So…. many people will notice the big hole in my blog posting – there were posts up to November, then none again until well after the holidays. Many people will also know that yours truly owns and operates a Christmas caroling business called “Olde Towne Carolers.” I thought I’d give a little insight into why I seem to fall off the face of the earth for two months out of the year. Some might want to know out of curiosity, some might want to know because they themselves have toyed around with the idea of starting their own similar group. (If that last category is you, don’t think of infringing on my turf – I’m super competitive and WILL bring my A game! haha!)
I started Olde Towne Carolers in 2005 because I wanted to make my own opportunities and make some money along the way. The first season, we just broke even, but I was happy to have gotten started. That first year, I worked my butt off getting started – buying fabric and hats for all the costumes to be made (my mom worked hard too – actually making the costumes), figuring out a price structure, getting singers on board, figuring out who my target market would be, developing a standard contract, and coming up with basic marketing materials. We also came up with what our services would be: Victorian carolers, brass quartet, Piano/Voice duo, Jazz Trio w/ vocalist, then for 2008, we added Santa.
Back in 2005, I had no idea we would move on to the tremendous success we have achieved. But that success takes more hard work than you can ever imagine.
I live, breathe, and eat caroling from November through the end of December. The bulk of our inquiries come in October and November. I answer emails and calls pretty much every day. Many of those inquiries turn to gigs, many do not. Even though we have a “set price structure”, many times I have to do a bit of negotiating for groups that have very limited funds or for non-profit organizations that simply can not pay much at all. Sometimes, I get inquiries for gigs that are really far away, and I’m left to try to figure out how much to charge for all the travel. That’s always tricky, and is still a work in progress. For each booking, the information must be filled out on the standardized form I created, and then entered in to the computer. Each event must have a contract sent out to the client with a self-addressed stamped envelope. Then when those contracts come back, they need to be filed away in order of the date of the event. Contracts take a lot of time – it’s one of the parts I hate the most, but it’s pretty much one of the most important documents you can have – so it’s a necessary evil.
Most of our inquiries are because of our website and the brochures I mail out in September. I design the brochures myself to save money and then have them printed at a local printing shop. Our website is designed by my awesome friend Jennnica, and we’ve worked out a bartering system in exchange for all the work she does for us. We just did a MAJOR revamp of the website after this holiday season, and now it’s ready to go for later this year when people start to look for us.
As gigs come in, I then have to assign singers to each one. On busy weekends, it’s very standard to have 2 or 3 groups out at the same time. All my singers have different availability and I assign based on who can do the gig AND on who has sung with us the longest, or who is the most reliable – and I try to assign based on where the singer lives, so they won’t have quite as far of a drive. (Although that doesn’t always work.) It’s my group, so I take soprano on my preferred gig of each date. That’s just the truth. After that, I contact the people who have been with me the longest, or who have shown to be the most reliable and flexible. I only have a few singers that can do day-time gigs during the week, so they get more calls sometimes than others. I also have some sopranos who can sing alto, and you best believe they get called more for alto than soprano. Again – just the way it goes! It’s also important to have singers that can have reliable transportation to and from the gigs. Each year is different though when it comes to the gigs we get, and I never know what to expect from year to year. Some singers will have lots more gigs one year, but not as many the next – again – it all depends on what we are able to book each season. There have been very rare times that a singer proves to not have their music together and can’t perform under the pressure – in those cases, they usually don’t get called any more. And let’s be honest – my singer friends who are always keeping in touch and showing interest in caroling will get more calls as well.
Once a gig is booked, I stay in frequent contact with the client, as they will often give me additional info along the way – many have questions they want answered as the event gets closer. Even th0ugh their event might feel like just another gig to us, it’s NOT just another gig to the client – it’s their very special holiday event and we have to deliver the very best!
I’ve worked my price schedule so that the singers make most of the money that comes in. As a singer-owned business, I think from the perspective of being a hired singer. (And in the beginning, I seriously never could have imagined that there would be so many gigs that I wasn’t singing.) But the downside of that structure is that to actually make any decent kind of money, I have to sing a LOT of gigs. So I do. I assign myself as many gigs as I can fit into my schedule. As a result, I’m singing almost every day in December. And on weekends, I usually have 2 or 3 gigs every day. That’s a lot of singing. And a lot of driving.
