Q: What advice can you give to a middle-aged dad with a wife and two young kids and a non-music-related day job who plays music as a hobby but always dreamed about being a jazz musician when he grew up and wants to figure out how to transition to a music career while continuing to support his family and continue to have health insurance? I take lessons, I write music, I go to occasional jam session, I started a quartet, I find occasional gigs, I’d love to record an album but don’t know how to afford it or find time to do it right, but slowly trying to break out of the “I’m not good enough yet” camp. I’m not getting any younger and a recent health issue got me thinking seriously about pursuing my dreams instead of continuing to let them simmer on the back burner. I realize I probably won’t be able to give up the day job, at least not for a while until my kids are older and my wife goes back to work full time to help support my music habit (she’s on board with that idea, which is cool).
A: I wasn’t sure if I should try and answer this and publish it here, but I figured that this is probably (in one form or another) something a lot of musicians struggle with!
Essentially, is there a way to have financial security and emotional stability while trying to make a living as a musician? My short answer would be… not really!
There is nothing wrong with wanting to try to book gigs on weekends here and there or deal with an occasional sleepy day at work to gig during the week. If you want to keep your health insurance and make enough money to support a family of four, you’re going to have to keep your day job!
I had to come to an understanding with myself a long time ago that if I truly wanted to try and be a FULL time musician, I was going to have to work hard, never say no out of fear or exhaustion and possibly be very poor for most or all of my life. Up until four years ago I had always had disposable day-jobs (in case a tour ever came through). I’ve driven tow trucks in LA, managed coffee shops in CA and OR, worked at three Pizza Huts in MA and NC, drove a moving truck and hauled furniture in SF, bar-tended and ALWAYS gigged every chance I got. In the Bay Area I gigged four nights a week on average AND opened a coffee shop at 5am five days a week (truly sleeping when I could) for years. I just finally quit my day job (last one was another coffee shop) four years ago and have been doing steadily better every year, but it’s never been easy (as I write this, I’m paying the last bill on my desk and leaving myself $14 in my bank account. Granted, this is the worst month I’ve had all year, but I have a month or two or three like this EVERY winter. I won’t see decent money again until Spring). I also have not had children with my wife so as to remain as free as possible to opportunity. I don’t mean to get too personal here, but I realized a long time ago that it was really one or the other. Most of us can’t have our cake and eat it too. Even the successful musicians I know (that we’ve all heard of) go through peaks and valleys financially.
In the arts, there is NO middle class (there is, but it’s a very small percentage). It’s feast or famine (and can be one or the other from one month to the next!). If you need financial security for your family, you just can’t swing it with 100% assurance. If you can lower your overhead enough, your partner makes a solid and reliable income and is ok with your “valleys”, then it is not only possible, but you have the ideal situation for it. Otherwise, it’s a day job you’re not happy with but you can always pay your mortgage and go to the doctor OR you do what you’re passionate about, but stress over money, deal with debt collectors, have occasional fire sales on Craigslist out of necessity and sometimes hold off on the care you might have otherwise given yourself.
I don’t mean to sound so bleak about it! I will always have faith that, if I continue to work hard at it and become a great musician, someone somewhere at some point will give me a better opportunity to play music AND make some good money.
It’s the step beyond deciding to just play music.. It’s living as an artist (of whatever kind) and doing what you do because you just can’t live your life and do anything else. I often think (in the rough times) that maybe I really should’ve gotten a useful degree in something and kept music at a hobby’s distance, but I know that I would not be happy. I’d rather be poor, lose my house and my tv and live in a small apartment somewhere but wake up thinking about the gig last night and getting ready for the one tonight.
I would NOT suggest it for most people. I think many would be happiest overall enjoying music in a more casual way, being creative and playing when they have time or the notion strikes them at night or the weekends and having less anxiety about when the phone will ring again.
But, I know that if I had gotten a “real” job, I personally would probably just wind up living beyond my means in order to fill the void and be just as stressed-out anyway, so why not succumb to poverty (thereby eliminating much of the money stress), hope for the best BUT really have the motivation it takes to get ahead because I’m doing what I love. Only the extremely lucky “make it” and fewer still that didn’t hold up their existences to the sky like a sacrificial lamb and say “do what you will, but I will die trying to live the life of my art whether I ‘make it’ or not!”
I do few things as well as I do music and I truly love fewer still… so I have no choice. If you truly hate your job, I’d say you are doing yourself a dis-service, BUT… if you hate your job but the love of providing for your family far outweighs that, I wouldn’t suggest giving up the day job until you have a NICE cushion, the kids are grown and you own your house (or “a musicians retirement plan,” as I call it).
What’s wrong with making music at home or only a few days a week in public? Do you want to “make it” or simply be creative with like minded people?
In general, “making it” requires sacrifice (health insurance and stability, etc.) but you can make beautiful music anytime you want? I’d say keep the job, friend!