When it comes to working as a professional artist, the secret to success isn’t “rocket science,” says Barry Cloyd. “It’s just commitment.” Trust him—this guy knows what he’s talking about. The Peoria-based singer/songwriter/storyteller/multi-instrumentalist has spent the past 14 years traveling the world, making music, building a successful arts career, and loving life while doing it all. Between playing regular gigs on the Spirit of Peoria and bringing history to life alongside his business partner and confidant Brian “Fox” Ellis through Prairie Folklore Theatre, Cloyd has managed to write upwards of 400 songs, record nine CDS, perform some 200 shows annually, and make a decent living at it. He’s played cities from Chicago to Blarney, Ireland; jammed with the likes of Chris Hillman, Marty Sammon and The Carter Brothers Band; contributed his talents to more than 300 TV commercials and 70 industrial films; and recently landed an international endorsement deal with Recording King Guitars.
But before he could fulfill his lifelong dream of “making it” as a musician, it took an unexpected job loss and divorce to push the former sales & marketing VP into taking a leap of faith and launching his own business, Barry Cloyd Productions. iBi recently caught up with the free-spirited folk artist to talk business, music and how losing everything turned into “the best thing that ever happened” to him.
When did you first discover your love for music and the arts?
I was six years old… I picked up the guitar, and it felt like I could play it from the very beginning. I really don’t remember learning. I just remember playing. I took lessons for two years, and my teacher told my dad, “I can’t teach him anything more. I’m done. He knows where the changes come, he knows what the chords are, he knows how to keep the rhythm…” I credit my mom with that, because in order to know that kind of thing innately, I had to get it from somewhere… She just loved music, and that love came through. That was pretty much it. Once I started playing guitar, I never really wanted to do anything else.
Tells us a little about your background and upbringing.
My mom was a jazz singer; she had her own radio show when she was in college. My dad was not really musical, but there was music in his family, and [he] was a design engineer for Caterpillar… He was an artist in his own right and very logical, very logical. And I love logic. It’s kind of a weird dichotomy for a musician to be logical, because normally we’re not… I got a lot of that from my dad… My grandma on my mom’s side was a touring opera singer. She was a diva from a young age, like 12 years old. Her dad, my great-grandfather, managed, booked and ran an opera company... My brother’s a drummer. He’s retired from Cat, he’s the president of the school board, and… he still plays a little bit… So we had music all the time going on in the house growing up.
It goes way back in my family, and my parents were very encouraging, my mom in particular… I wrote my first song when I was nine. It was a dorky little love song, which I knew nothing about… but she sent it away and had the damn thing copyrighted. I was nine. It was really neat! I thought I was a big shot… but it was really a very nice way to be supportive. And they bought me some very good instruments… I still have one of them—a 1967 Martin D12-35 12-string… And they always came to see me.
You started performing at the age of nine. What kind of gigs were you booking?
The first gig I ever did—I’ll never forget it—was at a horse auction/horse barn show in Goodfield… I have no idea how they got my name, but I got 50 bucks—that was lot of money for a nine-year-old! That’s pretty sweet! I played for a half hour… and I sang everything I could think about related to horses.
After that, I started to do little things. I got into theatre, I was in the army for a while… After I came back I… did a lot of Corn Stock and [Peoria] Players stuff, and that was really valuable… You get to learn about all kinds of stagecraft, and it doesn’t cost you anything except your time. And you get to have a good time. I’m really a supporter of that kind of beginning for people—to get into community theatre and learn how to be on stage, learn how to entertain. It’s not all about standing up there and singing songs; it’s about entertaining. That’s a whole other discipline, and that’s something nobody teaches you—you’ve got to figure that one out on your own.
How did you get into sales and marketing?
I think your personality puts you into sales and marketing. My mom would probably slap me if she heard me tell you this, but my mom had bad teeth… She had to have dentures … [When I was younger,] I was charging kids a nickel to see her dentures, and I had them lined up down the driveway! So I’ve been selling stuff all my life.
