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A How-To Book for Entertainers

As an amateur musician, I got a call several years ago for an afternoon gig. A party, a wedding, I really can’t remember what the event was. What I do remember was that the band played outdoors and, as the afternoon progressed, I was less and less in the shade of the temporary canopy and more and more in the afternoon sun. The gig went well, but that night, and even into the next day, I suffered through the burning and throbbing of severe sunburn.

Since that afternoon I’ve packed a container of sunscreen in my instrument’s case. It has only been a handful of occasions that I’ve had to break out the SPF 9000, but I’m always very glad to have it when I need it. There are other precautions such as this that most performers learn, such as carrying extra reeds, strings, or patch cords. And there are other things performers learn about getting gigs, budgeting, buying instruments and equipment, and dozens of other things that they learn about running their professional lives.

The thing is, for most professional performers their coursework as a theater major, music major, or that degree from conservatory has given them no training in the business aspect of their professions. There are jazz studies majors who can play Donna Lee in all twelve keys, but they are clueless as to the best way to work with an agent. There are young actors whose schooling has given them the ability to find the sublime in Shakespeare and O’Neal, but they don’t learn about handling taxes as someone who is self-employed. It is this blank space that Mike Stilwell addresses with his Entertainer’s Handbook: How to be a Success in the Entertainment Industry.

Born in 1953, we can safely assume that Stilwell has decades of experience as an entertainer. He has received numerous awards and performs at over 200 performances a year. It is from this boatload of experience that he draws on for his advice.

In the 12 chapters Stilwell covers exhaustively everything that a professional performer needs to consider. Chapters cover such topics as fees, marketing, laws, ethics, and health concerns. Subjects in these chapters—costumes, getting paid, etc.—are dealt with quickly, sometimes in a paragraph or two. Stilwell peppers these subjects with his personal experiences, which enlivens the text. Even still, from time to time I was left wanting a bit more detail or explanation. Health insurance is covered in three short paragraphs. That’s it.
There are some real eye-openers in these 100 plus pages. Who knew that I might need a flu shot or a TB test when I perform in a hospital? Other advice is pretty commonsensical. As a performer, your attire is expected to be as nice as your audience, although I think there are exceptions for folksingers and clowns.

At the other end of the spectrum are a few cases of perhaps being overly prepared. I understand that Stilwell is a self-contained business, with 200 performances a year. Even still, his list of 65 things that he makes sure to carry from gig to gig seems to be more cumbersome than preparatory. Do I really need to carry my own napkins and a lighter from gig to gig? I know a lot of professional performers, and not one of them has ever told me that he or she needed a spare pair of dice. In a couple instances the item has become dated. Does anybody use a map now? Are there young performers out there who have never even seen a map?

The tone of the book is conversational without being chummy, making for an easy read. Also, it would be easy for a book such as this, with its warnings of all the things that can go wrong, to become a real downer, but Stilwell is indefatigably upbeat. Reading the book gave me the feeling that I could handle just about any situation that might arise before, during, or after a performance.
Books like this are less read than referred to, which makes the index at the back really useful. It is 8″ x 9″ with wide margins, lots of space for notes and added marginalia that performers can add for their own use. You can add that experience of getting sunburn at that afternoon gig.

To order a copy of the Entertainer’s Handbook and to read more reviews, go to

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