Five full-time musicians offer inspiration, experiences and strategies to shed your day-job shackles and pursue the career of a musician.
“Don’t quit your day job” is advice designed to deflate dreams. Sometimes, though, that’s the advice we give ourselves. Especially if we are standing on the precipice, about to take a big leap into the world of the professional musicians.
Quitting your day job in an attempt to realize your dream is scary, and yet, people all around the world do it every day. Why can’t you? If you’re considering switching gears to take up a life making music, it’s best to go into it as prepared as you can be. To make that leap a successful one, we asked five full-time musicians for their insights and experiences.
Let me entertain you
It may seem obvious, but one of the more important skills professional musicians possess is the ability to entertain a crowd. American Idol 11th-season contestant Colton Dixon began his pro career at the tender age of 18, but he began developing his ability to grab an audience much earlier. Leading worship in his youth group and helping his father with the family airbrush face-painting business were both parts of that process. Painting faces at Nashville Predators and Tennessee Titans taught Dixon some essential face-to-face skills.
I’ve been able to carry over a lot of the social skills and customer service I learned. A lot of people don’t understand that customer service is really the industry that musicians are in. Everything we do is centered around fans or people in general. If people don’t like what you’re doing, you’re not going to have a very long career. While people would wait in line to get their face painted for a hockey or football game, I got to be a little bit of a character and brighten someone’s day while painting their face.
Although he’s pursued music as an interest since age 13, Dixon’s big break came with his American Idol appearance. His story exemplifies what happens when opportunity meets preparedness: an ambitious leap fueled by passion turns into a career. There seems to be no slowing down for him either as he chases down the next adventure.
Right now I’m diving back into writing for a third record, and I’m joining a tour in the fall that I’m pumped about! But I’m really just happy to be still and to listen. God has brought me this far, and I’m really excited to see what doors he opens and curious to see which ones he closes as well.
Diversify your skills
Before launching into full-time music making, Katey Laurel worked all the jobs typical of struggling artists. These included waitressing, bartending and barista-ing. Working at Guitar Center followed by stints as a temp secretary and college academic counselor were also part of the process. Katey did it all. Doing it all is still what she does to keep her career viable.
What is a full-time musician these days anyway? It means making a priority of creativity, but it usually entails a lot of other hats. You need to be an Internet marketer, project manager, accountant and agent. I would be lying if I said I was making a full-time living with just music, but I think using all your other skills creatively when you need to is necessary.
[Now] I do some commercial acting, trade show modeling, host a TV show and occasionally work with my husband in video production. These are all entertainment- or marketing-related positions that my skills are adapted for. I’m glad I have the option to make money doing other things during my slower seasons (in between CD production/release lifecycles and in slower show seasons) so I don’t have to put all the pressure on my muse. I’ve been very fortunate to have the support of my fans in making new records, and crowdfunding has helped pay for it.
You’ll probably never hear someone say taking the leap into a music career was easy. For Laurel, finding someone who inspired and nurtured her ambition was pivotal. That someone also brought practical lessons from the road of life with him.
My husband, who is a director of photography and camera operator, was instrumental in encouraging me to pursue my dream full-time. I had tried a couple of other times in the past, but without a support system, I wasn’t able to make it sustainable through the slow times. He has been self-employed for the majority of his career and that helped me understand that it was a viable option to work for myself. He has been very supportive and taught me the ropes on bookkeeping and work-life balance, as well as how to mentally survive the rejection and feast-or-famine reality of this type of work. I owe him a lot.
Surrender to the passion
Some musicians have a hard time taking that first step toward a musical career, but for Erin McKeown it was more about letting go of everything else. She found strength by surrendering to the artistic calling.
I love theater so much so I always wanted to be an actor, but was too scared. I went to college thinking that maybe I would eventually be a biologist and that music was just a hobby. I realized quickly though that I enjoyed performing too much and that I’d always written songs, so it just seemed like giving in to the inevitable.
Breaking boundaries isn’t only something she does with her music: She broke into full-time musicianship when she was still a teenager, only briefly holding a job at an art store. It isn’t easy, and the road is hectic, so she tempers her resolve with other complementary artistic pursuits.
My day job is being a touring musician, but I also like to work on my other dream job after hours, which is writing a musical. I try to balance the work I do on both so they both keep moving forward—sustaining me financially (touring) and emotionally (writing).
Bet on yourself, but know your numbers
Brothers Shane and Jesse Matthewson of KEN Mode, a JUNO award-winning noise rock/post hardcore band from Canada, used to work in accounting. At a crossroads in their respective careers, Jesse pitched the idea to Shane. They decided that becoming full-time musicians, even if it didn’t work out, was better than regretting never having attempted it.
We never wanted to look back and wonder "what if?" The time seemed right to try something different. There were no responsibilities as far as careers, assets or relationship-wise holding the band back. The pieces began to fall into place and we left full-time office work to begin touring full-time.
For the Matthewsons, it was a matter of when rather than how. Not being constrained by the standard trappings of the American dream, they picked up and embarked on their own dream. But their previous number-crunching work has influenced how they manage their artistic affairs.
The music business is a business, just like any other. As we've found out very quickly, very few people in this industry have any tangible business training. Sure, we’ve had a lot of flying by the seat of their pants, but our previous jobs and training have been a huge help in allowing us to stay afloat for all these years. If we were paying others to write grants, organize financing, tours and supply chain management, we'd have no money left at the end of the day to eat. There are high overheads in running a band.
Dream big, or go back home
Ernie Haase, of Ernie Haase and Signature Sound, knows the value of a hard day’s work. His hands bear the scars of years spent bending sheet metal, working in the heating and air conditioning trade.
I loved the hard working days and the nobility of earning my check, but the whole time I was working in the field, I was singing and dreaming of writing my own music and touring with it.
Haase took that work ethic and melded it with his passion—music. He felt the calling to become a gospel singer and made that impulse a reality. The spark that ignited his musical fire came from a trusted voice.
I took a leap of faith when I left home and jumped on my first bus around age 19. My voice teacher told me to go and get it out of my system, and if it didn’t work, I could always come back and go to school. Well, that was over 28 years ago and I never went back. God has blessed me to be able to make a living [while] living a dream.
Don’t look back
Sure, aiming at a career in the music industry is risky. But no matter what odds are stacked against you, the simple truth is you’ve got to get into the game if you ever hope to win. You won’t make the leap if you’re always looking down, gauging how much a fall might hurt. Every success story is a testament to the fact that it can be done.
Looking for specific music career or music industry business advice? Musician’s Friend has a great selection of books and media to help make you a smarter, more successful musician.