Mark O’Connor fiddles with do-it-yourself finances [classic article]

As first seen on Bankrate.com

Violinist Mark O’Connor varies his musical styles and his investing styles, all to the tune of success.

O’Connor has refused to be put into a musical, or for that matter, a career niche. He has successfully mixed bluegrass, country, classical, jazz, Celtic, blues, gospel and world music — an alert viewer can even pick out a young O’Connor playing backup on the famous fusion appearance of Paul Simon and Willie Nelson on “Saturday Night Live.”

A child prodigy, he started playing the guitar by the age of 6 and the violin by 11. He was raised in a destitute section of Seattle by his mother, who didn’t have the financial resources to properly nurture O’Connor’s talent in the classical tradition. Neither did she have the energy to act as a proper “stage mom” and aggressively seek out scholarships and concert opportunities for Mark; she was depressed by a failing marriage and dying of cancer.

Still, she found a creative solution that would change the course of his career and music forever. She would take him around to music competitions, where he would coax different musicians into giving him lessons. Learning on the fly, he mastered classical and flamenco guitar, mandolin, banjo and later violin, when Texas fiddler Benny Thomasson took him under his wing. He recorded albums while still in high school. He then auditioned for the late jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli and toured with him.

He has received many honors: as a teenager, he won the National Fiddler’s competition so many times, they told him not to compete; he was named the Country Music Association’s Musician of the Year from 1992-1996; he has won two Grammys, one for his country album, The New Nashville Cats, and another for his collaboration with Yo Yo Ma, Appalachian Journey; he has played for the soundtracks of “The Patriot” and “Gods and Generals”; he has performed at The White House, the Presidential Inaugural Celebration, the Olympic games in Atlanta, CBS’ “Sunday Morning,” the Kennedy Center Honors (where he serves on the selection committee) and America’s celebration of Israel’s 50th birthday televised on CBS.

He has recently moved from Nashville, Tenn., to Southern California, where he lives with his wife and two children. His latest album is In Full Swing, featuring O’Connor with Jane Monheit and Wynton Marsalis.

Bankrate: You’ve discussed that with your diverse musical styles, you fell between the cracks as to scholarships or arts magnet schools. How should a musician market himself to take advantage of these cost-cutting opportunities?

O’Connor: I had to completely go it alone. I had so much drive and energy to be a professional — very extreme. Most just want to get educated. It’s always been the niche that gets ahead. That’s the way it is, even in the whole profession, whether in the university or in records. They want to keep you doing that. A lot of artists do have a few hats that they wear, but it takes more determination.

Bankrate: A fan wrote to tell you about purchasing your guitar — you admit that you sold it in Nashville in the 1980s when money got tight. Wasn’t that your meal ticket, though?

O’Connor: Even though I had some high profile concerts — I played at Carnegie Hall and for President Reagan — I was flat broke. Many musicians are. It was a guitar I used when recording an album when I was 13. I don’t really feel bad. I got my first good guitar at 8. It’s all about prioritization, what I could live without. Some people get mentors to pay for their instruments, but I wasn’t able to do that. My first violin was painted white, but it sounded incredible. The benefactors probably thought I had a better violin than I did.

Bankrate: You have suffered from bursitis from playing mandolin and guitar. Are you comfortable playing them now? What other activities do you restrict to protect your hands?

O’Connor: I have not taken them up in four years. But, I had to balance it out in my head. I never felt I made a complete recovery. I never thought it was worth it to risk the violin, my staple, my love. I had to cancel a month’s worth of work. I used to skateboard as a kid, I wanted to build a ramp in my yard. But, my mother would only let me spend my contest earnings on an instrument. They instituted discipline to reinvest. My wife has horses, but I don’t ride them and I don’t ski, either. I broke my arm once, a really bad break.

Bankrate: There are a lot of music camps out there — how do you market yours to show its uniqueness?

