Making music pay
Musicians cash in during season
Denny Pezzin entertains residents at Harbor Health Center in Port Charlotte.
COURTESY PHOTO MOST OF THEM HAVE HEARD “FREE BIRD” SHOUTED FROM A packed bar crowd, rocked a corporate event or just melted into the background as ambient music for a private dinner party or gala.
For local musicians, the difference between making a living as an entertainer or taking a day job like the rest of us means performing five to seven days a week, sometimes two or three times a day, during Southwest Florida’s tourist season. Come summer and September, there’s generally less demand for live entertainment, whatever the musician’s given genre, be it cover band or string quartet.
Many are making it.
For JRobert, aka Julius Robert Houghtaling, corporate gigs are his bread and butter. The Marco Island musician, who describes his style as original Floribbean, recently provided musical interludes for NAPA Auto Parts’ Triple Crown awards program and Purina Dog Chow. His annual 100-plus corporate events and weddings also include back-toback bluegrass breakfasts for the Florida Fruits and Vegetable Association at the Ritz Carlton.
Denny Pezzin “It’s not easy to get into corporate gigs. Not everyone can do them,” he says. “You have to be ready to play anything, whether it’s ambient music or something indigenous to Southwest Florida. You have to read the crowd. For NAPA, this was the company’s movers and shakers. They’re there to make money, and I’m there to enhance their environment. I make it a quiet concert. It seems like the higher paying the gig, the less they hear me.”
A classically trained violinist and fiddler who favors bluegrass and blues, Mr. Houghtaling has worked his way up into the corporate realm, paying his dues on Marco’s bar and restaurant scene — at Quinn’s on the Beach, The Little Bar and Stan’s Idle Hour — for 20 years. Today he can be more selective although he seldom says no. He no longer relies on a tip jar or “thinks about how many gigs it’s going to take to stay alive.” He also refuses to negotiate his rate.
COURTESY PHOTO “I have a price, and it’s fair for what I do. It’s not $50,000 a gig and it’s not $100 a night,” says Mr. Houghtaling. “I can say this: When I go to the doctor, I pay what the doctor wants. I don’t dicker like people do with musicians. I hold my price.”
Mr. Houghtaling has also been a featured performer at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida’s Magic under the Mangroves gala and Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve’s Batfish Bash and has entertained at the Sand Bash on Fort Myers Beach. He also played the steel pan during the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra’s retirement party for grand matriarch Myra Janco Daniels. “Everyone came up to me and asked what the instrument was.”
Vivian Aiello, a violist and violinist, credits networking at bridal shows, joining trade organizations and making introductions to local wedding planners for helping her break into Southwest Florida’s destination wedding market when she relocated to Naples in 2003.
“I feel I’m pretty established now,” says the founder of Seaside Strings, who performs solo or as part of a quartet. “I keep pretty busy.”
Weddings, which typically pay $200 to $650 an hour, account for most of Ms. Aiello’s work although she does perform at corporate events, church holiday functions, and recently took the stage as part of the Bach Ensemble.
For Denny Pezzin, one of Southwest Florida’s newest entertainers, the local music scene contrasts dramatically to the 34 years he performed his one-man show in southern California, where he once made a living working five nights a week, 50 weeks a year. Declining business during the past few years, he says, was not enough to sustain a home in California.
“It’s so different down here,” he says. “In California there was no such thing as playing outdoors. I worked in a suit. Here, it’s all tiki bars and wearing shorts. It’s much more relaxed and not as pretentious. I loved California, but it was all about wearing your wealth in rings, necklaces and diamonds. Down here, rich people drive pickups. You can’t tell who has the money.”
Mr. Pezzin moved to the Port Charlotte area in mid-October — also to care for his elderly father — and quickly found work, making an appearance within his first week at the Nav-A-Gator, where he jokes he was interrupted by airboats and motorcycles. He’s since performed regularly at Gatorz in Port Charlotte and Marinatown, Doc Ford’s on Fort Myers Beach and the River City Grill in Punta Gorda.
“I love what I do,” says Mr. Pezzin. “I’ve never needed a day job. I’m making a living, working four to five nights a week, which is actually very good but it’s exhausting.”
If you can make it here …
Fort Myers musician Scott “Scooby” Bush got a couple of breaks early in his music career, touring nationally as bass guitarist with signed bands like the Sun- Dogs and The Nixons, which has the hit song, “Sister.” He now performs at the Buddah Bar, Cigar Bar Live and the Sandy Parrott with SuperBot, a cover band formed just three months ago after his break with Geek Skwad.
SuperBot has expanded its repertoire beyond the former’s mostly 1980s music to include hip-hop and current genres. “We’re trying to keep it big and wide,” he says. “The cover scene is doing well right now.”
But that wasn’t always the case. During his 25 years in the business, Mr. Bush has had to work a day job — as a painting contractor in Naples — and he now owns Timeline Studio, a full-service recording studio in Fort Myers.
