The Rediscover State College Podcast

Becoming a Professional Musician in State College

Season 1 / Episode 5

Eric Ian Farmer’s cool job in State College: professional musician.

Eric was born in State College but grew up in North Carolina. He found his way back to Penn State for graduate school, and that’s when his music career began. Eric is a singer, songwriter, and educator. His music is inspired by musicians such as Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley, and he describes his music as heartfelt and passionate.

In this episode, Eric talks about why he decided to pursue his music career in State College, how the music scene in State College has evolved, and what it’s like making it as a musician in the area.

Make sure you stick around through the end of the episode – we’ll enter our segment called “How to Do the Thing,” where Eric will give you three actionable steps you can take towards getting involved with the music scene professionally in State College.

Brad Groznik: [00:00:00] This is the Rediscover State College Podcast. On this show, we talk to locals about how they were able to find their happy place in Happy Valley. I’m your host, Brad Gronik. With us today, we have Eric Ian Farmer. Eric is a professional musician who performs his original music at venues across the state college area.

We’ll talk about what brought Eric back to the place he was born and how he was able to make it as a musician in this small town of state college. Eric, thank you so much for, for chatting with me today. How are you doing?

Eric Ian Farmer: I’m doing great, Brad. Thanks for having me here today.

Brad Groznik: You know, when we were, we were talking the team and I about people who have cool jobs in the area, uh, you, you just like automatically came to mind.

Can you tell the listeners a little bit about what you do and, and, and how you do it?

Eric Ian Farmer: Well, I’m happy to be here and happy to talk about music ’cause that’s what I do. Uh, I’m a singer, songwriter and educator. So I do my most of my [00:01:00] singing in State College here in Pennsylvania, and I do most of my educator work in Estes Park, Colorado.

I’m a part-time music instructor at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center. Cool.

Brad Groznik: For the listeners who haven’t heard you, can you describe a little bit about the type of music that you do?

Eric Ian Farmer: That’s always a challenge for me, but I’ll do my best. My music involves interpretations of artists like Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Bob Marley, and I wish my work sounded like or as good as those artists.

However, I do my best to put my own spin on on some of their works. I try to keep alive some of their classics, especially the ones that that touch me in the heart. Touch me the deepest songs like What’s Going On? Mercy, mercy me. By Marvin Gay songs like Redemption Song is This Love by Bob Marley, songs by Otis Redding, like Dock of the Bay.

And that’s how strong my love [00:02:00] is. Singing is my main, my, my voice is my main instrument. Singing is a, is a, is a passion of mine, but also play guitar, little bit of percussion, and I’m learning the banjo. So every blue moon, the banjo makes an appearance in a performance. Performances are, I’d say the music is, is heartfelt.

I’d say the music is passionate, and I mean, in an energetic.

Connects me to the person listening or the people listening. I’m also hoping that the music connects the people listening to themselves.

Brad Groznik: Yeah. And I would say I could vouch for all of that. Uh, I was curious how you would describe it too. I think every time I get to see you perform, it’s such a privilege.

Your, your performances are so affecting. And it does really feel like, even though I’m sitting in the audience, I feel part of the performance. And, and you’re really, you’re, you’re such, you do such an amazing job of touching everyone. And I think [00:03:00] that’s, it’s, it’s really powerful, really. You’re really powerful as a performer and as a singer.

You’ve kind of like, for me, at least in, in my second round, you know, I went to college here in the early two thousands, and I’m not sure you, you had, you were around here then, but. Since I’ve been back, you know, I moved back in in 2015. You’ve been everywhere. So tell me a little bit about your, your background.

I know you were born here, but grew up in North Carolina and kind of found your way back. Can you tell us a little bit about that story or that journey back to State College?

Eric Ian Farmer: For sure. You got it right. I was born here when my father was a graduate student. I was raised in North Carolina and then I came back here in 2009 and I too went to graduate school at Penn State.

In the same college as my father, the College of Education. While studying at Penn State, my music career started to open up a bit. I started to like learn a few more chords on the guitar ’cause I didn’t grow up playing, playing the guitar. That’s something I learned as an adult. Spent a little more time just strumming on it.

And a [00:04:00] couple years into the program, I asked a local business owner could I perform at his and his wife’s restaurant. He looked at me. Never having heard a note come out of my mouth, only ever seeing me like eat the food at their restaurant. But he was like, Hey, if you think you’re ready, then I’ll support you.

Oh, this is great. I love it. Already. A bunch of support from the beginning that started a journey of music and connection with this community. By the time I graduated from Penn State, I started playing music a whole lot more. Even tried to do it full time, like, hey, I’m 40 years old after graduating. I’ve never tried centering my artist identity or allowing it to be at the center of my identity.

You know what? I’m gonna try it now. So I gave it a whirl for a couple of years and then went back to a more nine to five world of work for a few years. [00:05:00] And then in that world, I realized that music is my calling. Others say that they knew that about me before I did, but you gotta know it for yourself.

And so not long after I realized that I come back to a music life path this time realizing that if things don’t go how I plan it, I just need to change it so I can stay on this music path rather than finding another path. Now I realize this is my call. This is where I belong. Music is where I belong.