I think personality drives you into it, and I was always one to not be afraid to stand up in front of people and talk. I used to get in trouble for talking in class, and now, I make a living out of it. That’s kind of what drove me into sales, and I was there for about 30 years in various companies... I enjoyed the sales. Marketing was work; the sales were fun. But the corporate world, [I] never fit in… Too many games… And the games in the corporate world, at least from my estimation, were not only damaging, they were brutal. People want your job. Some people will do anything to get it—take advantage of you when you’re down… I got stabbed in the back and the knife got twisted, many times, in the corporate world. And finally, I got unceremoniously tossed out and that was the beginning of the best time in my life.
When did you become a full-time, professional artist?
It was 14 years ago… It was the end of a whole bunch of stuff. Everything I had known until that point in time—except the core of who I was—was gone… It was ugly, and I was not the person that I am now… You can only fight against yourself for so long before it starts to take a toll—physically, mentally, emotionally, all that. It did. And getting fired was like, “OK. Now what? Let’s do this thing! Got nothing holding me back now. I’ve got no money. Let’s start over again.” So that’s exactly what happened.
How would you describe your first year as a full time, professional artist?
The first year, I very fortunately managed to—with help [from] my good friend Brian “Fox” Ellis—get a job on the riverboat. That was my first stable gig, and I still work on the riverboat. It also opened up a whole other chapter with riverboat history, the history of Illinois, and the history of Peoria. I’ve learned a ton about that, and do a lot of that in performances.
The first year was not terribly easy, but it was also really exciting, because I knew I wasn’t going to turn back. I wasn’t going to quit. I really had no other choice, because going back into the corporate world wasn’t an option… I didn’t want to be anybody’s subordinate anymore. I wanted to run my own show. See, I don’t have a boss now. My boss is a pretty nice guy. He actually lets me do what I want to do, and he never gives me any crap. That’s a freedom you don’t understand until you do it. It’s as much a responsibility as it is a freedom… That’s where that commitment thing comes in… that if I was going to make this work, I had to do it myself.
What are some of the biggest hurdles you’ve encountered?
You never quite know if you’re “good enough…” There are so many people out there that do music that are really excellent… I think the challenge is to keep improving… I used to get to a place where I would find myself frustrated because I couldn’t go any farther, and the way to get through that is to just keep on playing. Play the stuff you know. Play it over and over and over again. Eventually, you’ll find something different—you’ll play a different chord in a spot where you played something else, and you’ll go “Huh. That’s kind of cool!”
Another piece… is the songwriting part… You can get [inspiration] from a lot of places… I like to disappear into the woods or go kayaking or ride my bike or something. I try not to go anywhere without a pad of paper and a pencil or pen on me, because I’ve gotten some really good ideas.
The second part of the songwriting process is the craft… That’s where the work comes in. You get on the instrument and start playing around, and you find something that’s interesting, different, with a mind toward the inspiration you just wrote down. Will this work? Will that work? You start messing around, and if you’re lucky, a story starts to build. I once read: “Songwriting is like driving across country at night, the whole way, with nothing but your headlights to guide you.” You can only see a little way in front of you… I really like that challenge because it’s one you’re never sure of—never sure if the next song is even going to show up.
[Last,] the recording studio is very, very disciplined. It’s very precise, and if you’re not locked in, you’ll waste a lot of money and not get anything done. So that’s a challenge, and it’s a challenge I love. I love the studio; it’s a timeless world. You go in there at eight o’clock in the morning, and it’ll be ten o’clock at night and you’ll think three hours have gone by.
How has Barry Cloyd Productions grown since it started in 2000?
I’ve got a really good website, barrycloyd.com, [where] people can listen to what I do. I’ve got an electronic press kit on there. I’m involved in online marketing. I have eight Internet radio stations now that play my stuff. I’ve got music in 34 countries. I’ve got nine CDs and a 10th on the way. I’m kind of secure in what I do—I don’t have to worry about it so much anymore. I’ve accepted a level of confidence about it.