Trombonist Scott Layman of Fort Myers says he’s quit the music business seven times. “It’s kind of like the ‘Godfather;’ I keep coming back.”
Mr. Layman, who started playing professionally at 15, used his talent to help pay his way through college, where an accounting minor lured him away for awhile. “I toured with a couple of bands when I was younger and worked on cruise ships,” he says.
Mr. Layman performed during opening day at the Boston Red Sox’s new spring training facility and at a handful of subsequent games.
“In season, from October through the middle of April, I can be going 15 to 17 days without a break, and playing two and three different places a day,” says Mr. Layman, who also teaches private lessons. “The money comes in really good then.”
The smaller the ensemble, the more lucrative the gig, for both Mr. Layman and Ms. Aiello.
“I make pretty good money with dance or jazz combos; big bands a little less,” says Mr. Layman. “I love to do wallpapering, when someone is having a dinner party and wants nice jazz music in the background.”
Mr. Bush says SuperBot, which includes dreadlocked lead singer Julia Simms, drummer G.J. Gossman and former Geek Skwad bass guitarist Chuck Gibson, can charge more for its bar shows than most other local bands.
“We bring in a full sound system, lights and fog,” he says. “Our goal is to make sure people are having fun, drinking and spending money at the bar.”
In addition to the local bar scene, the band makes regular appearances in Sarasota and on the east coast, and has also landed a few lucrative corporate gigs and private parties, paying as much as $3,000.
Flexibility and multi-focused
The broader their repertoire, the more business a band or musician is likely to get.
Ms. Aiello offers both classical arrangements and more modern-day compositions. “Brides these days are mixing it up,” she says. “I’ve added a lot of music to my repertoire. ‘I’m Yours’ by Jason Mraz is popular. A bride just requested Adele’s ‘Someone Like You.’”
Mr. Layman’s range is also far reaching. “I can have my Dixieland hat on and later that night my symphony or big band hat on.”
Mr. Pezzin’s extensive repertoire comes in handy when playing the area’s different venues, where crowd’s tastes range from Lynyrd Skynyrd, Crosby Stills Nash & Young and Elvis to Sinatra, Tom Jones and Garth Brooks. “I can do Barry White, but only if I have to,” he laughs. “Disco was huge in California; everyone wanted to dance but they also wanted to relax and dance to songs like ‘Lady in Red.’ I love the eclecticness of this area. Here, it’s let’s go, let’s go.”
Sometimes SuperBot’s tip jar rakes in up to $400, especially when someone inevitably shouts “Free Bird.”
“They yell ‘Free Bird,’ I yell for security,” says Mr. Bush. “Then I tell them we’ll do it if they put $100 in the tip jar.”
Some patrons have obliged.
While Mr. Houghtaling accommodates most requests, he jokes he won’t “play in direct sunshine or rain.”
Mr. Pezzin does do “Free Bird” — much to his wife’s dismay — but has so far skirted requests for country singer Toby Keith’s current chart-topper “Red Solo Cup,” the anthem of frat parties, spring break 2012 and some local bars. “I saw someone do it at the Nav-A-Gator, which is fine at the Nav-A-Gator,” he says. “Then I heard someone do it at Portobello at Burnt Store and there were children on the deck. The parents cringed at some of the lyrics. I keep my shows clean.”
The public is, of course, a fickle bunch, and musical preferences change. Dance bands and big bands are currently en vogue for Mr. Layman, whose summertime business took a hit with the recession.
“Three or four years ago, churches were my bread and butter during the summer. But then the economic downturn hit and churches had to decide to stock the food pantry or pay a hungry musician.”
“Summer isn’t as slow as it used to be but during season this is a great place to be as far as being musicians,” says Mr. Bush. “Tourists pack bars, want to get out and have drinks. September is the worst month. It’s terrible at all of the bars.”
Mr. Houghtaling spends summer catching up on recording and producing demands. He’s recorded meditation music, dubbed by his producer as “tiki music,” for spiritual guru Panache Desai. “I’ve been told Obama sits around and listens to my tiki exotica music.”
“The only bad months are August and September but things crank up in October. It’s a popular month to get married,” says Ms. Aiello.
Mr. Layman has also been fortunate to spend summers in the recording studio, last year supplying trombone rifts for a country singer’s demo. He’s been asked to do the same for another country upand comer this year. “They’re better paying jobs but I earn every penny of it,” he says. “All the tracks are laid out and I’m all alone in the studio with nothing but a chair and a microphone in front of me. You never know what they’re going to ask for.”
Mr. Pezzin has yet to experience a Southwest Florida summer and is fortunate to be booked in California throughout July.
“Before we moved here, I taught private lessons in Atlanta,” says Ms. Aiello. “I never expected I’d make a living doing this, in combination with my husband’s salary. I love what I do. I feel I’ve found what I was meant to do.” ¦