Brad Groznik: Tell me what, why have you chosen to pursue that calling in State College? Or what, what is it about this town that, that keeps you here?

Eric Ian Farmer: One of the things I love about State College is people here love live music, and they appreciate it in multiple contexts, in special ceremonies connected to their lives, uh, when they’re eating their meals.

They like it or they [00:06:00] appreciate it in entertainment context, like going to a theater or a concert or a show. And I appreciate that. The music that I’ve made is also well received and very much encouraged, like even just a little bit that I’m doing because I feel like I’m not doing that much on the guitar, but I mean, I’m doing my best, but what I’m sharing, I feel like people are receiving and that connection hopefully is feeding both of us.

It’s definitely feeding me. One thing I’ve learned in my years on this earth, relationships are the thing that are most important and the music facilitates for me a beautiful set of relationships. Also, there are a lot of opportunities here. There are restaurants and cafes and theaters and private events and university functions and church events, religious events, all sorts of stuff going on where people are.

Inviting musicians in to come play [00:07:00] live. That works real good for me. That works for the kind of music that I like to make music in the digital world. That’s cool too. That’s great. But for me and the kind of music that I make, it fits well with a lot of the things that people are, a lot of the opportunities that are available.

Brad Groznik: Yeah. That’s one of the things that I, I was curious about, like the fact that State College is a college town. Does that make your life. A little bit easier in terms of booking shows and stuff, just because it seems like there are a number of live music venues downtown and you know, there are audiences any, any night of the week wanting to listen to music and stuff.

Is that, does that make it easier or is that just kind of, you know, you seek that out no matter where you are?

Eric Ian Farmer: Good question. Looking at the audiences that show up, there are some college students. Some undergraduates, some graduates. There’s also a sizable part of the audience that’s between like 40 and [00:08:00] 75, so I appreciate the age diversity that that supports, the music that I’m making.

Brad Groznik: Over the number of years that you’ve been performing, does any one or two performances stand out as like that?

Eric Ian Farmer: That one was really special in 2018. I got a chance to bring together nearly all the collaborators that, that I’ve worked with over these past for about 10, 10 years. The state Theater, let me put a show on the, the main stage.

So we teamed up for a concert for Unity through the arts, maybe 25, 30 collaborators. And we went through much of the catalog. That’s a part of what I often share. And oh man, it was, it was a special night. It was a special experience. There was music, of course, but also there was poetry. There was dance, there was food, there was butter chicken up in the state theater attic.

There was visual art [00:09:00] out in the, the lobby of the state theater. There was beer from a, a regional brewer. Yeah. That was a beautiful intersection of the arts. Of, of energy. Yeah. It was, it was, it was a nightmare. It was a night.

Brad Groznik: How, I’m curious how the music scene has changed, you know, since you started in 2009 to to now.

Eric Ian Farmer: One of the things that comes to mind is one of my collaborators is from Venezuela. She’s been living here for several years and she only sings in Spanish and she plays the Venezuela Quatro. So started. Doing shows that have songs in English and songs in Spanish. Before we started doing that, I didn’t see much music in Spanish out on the live music scene here in State College.

I still don’t see a ton, but over these last few years of playing together, the reception of music in Spanish, I feel like has widened.

Brad Groznik: You mentioned a [00:10:00] number of the positives that you see about the state college music scene. What could be improved?

Eric Ian Farmer: Good question. Hmm. I remember I was talking to someone maybe who was a visitor, uh, this was several years ago, and I think when we were talking about music and I think they were asking about, well, I’m a big fan of jazz and blues era.

That’s the, that’s the music I’m looking for. I was like, well, I think our jazz scene, it exists, but I feel like it’s, I feel like it’s small and I feel similarly about our blues scene, an expansion of our jazz scene, expansion of our blues scene. I. That would be interesting.

Brad Groznik: I’m also curious, what’s it like making it as a musician in State college?

If you were talking to a fellow musician, you know, and you were comparing notes like, you know what? What’s the quality of life for a musician in state college?

Eric Ian Farmer: That is a question that probably has multiple answers because I feel like there are multiple musicians who spend the bulk, if not all of their time, or at least work time playing music.

For me, I know getting into the music life, [00:11:00] I think back to some of those memes that used to be online, maybe they still are, that are structures sort of like, this is what people think my life is like, this is what I thought my life was going to be like, but this is what my life is really like, you know?

And I learned that to have an artistic life also takes a lot of administrative work, and I didn’t realize how much time I would be spending on administrative work and technical work. Bringing my sound equipment around from place to place. Oh, I need to learn how to plug these microphones in. I need to learn how to set up these PAs.

I need to have the energy to break all this stuff down and load it into my car. And then when I get home, load it from the car back into the house. And. Spending a lot of time on the computer, sending emails and fielding messages and setting up performances and calling collaborators, and then receiving the money from the, from the performance and paying all the people in the various ways that they wanna be paid.[00:12:00]

Yeah. Becoming a sound technician, a producer, part-time event planner. You know, there are a number of things that. Or outside of the world of singing and songwriting that I did not anticipate as much. So talking to other musicians, that’s one of the things that I feel like is part of the conversation. I didn’t know that.

