Folk musicians share experience on navigating industry

World-renowned folk musicians Ken Kolodner ‘76 and Brad Kolodner shared their unique career paths to musicianship in Harper Hall the morning of April 4. Ken is a foremost expert in hammered dulcimer and fiddle while his son Brad specializes in clawhammer banjo, banjola, fretless banjo, guitar, fiddle and vocals. They have played together for three years.

In addition to talking about their own career paths, they provided insight on how to navigate the complex world of the music industry and making a living as a musician.

To make a living as a musician, both said they made a point to network and do free shows to spread their name. They also bring in income from many areas. Touring, workshops, lessons, instrument and CD sales and recording are all important elements

“You have to have a combination of things to make it work,” Brad said. “You can’t just expect that you’ll make it with some nationally touring band and that will sustain you for 30 years.”

However, some aspects of the industry are bigger moneymakers than others. “I’ve never looked at recording as a way to make a living or to make money, but it’s certainly another big piece that contributes,” Ken added. “I’ve always looked at recording as a statement of what you do as a musician.”

After a bad experience with a record label, Ken is now independent. He highlighted the fact that with today’s social media and e-mail, it’s even easier to promote yourself and take care of the business aspect of music. He chuckled, “[It’s] not the most fun part, but it’s necessary.”

Networking and being responsive with communication was another key part of their success as musicians. “We kind of live by the idea of one gig can lead to another,” Brad explained. “So if we have a gig somewhere, we’ll get the check for playing, but there are so many things we try to do simultaneously.”

Their last pieces of advice to young musicians looking to make it performing was to never undersell your music and to pick performances wisely. Regarding his trio, Ken said, “One of the things we did was we didn’t play every opportunity.”

Many assume that professional musicians start planning their career early in life, but both Ken and Brad started on their musical journeys after schooling in other subjects. Ken has a degree in epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University in addition to a degree from Lawrence in psychology and sociology. He has published over 100 medical journals while pursuing music.

Before starting his Ph.D, Ken picked up the fiddle for fun, in hopes of “someday being able to play with people because it looked like so much fun.” He then started the hammered dulcimer and has released albums and instructional books and was signed with Columbia Records for a period of time. He has toured every state and 30 countries, always returning to Baltimore.

Brad graduated from Ithaca College in June 2012 with a television and radio degree. While job searching during the summer after graduation, he started teaching banjo. Ken teaches as well and said, “The teaching aspect is really critical because that’s almost the more stable aspect of the music business.” They teach three to four hours a day, five days a week on average.

Brad’s career also started later, similar to that of his father. “There wasn’t some specific moment when I decided, ‘Okay, I’m just going to do music full-time,’” he explained, “but it was a more gradual process.”

At 17, Brad started banjo, attending a music camp where his father taught. Since then, he’s won multiple awards for banjo. He teaches and is a radio DJ for WAMU.

Being a folk musician in a world that is phasing out the old and replacing it with the synthetic, electronic new would seem a difficult task, but these two provided proof that it is possible, with the right career tactics and plenty of passion.

The title song of their album “Otter Creek” has hit number two on the folk DJ-L list and was in the top 50 for several months. The album has garnered praise from DJs and dulcimer players alike.