All this talk about New Year’s resolutions got me thinking about a resolution I made about four years ago – not for a new year, but for a new direction in life. I had just been laid off from a once-promising job at an online upstart. Having left a 15-year career on staff at Folio Weekly, jumping into web publishing was a risk, one that almost paid off. But it wasn’t to be, and in the fall of 2011, I found myself without a job.
At the crossroads, with a wife in graduate school and a little girl who depended on me, I contemplated begging for my spot back at Folio Weekly, but I was drawn by the pull of my part-time work as a musician. It was not without some trepidation that I made the switch, and not without a struggle that I made it work.
The important part of that sentence: I made it work.
I thought my experience might be valuable to young (or even older) musicians who might be considering giving it a go as a full-time musician. So though I could probably (and just might) write a book about the subject, here’s some unsolicited advice on how to make it work.
THE LOCAL MARKET
Northeast Florida is not known for its entertainment industry, but that doesn’t mean you can’t stay busy and make money making music. Take advantage of the “smallness” of the pond and work to become a big fish. There’s a huge advantage we enjoy in Jacksonville that musicians in bigger cities battle against: In New York, Nashville, Los Angeles, Vegas, even Orlando, there are many more musicians competing for work. Granted, there’s more work to be had, but you’ll find that young musicians from Northeast Florida (especially local jazz programs’ hotshots) will leave town for fabled brighter pastures, creating constant openings for those who stay put.
The more you can do, the more you will work. Though I’m a life-long drummer, I taught myself other instruments along the way, and when I first took the leap into full-time musicianhood, I played bass in one band and slowly put together an acoustic solo act, just to make ends meet. I also expanded my private drum lessons enterprise to include piano, voice, bass and guitar. Now I work with bands three to four nights a week, perform as an acoustic solo act at least once a week and teach two days a week. I’ve also made connections with local educators and currently provide musical and arts education at local schools, churches, and libraries.
Over time, I was hired for more and larger (and more lucrative) projects. I was commissioned to write a couple of musicals, wrote music for film and television, produced several bands in my home project studio, and even produced a show for automated penguins at a Chinese theme park. All of which pay well.
Spreading your skills into areas outside of live performance means you will have options, and you will make contacts to capitalize on in the future. Of course, I still write this column each week, a column, it should be noted, that is all about music.
GET OFF THE HIGH HORSE
Yeah, it’s great to make it in the music biz playing your amazing, artistic, and uncompromising brand of ___ (fill in the blank), but truth is, it probably ain’t happening for you. And though there’s no shame in working at the local coffee shop or taking a shitty landscaping job so you can tour every few months (more power to you), there’s also no shame in playing cover tunes while doing the same thing.
Too many musicians go full-asshole when it comes to cover tunes, ridiculing the lack of integrity from which cover musicians suffer. They’re missing the big picture. You’re better off playing covers than you are slaving away for the man. It’s that simple. Playing covers for a living means you are constantly on your instrument, honing skills both as a player and as a business person, being afforded the flexibility to call in a sub when it’s time to bring your amazing original music to the masses. And, if you’re lucky, your cover career will put you on stage in front of name artists who may hire you for paid work. It’s how I ended up playing with ex-Zappa veterans. It’s how my brother-in-law landed gigs with the Goo Goo Dolls and Faster Pussycat. That’s a hell of a lot better than getting up at 6 a.m. for your welding job.
If you suck, no one will hire you. Mediocrity is reserved for the weekend player, those who manage to butcher “Mustang Sally.” If you’re going to be serious about making a living as a musician, get good – very good – at what you do. Be reliable, be responsible and take it seriously.
As an independent working musician, you will not have the benefit of employer-provided health insurance, and you will be taxed big time. Save up your earnings throughout the year to prepare for the tax burden (and write off everything), keep spreadsheets of your earnings and shop the ACA exchanges for good deals on insurance. This may be boring and time-consuming, but it is damn important.
FEAR IS THE KILLER
There was a point early on when it didn’t look like I would be able to pull off the full-time musician thing. I remember sitting at a red light, talking to my wife on my cell phone, agonizing over joining the rat race since music jobs just weren’t coming fast enough. That would have meant giving up having days free. It meant giving up walking my kid to and from school, writing and recording original music in the mornings rather than late at night, and having the flexibility to make my own schedule. It meant giving up. So I didn’t. I hung in there, budgeted myself and pushed through. Now I make my own rules, play and teach music when I want … and even get to write about it every week.