Can You Survive on Music?

Amber Long

The other day, a friend said, “I want to quit my job and survive on what I make with music.” The same day, another asked, “Is it unrealistic to think I can make enough money with music to survive?”.

Two unrelated conversations caught me at a most sensitive time, as I drown in a busy work season in Toronto. These days, my personal life commands so much attention, I haven’t even been able to write an article, which I love, because my mind is thinking how the next bill will be paid. None of us is lucky enough to escape the cost of existence.

Is it always like this as a musician? Is it possible to make enough money in the music industry to survive?

I decided to write while commuting to one of my random jobs to explore these questions further. In the end, it boils down to what you’re willing to give, what you’re willing to sacrifice and what you stand to lose or gain from taking the leap.

First let me preface that if you are one of the fortunate people with a job out there, you’re lucky. Be grateful that someone is paying for your time. Currently, employment is hard to find and even harder to keep. Companies are downsizing, underbidding, shutting down and job stability is a thing of the past.

So, before reading any further, take a moment to be thankful that you have something a lot of your musical peers around the world wish they could have. Not every country has paid employment to offer people and even at that, one good North American day at work brings in more pay than some make in two weeks, some a month. Let that sink in.

DISCLAIMER: I, by no means, claim to be an expert in anything, especially life and its twists and turns. This article is simply a purging of ideas and things I’ve done, that have worked for me, personally. In the end, you must do what is right for you in your life.

Be realistic about your life

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Before making any quick decisions about handing in your resignation and hopping on the Progressive or Techno Train, take a good hard look at your life. Be honest about what you need and what you can live without. How much is the place where you live? When was the last time you made that much from a release or gig? 

Then there’s that big space of time where you build your Castle in the Sky. Any artist has times of having to give out freebies to establish themselves. Tight-knit communities (like our music community) notice those who give, and those same people seem to receive equally, if not more. But what pays the bills while you’re laying the foundation for your future in music? Unless you’re lucky to be born with silver spoon in hand, the money must come from somewhere and robbing banks will cut into your budding gig schedule. I don’t suggest it.

You can’t rely on others to pay your way

Yes, we are a close community of people who love balance and seeing our peers succeed but in the end, we all must take care of ourselves. Couch surfing and borrowing is great for a while, but we never want to wear out our welcome anywhere we go.

Every person working in the music industry faces the same challenges, many of which are financially related. This means you must carry yourself. You can never assume someone else is better off financially than you are. If you choose to survive on music, you must be sure you’re not just choosing to survive on the kindness of others who believe in you.

Are you willing to let go of the white picket fence (for now)?

Many of the musicians I know do not own homes. Renting offers the freedom to get up and go, which is appealing. Musicians with families though, they need stability for their children. Maybe some have a mortgage to worry about. The artists that wear titles like Legend and Master, they’re the only ones that are likely paying their mortgage with music money (as they should!)

Does renting appeal to you?
Perhaps you’re like me and aren’t ready to settle down. Maybe you’ve already done that in life and now it’s time to spread your wanderlust wings. Fair enough but you always need a home base so while you’re off traveling, who is paying for your home? Who is living there, if anyone? From personal experience, I can tell you it stings to be paying rent in two places but sometimes you must spend a bit more for the luxury to be mobile, yet still secure. 

Hey, you could give up your place, toss your stuff in storage and leave the country, totally. Trust me, it’s fun and feels great. But just as good as the high feels when you leave, the lows are equally as tough when you come home to pick up the pieces. Unless you’re willing to go through all the hoops of becoming a resident in a different country, you’re always going to have to “go home” and all the reasons you left are still going to be there.

When the urge hits you to scream, “I quit!!” at your boss, and buy a one-way ticket to ADE, take a minute and think about it.

Work Makes Touring Easier

It’s always nice to have gigs out of town. Not only is it fun, it gives a feeling that our career is going somewhere. And it probably is! I’ve written about the troubles with touring before and the fact is, traveling costs money. And when you’re in a foreign country with no flow, you’re so screwed. It takes the fun out of everything.

And you think, “Well at least I’ll get paid at the gig.” What if that doesn’t happen? This happened to me once, far, far away. I was waiting for money to go into my account and found myself a week, relying on others, borrowing and stressing, running to the foreign banks with hundreds of people in line… I waited eight hours one day to change the small amount of money I had because I didn’t get the right currency either. Finally, I sent money from a credit card to a nearby Western Union.

What the hell was I thinking? I left Canada so unprepared and yup, I played the gig but was told I had to wait a week for the money. What would you do? What would I have done if I was alone?

