Parting Letter: Making a Life in Music

You may remember the parting letter to students that I co-authored last spring with Eva Heinstein from NEC’s Entrepreneurial Musicianship department. Well, I’ve decided to make it a semi-annual tradition. The points raised here speak to the concerns that came up in my undergraduate section of my entrepreneurship class. These are little nuggets of advice, in no special order, for those who are about to make their way in the world. Many thanks to the EM office for providing such a smart, spirited and inspiring space for NEC students and faculty alike.

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December 13, 2011

The conservatory is like an incubator for your music. Transitioning to the outside world can be scary and complicated. To complicate things further, not one of us has been handed the same deck of cards. But I know that each of you can survive as a musician. And I you can expect more than survival: you can set up a life that allows you to thrive as an artist. With that goal in mind, here are some essential tools.

1. Untangle money from music. While you’re in school, the relationship between music and money is suspended. When you get out, it can get complicated, fast. Without oversimplifying things, remember that money is simply a tool that allows you the time and materials to pursue your art to the fullest extent. Other than that, it has little to do with music itself.

2. Seek out real-life career models. Most musicians do not support themselves exclusively from performance. We are bombarded with stories about either end of the spectrum – about people making it big, or struggling mightily – but we don’t often hear about musicians who are actually getting by. Poverty is not a necessary condition of for great art, nor is it an inevitable consequence of a life in music. Most musicians I know are doing more or less OK. Find some of these people and see how they’re doing it.

3. Nothing you do right now is going to make or break your career. You have time to figure things out. The important thing is to face up to the reality of your own set of options and to figure out a way to build a life that has the time, space and context for you to keep developing your music. Ask yourself, “What is the best way I can fund the musical life I want to have?”

4. Don’t compare yourself to others. Each of us gets handed a different deal. I generally advocate looking to others’ lives for inspiration, but please avoid comparing yourself to others. Remember that you are on your own path, with your own great fortune, and your own liabilities, and your own things to learn. Don’t waste time comparing your situation to anyone else’s: get on with living your life and developing your music. (For an inspiring take on the artistic potential of student loans, please read this letter by the advice columnist/novelist who writes under the pseudonym Dear Sugar).

5. Being accountable to your art means being financially responsible. The ability to be accountable to yourself and to your finances might be the most important skill you can cultivate to allow you to realize your creative dreams.

How to Make a Budget and Live Within Your Means

1. Start by taking an honest appraisal. Get a handle on where your money comes from, and where it goes.

2. Track your spending for a month. Be rigorous, but don’t beat yourself up.

3. Tally your figures. Tally your income from all categories. Then tally your spending. Assign categories for Gas, Rent, Utilities, Clothing, Musical Supplies, Food, Entertainment, Loans, Medical, Local Travel, Concerts, Treats, etc. Be sure to account for things you pay quarterly or yearly (taxes, memberships, instrument insurance) and come up with a monthly amount to account for this cost. Think ahead to upcoming expenses, too. Will you be taking auditions? Recording an album? Buying new performance clothes?

4. Compare your income with your expenses. Are you spending more than you earn? Are you just breaking even? Are you earning more than you expected? Do you have the time you need to invest in your future career? Compare this against your short, medium and long-term goals.

How to Improve Your Lot in Life

1. Cultivate multiple streams of revenue. Most people think about supporting their art through one thing: either the job or their dreams, or a day job. One source of income is precarious. Cultivate multiple streams of income to build a stable platform. You can reconfigure it constantly, and will better be able to ride the ups and downs of your career and the economy. (See the list at the end of the page for some things musicians I know have done to make money to keep careers afloat.)

2. Charge more. Educate yourself about the fair market value of your services. Make sure you account for the cost of benefits in your freelance prices (up to 30% more). Be clear about terms of payment. Don’t be shy to follow up.

3. Barter for everything you can and use every resource available to you. Trading dollar for dollar (not hour for hour) can net you free graphic design, dental care, photography, you name it. And there are numerous free resources for artists: medical clinics, legal services, databases, workshops, consulting services. Find out about them and use them.

4. Reduce your overhead. I know that sometimes you will have to spend more money than you earn. But over time, if your income is not meeting your expenses you will have no choice but to re-evalute your spending patterns.

5. Be fierce about defending your time, creativity and well-being. Keep time available to yourself. Set aside regular time for reflection, evaluation and recalibration.

Things to Think About When Thinking About Day Jobs

1. What’s your security style? Do you feel more comfortable knowing your needs are met with a steady cheque? Do you feel confined by a regular job? Can you tolerate uncertainty?

2. What are your natural strengths and how can you turn them into paid employment? Do you love spreadsheets? Do you love the company of kids? Are you a meticulous organizer? Are you multilingual? Do you love yoga? What classes are you naturally good at? Any of these skills can be turned into a source of income. But in order for you to make money there has to be a market: you have to identify and fill a need.

3. What schedule works best for you to practice and play music? Do you need regular time set aside for practice? Do you need flexibility to tour and travel? If you work nights, will you miss out on networking opportunities?

4. How can you find the right balance of activities that result in a life where you don’t merely survive, but where you thrive? In general, look for the job that will provide you with the greatest income, with the lowest demands in terms of time and stress.

Things I or People I Know Have Done For Money*

Grants, Artist residencies, Teaching, Investments, Work sales, Bartering, In-kind donations, Living with Mom, Living with Dad, Awards, Freelancing, Consulting, Income from your partner, Busking, Weddings, Day jobs, In-kind donations, Teaching residencies, Adjunct teaching, Proofreading, Accounting, Voice coaching, Translation, Bartending, Tutoring, Babysitting, Nannying, Subletting,
Real estate investment, Royalties, Workshops, Cover band, Coding, Pizza delivery, Cater waiter, Kickstarter, Security Guard, Courier, Museum Guard, Administration, Assisting, Dog walking, Paralegal, Therapist, Life coach, Graduate school, Tour guide, TESOL, Travel grants, Couchsurfing, Housesitting, Playing for dance classes, Teaching another instrument, Dinner theater, Cleaning services, Personal assistant, Private school teaching, Church musician, Arranging, Choir directing, Personal trainer, Yoga teaching, Copying, Painting, Producing records, Guerilla marketing, Summer workshops, Steady restaurant gig, Radio/print journalism, Archivist, Construction, Piano tuning, Stay-at-home parent, Graphic design, Makeup , CDs for Irish Dancing, Chess teacher, Math and Music Coach, SAT tutor, Temp, Teaching assistant, Modeling, Hair model, Movie extra.

*Out of these 84 items, there are only 20 that I can’t claim to have done at one point or another