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The business of making music


Believe it or not, musicians are business people, too. They provide services and sell products, and to get a gig, they have to persuade the venue’s owner that their music will attract people who spend money. Most bar, coffeehouse and restaurant owners will try anything to improve their bottom line. If you help them do that, you’ll keep the gig.

I’ve kept a few gigs over the years, but it hasn’t always been easy.

When I started playing music for a living, it was the late ’70s: On Sundays, I’d hit the jam session at the Franklin Hotel; weekday lunch hours, I played at a crepe restaurant; Wednesday nights, I played in a duo at the Broken Arrow Bar; and Friday and Saturday nights, I had a number of lounges I could play. Back then, outside of a few discos, pool tables and live music ruled as entertainment at Des Moines’ watering holes. This was before large-screen TVs, ESPN and video games.

The urban cowboy craze was still going strong in the ’80s when I joined a traveling country-rock/swing band. When I began, we were a six-piece band playing six nights a week, and by the end of the ’80s, we were a three-piece band playing three nights a week. So I went back to doing my solo guitar/singer/songwriter thing.

That’s when I got lucky. I returned to playing acoustic music right before playing unplugged became popular. For about five minutes, I was really hip and Des Moines was on a roll, with a great local radio station that played my music and promoters like Pat Oswald were putting on cool shows around town. I was packing them in at Flanagan’s Restaurant and Lounge on Ingersoll Avenue and my CDs were selling. Java Joes and other coffeehouses opened up, some hosting live music. I had more gigs than I could play, including opening for national acts, and Iowa Public Television let me do some of the music for its productions.

A few years later, the unplugged music trend had run its course. KFMG, the hip new station, was sold to a national chain and changed its format. My crowd at Flanagan’s moved on.  I shifted gears and I now play more restaurants than taverns, more corporate parties than biker bars. I’m under the radar for the most part.

It didn’t feel like it at the time, but I got into the local music scene at the end of a golden era. With a few exceptions, I’m sure it’s the same everywhere else.  Des Moines never was and never will be another Nashville. We’re not even Iowa City as far as a local music scene goes. We don’t have a large university to fill our streets with kids looking to be entertained. We’re not a vacation spot, and we don’t have a musical legacy like Kansas City or New Orleans. The Des Moines area is large enough to support a local musician, but to be one you have to make something happen and be flexible. You’re not going to make a living around here by just playing blues harp or avant-garde jazz guitar. The local musicians I know are playing a variety of styles with different groups at whatever venue they can. Some of them also teach and or work at a music store.

Iowa’s musical landscape is diverse. Some of my favorite memories include playing for a wedding on a farm in the rolling hills of southern Iowa, playing at the apple orchard in Cumming and at The Summerset Inn and Winery in Indianola, doing the music for an IPTV documentary on tractors, playing the Des Moines Arts Festival with a dozen children dancing around the stage, and playing for a party of old hippies like myself in Grimes.

Des Moines continues to do a lot for me, and sometime in the near future, I want it to do one more thing for me: host a folk and acoustic music festival. We have the promoters and the local talent. And like so many other things, all it needs is a corporate sponsor.

Rob Lumbard is a full-time singer/songwriter/guitarist based in Des Moines  

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