Describe a typical day in the life of Barry Cloyd.
At home, there’s usually marketing stuff to deal with… Most of my marketing effort takes place in the winter and early spring because I’m trying to build a season. I know things are slowing down in the wintertime, and it gives me time to write and to plan long-term projects, stuff like that. But I’ll get up just like everybody else does, check to see what [my] email has to say, see if there’s anybody out there who’s interested.
I’ve got several projects that are ongoing. I’ve got two new shows I’m writing, and I’ll get up and start thinking about it or I’ll do some research. I love to read. Usually in the morning, if I have the chance and I’m not headed right out of town, I’ll sit and read for a while or take notes.
Then, I’ve got two or three songs I’m working on… some different slide guitar tunings I’m working on… I just kind of look at whatever needs to be moved along and try to do that. And if I get bored, I’ll go take a walk or do whatever I can time-wise.
When I’m traveling, I just load up my stuff, hope I’ve got everything I need, and take off… When I’m gone traveling, I always look for places to hike… and get out and enjoy the outdoors… [I] take the daytime and enjoy, look around the town, see what there is to see.
How do you balance the “creative” side with the “business” side?
I look at it as part of what I need to do to work. And yeah, it’s kind of a pain in the butt at times, but it’s also something that I know how to do and it’s not that difficult, because I’ve got a network of people that will hire me back and I’m always trying to find new stuff. The intense part is trying to find “the new stuff”—trying to contact those people who don’t know you, and you’ve got to prove yourself. You’ve got to prove yourself every time you go on stage—every single time—because it’s always a different audience… I look at it as a chore that needs to be done, just like cutting the grass, even though I know it’s going to pay off. Even if it doesn’t pay off today, it’ll pay off tomorrow or the day after.
How important is networking in the arts business?
It’s very important. It’s important in any business I think, particularly if you want to go beyond where you are. I think the more friends you’ve got, the better off you are in this life. Friends are huge; they’re really, really important… Networking is expanding that network of friends.
What do you wish you would have known before starting your own arts business?
How much I would love it, because I would have done it a lot sooner. How fulfilled I would feel by, literally, running my own show, in every sense of that word.
I guess I just didn’t think about how unusual it was, because not that many people do this. I was so busy thinking about surviving and paying the bills that it didn’t occur to me until about 12 years into it that this is not that common… There are a lot of people who wish they could do it… I guess the feeling of just how damn lucky I am and fortunate I am to be able to do this.
It all fits back into the “fulfilling” thing, because it really is… It’s the only thing I ever wanted to do, and I actually get to do it… I think there are a lot of people out there who live “lives of quiet desperation,” and that was me. I was not me, I was somebody else, and it doesn’t jive. It’s like trying to put a round peg in a square hole—it doesn’t work. So it’s all good; it’s really all good. I have, seriously, no complaints. I’d like to make a little more money, who wouldn’t? But I’m working on that. The shows are getting better, the better-paying shows are getting more consistent, and… I find that the older I get, there is an audience for what I want to do.
What advice would you give others looking to turn their passion into their livelihood?
Somebody once told me… they always live by the “Wing Walker Principle”: “Don’t let go of one wing until you have a hold of the other one”—“Don’t let go of one job until you have another one.” That is not the way to do it. The way to do it is just jump off a cliff. And it’s not easy. I couldn’t have done it on my own… I got thrown off a cliff! So I had to fly or fall, and I wasn’t going to fail. That’s where that commitment comes in. Desperation gives you commitment. I’d say if somebody wants to pursue their art full-time, get yourself to the level where you’re confident enough to know that “what I have is sellable”—because somebody’s got to buy it, no matter what it is—and then quit your job. Jump. Take the leap. iBi