How to Pay for that Mac & Cheese
Taking Control of Your Career

by Don Skoog

     Some musicians are uncomfortable with the idea that music is a business. It sullies their image as an artist. But the truth is that if you can’t take care of business, you won’t get to stay an artist. You’ll wash out. Why?
     The adage, “artists must suffer,” is true enough without you making it even harder on yourself. The music business is plenty rough even for those with a head start. The only way to remain a professional musician is by preparing yourself to succeed. So the one way to insure you stay in the business is to take control of it. To do that you must ask yourself what your true artistic goal is, and which career path will get you there. Then you must create a plan and––here’s the hard part––stick to it. Remember, those who go with the flow are usually swept out to sea, so planning ahead is the best way to stay artistically rooted, and professionally employed.
     In the business world there are two kinds of people: employees and entrepreneurs. One isn’t better than the other, they’re just different. The trick is to know which is you. If you’re more comfortable working within a larger organization, you are probably an employee. If you’d rather saw off your ear than get a job, you’re probably an entrepreneur. While most people try both at various points in their careers, a few are hardwired to be successful only as one or the other.
     Employee musicians have four main career options: 1) sideman in a band, 2) orchestra work, including opera, dance, and military band, 3) teaching for an organization like school band, college, drum shop, or community music school, or 4) music-related careers like booking agent, retail sales, or manufacturing.
     There are a lot of advantages to having a job––more artistic and financial resources, a steady income, division of labor, and long-term stability, just name a few. Depending on your career goals, the opportunities and continuity provided by a larger organization may be just what you need.
     Musical entrepreneurs have three main career options: 1) start your own band, 2) start your own company: publishing, recording, manufacturing, booking, etc., or 3) start your own teaching studio. Many do all three.
     There are a lot of disadvantages to not having a job––nothing gets done unless you do it, no paid vacations or sabbaticals, the hours are longer, and when you’re broke you have no one to blame but yourself. But having a job means that you are working for someone else––in the truest sense of the expression––you are working to advance someone else’s business, someone else’s dream. That’s why they pay you. To work for yourself means that you are manifesting your vision and your goals for yourself.
     It also means that you’ll work twice as hard for half the pay, at least in the beginning. It means never letting up. Ever. It takes a certain kind of person to tough out self-employment, and while most people can do it, many just would not be happy. It’s too stressful. But they still have their own artistic goals, so most musicians wind up as part employee, part entrepreneur.
     But whether you’ve got a real job, are a true freelancer, or work five part-time gigs, taking responsibility for your career is the best way to make sure that you have one. Here are three keys to staying in the business:

1) Make a plan

     Your most important question is, “How much money do I need to support myself?” This number is the key to making all your other career choices, and consequently, will determine whether you reach any of your artistic goals. If, in the end, you can’t earn enough money to live, you’ll wind up as a hobbyist. But remember, there’s nothing wrong with working at Starbucks, or whatever, to pay your bills while you’re getting organized. You’ll get organized by,

     Doing a budget. Sounds boring, but the first step toward figuring out how much you need to work is to figure out how much you need to make. Don’t low-ball your estimate. Eventually, you’re going to get tired of living in a crappy apartment in a bad neighborhood, with roach roommates, surrounded by empty pizza boxes. Trust me, at some point you’re going to want to live like an adult. So plan for it now.

Figure these by the month:

     Rent                  $___
     Food                  $___
     Car Payment      $___
     Auto Insurance   $___
     Gas                   $___
     Music and books $___
     Spending money $___

     TOTAL               $___

     Go ahead! Take a guess at each item. (Then show it to a responsible adult. They’ll get a good laugh out of it.) Don’t worry, you can adjust the figures as you go. The important thing is to start thinking about how much you’ll need to earn. So you can,

     Make some informed choices. How do you focus on your artistic goals while still earning enough money to pay for your mac & cheese? This depends on your interests and abilities. There’s no perfect answer. The key is to pursue the things that really interest you because you’ll be more successful at something you enjoy. Don’t do the responsible thing just because people are telling you you should. If the idea of working retail or teaching makes you queazy, stay away from it. You won’t be any good at something you hate, and spending your life working at a job you hate is the fast track to a soul-sucking purgatory.
     So follow your instincts but use some common sense. You probably won’t be able to pay your rent writing poetry or skateboarding, but whatever you choose, it’s up to you to make it happen. So,

