A Latin GRAMMY Award winner for Best Children’s Album, Mister G (Ben Gundersheimer) has been called “a bilingual rock star” by The Washington Post and “irresistible” by People Magazine. His 2017 release, Mundo Verde/Green World, is a collection of environmental-themed songs which were debuted at his concert during the National Climate Rally in Washington, DC. Spanning genres from bluegrass to bossa nova, funk to folk, his dynamic, original music has won praise from The Boston Globe, Chicago SunTimes, People, New York Post, and Parents Magazine.
Mister G is a former indie rocker and teacher who holds a Masters in Education. He was awarded the first songwriting scholarship in the history of Berklee College of Music. Inspired by his students (who originally dubbed him ‘Mister G’), he began writing the songs that would comprise his debut family album Pizza for Breakfast.
Mister G now tours internationally headlining major venues including SummerStage in Central Park (New York City), Hard Rock Cafe (Philadelphia), Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts (Washington, DC), Austin City Limits, the Getty Museum (Los Angeles), Chicago Botanic Garden, and JazzFest (New Orleans). He recently signed a multi-book deal with Penguin Random House to turn several of his songs into illustrated children’s picture books.
Let’s check out what Mister G and his wife Katherine (Missus G) have learned about the children’s music business. I’m sure that you will pick up some tools you can use!
Culture Queen: Growing up, which musicians, shows or other artists inspired you to be a children’s music artist?
Mister G: As a kid, my family didn’t go on vacation. National Parks, Disneyland…it never happened. Nonetheless, for some unexplained reason, my parents once decided to take us on a ski trip to Vermont. Needless to say, I was incredibly excited at the prospect of seeing snow and trying an exotic new sport. It was brutally cold when we finally arrived in Vermont, but there’s wasn’t a single snowflake to be seen. There was nothing to do but sit in the lodge and imagine all the fun that we weren’t having. On our last night of what had been a grim three-day trip, I walked into the restaurant and was immediately captivated by a man singing wonderful, hilarious songs. It was my great good fortune to have come across the great children’s singer/songwriter Jon Gailmor. That evening changed my life. In retrospect, it was my first concert and I couldn’t have been more transfixed. I was nine years old, just learning to play guitar and already starting to write songs of my own, so to hear a real pro was amazing. I am forever indebted to my parents for bringing me on that ill-fated ski trip, but mostly because they bought me Jon’s wonderful LP (Dirt)which I cherish to this day.
Culture Queen: That’s awesome that such a not so enjoyable experience turned into a positively memorable one! It’s such an honor to be many children’s first experiences with live music. You never know how a positive first experience may inspire them in years to come! If you had to do it all over again, what would you keep the same? What would you do differently?
Mister G: I’m a typical musician, so I was keeping track of all critical business information on the backs of stained napkins and random scraps of paper. Katherine got us organized early on by setting up a newsletter service and database. I think it’s crucial to have a strong organizational base when starting any business to help manage some of the most time-consuming administrative tasks. Originally, I just recorded collections of songs whenever I had enough material for a new album, and while that’s certainly a fine approach it started to feel like the albums had more impact if they had some sort of unifying concept. For me, the theme has always come from something that isn’t related to music (literacy, bilingual/multicultural, environmentalism etc). As a songwriter and producer, I’m drawn to so many different musical styles that I never want to focus on just one (or two!) genres when I’m writing an album. Since the music on the recordings tends to be pretty eclectic stylistically, it’s helpful to have some sort of theme to tie the album together.
Culture Queen: Concept albums are cool because you can really use your creativity to explore all layers and aspects of a topic. What’s the funniest thing that has ever happened during a show while you were performing?
Missus G: For one of our songs, “Chocolalala,” I go out in the audience and ask kids to tell us what their favorite thing is, which can often lead to pretty funny responses. Most of the time we get “Candy!” “Cookies!,” and a lot of media references we don’t always recognize (“Elsa!” “Dumbledore!”). Once when were playing in Vermont, a child called out “Beer!” and then looked right at his blushing parents. At another concert in Chicago and one adorable 5-year-old boy with glasses called out, “Extinct mammals!” It was a showstopper.
Culture Queen: Oh my! Kids really do say the darndest things! That’s the fun part about working in this field. Every experience is unique and fun! Now for a more serious question: What’s been a challenging experience that you have encountered either performing or music business related. How did you recover from it? What lessons did you learn from it?
Mister G: Not long after we began the Mister G project, we had an opportunity to perform a showcase at a children’s music conference, and the person organizing the event told us we had to add musicians to our act because all the other acts were performing with a full band. While his advice was intended to be helpful, I felt pressured to change our act for this one performance. We were told that important children’s booking agents would be in attendance and that they would want to see a bigger band. I had spent many years touring as a solo act and as a bandleader performing for grown-ups, so I knew the pros and cons of adding musicians. Ultimately, I decided to perform the showcase in the simple, spare way we’ve always performed (I sing and play acoustic guitar and bass drum, Katherine leads the interactive component with the crowd), partly because we’d seen how positively children and parents were responding but also because I knew that the economics of touring with a band wasn’t feasible in the children’s music world. The showcase went well and we ended up getting some important gigs thanks to the people who saw us play that night. The lesson is to trust your instincts of what the best way is to present your music.
