How to be a Full-time Musician: Reflections on the Past Year

May 2011 - the month I was pushed out of my comfortable, predictable job and into the crazy life of a freelance musician.

Here's some context. My final semester of college (spring 2009) I began an internship at Integrity Media, which is basically a microcosm of the Christian music industry - Integrity had a record label, recording studio, marketing teams, artist development/A&R, song publishing, music admin, etc. Apparently I did something right and was offered a job in the IT/E-Commerce division immediately upon graduation. Needless to say, I was thrilled. Integrity was and is a great company, and I had always wanted to work in the music industry.

I will always be thankful for the time I spent at Integrity. I met and worked with some incredible people, and many have become great friends. I learned firsthand so much about the music industry, business in general and the web.

But it didn't take long for me to realize that Integrity was not my destination, but just a temporary stop along the way. As much as I loved the company and my co-workers, I was not living out my passion - making music. It was happening right there in the same building. I could see it and hear it every day, but I was confined to my spreadsheets and email inbox.

So what did I do? I made plans for how to transition out of my job and into the freelance music world. Problem was, I couldn't get any momentum because I spent all day every day at the office and didn't have much energy left at the end of most days to put any action to my plans. So I kept dreaming, kept planning, kept talking.

Then something incredible happened.

I lost my job.

Incredible? Yep. A year later I can say that.

Integrity was going through a major transition at the time, and many people lost their jobs. Even though men and women decided which jobs to keep and which jobs to eliminate, I truly believe that God ordained their every decision.

This was the push that I needed but didn't have the courage to initiate on my own.

After taking about a week off to let the dust settle and to regain my focus, I decided it was time to pursue my dream of being a full-time, self-employed musician.

Over the past year I've learned and grown so much. The rest of this article will highlight some of the biggest lessons I've learned. I write to remind myself of these lessons and to encourage those of you who are on a similar path.

Nothing is Quick. Nothing is Easy.

Launching a career as a self-employed musician is no small task. There is much more to it than meets the eye. We all know that you have to be a good player to make this career choice work, but that's just the beginning.

Assuming you have your musical chops together...

How do you plan on monetizing those skills? Teaching? Gigging? Writing? Selling your own music? Studio work?

How will you keep track of your finances?

What about your web presence?

What kind of professional network can you tap into to get your career started?

Do you have adequate gear and the know-how to get the most out of it?

These are just a few examples of the things you'll need to think through as you launch your freelance music career. Needless to say, getting this kind of big-picture business plan together takes plenty of time and good ole fashioned hard work.

Don't be discouraged by slow progress. After all, progress is progress. Slow, consistent growth should be your goal.

A Musician is an Entrepreneur

entrepreneur
noun
a person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so.

Does that sound scary or exhilarating? For me, it's a little bit of both.

The truth of the matter is this: YOU must take responsibility. YOU must do the work. YOU must create and maintain the momentum.

If you're looking for an easy ride, look elsewhere.

What most people don't realize is that there is a large middle class of working professional musicians. Neither rockstars on magazine covers nor starving artists on street corners are the norm.

Most working musicians piece together a career through a variety of musical activities. Some income sources are obvious...playing, recording/selling music, teaching, etc. But other income sources can be just as feasible...writing/producing instructional materials, music journalism, managing local talent, transcription services, putting on clinics/masterclasses, etc.

An important thing to realize is that as an entrepreneur, you can make any changes to your career as you see fit. Experiment with different income sources. You'll naturally gravitate towards some and away from others. That's fine. The important thing is that you become and remain aware of several possibilities. This will prepare you for seasons when one or more of your income streams dries up. Versatility is the key to survival.

As I mentioned earlier, your musical skills are just one piece of the puzzle. As an entrepreneur you'll be responsible for every facet of your business - administration, accounting, marketing, promotion, etc.

There is Much to Learn

As a music business entrepreneur (what you are if you're a freelance musician...get that in your head!), it's essential that you stay up-to-date with what's happening in the music world and the broader business world in general.

I'm not saying you have to read Rolling Stone, Billboard and The Wall Street Journal cover to cover. By following a few good blogs or news sites and skimming articles that catch your eye, you can learn a lot.

As with all education, the point is not to know facts so you can impress your friends with your knowledge of current goings-on. The point is to expand your context of understanding; to break out of your small picture of the world.

How can this kind of research/knowledge make you a more successful freelance musician?

You can...get to know your market, learn from what others are doing (the good and the bad), identify potential partnership ideas, identify potential income streams, keep up with current marketing trends, learn to see what you do as a musician in light of the bigger cultural context.

You get the idea. This kind of big picture thinking is what makes a successful entrepreneur. Open your eyes. A good education is not hard to find...or afford.

