26 Oct 2013

Eggs: How to make a living as a musician

Somebody once said about art, "You can't make a living, but you can make a fortune." (If anybody knows what the actual quote is and who said it, I'd very much like to know.)

This is a pretty accurate description of a lot of creative jobs - artists, musicians, actors, writers... a jobbing actor will constantly be searching for the next mean-paying job, while Johnny Depp gets paid six zillion a film.  

And for musicians, spreading yourself about is par for the course.  There are good times, when the money is pretty steady; and there are bad times, when you're wondering how long you can last before you have to get a proper job!  So having your eggs in one basket is never a good idea - if all your money comes from function band work, what do you do in the quiet January-March period?  If all your earnings are from teaching, what about when everybody buggers off on holiday for the Summer?

So you need to have other sources of income to cover you for when your preferred source runs a little dry.  With me, recording was my main source of income, but when the 2008 recession hit, things started to get a little lean.  So that's when I beefed up the teaching side of things.  I took on more and more students, and meanwhile started getting more gigs with a function band for extra chunks of money at the weekends.  

Band work is a very funny thing.  Clients often think they're paying you to stand on stage for two hours and play some songs.  What they forget is that they insisted that you turn up at 3 in the afternoon to start at 9pm, and to get there you had to set off at lunchtime, meaning the 2 hours for which you're getting paid is actually getting spread over a 13 hour day.  And if you normally have students in the afternoon, you have to factor in the teaching work you lost as well...

And students come and go, of course.  For every committed, long-term student, you'll get three or four who say "I want to learn how to sing" when they mean "I want you to make me able to sing instantly."  These high-turnover students (which, I must stress, are no less deserving of your time, energy and professionalism - snobbery doesn't do anybody any good) mean that you have to have a constant stream of advertising flowing from your studio, on teaching websites*, Yellow Pages, in magazines and newspapers, and even cards in newsagents and music shop windows.  

Inevitably when on these teaching sites, you're asked what services you offer.  You tick the box marked "Singing tuition", but it occurs to you that since you've been playing flute every Sunday in a local wind band, why not offer to help out beginners with their flute playing?  And your main hobby since you were about 12 has been tap dancing, so why not tick that box, too?  Before you know it, you're earning money from more sources than you ever realised you could.  

Some people would say this is a bad thing.  Spreading yourself too thin distracts you from whatever ambitions you might have had when starting out.  I don't buy that.  If you really want to dedicate your life to writing music and nothing else, then you'd not need to spread yourself thin - you'd go on the dole, live in a squat, and eat nothing but stock cubes in tepid water.  But for the less fanatic amongst us, we need a few creature comforts, a decent place to live, and let's not forget the fact that if you're married or living with someone you'll need to pull your weight financially.  

Let's not be romantic about this: sometimes, being a musician has to be WORK, just like any other job.  We'd all like to just chill out with our pals and jam away in the studio all the time, but that's not going to buy the baby a new bonnet.  But the reason we don't jack it in when things get tough and become accountants is because we love music too much.  So how do we make the WORK periods seem as little like work as possible?  That's where diversifying your income really helps.  

I love teaching.  I really enjoy the excitement in somebody's eyes - even the most jaded and pessimistic of students - when they 'get' something they were previously struggling with.  And because I teach several subjects (singing; piano; theory; songwriting; production) my mind is constantly having to work in different ways, rather than having to hear myself harping on with the same lessons over and over again.  I play in several function bands all with different styles, each getting different types of gigs - so it's not so bad having to play friggin' Love Shack on the Friday because I know on Saturday I'll be playing Mr Blue Sky.  I also have my recording and production work ticking along - some bands, some solo artists, and some theatrical/stage companies, all with different styles and goals, needing a different approach.  Then there's songwriting, composing, and voiceover work.  Please understand, I'm not saying "Look at me! Aren't I wonderful for having so many strings to my bow?" Not at all.  What I'm trying to say is that over the years I have been forced partly by finance and partly by restlessness to spread out into different areas - and unless you're very lucky indeed, and have a hit single that pays your mortgage, you're going to need to do the same thing.

And on top of this, you must - must - make a little time for your own music.  For me, this is playing classical piano, improving my jazz piano, making horrendous noises with Fat Pigeon, and recently I've picked up the ol' saxophone again.  None of these things are earning me any money, but that means they're mine.  They don't belong to the taxman.  

So to stay afloat as a musician in tough times, I would boil this whole thing down to these two pieces of advice: 
  1. Diversify your sources of income, so you're not reliant on one thing. Apart from this making good financial sense, it stops you getting bored with doing the same type of work all the time;
  2. Make time for your own music.  For your own sanity and self-esteem, you can't dedicate every waking hour to paying the bills; and how depressing would it be if your piano became nothing but a money-making tool rather than a beautiful, creative, living organ?
That's my take on things.  How do you keep the wolf from the door in a creative industry?

* My favourite and most useful has been TheTutorPages.com
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