2) Be your own boss

     By this I mean take responsibility for your career. If you don’t make it happen, it won’t. Don’t rely on others, and don’t blame anyone else when you fail. Your life is your job, not theirs. Keep trying.
     Learn about every aspect of the music business so when you’re ready to delegate to others you’ll know if they’re doing a good job. This includes recording technology and techniques, CD production and finance, copyright laws, mechanization royalties, performance and recording contracts, taxes, gig booking, effective touring, band and CD promotion, web site design and internet use, and networking, just to name a few.
     Don’t rely on someone else to get you across. For instance: record deals. You stand as much chance of being eaten by a shark as you do of landing a major-label record deal (Some would say it’s the same thing). If it happens, great, but don’t count on it. If you base all your plans on getting signed, and it doesn’t happen, you’re SOL, right? There are lots of really good musicians who don’t have record deals. Some planned ahead, pursuing various career options in case one or more didn’t pan out. Others are working in toll booths. Also, if you do get offered a record deal, don’t sign anything until you’ve checked it with a really, really, really good lawyer.
     You’ll need to make a few CDs of your own, anyway. Record companies are more interested in bands with a track record. Because of mergers and buyouts there are fewer major-label record companies than there used to be, so even though CD sales are up, there are fewer artists on their rosters. The trend is toward a few superstars selling a lot of CDs. This means the music coming out of corporate America is becoming very bland (like our beer and our politicians), so it will appeal to a mass market. This is bad news for musicians who are hoping to get signed but good news for those who are willing to produce CDs for themselves.
     Why? Because our corporate blandness has created a backlash market of people who are actively looking for music that doesn’t sound the way white bread tastes. There are millions of fans out there who don’t listen to pop radio or buy major-label releases. This is a big market for musicians who do the work to tap into it, and it makes good financial sense, too, because you retain artistic and legal control over your music.
     To start, you need to do a high-quality recording. To do that, you need to find a good recording engineer. Don’t try to do it on-the-cheap in your basement. While good equipment is also essential, the most important aspect of any recording (after the quality of the music) is the ability of the engineer. Producing good recordings is his job, and he’ll do it much better than you can. Concentrate on the music, at least until the recording is done, and let the engineer worry about getting it into the hard drive. Once it’s there you can focus on the mix, the mastering, and the production. Having said that, working in your home studio is a great way to prepare for the real recording. Unprepared bands generally crash and burn when they get to the studio. This is an expensive and painful way to learn that recording music is a hard thing to do. Use your home studio to get the band ready before you get there.
     Next, put a professional-looking web site on the internet. Your site tells people about your group, your recordings, and your upcoming gigs. It connects you to your fans, your clients, and the rest of the industry. Unless you have HTML training, you should pay a web site designer to layout your site, but learn to add to it and update it yourself. Register a real domain name––adding a page to your family’s site on AOL won’t cut it––and spend time each week to keep the site updated.
     To get traffic to your site, 1) put your web address on your business cards, gig flyers, CD covers, tee shirts, letterhead, family pets, and anywhere else with enough white space to hold it, and 2) link to lots and lots of other sites. If you don’t link to others, you’re missing the point of the internet. Connecting with musicians is key to forming an on-line community that will attract fans and customers. Otherwise, you’ll have a lonely, antisocial little site that no one visits because no one knows it’s there. When you link to another site, send them an email asking them to link back to you. You’ll find that some people will refuse to link to you unless you link to them. I think that’s petty. I link to sites which will be of interest or value to my colleagues, students, and clients. Even if they don’t link back, having them on my site still makes it better. Having said that, if someone has what I call a “Me, Me, Me!” site selling just their product or service, but with no reciprocal links page or educational value, I generally don’t link to them. If all they want to do is advertise themselves on my site they can pay me for it.
     Finally, book your own gigs. Live performances bring in income, tighten up the group, get your name out there, and improve your fan base. The problem is that someone has to contact the venues and sell the band. Someone has to set up and maintain a database. Someone has to send out gig flyers and emails to draw a crowd to your shows. Someone has to pick the tunes and set up rehearsals. If you’re the only one in your group who’s read this far, that someone is probably you. Remember, running a band is a salesman’s gig. Get out and sell.

