Joe Costello of Local 586 (Phoenix, AZ) put his promising music career as a drummer on hold nearly 25 years ago. At the time, the now 54-year-old musician says, “I thought I would save money and stash it. Being in the corporate world would support my music.” He became a weekend warrior, touring with a blues band, often doing shows in three states over three days, and returning late Sunday to begin a normal workweek.
Eventually, Costello started his own software company. It was the 1980s, at the beginning of the dot com era, and Costello says, “I thought something magical would happen. I’d buy a tour bus and tour the world.” In 2004, he moved from New York City to Phoenix. It would take him another seven years to shed the software, networking, and home automation jobs and return to music.
He pared down his belongings and anything that required a monthly payment. “It meant being lean and mean,” he says. To his astonishment, something remarkable did happen. The moment he let his business life go, music work started coming in.
Indeed, the projects now seem inexhaustible. He plays four to six nights a week (including the union hall of Local 586), and leads three working bands. He also presides over the jazz ensemble The Joe Costello Project. He heads a highly successful booking agency, Onstage Entertainment Group; teaches private drum lessons; produces shows; and as a session drummer, he records percussion tracks for a number of in-town and touring artists.
In May, Costello launched his most ambitious effort yet, The Performers Institute. The Phoenix-based facility offers summer music camps, private lessons, band coaching, music business seminars, clinics, workshops, and online courses. Costello says he wants to help artists make a living with their talent and passion for playing music, but also teach them entrepreneurial skills.
“If more musicians were educated on the business side of being a performer, they could better sustain themselves and make a living at what they love to do,” says Costello.
In business clinics he tells young musicians, “Don’t do what I did. You’ve got to go for exactly what you want. Meet it head-on.” He emphasizes that it takes more than talent. It takes learning to communicate and learning about music as an industry. He eagerly imparts what experience has taught him: develop business acumen, PR, and marketing skills, and above all, have integrity. Costello adds, “Make sure you answer your phone. Get back to people.”
Instructors and teachers at the institute are professional musicians. Costello explains that the kids absorb on-the-job lessons from people in the trenches. His goal is to bring in top-notch musicians, but also draw on professionals and experts in the field. For instance, entertainment attorneys who could explain contracts and clarify copyright for songwriters, and accountants could help independent artists with tax issues.
He wants the institute to be a destination for professional musicians making their way along the Phoenix-to-LA corridor to do seminars, workshops, and concerts. According to Costello, more musicians are relocating to Phoenix for the weather or its proximity to Los Angeles, a mere six-hour drive. Some performers cut their teeth in LA, but get tired of the rat race and move to Phoenix.
His hope is that the Performers Institute becomes an institution on par with the Musicians Institute of Los Angeles, which was similarly conceived as an innovative education facility for creative and professional careers in the music industry. People in the community know Costello is funding the institute with his own money—on a musician’s income—and they have rallied, volunteering and donating equipment, food, furniture, keyboards, and drums.
There is a particular camaraderie in the Phoenix music scene and the union is well-represented with a number of transplanted musicians. Costello holds what he calls a “musicians’ hang,” essentially a networking event where musicians show up with business cards—and a sense of what they want to accomplish in their careers. Costello feels strongly that it’s important to bring the music community together: those who want to play for fun and those who need the work. The hang helps to fast-track connections
for people. He says, “It gets things moving in the community.”
Costello grew up in Port Ewen, New York, just south of Kingston. His father owned a restaurant that was a hot spot for music. He sat in and listened to a lot of bands and learned to play the sax. But his idol was Buddy Rich, the drummer. When his parents took him to a show, he would walk out shaking. Although he played drums in high school, he entered Fredonia School of Music as a vocal major—an operatic singer. Gradually, he moved into radio, sound recording, and performance and proved to be a natural drummer for the school’s jazz ensemble.
After graduation, in between odd jobs, he performed with a quartet. Some of the musicians he played with were in Harry Connick, Jr.’s band and periodically Connick of Local 802 (New York City) would sit in and play.
Ideally, Costello says he’d model his career on that of his friend, the versatile session drummer Steve Gadd of Local 802. As a studio musician, Costello is well versed in jazz, funk, R&B, and country music. For all his accomplishments—cultivating the Costello brand and building a center for contemporary music, to say nothing of endorsements from cymbal, stick, and drum companies—you would think Costello would be content and too busy to think of anything else. Still, he has not strayed from his original dream. He still longs to tour the world.
“It’s vast,” he says, “I want to see every part of it. If I can do it, and if I can make a living, that’s my ultimate dream.” He has a core team in place at the institute and ample support from the community. One day, he hopes to have a stream of income that allows him to leave it behind for a while to just travel and play music.