Making it Work

  • 01/12/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC

The transition to being a full-time performer is tough. It’s hard to make a living as a musician. Even relatively established performers find themselves scraping by between gigs, or taking less-than-satisfying day jobs to make ends meet. Despite years of working on this stuff, I still don’t feel any closer to stardom – but I have learned some helpful things along the way.

The most helpful thing that ever happened to me as a musician was the day I re-defined my all-too-vague definition of success. I’d always thought success meant having a multiple record deal, lots of great gigs in packed houses, and lots of touring. I had an “all-or-nothing” mentality. Somehow I thought that if I didn’t get signed, I wasn’t a success. One day I got an email from a keyboard player I’d met at an open mic. She had just landed a spot on Letterman, and I wasn’t any further with my musical aspirations than I’d been the night we met. I felt awful.

The soul-searching that ensued was productive: I asked myself just what I really wanted. After a day of scribbling notes and goals on several sheets of paper, I condensed the answer to one line: “I want to make great music with great people.” That was it. Obviously I wouldn’t be happy working behind a desk all day then having a few hours to play in the evenings, but at least I had a tangible starting point.

So what about the job part? Well, I made a list of what I most wanted to do, and started there. I worked a few day jobs that were interesting and helped me grow in skills that carried over to the music world: I worked in communications, sales and marketing, and teaching. Within a year I became a full-time performer in Europe, where I lived. I had an agent who kept me in well-paid gigs, and I got to travel lots. I was living full-time from my gigs and CD sales. But even that wasn’t success. David Wilcox said it best: “The human spirit is never satisfied. Imagine if we could all fly. We’d have a great time for about two whole days, then we’d be bored and ready to move on to something more exciting.”

In my case, the “something more exciting” was being back in the States and making music with my friends. The plan was to buy a veggie-oil powered van and live out of it while touring full-time. The only hole in my logic was that I hadn’t lived in the States for nine years. I had no following (not to mention no credit history,) and no savings. Oops. Time to start over.

Those of us who routinely walk the tightrope of personal happiness and financial solubility know this drill. We sacrifice well paying jobs for the freedom of being able to tour and write songs. The novice high-wire artist needs to practice with a net – and as the wire gets higher, the net should get bigger and stronger. Literally, we need to broaden and develop our skills (our “safety net”) so that we’re able to walk higher and higher tightropes.

How does that work? One of the principles I try to live by is an idea Gloria Steinem gave me once. She said, “Excellence in literature is where form and content match – you can’t tell where the glass stops and the water starts.” The same applies to our lives. We should do what we are, and be what we do. Our “day jobs,” when we take them, should be increasingly closer and closer to who we are as people. In my case, the suit and tie desk jobs came in very handy as I learned how to market myself, how to be a better salesman and a stronger communicator.

One last point: think outside the box. There are always opportunities to advance our music careers, but often we aren’t paying attention. Think of your music career as a permanent brainstorm – no idea is too crazy. Everything gets written down and thought about. Two months ago, I walked into a major music company and told them I’d like to do marketing work for them – they said yes. I now tour full-time, arranging trade fairs, meetings, and workshops around my performing schedule. Form and content are merging better than ever before. It’s not a point of arrival, but a nice spot on a continuum. And because I abandoned my stale definition of success, I can celebrate every day that I’m moving forward doing what I love.