O’Connor: Right from the beginning, this was a labor of love. I didn’t want to dilute it by getting anyone else involved or sponsorship. All the different styles of violin: classical, jazz, folk are taught to the same student. Most people thought that the students would want to concentrate on one style. In the second year, we became a nonprofit. We have no taxes, we don’t have to answer to companies. We get cut-rates on advertising. We are run by volunteers. I volunteer; I couldn’t ask other people to donate their time if I were getting paid. I may expand into New York City, we would get incredible visibility.

Bankrate: Your parents were dancers at one point. Do you have talents in that area or other creative pursuits, such as cooking or drawing?

O’Connor: I don’t think so. I’ve done other things in the music business. I learned to become a recording engineer. I was interested and curious and I did a financial favor to myself. I learned to operate the computer and I used the Internet for digital downloading. I learned the publishing programs. I spend by far, a majority of my time with the publishing. You either hire a copyist — expensive! Or, you do it yourself. I turned down a big offer for my publishing rights because my mom investigated it and told me, “Never sell your publishing.”

Bankrate: But you could have gotten money right away. Isn’t it unusual for a “stage mom” to be looking so far into the future?

O’Connor: Ha, ha. It’s very possible!

Bankrate: You are on the advisory panel for the Kennedy Center Honors. What do you look for in a nominee?

O’Connor: I just returned from the Honors, it’s a fun weekend. It’s a unique event. I actually know people deserving of this award, I’ve worked with them. They can’t just be talented, they really have to have had an impact on the culture, brought something new to the art. One day, when he’s older, somebody like Yo Yo Ma should be named.

Bankrate: How did receiving a Grammy change your career?

O’Connor: It was an exciting moment. But in an odd way, the fiddle camps were born out of that. The Grammys represented, “I’m going to make it one day,” whatever that means. After the 24-hour celebration, I felt so empty, what was missing was the education.

Bankrate: Would you say that playing for the Olympics or some other concert gave you name recognition?

O’Connor: I got name recognition with the CMA (Country Music Association) and a particular audience. But it wasn’t really enough. The collaboration with Yo Yo Ma gave me another kind of name recognition, especially since I wrote the music. I would rather be known for a body of work, not just one kind.

Bankrate: Is there something that you won’t spend money on?

O’Connor: No hot car for me!

Bankrate: So, you record on two record labels?

O’Connor: I record on Sony, but also my own label, Omac Records. You really can’t make money on major labels, even if you sell a lot. It gets sucked up by industry staff, videos, posters, press … the artist doesn’t get any left most of the time. Major labels own their own CD pressing. On a typical CD sold, the first level goes to distributors. That’s about $10 to $11. Sony gets $9 out of each of my CDs sold. That leaves about $8, then they pay for the big building. $1 is for royalties. But then, they have to “recoup,” so the artist never sees it. If I make an album, it takes $2 million to make it. They can make it up by selling 100,000 albums — I’d have to sell 2 million to see a profit. It doesn’t happen really often. There’s a small advance that they give me: $12,000 to $20,000. I have to pay for the musicians working on the album working for six months and I cover the expenses. I got a $10,000 commission on a piece for a symphony. I had to pay the music copyist $10,000!

Bankrate: If you couldn’t play, what would you do?

O’Connor: I would produce and write music. I would get more into the business: publishing, films. I would expand my record company, hire other artists. If I couldn’t play the violin, I’d have to go back to my childhood, it was my whole life. My life without music? Empty space.

Bankrate: Do you manage your own money?

O’Connor: Well, I do. At one point, I considered a service. Just as I dropped off my files, two boxes of checkbooks, I heard a news story that the company was skimming! I took it back. It feels good because I was audited a few times. One time it was a mistake involving my nonprofit organization; it raised eyebrows. Deductions of music can be alarming. One year, I hired more people and took more airplanes than the year before; it raised eyebrows.

Bankrate: Do you have any investments?

O’Connor: I have an IRA; my home, which contains my home office and home studio; vintage instrument collection; my publishing and record company. A long time ago, I considered “regular” investments. I did a rental, invested in gold . . . I lost on every one of them! I said to myself, “Mark, pursue the arts. Invest in things you love.” I didn’t feel strongly about being a landlord, so I wasn’t very successful at it.

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