3) Do research

     The music business is changing rapidly. The days of the mullet-headed moron signing a six-figure record contract then partying his way to Rock & Roll stardom are over. The continual challenge of evolving technologies in an era of fewer opportunities (there are way more musicians than gigs) prove once-again that Darwin was right––only the strong, and well-prepared, survive. Innovative thinking, based on a realistic understanding of how the business really functions, and a pigheaded work ethic, are the only things that will keep you from playing on street corners for a living. You simply can’t take no for an answer, but plunging in blindly without doing your homework is a waste of your time and effort.
     The key to survival is knowledge. A quick look in your local book store will reveal piles of guides to making it in the music business. Most of them are rubbish and all of them will be obsolete within a year. Yet, books are a source for both hard information and other peoples’ experience. One place to start is This Business of Music by Shemel and Krasilovsky. This book was written by lawyers, so reading it can be tough sledding for the artsy, go-with-the-flow types. All the more reason for them to do it. The extensive and intricate legal structures of the music business will come as a shock and a wake-up call to those who think you ride the waves on good grooves alone.
     The internet is less in-depth than the library, but contains lots of up-to-date information and strategies for marketing your music. It also contains inaccuracies, lies, self-delusions, and fantasies. But once you learn to tell fact from fiction on the web, it becomes a great source of cautionary tales about people whose agendas are not as hidden as they think. The main strength of the internet is that it puts you in contact with a community of creative people. Some have the same goals as you, but have discovered that cooperation is more effective than competition. Others may need musicians like you to fulfill their goals. Still others are trying to establish new markets for independent art, alternative compensation systems for artists, or innovative ways to protect intellectual property without destroying the creative marketplace. All these people can be allies. For a list of links into the new music business, go to Old Politics, New Technologies, and the Price of Mac&Cheese and check out the side bar.
     The idea is to educate yourself then use that knowledge to seek out new ideas and markets. Don’t wait for them to come to you. Sending your promo materials to the same places everyone else does just adds to their slush piles. They are unlikely to respond, after all, you’re not doing them a favor by dumping more unsolicited CDs and photos on them. Keep asking yourself, “How can I connect to people who would be interested in my music?” Then find ways to make that connection.

      Now, having convinced you to take control over your business, I must remind you not to become too business-minded. I hate going to conventions because I’m always accosted by an assortment of aggressive, self-promoter types who hand me their card and start their sales spiel, until they realize I can’t help them get ahead. Then they vanish, or I should say, I do. I become invisible once they decide I’m not worth the effort. I always want to take a shower after talking to one of them. Don’t be a self-centered phony. Try to make real connections to people, don’t just use them for what they can do for you. Value and take care of your real friends. That way you won’t have to watch your back all the time. Your friends will do it for you.
     In a perfect world, the business of music would serve the Art. In the real world it’s the other way around. Talented musicians are ground into hamburger every day by people who are only interested in making money. You can avoid this fate by valuing your Art more than your wallet. You can sell your music without selling out. Focus on the music first. It will give you something to believe in––Art that you will be proud to share with others. Isn’t that why you got into the business in the first place?

Readers Respond:

Great article Don,

It made me think of a couple of stories:

     The cheap, do-it-yourself recording section made me think of Steve Vai.  I'm sure you know his first album was done on a 4 track!  Insane . . . guess maybe there could have been a third classification in the mix––genius . . .
     The allies' section made me think of a time when I went down to New Orleans and was visiting with Ellis and Jason Marsalis, and Ellis mentioned to me, "You know, Roy Haynes' grandson is a new young drummer," and I said to Jason,"Lookout, he's gonna put us out of work, man!"......and Ellis, in his usual wise tone completely flipped this thought on my by saying "actually interest in another drummer will only do good for the rest of the drummers. It creates interest in the whole field." It totally hit me hard, and made perfect sense.  Not only are drummers my allies, but I should be almost as concerned for their well being as my own.

But regardless, great work, and I look forward to the next!
Dylan Hicks

Dear Don,

     Thank you for your informative and well written article. One point you may want to add is the difference between linear and leveraged income. When you go out and play a gig and get paid $250 for four hours, that's linear income. If youdon't show up, get sick or are injured, the check does not arrive. If you produce a video or write a book which you sell on your web site titled "How To Play a for $250", that's leveraged income. The tape sells 24 hours a day, even if you are unwell or otherwise unable to play. In my case, I landed a contract to provide all the entertainment for a national harbor cruise company. They need 6 to 8 performances a day, seven days a week. I personally do 4 or 5 performances a week and subcontract out the rest. The commission for each of the subcontracted jobs is less than I would receive as a performer, but it adds up to be more than I could make if I did just one performance a day, seven days a week. And I get paid whether or not I am sick, injured or studying Afro-cuban rhythms in an exotic foreign locale. Linear is the way to wealth in any business. 

Best wishes,
David Grimm

To Music Career Aspirants
     One of the best articles about Career in music and arts; inspiring, insightful and informative.  I have managed to maintain a successful musical journey and career since I was a kid, and I still learnt some new things from this article.  Post it on your bedroom wall, if you are a young musician starting a career.  Don Skoog does not mince his words and he does not hold back on truth and reality, he is a “No BS” taken or given type guy.  Thank you Don!
Kalyan Pathak

     EXCELLENT article. I'm about to forward it to all my students. If it were shorter, I'd tattoo it in reverse on their foreheads so they'd have to see it every time they look in a mirror (which, ironically, is the crux of your article - self-analysis and goal setting).

Kurt Gartner, D.A.
Percussive Arts Society - Percussive Notes Associate Editor, Kansas Chapter President

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