Keeping the finances in check are tricky too. We require a 50% deposit upfront, with the balance due at or before the event. However, there are certain clients who are unable to do that, and we have to carefully decide how to proceed in those instances. I had to start a special bank account for the business, get our business name registered, and get a tax ID number as well. Then as money comes in, I have to make sure I get those checks deposited as soon as possible so that I can cover the singer’s checks.
Oh, and there’s the whole jigsaw puzzle of making sure every singer has a costume for their gigs. I have a few singers with their own costumes, which makes me elated beyond belief. But most of the singers wear our provided costumes. So at the beginning of the season, I have to look at what singers will be at what gigs and coordinate the costumes so that they will look good together. Then figure out if any costume-swapping or costume-passing must occur. If so, I have to figure out how to pass along the costumes between singers at gigs. Each year, we add to our costume stock to cover the increase in the number of gigs, and therefore, the number of singers.
Once we’re officially in caroling season, I live in constant fear of getting sick. This fear turned to reality just this past December, and I frantically had to shuffle gigs around, do some rescheduling, and successfully subbed out some jobs. (It was also my first time doing the steroid thing to get my voice back in the quickest time possible.) I also live in constant fear of forgetting a gig somewhere in there. Even with all my organization, I’m always afraid that this might happen. And because this all takes place in the real world, there are traffic problems, and other snafus that can throw me into a panic. What do you do when your client calls you saying that one of the singers is not there yet? What about when you’re waiting for your last singer to arrive while having to graciously stall to the client as you get ready to start? These last two scenarios hardly ever happen – but they do happen – and they give me little mini heart attacks each time. And because we have multiple groups out, I’m often getting texts and calls from singers at other gigs, while I’m on a break at my own gig.
When the season is over, we send out client feedback forms to everyone who used our services during the holiday season. Some come back, many do not. But it’s important to let the client know that their opinion matters and we want to provide the very best to them. We also take stock of how our marketing and advertising worked out. I also have to get all the costume pieces back. As I type this on February 14th, I still have four costumes out, as I still have to figure out when I’m going to get them from their singers.
And I’m doing all of this while doing my other jobs. I’m usually in a show or two (or sometimes even three) every fall up through November. And I teach voice lessons. And I have a part time retail job. And as of this past year, I’m now a travel agent. Because no matter how much or how hard you work, you’re not going to get rich from this job and it won’t sustain you for the rest of the year. You get a nice chunk of change after the holidays to use how you want. Many times we put a lot of it back into the business. Like last year – we bought a new wardrobe closet just for all the costumes. We always use some of it on our marketing/advertising. Last year it also helped to pay for my music-coaching trip to Vienna. This year it went to more Disney Vacation Club points to use for our Disney trips.
Don’t get me wrong – all that work has led to some fabulous experiences for us! We’ve been on the Rachael Ray Show, the CW Philly morning news, WOGL 98.1 FM radio, Disney’s Christmas Carol Train Tour, and are regulars at some fabulous local venues. And I get an enormous feeling of pride knowing that something I created has become so successful – and I get to hire my friends!
But I haven’t been to a Christmas party as a guest in years. I also don’t get to do some of the fun family holiday stuff any more – like baking Christmas cookies with my nieces. I put my Christmas tree back in the attic all decorated, as I no longer have enough time at the holidays to really do the whole decorating thing anymore. I do my best to use my voice as little as possible all December – except when I’m singing a gig. That means minimal talking and no singing along with my favorite Christmas songs on the radio. And each year, I have to revise our marketing materials and seek out new potential clients. As a result, I’m up most nights until 2 or 3 in the morning leading up to the holidays.
If you ever think of starting your own caroling business, consider yourself very educated in the elements involved. And if you’re a friend or relation of mine, know that this is why you aren’t hearing from me at the holidays – I still love you, but I’m BUSY!