Culture Queen: It’s really interesting that you brought this up because I believe it’s really important to stay true who you are as an artist; and to do what works for you. Of course, it’s great to explore new ways of expanding your craft. However, adding elements to your show just because they are on trend or because they work for other entertainers doesn’t mean that it will be the best fit for your show or your audience. My mom always told me that your fans come to see you. Not your backup dancers, not your set and not your props. Her advice has sustained me through the years as well as saved me lots of money. What’s the best advice anyone has ever given you pertaining to music business management and why?
Missus G: Ben had been a professional singer-songwriter for 20 years, but I had no experience at all in the music business. Starting from scratch, I talked to people who had built up their own businesses and they urged me to develop a strong in-house system for collecting booking contacts. They made the point that even if we were able to connect with a booking agent at some point, there were no guarantees that the relationship would continue over time, and if we didn’t keep track of our contacts we would lose them.
Our database now includes almost 7000 contacts, from the media, booking, nonprofits, education, music etc. worlds. They are also tagged by location so we can remember to reach out when we’re touring in different parts of the country. The system is web-based, so we can also access it at any point from our phones. Having all this information at our fingertips has saved us countless times on the road.
Culture Queen: This is such good advice. It’s important to build and protect your contact list. Tell us some advice that you wish someone would have shared with you about working in the children’s music business.
Mister G: First of all I wish that someone had told me that there was a children’s music business!
Culture Queen: I know, right?! I wish it was something you could major in at a university!
Mister G: After many years touring in bands and as a solo singer/songwriter performing for grown-ups, I went back to school and got a Masters of Education, with the intention of becoming an elementary school classroom teacher. At the time, I had no idea that there was a possible pathway to combine my background as musician/producer with my interest in teaching and working with kids. There really isn’t any sort of guidebook or roadmap to what we all do, but I certainly wish there had been. Everything that has happened with the Mister G project has been an organic evolution—I’ve simply been trying to combine a number of my lifelong loves to create my dream job. The advice I wished I’d received would have needed to come from a more experienced children’s musician and teaching artist as it would have been nice to know that there is an actual job that includes performing at theaters, festivals, performing arts centers, museums, schools and libraries…you just need to figure out how to make it happen!
Culture Queen: It truly is a dream job. Only, some of the best practices of the music business don’t always apply to the children’s music business. That’s the reason I started this “Music Business Monday” series to help us to get some concrete advice from veterans in our field. What are 3 tools that you feel that every professional children’s music artist should have to make life easier:
- As I mentioned before, a database is crucial! I use Highrise because it’s web-based and I work with remote employees who also need to be able to access it regularly. We can create tasks related to our contacts, and assign them dates in the future so we get reminded with plenty of time to reach out. It’s a powerful tool to have all your important information and contacts in one place.
- Having a newsletter helps us easily keep in touch with fans all over the world. From the beginning, we’ve been carrying newsletter sign-up sheets to every concert and offering free stickers to kids whose parents sign up. We also send out free song downloads, videos, prizes, discounts, sales… you name it. People stay engaged with our act years after they’ve seen us perform live.
- We use the Square for credit card transactions, and it has definitely led to increased merchandise sales. The platform is simple and straightforward, and it works with a phone and is very easy to use. Very often people say they don’t have cash on-hand, but brighten up when I tell them we can accept credit cards.
Culture Queen: These are all great tools! The newsletter is crucial to staying connected! I can’t wait to incorporate Highrise into my own business. Thanks for the advice. In your opinion, what are 3 best practices that every professional children’s music artist should make a habit of?
- Use the voice memo on your cell phone to capture new song ideas. These days, we’re all walking around with mini-recording studios on our phone and I use mine all the time as the seeds of new songs occur at random times— walking the dog, at an airport etc.
- Develop some facility with recording technology. While our phones provided some basic recording technology, our laptops are now capable of full-blown album production. The more autonomous you are in the studio, the more you can shape the sonic aesthetic of whatever you’re trying to achieve in the studio. You’ll also keep your costs down if you can record and mix in your own studio. At the end of the day, the recordings are a major part of how you are presenting yourself to the world and how you will be evaluated. With that in mind, it’s a good idea to become as conversant as possible with studio technology and production.
- Always travel with essential spare backup gear: strings, batteries and, if possible, a backup instrument. In my case, that also means bringing an extra hat!
Thanks, Mister G and Missus G for sharing your great and thoughtful advice. I’ll be sure to take heed, and I know our readers will too! Let’s check out my favorite song by Mister G called “Gonna Take My Hat”! To learn more about Mister G, click here!