Mark Elf

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Originally published in the May, 1997 issue of the newsletter of the Cincinnati Jazz Guitar Society.

Perhaps the reason musicians are paid so little for their work is because itís called "playing." Everyone wants to play music because it is such a delight, so there are always more good musicians than gigs. As a result, many great musicians are unable to find work, and those who do are paid much less than comparably skilled workers in other professions.

Mark Elf
Photo by Bill Magness

Mark Elf used to be one of the many great musicians who had difficulty finding good work. Then he took matters into his own hands and tackled that apparently distasteful job of promoting himself and his music. His strenuous efforts have been rewarded.

Much of our conversation centered around Markís efforts to market himself. If you are a musician who is trying to make a living in the music business, you would be well advised to pay careful attention to what Mark has to say.

Markís resume is strong. He has performed and recorded with such jazz luminaries as Wynton Marsalis, Clark Terry, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Golson, Lou Donaldson, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, Ray Brown, and Kenny Barron.

He had released three albums as a leader, but it wasnít until he started a dedicated campaign to market his recordings that he began to receive national recognition.

Mark started playing at 11, studying from Alfredís Basic Guitar Method. His early playing followed a very common pattern, as he wandered through folk and rock music before his love of jazz was ignited by a Charlie Parker recording.

TB: Are you a native New Yorker?

ME: Yeah.

TB: Thatís kind of an advantage isnít it?

ME: Depends on how you look at it. There are a lot of great players here so itís not easy to get a gig here. Most of my work is out of town. Most everybodyís work is out of town because thereís not enough work to cover the musicians that are here. No one could make a living if they just stayed in New York.

TB: Do you like teaching?

ME: I like it as long as the students care about whatís going on. Itís very tedious to sit in a room with someone who doesnít care.

TB: Have you ever had to work a day job?

ME: Yes.

TB: Did you like it?

ME: No. I used to feel pretty bad about it. I used to work with Walter Bishop Jr. and one day I was telling him I was feeling bad about having to work during the day. And he said "Hey, man, I worked as a longshoreman. Wes Montgomery worked at the post office for ten years." He was telling me about a lot of musicians who either didnít want to play bad gigs or couldnít get a gig so they took a day job. Some guys are very fortunate. They donít ever have to do that. But some have to pay a lot of dues so they have to do it. Actually for me, I wanted to do it because I didnít want to play bad gigs anymore. I just said, Iíd rather work a day job than do this, and so I did.

It was really by choice that I did it. And it was by choice that I quit. I have a different mind set now. Especially in the last year and a half or so, Iíve become extremely astute in promotion and how to sell what I have.

TB: I know a lot of musicians who think that selling themselves and self promotion are dirty words.

ME: For many years, my mind set was, if you practice hard, and you pay your dues and you play with all these great people, the record companyís gotta see this. When you send them the tape and you send them your resume and show them all the musicians youíve worked with and you can play your butt off, then somebodyís gonna come along and take you by the hand and put you on a record and youíre gonna be working Ė and thatís a fairy tale. That happens for 1/10 of 1 percent of everybody out here who plays.

I talked to Clark Terry about this and Clark was a tremendous self promoter. I think Louis Armstrong was a tremendous self promoter. Clark told me that. Most musicians who are successful, most not all Ė some were taken by the hand Ė but most have pushed very hard to get where they are. It hasnít been just sitting back on their laurels. They work very, very hard at self promotion. Even the artists that are signed with big labels, if they donít hustle and make gigs and take care of their business, theyíre gonna fall by the wayside.

It never occurred to me that the reason I wasnít working was because I wasnít doing anything to help myself work. There are still some people out here with a mind set of "Well youíre a musician. Youíre not supposed to call people and tell them about your record. Youíre not supposed to call press and media and make them aware of you. Someone else is supposed to do this for you and youíre just supposed to sit in your room and practice your instrument and be heard and not seen. And if you promote yourself, then itís only because youíre not good." And Iím gonna tell you thatís the biggest bunch of bullshit I ever heard in my life.

Thereís a whole lot of great players out here who arenít getting anything happening and the reason why is theyíre not doing anything to make it happen. Some guys get lucky. Theyíre in the right place at the right time. But most make it happen for themselves.

I just started this about a year and a half ago. I never would have done anything like this before because I was in that same mind set that you donít do that.

Most press people, most radio people have a deep respect for what Iíve done, especially because Iíve been so successful at it. And right now theyíre in my corner.

I hope not to have to always work as hard as Iíve been working over this last year and a half [on promotion] so I can spend more time writing and playing. But right now, if I donít do it, Iím not gonna do any writing and playing because Iím not gonna have any place to do it.

TB: What all do you do for promotion?

ME: I call radio stations. I call press people about my records. I send out hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of copies of my records to everybody that might be interested in them. And to important places like big magazines and radio stations. And now whatís happening is radio stations are calling me saying "We donít have your record. Can you send me one of them?" The buzz in the industry is so strong right now that everybody wants one.

TB: Do you computerize all your lists?

ME: Everything is computerized. I couldnít do it without the help of a contact management program.

TB: Do you use ACT? [Editorís note: ACT is a brand of contact management software.]

ME: Yes I do. And I have probably 600-800 active contacts that I have to contact during every promotion.

TB: And thatís a substantial investment in time and money. Is the payoff worth it?

ME: Well, it sure is. Iím getting gigs all over the place. And Iím finally, after all these years, not calling up people and hearing "Who?" Theyíre saying, "Oh hi, Mark. How are you?" The reward is there in artist recognition and also in the reason why I started all this to begin with. I didnít do this for an egotistical reason. I did this because I love to play. And itís a need that I can never ignore ever again.

And believe me, man, this was not easy. This was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. This was like climbing Mt. Everest. Because the amount of product and CDs that are out there is beyond belief. Radio stations get 50-75 CDs a week. Magazines and newspapers get hundreds a week. There are stacks and stacks of CDs they get. So you can be the greatest cat in the world and send a CD to them, but if you donít make a phone call and follow up, itís gonna sit in the stack and theyíll never know about it. Sot itís more than just sending it out. You gotta be on the phone all day long. And most musicians wonít do it. And you know what? I donít blame Ďem.

TB: ĎCause it sucks.

ME: ĎCause it sucks, man. But the reward if you break through is very great indeed. And then it allows you to do what you do best.

TB: How many guys do you think are really good Ė play on the level you play Ė and are languishing in obscurity?

ME: Iíd say tens of thousands all over the world. Every place I go I run into great musicians. Thatís how I go from town to town and play, because every town, man thereís cats who can play.

There are a lot of variables that will determine a personís lot in the music business. And I say music business because thatís what it is. First of all, youíre an artist, yes, but if you havenít got your business together, then thatís all you are, because youíre not gonna work.



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