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  • Writer's pictureAllison Legendre

From $50 to $10,000 Performances | Tyler Varnell (#1)

Updated: May 23, 2023

Allison Legendre recently had a conversation with Tyler Varnell, a saxophonist DJ Mcee based in Southern California who has been featured in magazines like People and Sports Illustrated. Tyler performs for clients in various venues such as Disneyland, Mercedes-Benz, Hotel Bel Air, Four Seasons, and Ritz Carlton. In this conversation, Allison and Tyler talked about how and why Tyler got into music, as well as the tactical details of how Tyler has positioned himself as a premier entertainer in the event music industry. Tyler shared the exact methods he uses to be an in-demand artist, offering $10K packages for his clients.

Allison: Welcome to the pod, Tyler! Today, we have Tyler Vernell on the podcast. He is a saxophone player MC DJ located in Southern California. He has a really interesting story and a really cool business and brand. I'm really excited to dive into more about how he built all this. Thanks so much for being on the pod, Tyler!

Tyler: Yeah, you got it. Thanks, Allison. No problem.

Allison: Let's start at the beginning. When and how did you get started in the luxury event music business?

Tyler: Good question. Gosh, I guess it's a long, winding tale, right? Well, I started in music in elementary school and just got into it playing the recorder in fourth grade. Then I got into band. I was a band kid all through elementary school, middle school, and high school. I started getting into All-Star bands and stuff like that and realized, "Man, I really like this. I'm kind of good at it!" I got a scholarship to perform with the Pepperdine University Jazz Band for all four years. I did that and learned a ton. I was going to major in music and switch to finance. I guess it's a math-music dual brain thing, but the numbers work for me.

Allison: I never would have guessed that. So, you started out studying finance then, and that's what you majored in, I guess?

Tyler: Yeah, so I majored in finance and minored in Spanish. I did a lot of music stuff, but it ended up being a much more classically focused kind of music program. The jazz band was great; that was fun. I studied with an amazing instructor, Brian Scanlon. He's performed with The Tonight Show, Gordon Goodwin's big fat band. If you're familiar with them, they're like the huge jazz band. He was great in building more of the music stuff for me. But, when I graduated, I had no idea what to do. I actually did pre-commercial logging for a summer, cutting down trees in the middle of the forest. Then, I did some tutoring stuff and some music lesson stuff. I got a job working for a startup incubator where I started using more of my finance stuff. We had startup companies come in and present to a group of investors. From there, I did commercial real estate and a lot of analysis for that financial analysis. I had this inkling in me like, "Oh, this is cool. I like math and finance and real estate, but I've not really been doing music very much." I had to decide, do I want the next five years to keep going in this direction, or do I want to totally pivot and just go after music? I got a really good job offer from this company, and the head of it is actually a bass player; that's how we met. They do all this really cool, fancy financial real estate stuff, and they had two spots open. They offered me a higher position and an immediate pay bump. I called them back

Tyler: In months you know which is not very much right, I helped record on one thing, so that was a little bit, but I hadn't really launched. I was just, you know, dabbling around right with friends. I think I could have kept doing that for a long time if I hadn't, if I didn't really choose to be diligent in learning the business like doing those classes with Berkeley, one of them was all about like the music business, reading Ari's book, and his articles that podcast by Brandon. I'm imagining like other musicians listening to your podcasts and other podcasts like if I didn't dive in and just immerse myself in all these resources I could still just be doing the barging thing, right? I think by immersing myself and dedicating myself to learning and improving, it gave me a bigger picture, a bigger perspective. So, I would say, yeah, the environment of hanging around people was good but the difference-maker was also like privately just being diligent and learning and rereading, reading, reading article. I had to have tab after tab after tab all open of well what, what are you know, what's the difference between, gosh, I probably can't even get it right, the copyrights and rights for the songwriter versus the recording all that stuff. There's so many things to learn and I have tabbed so many tabs open. Yeah, if you never learn anything different your understanding will remain the same and you'll probably stay where you are, you know. That's good, that's really a t-shirt right there, that's a quotable one. If you never learn anything different, your understanding will say it say where it is.

