photo belongs to the Library of Congress
For many people, the idea of playing music for a living sounds about as probable as winning the lottery. They imagine a glamorous, care-free lifestyle filled with leisure and all-consuming moments of artistic inspiration. Others think a life in music must be spent in abject poverty as the proverbial starving artist. For most, success will look like something in between these extremes.
This four-part series is aimed toward two groups of musicians, those in a non-music related job who feel stuck and musicians who already do music but are dissatisfied with their careers. In Part 1, we discuss the pitfalls and obstacles involved in earning a living in music.
photo by a2gemma
The first big hurdle standing between the job you hate and a music career is YOU! We are our own worst enemies. We sabotage our efforts by hiding our music. We don't announce our gigs. We don't talk to the audience. And we do all the no-no's I mention in 7 Reasons Why You Have No Gigs. I mess this stuff up all the time. For me and many of my readers, the biggest impact on our careers will come through changing our thoughts and behavior. Recognize that you have more influence on your circumstances than does any bandleader, club owner, critic, or teacher.
photo by Gerry Lauzon
There is this notion embedded in musician culture that if we just practice enough, everything will work out. When asked to explain the mechanism for how this would work, most wood-shed disciples describe a story barely more believable than Wynton Marsalis riding in on a white horse, knocking down your practice room door, and handing you a one-way plane ticket to New York City. It's a romantic idea, and I've repeated the myth verbatim many times.
For many of us, it starts when we initiate an apprenticeship with an old, grey-beard master. Some teachers perpetuate the myth by saying things like, "You are just one phone call away," or "When you're ready, all I have to do is give the word." I don't know if these words come from good intentions or are self-serving, but they are dangerous.
This hierarchical model helps to maintain the status quo, but is unsustainable for the long-haul, resulting in little more than a glorified ponzi scheme wrought with dependence. Have you ever wondered why these "young lions" are all in their early 40s? It takes that long to "make it" in the current paradigm.
Let me be clear; no one is coming to save you. Sure, there are those old tales of people like Phineas Newborn, Jr. or Wes Montgomery who were "discovered" in Memphis and Indy respectively. But even if it's in the cards for you to become so undeniably great that record labels are beating your doors down like brain-mongers in a zombie apocalypse, do you really want to give up so much autonomy to people who may not have your best interests in mind? You may be trading one unappreciative boss for another.
photo by Ian Muttoo
I agree with writer and world traveler Chris Guillebeau that we should ignore the gate-keepers of society. No longer is it necessary to wait for acknowledgement, validation, or a long-enough resume. If you make good music and spend the proper amount of time getting it out there, it is my belief that you will find an audience.
We are blessed by having communication technologies that were once science fiction. Instead of appealing to millions, go find your niche, build your community of hundreds or thousands, and as Guillebeau says, "go be awesome." If we are going to make it in music, we have to take the reigns and take action. No one is coming to save us, especially not from ourselves.
“The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.” ~ Ayn Rand
Before moving on to structural problems, I've got to mention Steven Pressfield's book The War of Art. I stand by my endorsement from when I reviewed the book. It's quite simply the best book about creative work I've ever read.
There are at least three concepts Pressfield articulates that we have to get right. First is identifying Resistance. For Pressfield, Resistance is a palatable force that wants us to fail. It manifests itself as procrastination, illness, distraction, social drama, and much more. If you don't know you're in a war, you're going to get slaughtered. Identify Resistance.
Second is Turning Pro. This is more than being self-employed. It's a mindset that separates us from weekend-warrior types. Long before you get to quit the job you hate, it's necessary to mentally Turn Pro. You must learn to show up to work every day, especially when you don't get paid for it. Stop wrapping your self-worth into the success or failure of your music career. Instead, Turn Pro, and get the job done.
Lastly, Pressfield differentiates Hierarchical and Territorial existence. We are hard-wired for Hierarchical thinking. Remember 6th grade? Who's cool? Who's not. Who's got this gig or that gig? What does so and so think about so and so's playing? All that stuff is part of our Hierarchical mindset, and it's toxic to the creative process. Instead, Pressfield suggests learning to live in a more Territorial mindset. Learn to get into the zone, get into your space, beat resistance, and drag home the creative bacon one day at a time. Doing music is full of challenges. We can't let where we are in a pecking order impact the music we make.
photo by Charles Meeks
The older I get the more precious time becomes. Someone said that life and time are like a roll of toilet paper; it goes faster when you get closer to the end. For someone gearing up to quit their day job, time is going to be scarce. Before planning the Stepping Stones in Part 4, it might be helpful to conduct a time audit. Instead of planning out each moment, simply observe and record where all your time goes. Cooking dinner, commuting, and practicing basic hygiene can take a frustratingly long amount of time when you become more time conscious. For more, check out my article New Thoughts on Time Management.
photo by Tambako the Jaguar
Energy will most certainly be a scarce resource as you prepare to quit your day job. I find it best to do my most important creative work in the morning. I know that most gigs are at night, but practicing, writing, planning and other tasks can be done before your day-job. Sadly I've found I can "show up" to most of my paid work, whether it be teaching or playing music, and for the most part be fine. If I'm tired, I just grit and bare it. The same can't be true if I wait until 10pm to practice. There's just no gas left in the tank. Use your energy wisely.
photo by 401(K) 2012
Money is helpful. If you had tons of money, you probably wouldn't be reading about how to quit your job and do music. For me, money is a means to an end. It's a store of value and a means of exchange that may represent labor, creative energy, infrastructure, and capital investment. By the way, unlike what the talking heads on TV say, capital is not created by the banking industry. Capital is excess production that isn't consumed. In other words, someone has to save money before real capital is created, but I digress.
For most of us, our income is mostly an expression of our labor. We put X number of hours work in, and we get Y number of dollars out. When it comes to music, we have to change how we think of it. If we only did the work that we got directly payed for, we would never practice, and we would never market ourselves. We would simply show up to the gig. Sadly I've met many of these musicians. Usually they are lost, disillusioned individuals who feel stuck. If they're lucky, they have enough gigs that their technique and repertoire don't atrophy to a non-functional level.
You've got to recognize the need to do work that doesn't directly pay you back monetarily. Unless you have a great deal of money saved up, most of your capital investment will be excess work(time+energy=work) that you put into your fledgling music career. In the same way that you conduct a time audit, it would be helpful to get on a fiscal budget and cut out the excess. Walk lightly and carry a big bag of money. To read more about the sad reality of money and music check out my article A Penny Unearned is 1.56 Pennies Saved: How to Avoid Financial Suicide.
photo by Dave Gough
Two people who do the same amount of work, have the same amount of time, and spend the same amount of money will often achieve vastly different levels of success. What make the difference is focus. Focus is our ability to direct our time, energy, and money into those tasks that help us succeed. Ultimately focus may be our greatest tool. Yes, it is a conceptual component. But it's best to look at it in reference to our time, energy, and money.
Without focus, we are destined to keep living "lives of quiet desperation." Focus is both a positive and negative force. We attract attention toward those things we find useful and meaningful, and we push away the mental and physical clutter that can consume our lives. Focus is the rudder that steers the boat. Without it, we're lost.
photo by Phillip Rood
You know it, and I know it; your biggest structural problem is your 9-to-5 job. It consumes the largest amount of your time, energy, and focus while compensating you with money. One caveat might be those with a full-time music related job with which they are happy. But if that's you, why are you reading this article? In Part 2, we'll look at something I call Part-time Everything. Part 3 is all about the many different kinds of music jobs, and Part-4 explains the Stepping Stones method for quitting your job.