The Triple Threat to Performing Music as a Career

Dan with a Sousaphone

This may or may not have been my outfit for the evening.

On a Sunday evening last fall, I had just finished playing a traditional jazz gig at a great bar.  I was getting ready to go home, when I remembered there was an open mic in the area.  Even though it was late on a “school night,” I was still feeling pretty pumped from my show, so I lugged my sousaphone down the street to play it in the open mic.  I hadn’t really prepared anything for it, but I was feeling up for improvising.  I ended up playing Summertime, a blues to which I sang between playing on the sousaphone, and Bad Romance, all of which went over well.

When I left, on my way back to the car, I saw a trumpet player playing on the corner.  As I was carrying a large silver sousaphone, I could hardly slink by, and he started asking me about the horn.  We started talking about being brass players and musicians, and he asked me about my gigging.  When I told him I was just starting with the sousaphone, I remember his telling me to just start putting things on the calendar, and pretty soon I’d be playing a lot of gigs.  When I got back to the car, I had a flash of insight: wouldn’t it be great if this were every night for me.  Or in other words, I’d love be a musician full-time.

For various reasons, it’s something I had put aside in my life.  Some of those reasons came from insecurity.  Besides the obvious mood-killer question “am I good enough,” I was concerned about my financial security.  I have a mortgage, a car, a cell phone, internet access, and a lifestyle I like.  Would making this life decision destroy all those things I worked so hard for?  Would I have to stop eating out?  Never go on vacation?  Move in with my parents?  Yikes!

Some of my reasoning was more about the person who I am.  I like teaching.  I like working with computers.  I like having diversity in my life.  Would I still be able to have all those fantastic things if I devoted much more time to music?

I didn’t have the answers to those questions.  So in search of them, I gathered my resources and spoke to several friends for whom music is their primary source of income.  I’m fortunate to have many friends who have successful music careers.  It was incredibly enlightening to see how musicians make this work.  However, this is where I encountered what I call the triple threat to performing music as a career.  Almost every person I spoke to fell into one or more of these three categories:

1. The Nest Egg

Several people I spoke to had a significant savings amassed before they decided to make music their career.  One person, who lives in a beautiful house in the country, began our interview with “just so you know, everything that you see here is leftover from when I was making a quarter million dollars per year.”  One person admitted that they relied on support from their wealthy family.  A few saved this money on their own from years of working a 9 to 5.

2. Bert and Earnie

Many of the people I spoke to had a partner and had merged finances.  Not only were they earning more collectively, but they were splitting their expenses.  Additionally, there were several couples in which one person got family health benefits for the other person.

3. Benefits?  What are they?

Finally, one person I spoke to had recently purchased a nice house and is sustaining a respectable music career.  I asked him how he managed, and he told me that he lived with his girlfriend, so they share the expenses. Additionally, his parents had helped him out with buying the house, though most of the money came from him.  When I asked him about how he afforded health insurance, his response was, “oh, I don’t have health insurance.”

These were all important to hear, though frustrating.  I did not have a quarter million dollar per year job at any point, and relying on the support of my family is not something I am interested in.  My partner and I are financially independent and don’t want to entwine finances or cohabitate (let alone get married).  Finally, doing without health insurance is not something I’m willing to gamble with.

If you’re an artist, how do you fit into this spectrum?  Have you found another way?  What works for you?

If you’re not an artist, do you have a similar conundrum in your work?  I have a feeling this is more universal than we might think at first.

I keep reminding myself I’m glimpsing several methods that are successful for different people.  I can take pieces of these and fit them into my own life, but I don’t have to use the entire template.  In fact, every person’s approach to music as a career is different, so following a template would probably not be successful for me.  That’s part of what’s so frustrating; there aren’t any other tuba/accordion/songwriter/toy piano artists out there to guide my path.  I have no illusions that working in the music industry is easy by any means.  It’s an interesting process to explore, though, and I’m enjoying getting to know it better, even if the outcome is murky.

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8 thoughts on “The Triple Threat to Performing Music as a Career

  1. Bryce Moore says:

    Author here, not musician, but the same three obstacles apply to any aspiring artist. What I’ve settled on is acknowledging that–unless I get wildly lucky–I will always be both a librarian and an author. Working as a librarian, I have the benefits. I have the spare time to work on my art. Any money I make as a writer is gravy. This is a great position to be in. That said, I have several friends who lost their jobs and went at being authors 100%. They’re now pulling in six figure deals. So maybe I’m just chicken.

    But I’m a chicken with a nice house, two cars, insurance, and a happy family. That’s one content chicken there.

    As is, if I sell a book for even just a few thousand, that’s still a few thousand than I had before. It’s a wonderful perk, and I don’t have to worry about it putting food on the table. Even if I were to start getting those six figure deals, I think I’d still work as a librarian, at least for the immediate future. Having that stability is something I really value as an artist.

  2. neonandshy says:

    I understand and appreciate that need for security, especially while raising a family. But I don’t think it’s wild luck that allows someone to make an artistic passion their successful career. I think it’s crazy amounts of work, dedication, organization, talent, and yeah, a little luck (right place, right time). Of course, you have to be wildly lucky to have all those things come together. 🙂

  3. MN says:

    Living with your parents!!!!! YIKES!!!!!!!!

  4. Bryan Guy says:

    “you have to be wildly lucky to have all those things come together.” Amen to that. Truly DIY artists, for the most part, seem to be made to have to sacrifice SOMEthing in order to do their art as a living. And that’s above and beyond the inherent gamble of “successful” art, as it is. If your art is what you are, it’s up to you to form your life, by whatever means necessary, to facilitate the execution of that art. Some artists do/have done this instinctually. Sometimes, that makes them a-holes. The rest of us need to figure out where our priorities really are. Most of us have the misfortune of being at least equally dedicated to something else, be it comfort, or another person. Art can still hit, but it would have to be “smart-bomb”, rather than “carpet-bomb”.

    • neonandshy says:

      Well said, Bryan.

      I’m finding that what I lose more than anything is my free time. It’s rare that a weekend goes by when I don’t have a gig, a rehearsal, or the need to practice for a gig or rehearsal. I’m delighted to be doing these things I love, and also exhausted in the process.

      I think you’re being a bit tongue-in-cheek when you mention the “misfortune of being at least equally dedicated to something else,” but I like the idea of artists as diverse people with multiple interests. Culturally, I think we see artists as either completely dedicated or amateur hobbyists, but I’d like to believe there’s some middle ground.

      I do like your idea of working smarter, not harder with targeted goals as opposed to projectile vomit.

      • Bryan Guy says:

        I was absolutely being tongue-in-cheek by using the word “misfortune”. I think there’s a word for people who are without this misfortune: “sociopath”.

  5. […] a full-time musician.  I spoke to several musician friends for insight into how they make it work (which I chronicled here, along with more details about September 25, 2011), with mixed results.  I started planning out what my life would look like as a member of the […]

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