finally felt confident that I had enough talent and music in my repertoire to perform for money as I arrived at the College of Charleston in 2000.
While at the College of Charleston, pursuing degrees in Anthropology and French, I performed in various bluegrass bands and at a few wedding ceremonies. Mostly, I loved playing and jamming wherever and whenever the opportunity presented itself. The biggest thing I took away from all of that dedication to music was that I really loved music. I loved everything about the making of music. I loved the process, the collaborative effort of a group as well as playing by myself. I loved the social setting, the audiences, the camaraderie of my fellow musicians and people who really loved music. I just knew that I wanted to work somewhere, somehow in the music industry.
I realized that there was a great deal I did not know about working with a real, touring band so my first job as a professional musician was with an 80’s cover band. I auditioned as a violinist but was hired as a pianist and vocalist, even though I had not studied either keyboards or vocals. It was an opportunity to get a good grasp on what belonging to a touring band was all about. And I did just that. I spent hours in a van with my fellow band mates. I learned to play songs like “Jump” and “Walking on Sunshine” on a tiny child size Casio keyboard. We played what I called the “Wild Wing Tour” hitting restaurants across the south. We even played a few higher priced private events.
This experience provided an unbelievable musical education that I’m sure could not have been obtained in any college classroom. Our days went something like this. We would arrive in whichever town we were scheduled to play, find the venue, unload the gear, set up, scarf down a dinner, get dressed and jump on stage playing the very songs that I had just learned hours earlier in the van. Sometimes we would drive for eight hours only to arrive at what seemed to be the exact same place that we had started out. The $150 a week that I earned was gratefully pocketed and doled out to pay rent on an apartment that I rarely slept in and for cable television that I never watched. It took about two months before I realized that the touring life was not for me. But I sure learned a lot about the business of being in a band.
My next job involved recruiting unsigned bands to compete in the US and eventually internationally. I worked with all of kinds of bands from high school aged heavy metal bands to more experienced indie and rock bands. Thousands of musicians crossed my path to participate in the battle in cities all across the US and Europe. They all had hopes of taking their groups to the next level and beyond and the dream of becoming professional musicians. I traveled extensively and got to experience first-hand the motivation and drive that it takes for musicians and singers to take their talents to the stage. Beyond the practice and performances themselves, marketing, promotions and organization is vital to the success of any original touring band. I learned how to relate to these artists and how to motivate them to be the very best that they could be – both on and off stage. The experience I gained working with unsigned acts, both behind the scenes dealing with promotions and production to advising them on how to enhance their stage presence and connection to an audience fueled my desire to dedicate my life to helping musicians meet their goals and follow their dreams.
The life of a professional musician is not always glamorous and certainly not easy. The moments of glory and excitement as the fans circle around for photos and post-show toasts is great, but for the most part, it’s hard, demanding work with some of the lowest pay you can imagine. Because music is a form of “art”, folks believe that musicians are doing it for fun, or as a hobby, but this is truly not the case for the vast majority of entertainers and musicians. Professional musicians have to be passionate and have a real love for their art to be successful, but they must also be able to put food on their table and provide for their families just like the rest of hardworking Americans.
When I interviewed with EastCoast Entertainment in 2007, even though I had already held several other music industry related jobs and I had undoubtedly learned a lot about the music business, I was still hesitant. Sure, I had the dream of becoming a booking agent for “famous” bands and a career in LA or New York City working for a major national agency. EastCoast’s primary business was booking cover bands and tribute entertainment for private and corporate events and that seemed a bit outside the realm of my ultimate goals. I was anxious to have a more reliable and consistent schedule and to set up roots with a reputable company. EastCoast Entertainment had a wonderful reputation and 30 years of experience so I took the plunge and began working with them immediately. Under the guidance and expertise of Ed Duncan and Larry Farber for months in our Charlotte, NC office, I opened the Asheville, NC office in 2008.
After almost eight years in Asheville representing EastCoast Entertainment, I can honestly say that it has been one of my greatest accomplishments in life. When I started, hesitantly and a little unsteady on my feet, I had no idea how much I would love my job and how it would be hard to ever imagine doing anything else. I get to work with some of the brightest event planners and most hospitable hoteliers in the private events industry. Serving as a board member for the National Association of Catering & Events keeps me connected to other professionals on the corporate side of the business. Serving on the board of Mountain Sports Festival keeps me tied to the vibrant local music scene in Asheville. I spend my days speaking to excited couples about finding the perfect music for their weddings and that puts a huge smile on my face. That being said, giving professional musicians an opportunity to work and do what they truly love for a decent paycheck is at the very core of why I am so happy doing what I’m doing.
Musicians are unquestionably passionate but it’s drive, determination and pure energy that make their professions work. Oftentimes, they have undergone many years of training and expensive educations in order to perfect their trade.
Make no mistake, this is a hard job, one of the hardest jobs in America, and it takes real dedication to become a true professional, surpassing that of many high paying positions in the corporate environment. In addition, as my Mom always stressed, you must practice, practice, practice. They must stay on top of trends. The number of man hours that go into every single gig is staggering – from discussing logistics with the presenters weeks in advance to arranging schedules and rehearsing. Then traveling, setting up gear, getting dressed and pumping themselves up for the performance. When they finish the gig, they have to greet fans, pack up the gear and travel home, most times all within a 24 hour period for one single event. And with very little support staff, they carry the entire load on their shoulders, alone.
While many other well educated folks are working their way to a higher paying career, many musicians are holding several “day” jobs just to make ends meet. It can be extremely frustrating when your “art” isn’t deemed worthy enough to bring in enough money to pay the bills.
That’s where I get to help. By giving professional bands and musicians access to the very best jobs in the industry, I have a hand in their future and their success. I’ve had musicians tell me that without the work I help them get, they wouldn’t be able to buy a new car, buy a house, pay their rent, or even pay for childcare. Just like professionals in every field, musicians deserve access to the best opportunities. The opportunities that not only pay the bills, but help them accomplish their life goals.
By performing for private events as “cover bands” oftentimes the musicians are also able to fund their original projects as well. This is extremely rewarding to me. I no longer want to work in LA or New York City for a national agency. I already work for the best agency of its type in the entire United States, EastCoast Entertainment. The reason I do this is simple. I do it for the musicians, because I’ve been there. I’ve seen it from the artist’s perspective, and I know in my heart that they deserve every dollar they earn. I’m just happy to make that happen for them.