I didn’t know about so much of those things. I think if you don’t mind, or if you’re into wearing many hats, I think you can take advantage of a lot of opportunities in this area. I think a number of people want music, so there are a lot of opportunities. There are a lot of places where you can share your music.

Is there always a microphone in those places where they want you to come share your music? You might have to bring your own. Is there always a PA for you to play through in all those spaces? You might have to bring your own. So you might have to learn how to use that kind of, you might have to become savvy in some of these areas, places may not [00:13:00] have a stage for you to play on.

Okay, that’s cool. I’ve learned to play in a corner. I’ve learned to play with people standing like three feet or maybe 12 inches away from my microphone. Okay. You might have to play in places that are different than the ones you imagined you’d be playing in. Maybe you thought it’ll always be on the stage where like everyone is listening to what you’re sharing.

You could try that lane only that lane, but I think you can work more if you’re willing to play in places where. People might be having a conversation while you are performing, and so what you share and how you share is affected by you interacting with that vibe. So how I perform in a place where people are doing other things is a little bit different than how I might perform in the kinds of songs I might share.

In a place where like, people have bought tickets, they’re sitting down, they’ve stopped their conversations, and they’re listening to, you know, what’s being shared at the microphone. [00:14:00] I think if you’re flexible, if you are. Creative. If you are industrious, if you’re also able to do more than one thing, I feel like you can have a different kind of quality of life.

Meaning if you sing lead, that’s great. Okay, cool. That’s great. If you can also maybe sing harmony, then you can maybe hop in with other people or be able to collaborate with folks and work a bit more. Okay, cool. You play guitar, do you also play, I don’t know, mandolin or violin or piano? You know, can you, can you fit in in multiple ways?

I think that’s going to increase the number of opportunities that you have and hopefully improve the kind of quality of life you can have.

Brad Groznik: Yeah, wow. That, that really resonates. Like, you know, I’m not a musician, but what you just described is very entrepreneurial and I think this town really seems to accept and support entrepreneurs.

Like you said, like all the resources aren’t available to sing lead every night while with people looking at you and not talking and all this. Right, right. But if you’re, but if you’re o if, if your [00:15:00] passion or like if your goal is to be a professional musician and you’re willing to do what it takes, like this town can is rallies around and supports you, and that’s how I felt around starting my own business.

You know, it’s just like, As long as I’m, I’m amenable to wearing many hats, like you said, you can make it work for me. It’s fun to do that. It just really what resonates with what you said. And then the stuff about relationships, like this town just trades on trust. So if you’re the type of musician, I imagine that’s gonna show up when you say he is gonna show up and, and you’re able to be a little bit more entrepreneurial in like, Hey, don’t worry.

Like I, I can make this work Word spreads. And before you know it, you just, you find yourself with a lot of opportunities. Cool. So now we’re gonna enter our segment called How to Do the Thing where we ask you to lay out briefly for us three actionable steps on how to do the thing, or at least how to get started doing the thing.

The thing in this case is getting involved with the music scene professionally in state college. What would you say are three actual [00:16:00] steps our listeners could take toward achieving that goal?

Eric Ian Farmer: Let me contextualize this by saying, I’m assuming that this person has practiced up. Enough material to be able to share.

Okay. With that assumption, I would say the places that you would like to share your music, I think you should visit there. You wanna play in this nightclub, or you wanna play in this venue, hang out at that venue and not just like, I’m gonna hang out, but I’m gonna go like, make sure I tell the manager there that I wanna sing there or I want to like just.

Go and hang out, buy an appetizer, buy an entree, you know, support the place. Watch somebody else’s show. Just be a person who like enjoys that space and yeah, go up to the manager or the owner or the employees and just introduce yourself just as a human being. That’s something I think can help. I think the open mic scene, which used to be a lot, a lot more vibrant, but as with [00:17:00] anything, things change over time.

There’s still some open mics here in the area. I think open mics, at least for me, they’ve been huge in my career. A space where you just go, you share a song, or two or three, you watch other people share their songs or poems or comedy. You meet people, you connect with venues. I think it’s a great space for play, for relationships, for experimentation.

I feel like on more than one occasion, an open mic that very night has led to an A venue asking about can we do something further? Great. Not every time, but that can happen. And a third thing a person should do, or a recommended practice, I’m gonna put two in one and this touches on, I think something you mentioned earlier.

One, be approachable. Be the kind of person that people like. It’s easy to connect with you. With that, I would say have materials [00:18:00] accessible that people can do homework on. You. So a website or using the social media or whatever it is, have a way for people to easily be able to find out more about you and the art that you share.

So making yourself sort of like, I dunno, digitally approachable.

Brad Groznik: Yeah. Yeah, those are fantastic. Eric, thanks so much for, for jumping on and sharing your views with us. I love what you do in the community. I’m excited to, to continue seeing you perform around town and so thanks so much. Thanks for joining us for this episode of the Rediscover State College Podcast.

If you like what you heard and want to hear more, Please subscribe to the Rediscover State College Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts. If you want to connect with Eric about anything we just talked about or you just have some thoughts about the music scene in State College, email us at