Allison: Okay, that's so cool, and I'm also curious, and sorry for the pun, but how instrumental would you say it was that you were in like the startup environment and finance space? Like, how did that help form your understanding of how business works and how you want to make your own music business? Would you say that was helpful or a part of what has helped you become what you are today?

Tyler: Yeah, I think I've always been drawn to kind of entrepreneurial stuff. I love Shark Tank. I really enjoyed that first job seeing all these companies present and try to get funding, you know, right? I love analysis. I am a spreadsheet guy, so my whole business has been run on like a gazillion Google spreadsheets, nice. And I think that if you want to be successful in doing high-end events, luxury events, luxury weddings, doing the big stuff, being organized is paramount. I think, you know, sometimes us artists get kind of categorized as like, you know, loosey-goosey and unorganized and disheveled and not really on it. But if you're the kind of person who is good at music and can be on it, if you're both, that is a huge asset. And so, I think that all of, yeah, I think like education, my first jobs, really getting good at being organized and numbers and all that, yeah, I don't think I'd have the same success if I didn't have those. And yeah, I noticed that too because I used to tell myself like, oh, like, you're not organized or good at this or that, but it's like musicians, like innately have a lot of like creative ability and the ability to, you know, understand big pictures and zoom in just by the nature of studying music and more the math side. I think just tapping into that and realizing that making systems and being organized is often a creative process and like needs both sides of your brain

Allison: So, you started out playing music in bars and other places, but then you realized that you could also do weddings and more luxury events. Now you've grown to doing full-day packages. How have you seen that influence what people are willing to pay and how you find those people who are willing to pay it?

Tyler: Yeah, a lot of times musicians are uncomfortable with pricing. When I first started, I was charging a few hundred dollars for weddings, but then I started adding services like sound systems for ceremonies and cocktail hours, and providing live music for receptions. I realized I could have a full-day package, where I would do piano and saxophone for the ceremony, provide the sound system for the cocktail hour, and then do the reception, providing live music and a DJ. That's when I started to see a price boost, and I started charging around $1,000 for that. I started charging $2,000 for a full-day package, and most of the bookings were around $1,500. Then I started DJing, and that immediately doubled my prices because I was providing all the sound and DJing in one package. I was charging around $2,500 to $3,000 for my first DJ weddings, and I was doing the same thing I was doing before, but now I was providing all the sound for the reception, emceeing, and teaching. As I posted more videos of cooler and cooler weddings, I got more referrals, more coordinators and wedding planners liked what I did, and more venues put me on their preferred list. It just organically kind of grew, and I started charging around $4,000, then $5,000, and now I'm charging $6,000 to $7,000 as the base price, plus lighting, which is usually an extra $1,000. So, this year everything is kind of $6,000 to $10,000 per event.

Tyler: I felt like, "I kind of feel like I could do this better." Some DJs are really good, but some DJs were just absolutely terrible, and it detracted from the whole event detracted from what I was trying to provide. So yeah, if you wanted to do that, that would be a more significant investment. I would say, as a stepping stone, if you have friends who DJ that are good at what they do, and they, you know, most DJs, I'd say, are like kind of medium on collaborating with a musician. Some are, they are just not, they don't do a very good job, some do a fantastic job. If you have a DJ friend that is kind of more on this spectrum and gets the live music thing and is down to like make it all work in a really good way, that would be a perfect way to offer a full day package without you having to learn how to do the whole thing yourself, right? Because it is a lot, you have to be good at public speaking.

