to Pay for that Mac & Cheese
Taking Control of Your Career
by Don Skoog
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
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:
Car Payment $___
Auto Insurance $___
Music and books $___
Spending money $___
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
learn to add to it and update it yourself. Register a real domain
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,
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
to set up and maintain a database. Someone has to send out gig flyers
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
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
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
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
agendas are not as hidden as they think. The main strength of
the internet is that it puts you in contact with a community
Some have the same goals as you, but have discovered that cooperation
than competition. Others may need musicians like you to fulfill
their goals. Still others are trying to establish new markets for independent
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
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
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?
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
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!
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
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
Back to Articles Page