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.