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One musician making it on his own

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MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: You may have heard the saying that you have to live the blues to play the blues. That doesn’t seem to apply to Richard Johnston. The singer does pretty well for himself in a genre started by poor black plantation workers. Marketplace’s Sean Cole has the story.

SEAN COLE: First off he sings plays guitar and kicks on the drums with his feet all at the same time. Which is actually the old meaning to the phrase one-man band. This is him at a blues festival in back in July:

[ Johnston’s music ]

But Johnston’s also learned to do practically every job in the music industry by himself too. And he has a business plan that he says will gross him almost a quarter-million dollars next year.

That’s right $240,000 for about four months of touring. The seeds for this plan were planted on Beale Street in Memphis where Johnston started busking in the late ’90s.

RICHARD JOHNSTON: I mean Beale street was like the rule revealed to you. The rule is repetitive exposure to a variety of people. Well Beale Street was like a major festival every weekend.

On good nights he could pull down $2,000 as a street musician. But he didn’t just ask people for money.

JOHNSTON: I used to collect e-mail addresses.

And when you make that kind of direct connection with fans, Johnston says, they stick with you.

Eventually he got himself an agent who booked his club and festival shows, maybe 40 a year. But then Johnston fired him , realized he could book himself, charge more and keep all the money. He even talks about it like an industry rep.

JOHNSTON: It ran well. It was fiduciary for everybody involved. The purchasers were actually happier and I doubled my income in one stroke. So assuming responsibility in this new world is really what a musician has to struggle with.

Last year, though, a bunch of Beale Street merchants took away Johnston’s cash cow, limiting the hours for busking. To make the same money, he figured he’d have to triple his festival appearances. But even he wouldn’t be able to do that much booking on his own.

JOHNSTON: So it came to me almost in a dream. I woke up. I was sweaty.

He had a plan. Instead of playing one show at a three-day festival, he’ll play all three days. And he’d sit to the side of the stage and interact directly with the crowd.

JOHNSTON: Just like I used to do back on Beale Street.

If Beale Street was like a festival, he’d make the festivals more like Beale Street. He’d charge $3,000 and make another $3,000 or so in CO sales. $6,000, 40 festivals, $240,000. Not much to Madonna, but he doesn’t want to be Madonna. He just wants a life.

JOHNSTON: I’ve said I’m gonna have health care insurance I’m gonna have a home to live in, I’m gonna have enough money to send my kids to college and really that is just a dream come true for 80 percent of us musicians out here.

But if all your dreams come true does that mean you can still sing the blues? Well, to quote Richard Johnston . . .

[ Music: Shake what you got baby. ]

I’m Sean Cole for Marketplace.

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