Quickbooks and/or Your Accountant is Worth the Money

I've never met a musician who enjoys keeping financial records and doing administrative work. But I've met several who were blindsided by taxes they owed.

I'll keep this point short and sweet.

Find a good accountant and invest in QuickBooks or a similar accounting system. I use QuickBooks Online. It makes my quarterly filing a breeze, and I never have to worry about missing any important information.

If you don't know of a good accountant in your town, start asking around. My accountant was referred by a trusted friend who is also a music industry entrepreneur.

Here's a bonus tip...always let businesses you're referred to know about it. More than likely, they'll serve both you and the person who referred you better. Win/Win/Win!

Never Under-Estimate the Power of your Relationships

There's a popular saying..."It's not what you know, but who you know that matters". Then there's this popular response..."It's not who you know, but who knows you that matters".

So which is it? It's my opinion that what you know, who you know, and who knows you are all important.

It's safe to say that without my relational network, there's no way I would have made it as a freelance musician this past year.

Many of my students were referred by friends. My teaching studio is a joint lease with 3 colleagues. I had help with design and photography to create this website. Pretty much all of my gigs come from friends or acquaintances.

Resist the urge to be a self-absorbed rockstar. Be quick to give credit where credit is due. Don't be afraid to ask for help, but don't be too cheap to pay for it.

On a related note, go out on a limb and reach out to some of the "big guys" in the industry. Last year, shortly before starting my freelance career, I emailed several of my favorite guitarists (mostly session players) thanking them for the music they make and asking them for 3 tips they'd give a young guy like me trying to start a career as a guitarist. I didn't hear a word from most of the guys, but two of them did respond. They each responded quite graciously and with great advice. Not only was I thrilled to have personal correspondence with 2 of my heroes, but I was also greatly encouraged by their words of advice.

In this age of instant connection via the interweb, take every opportunity to grow your network. Don't be afraid to reach out to your heroes!

Learn to Strategize for the Short-term and the Long-term

Short-term thinking is easy. How can I fill up my teaching schedule? How can I book more gigs? Who needs some recording work done? Planning for the short term is absolutely necessary, but you don't want to stop there.

Long-term thinking sees 20 years down the road. What kind of savings and investments do you want? Retirement? What kind of work can you do now that will create passive income for years to come?

Too many freelance musicians burn out because all of their thinking, planning and working has to do with the short term. It's easy to wear yourself out this way.

If you find yourself in a situation like I was in a year ago, short-term planning must become your primary focus. I suddenly lost my job and had to figure out how to make money fast. I did that primarily by teaching guitar lessons and taking every live or studio gig I was offered.

Now that I've had a year to grow my teaching business and get more gigs, I've started thinking about and working towards long-term passive income streams. Guess what? I don't get paid to write articles for this website or to create videos for my YouTube channel. But over time, the traffic I get can be monetized in many different ways.

Long-term thinking is all about leveraging your time. What can you work on now that will earn money for years to come?

The sooner you start working towards passive income streams, the better.

Success is Possible

This is the biggest lesson I've learned over the past year. I certainly had my doubts about whether I could earn a living as a freelance guitarist, especially in a town like Mobile, Alabama.

Here's what made the difference...I made up my mind, and I did it. Want to know the number of resumes I submitted, job applications I filled out and job boards I searched after losing my job? Zero.

My mindset became "I am a professional guitarist", not "I want to be a professional guitarist".

No one will ever value your skills more highly than you do. If you want to be a freelance musician, be a freelance musician. Take yourself seriously.

Having a hard time practicing? Remind yourself that you're a professional. You better sound like one.

Not confident promoting yourself as a guitar teacher? Remind yourself that you're a professional. You're not some part-time hack. (NOT that all part-time musicians are hacks!)

Not sure you're ready to take the gig? Remind yourself that you're a professional. You'll do what's necessary to get the job done.

I can't stress enough the importance of this mindset change. If you see yourself as a professional, you'll start acting like a professional. Before long, there will be no denying that you're a professional.

Is it scary to make this kind of commitment. Yes. Is it uncomfortable at times? Yes. Is it worth it to do what you love for a living? Absolutely.

Final Thoughts

This past year has been humbling, invigorating, stressful, hopeful, educational, scary and more. Never was it boring.

A year into my freelance career I think I'm off to a good start. My income is (on average) slightly lower than it was at my corporate job, with an overall upward projection. Am I getting rich? Not quite. But I'm paying my bills on time.

I hope this quick look into the life of a young freelance guitarist inspires and encourages you, or at the very least educates you a bit. As always, I welcome your comments, questions, thoughts and opinions.


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