A Few Thoughts On Careers In Music

Back when I did my ‘ask me anything‘ thread a few months ago, I said I was going to re-blog some of the answers, as there were some really good thought provoking questions, and answers that really deserve a readership beyond those tenacious souls who wade through all the responses to posts here… So here’s a question about having a career in music:

After years of studying music in Higher Education I wasn’t prepared for the outside world when the apron strings were finally cut.

I went into teaching and now I work in an office. which is killing me because I want to be creative. i have music I am happy with. I just want to take the big step to be the musician and writer I envisioned myself becoming when I was an undergraduate.

The truth is, I don’t know where to start. Gigs, website, social media outlet, blog, recording an ep…… It just seems so daunting to jump into.

Am I right to plan for this? Or does being a freelance musician and writer mean you have to go with the flow?

All the best,

…and this was my answer:

Hi Adam,

it’s a common problem, and one for which there are no easy answers. One of the issues is that most of the ‘jobs’ playing music that offer anything like the kind of living that people who’ve had jobs before are used to are as uncreative as the office jobs they left. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – there’s a lot to be said for getting to use your skill/craft to make music, but if your urge is for self expression, a steady gig in a wedding/tribute/theatre pit band might not be the kind of music life you were expecting…

Add to that the problem of most of those kinds of ‘money’ gigs happening at exactly the same time as the shows you’d want to be doing as a creative path, and you’ve got yourself a day job that happens at night, it just happens with an instrument in your hands…

So how does it work otherwise? Well, most of the people I know are doing their own music full time did so because a series of opportunities presented themselves that led to them not having to have a day job any more. Sometimes it’s just that they found an agent who could book them loads of gigs (sometimes alternating paid covers gigs with music of their own), some found lucrative work as a side-(wo)man for someone else, and that gave them a load of useful contacts. Others got publishing deals, which, while there may be other issues that are less positive about them, can certainly provide a modicum of stability in the form of a publishing retainer…

So being ‘full time’ in music is less of a plan than a realisation… The good thing about doing it as well as another job is that you don’t have to compromise it to try and pay the bills. Looking at an empty diary and rapidly emptying bank account, it’s tough to stick to whatever ‘integrity’ you may have conjured up for your music plan at a time when you still had another income.

So, there are three things that I think help a lot

  • the first is making your life as cheap as possible. The biggest question is not ‘how can I earn more’, it’s ‘how can I spend less?’ – being a full time musician is so rarely stable in the traditional job sense, that having any unnecessary overhead is deeply unwise – gas guzzling car? smoking? expensive holidays? large house? just not viable…
    If you drop your cost of living, it often becomes possible to live on a part time wage – that alleviates some of the stress of ‘where does all my time go??’ – you get way more time to play and manage your music path.
  • Secondly, if you are going freelance, don’t ever plan to do one thing – the freelance life is far safer if you have a portfolio career. Make a list of things you’re really good and and enjoy and start to find ways of getting paid to do them and make the world better in the process. Freelance life goes in cycles – there have been times in my career where most of my money has come from journalism, or teaching, or social media consulting/documentation or whatever..
    I’ve been paid to build websites, I’ve coached bands, I’ve given university talks to philosophy students, I’ve been a research consultant on digital media research projects… tons of massively interesting stuff that feeds beautifully into my life as a creative person. I’m professionally curious, doing whatever I can to pay the bills and find out more about the world :)
  • Thirdly, all of this happens in community – build community. With other musicians, with your friends, with people who like your music… don’t get hung up on any ‘strategy for engagement’ or any such bullshit. Make music, and invite the people who like it to be part of the ongoing sustainability of it existing.

The single best thing I’ve ever read on this subject is Danny Barnes’ blog post, . Read it, get it tattoo’d on your arm ;)

3 Replies to “A Few Thoughts On Careers In Music”

  1. ‘Don’t ever plan to do one thing ‘sounds like a great advice. I think in this climate it applies to almost everybody, not just musicians.

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