Career in Music AND Stability?

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!

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. kungfulio

    Medical Savings Accounts and catastrophic health are a good economical option. MSA's lets you save and invest money tax free and spend it specifically on medical expenses only. 25 years of doing this from the recording side of the glass has taught me a few tricks on living simply and economically sound. You've got to be willing to give up on nights out, cook your own meals (one of the greatest money savers of all time and much healthier too), no flat screen if you've got a TV that works, cheap cell phones, no land lines, free internet at the coffee shop, and every once in a while Top Ramen tasted pretty good!

  2. Virgil

    This discussion has been most helpful. No Damien, you weren't too personal, it took that information to drive home your point. That is the same question that I posed to Pete Skjold just weeks ago. I really appreciated your candidness. Pete worked in Vegas for years and know he's a luthier, but shared with me the ups and downs of having music as your sole source of income. Everyone has to decide for themselves and be realistic about your level of talent and committment.

  3. m2bass

    Thank you for your candor and courage! Your column really touched me and also gave me a boost of confidence. It reminded me about what's important! I faced the dilemma of art vs money when I became a full-time freelance writer nearly 20 ears ago. Ha. The sad/funny/curious thing about being our world is that working as a writer is actually more economic than being a musician. Not flush mind you but I have managed to survive for the last 20. Call it comfortably meager.
    In the last eight years I moved over to writing for the corporate world (wall street investment research-I research and write investment reports about tech companies), and because it pays so much better than freelance magazine writing which I did for a decade, it enables me to work half time and make the same money I did freelancing. I did this so that I could spend half time learning and playing music! (I played as a teen and decided eight years ago that I wanted to be a musician more than anything else in the world!)
    However, I find myself worrying sometimes whether I am “crAZy” spending so much time on music (at my age) when the prudent thing to do would be to try and accumulate some wealth for my future (I'm almost 60)-I currently don't have any accumulated so to speak though I do own a house with my wife. In short I get afraid. Now I am getting to the point where I would like to shuck the corporate job and spend all my time playing and or shuck the relatively soul-less writing for more fun creative stuff that I liked to do while continuing with my music. This of course means moving away from the bucks. But your column reminded me about what's really important to me. And to not be afraid. Thanks Damian! You inspire!
    ps I want to be a great musician too.
    Btw-cool Burr column on oppositional structures! thanks for the tweat reference!

  4. David De Silva

    Even being Peter Erskine's son you struggle. No wonder its so hard for me.

  5. David De Silva

    Even being Peter Erskine's son you struggle. No wonder its so hard for me.

  6. I can agree. i am a professional artist and Music is my second job. In this economy being a creative is a hard and thankless haul. I can look back at a relatively successful art career and still there are very thin times and lots of wreckage.
    Kungfulio’s advice is pretty good. but in general I’d say work your music like a second job. One step up from a hobby perhaps but be in the scene, be involved. take it seriously and work. perform without the concern of financial reward. If your good who knows what breaks you might get. Do it because you love it, because you have to.