Tyler: Yeah, and I mean still, for me, to this day, you know, I'll be playing piano for ceremony, I'll go play a saxophone for cocktail hour, I have to jump on the mic, announce everything, jump out, play saxophone, go back to the booth, play the next song, hand the mic off to, you know, the Father of the Bride who's making the speech, and then go start dinner music. It's a lot, you know, and then dancing, you know, you're DJing out on the Dance Floor back your next song, so at that point, you need to be hiring an assistant. I usually have one if they're very good, sometimes two, that help facilitate all that. So you can see it's gradual, like you're investing more and more, but yeah, I would say if you can justify it, if I make this purchase and it will help me to charge this much more, and I think I'll get this many more bookings at that thing, you can project how quickly you'll turn a profit on spending, you know, one to two thousand on equipment. If I can charge three to five hundred more, that's, you know, four to six more gigs, and then it's all profit after that. That's how I do with lighting too. I was like, "I think I can do this lighting stuff," and I spent a freaking lot on uplights. I think I spent like $3,000 on uplights, but I was like, "Hey, if I can charge $500 more, all I have to do is book this out four times and we're in the clear." So that's kind of how I think about building it up, right? Right now, that's a great filter to put it through when it comes to return on investment because yeah, it's not the things that you would be buying anyways, like, you know, your instrument that we tend to always stretch our budget for, but the things that actually make your offer longer and better, those are great things that, you know, when you can do the math of how it will pay out, that makes a lot of sense.

Tyler: If they see you at their friend's wedding and said, "Oh my gosh, you're getting married! You've got to hire Tyler!" It becomes much more organic after that, but that was the secret. Amazing, and having a very good Instagram videos, people may find you on Instagram, but in all of those situations, the first thing that they're gonna go do is look at your Instagram. It's just how it is these days, and if you have dialed-in videos, the first, you know, for me, I try to have no cut all the fat, cut all the fat out to where every video is like, "Oh, that's a sweet video. Next one. Oh, that's a great one too. Oh, that's around two, okay. We should reach out." It kind of checks the box for them, right?

Allison: Amazing. Yeah, I know Instagram, especially with the wedding industry, it seems to be still going really strong for sure. I'm curious, like when it comes to Instagram, if you don't mind popping the hood for us, like how do you do it? Like, how do you make such amazing content? Do you, is that, you mentioned you have an assistant, so I'm curious, is your assistant getting some of those videos for you, or what does that workflow look like for you guys?

Tyler: Yep, that's a, for sure, sometimes you go to a really cool event, right? "Oh, that was so awesome. The view was great. The sunset, everyone looked all fancy and dressed up. I did a great performance. These people were dancing while I was performing. It was great." And you'll see a million phones around you all filming all this stuff, and you get tagged in, like, nothing at the end of the night. It's just like, right. So annoying. I have little signs with my Instagram and a QR code, the whole thing, discreetly, it's done. It's done classy. It's not a building, right? Right. And still, you get tagged on like two things. You can go check the writing rooms' stories afterwards and kind of see who got tagged and what and just stalk everybody and get videos that way. You can either do like an Instagram recorder app or you can reach out to them and say, "Oh my gosh, that was so fun at the wedding last night. Could you send me those videos? I would love to repost them." But the majority is pay your friend who is decent on a phone to just come and follow you around, put your phone in Do Not Disturb mode, or whatever, and or you can get one of those little Joby things, you know, the little stand deals, and they can walk around and follow you and just paying, you know, bucks and say, "Hey, I'm performing a wedding. I'm getting, you know, maybe you're getting paid three to five hundred dollars. Budgeted in to pay, you know, bucks for your friend to come hang out with you for two hours on a Saturday and just walk around and film you."

Tyler: And I would say a few best practices are don't be super zoomed out because if you look on TikTok and you look on Instagram, everything is about like this. It's kind of like, you know, chest up, waist up. Maybe it's a full body, but it's not a huge landscape thing. I had some assistance who would come with me, and they'd be like filming the waterfall and the sky, and then I'm way over there, and I was like, "Hey, get over here. Like, you gotta, you know, you want to be conscious of the

Allison: What's your opinion on bridal shows?

Tyler: If you think you're gonna get one, two, three bookings out of it, it's worth it. People feel it, you know, when you're performing.

Tyler:Just the one caveat to that is only do a bridal show if you can perform. Maybe they have a fashion show; go perform when people are sitting down before the fashion show. You can sell it like this: "Hey, I'm a wedding show design person. I would love to sign up and be a vendor and have a booth, but I would like to perform. Do you have a fashion show I could perform before and after the fashion show? It would provide a lot of value to your thing and make your event cool, and it would provide a lot of value to you because everyone gets to see and experience your thing. People feel in a video, but people really feel it in person." Alright, that was a side note.

