Hey everyone! Today's post is near and dear to my heart. At you know – I was a music major in college and a high school band director for three years before I started M$M. One of the hardest things to do with a music degree is make a living as a professional musician!
To help my readers that want to make a living as a freelancer (in any industry), I've brought in Cody Garrett. Cody attended Berklee College of Music (ultra ultra legit) and now makes a living as a full-time gigging musician. If you are a freelancer or have thought about pursuing a career off the beaten path…you need to read this today. Enjoy! ~M$M
1) When you were considering being a professional musician, how did you combat the idea of potentially being a “starving artist”?
When I considered my degree in music, I doubted my abilities as a performer. I chose to earn a degree in music theory, since I loved the analytical and functional aspects. My long-term plan at the time was to become a music theory professor, and this sounded like a respectable career.
My family wanted the best for me, and thankfully they didn’t focus solely on my potential salary. I have the opinion that you’re more likely to be successful doing something you love, regardless of salary or weekly schedule.
Financial success is a relative concept, so do what you love and develop the financial discipline to live below your means.
2) You've successfully lived on an alternative lifestyle of “professional musician” for close to 8 years. What would you say you've done differently from those who have failed?
Early in my undergraduate college years, I had a narrow mindset in thinking about career titles. Music is treated academically like any other major, in that you are required to choose a specific focus (e.g. performance, composition, education).
This decision helps to ease course selection and determine the degree plan, but too often it narrows the mind of the student.
In order to be a ‘successful’ professional musician, you must wear many hats. In the past 8 years, I have been hired as a director, keyboardist and pianist (there is a difference), arranger, composer, transcriber, and accompanist.
There are many skills required in the music business now that weren’t (and still aren’t) taught in school, and that means our education should never end. Books, tutorials, and courses are all free for most topics, and easily accessible online.
Those who fail usually seek one path, and don’t adjust to the evolution of the music business. A musician who is only willing to perform his/her original songs is one example of this.
It comes down to basic supply/demand; we need to adjust our skillsets to meet the demands of our potential customers, and be flexible to work in new environments – regardless of the writing on our school diplomas.
3) How has the gigging lifestyle affected your view on finances? How do you handle inconsistent income streams? (That one is major.)
The gigging lifestyle is financially difficult if you don’t have a plan for your money. I used to pool all of my income into one savings account, and pull money out as needed; that was before I developed the discipline to control my money.
In a sense, if you don’t tell your money where to go, it’ll go elsewhere. I now have 10 accounts (variety of savings, checking, money market), and distribute the funds according to fixed expenses, variable expenses, and ratios.
Working as an independent contractor with variable income also requires discipline in the area of income tax. Taking the time to discover deductions and avoid penalties is well worth the investment. Again, this education is available online for free.
4) Talk to me more about your income changing throughout the year. How do you deal with it?
Working as an independent contractor does not mean that every source of income has to vary drastically. It’s important to develop a strategy to work consistently; early in my career I found a weekly church musician job, a restaurant residency, and wedding band position.
All of these opportunities combined to generate an impression of fixed income, and from that point I was able to set a barebones budget.
For seasonal work, I have embraced niches in the music business. I specialize in arranging pop music for classical musicians, which requires a unique set of skills. It’s the concept of being a big fish in a few small ponds, rather than competing only in broad, oversaturated markets.
5) What is one thing you see in the freelancing community that drives you up the wall (financially)?
The one thing I see most is a lack of long-term planning. Musicians often say they’ll “play music till they die.” Sure -that’s a nice thought, but we need to set realistic expectations.
Nobody wants to think about the odds of physical disability or poor health when they’re gigging in their 20s, but these real possibilities are worth visiting when making a financial plan.
I love the idea of being able to retire earlier, and choosing music opportunities based on creative passion rather than financial necessity. Carrying my keyboard up flights of stairs to a gig I don’t enjoy at age 65 isn’t my idea of fun.
6) What advice would you give a budding musician or freelancer about setting themselves on the path to living this lifestyle successfully?
1. Find a mentor for each aspect of your business.
If you’re a performer, seek the wisdom of someone who has been playing your dream job for years. (Caveat – don’t just find mentors who do the exact same thing you do; if they think you’re trying to steal their gig, the advice may be worth what you pay for it.)
2. Early is on time
It’s a cliché because it’s true, but sadly not a standard in this business.
3. These quotes:
“It’s not about who you know; it’s about who knows you”
“Nobody’s going to call you if they don’t have your number”
These gems about networking remind me that you have to remain active in your pursuit for relationships, just as much as your desire for work.
4. Last thing – get your contracts in writing!
Even if you get a gig over the phone, send a follow-up email that clarifies the agreement. Negotiate the payment timeline – not just how much they’ll pay.
You’ll get paid the right amount, on time, and they’ll treat you like a professional.
7) As a private contractor, in a world of fluid pricing, how do you determine your worth? It's easy to chase any paycheck that comes your way when you're a contractor, how do you determine what is worth your time?
At the beginning of a music career I think it’s beneficial to be a “yes man,” taking on multiple opportunities and spreading an attitude of flexibility and drive. That being said, a mistake many artists make early on is completely avoiding the money conversation.
It’s important to set a professional first impression, and avoid working for clients who mention the phrases “great exposure” and “no budget for music.” It’s a great thing to donate your talents for charity, but be sure it’s an organization you truly support.
If you have trouble calculating the worth of your time, seek the advice of a mentor working in the same field.