 When was the last time you left the house without a cent? Did it make you feel weird? Nervous even? Do you even remember a time you did this? Now, imagine you’re thousands of miles from home and don’t speak the language. Think of your current job as insurance that you’ll never be stranded when you do take the leap. My experience crushed a lot of joy out of an otherwise happy time, don’t take chances like this, I highly discourage you.

Time is Money

But it’s the time, right? Your job is sucking all your production and networking time? When you get home, you’re exhausted and the last thing you want to do is open your DAW and begin. I get it. Trust me. If you’re always building someone else’s dream, how can you build your own, right? 

During my busy seasons, I’ve got my schedule micro-managed to the minute. I set alarms for when things need to be done, some up to four times a day. With proper time management, I can focus and concentrate at work because I know I have time set aside later for music production and recording vocals. Time management is key, I can’t stress it enough. If you don’t set aside the time, and view your music work as important as your secular work, it will never get done. Deadlines, people, deadlines… especially when we have a million things going on at once.

You can do both, work and make music, it just takes dedication and commitment.

Humble Pie

What else might you have to give up for a life in music? Your pride.

A life in music is ever changing and for work, it’s hard sometimes to commit to one permanent job. Who wants to hire someone that may or may not be around in a year? What boss is ok with an employee taking off for a month or more, here and there? Artists are often unpredictable.

I hear more and more of artists starting their own companies or working as freelancers to make ends meet as well as keep their music dreams alive. Working as a freelancer or a small business owner, you take what work you can find. You can be loved as a musician internationally, but still a nobody on the corporate side.

Recently, I had to swallow my pride because I found myself handing out free chocolate in a pharmacy to patients from the mental hospital at the same time Shiny Happy People played on the radio. It was a moment where I seriously had to take stock of what the hell I was doing. As if carrying around a display table and wearing a horrible uniform wasn’t enough, I had to stand in one place for hours with a fake smile painted on my face, thinking of all the music work I had left to do at home.

I made the mistake of complaining to a friend from a different country who quickly told me I should be so lucky to even have work and money coming in. My friend told me the only thing that should hurt my pride should be having the ability to work and choosing not to. Ever since that day, I’ve counted my blessings and walked into my jobs with a real smile, even when I don’t feel like it.

Now that I’ve danced a circle around it, what do you think? Is it possible to survive on music?

What CAN you do?

So, what do you do? You have this fire inside and we know if you just stoke it a bit more, something is going to ignite. It’s only a matter of time until we have honed our craft into something we want to share and commit to fully.

If you have really been honest with yourself about what you are willing to give up and live without, and that even boils down to things like not being able to have a pet because you aren’t around to care for them or giving up your car to lower expenses to downsizing your spending habits at Starbucks, if you are honest with how much you can let go of, then you can be realistic about how to move forward.

Personally, I have downsized to the point where my only monthly expenses are rent, food, Netflix and life insurance. Even my phone number is a WIFI number and I’ve given up monthly bills. Granted, at times this sucks but for me, having a constant budget to aim for is important and allows me to keep working towards a new venture, a venture more important to me than material possessions I once had or needed.

You can find employment that tickles your creative fancy. You can look online for opportunities to play through entertainment agencies. You can start a business offering music and music related services and products. The internet has opened possibilities no one has dreamt of. You can work for anyone, anywhere in the world, from anywhere. That is a fact.

You can offer musical or creative services to sites like Fiverr or bid on gigs on Vocalizr.com. You can make stock music for corporate videos. You can network and use word of mouth to find clients that are looking for whatever niche market talent you can provide. You can open an online store specializing in audio gear. Seriously, you can do anything you set your mind to, you just need a great idea and a plan.

This is all if you want to take the leap and see what happens, relying solely on your music for survival.

Or you can look at the job you have with renewed appreciation for all it DOES do for you and how it helps build the dream, keeping you secure enough to focus on being creative. You can be thankful you live in a place that has employment to be had. You can rest assured that music will always be there for you and works on a 24-hour clock, so she’s there ready when you are. You can make a schedule and work on time management. You can spend less time on social media or watching TV and more time in the studio.

To quit or not to quit? The answer to that one is up to you. I chose not to quit working in the secular world but I’ve juggled it to meet my needs, as well as downsized life to make it as simple as possible. I can tell you, the chances of music making you rich are slim but the chances that it will make you happy are high.

You must do what is right for you, also taking in to consideration your family or those closest to you. What is good for one may not work for another so in the end, stay realistic but acknowledge and fan the fire inside of you relentlessly. We got this!

Editorial


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