Tyler: When the leads come in, it's sometimes Instagram, usually email, sometimes on the different sites that I've already listed a few times, like Wedding Wire, The Knot, etc. At some point, they'll reach out and they'll say, "Hey, we were referred from whoever." Yeah, so from the various sources when they reach out, they'll ask, "Hey, we were referred from so and so," or they'll just say, "Are you available to state?" Or sometimes they'll say, "We love your videos. Tell us more." Any of these questions. Now it is on you to reel in the fish.

Tyler: So I feel like this is one of the things I'm strongest at, is reeling in the fish. Usually what I'll do, it's a little formulaic, but I'll say something very short about whatever I know about them. "Oh, I've performed at your venue. It's beautiful, love the waterfall, whatever." Very short one line, yeah, shows that I read what they wrote. "Oh yeah, Kim and John's wedding was so fun. That was a blast. Would love to create a fun experience for yours as well." Something that just like is a little personal connection. Then I will say, "To give you a short background, my specialty is performing on saxophone, piano, and DJing all in one for luxury weddings and events. Recently performing at Disneyland, Ritz Carlton, Mercedes-Benz, and Four Seasons." That's my one-line, well it's probably like three or four lines, but one sentence. This is what I do, this is my value, it shows everything I provide, and it shows I've done it at cool events, cool venues.

Tyler: Then I give pricing. People usually don't know what else to ask. They say, "Hey, tell us more info and pricing." And you don't want to avoid that question. The best way to describe your pricing is through a range. If you give a starting price, people are going to expect to pay that starting price. If you just give them the answer, you need more information. Like if you say, "Oh, everything I do is $5,000." And they're like, "Great, we want you for 10 hours on the moon, right?" Oh, I mean, did I say? So a range is the best. I usually say full-day bookings for the saxophone, plus piano, plus DJing, full-day package, have ranged six to ten thousand based on lighting and travel period. Saxophone/piano only bookings start at [blank]. So they have all

Allison: Can you save responses on Instagram when you go live with someone?

Tyler:: Yes, you can save responses. If you start typing a keyword, like "initial response," for example, it will pop up, and you can tap it to see your saved messages. Then, you can copy and paste throughout the conversation to make sure you hit all your points.

Allison: What kind of questions should you ask when talking to a potential client?

Tyler:: You should ask yes or no or fact-based questions, like "What time does it start?" or "What time does it end?" (estimate is okay). Avoid asking open-ended questions that require too much thought, like "What sign do you want for your first dance?" Stick to facts that they should already know, like how many guests they're expecting.

Allison: Other than musical talent, what skill do you think has been most useful to you?

Tyler: I'm not sure if this is a skill, but my band teacher taught me a long time ago to keep playing even if you mess up. This has been invaluable in my career. If you keep playing, act like nothing happened, and don't draw attention to your mistake, people are less likely to notice or care. For example, if the power goes out during a performance, you just have to keep going and do your best with what you have.

Allison: Can you share an example of a time when something went wrong during a performance?

Tyler: Yes, one time during an early performance, the power went out, and we had to use a generator we rented from Home Depot. It was really windy, and my reed kept drying out, which made the sound pitchy and squeaky. I had to keep warming it up behind the building, but my assistant's video camera picked up the sound, and you could hear it during the ceremony. Then the generator went out, and no one could hear the officiant, who was also miked up. It was a disaster, but we did our best and kept going.

Allison: What is your mission, Tyler?

Tyler: My mission is to love and serve others through music. It kind of takes the ego out of any situation where things get tough. When everyone wants to be the cool guy, figuring out your "why" and writing it down will be your grounding thing. You can revise it over time. My mission is to create unforgettable moments for people, and that's what I obsess over. It reinforces the bottom line of why you're doing it.

Allison: That's so good. Having a mission and a "why" to fall back on in hard times is important. Where can people find out about you?

Tyler: You can find me on Instagram, @TylerFarnell. I coach some people, and if you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me. It brings me a lot of joy to help other people find their path.

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