Starting out as a Musician
From the moment I saw Eric Clapton play guitar at age 8, I wanted to be a rock star. Probably just like every other kid who ever picked up a guitar wanted to be a rock star. It was a rocky road – armed with a cheap plywood classical guitar and a teacher who taught some very dull group lessons where ‘Mull of Kintyre’ was about as rock and roll as it got, I had a mountain to climb starting out as a musician. Over my adolescence, I became a passable cellist and a pretty technically accomplished guitarist – true to my roots I remained a genuinely awful pianist. I still am, you can’t be good at everything.
On to higher education, and I had bought the line that so many other people hear – that a career in music is not really an option, it is not really a career. It is certainly not a sensible thing to aspire to, and the chances of achieving it are somewhere in the slim to nil range. Most people who get told that never get as far as starting out as a musician. I wonder if you’ve heard the following joke, which sums up that whole thought ballpark:
“What is the difference between a large pizza and a musician?…
…A pizza can feed a family of four.”
Haha! And thus, with my dreams appropriately filed as dreams, my hobby remained my hobby. I completed my studies and embarked on a very lucrative career in technology. I always played guitar – all the way through University I played in bands, taught a few lessons and busked at train stations until I had enough money for the fare. Whilst working I continued playing in bands and with friends. We never hit it big but became moderately well known within our genre, did successfully complete a national tour, and had a modest local following.
I’ve always had ambition. When I was earning £11K at my first job, I wanted to know how I could earn £22K. Having gotten the skills and qualifications that were the gatekeeper for that level of job, I found out how to earn £44K. I made a plan and set about checking all the boxes. Pretty soon I achieved that and straight away wanted to find out about £88K jobs. I was earning very good money. I was also, sadly, working extremely long hours under intense pressure. I got all the way to 25 before I started getting chest pains, and maybe most of the way to 26 before I started to lose track of myself.
It was around about that time that work got really stressful, I was really rundown, and an opportunity arose to take a second look at the path I was following. The moment that triggered it all was not tremendously positive; I had what people would probably think of as a bit of a breakdown. The positive outcome was that I managed to look at myself from outside, and see extremely clearly what I needed to do. Take stock, figure out a goal and make a plan. Just like I’d done to build the career I had, but with a better one in mind. Matching my salary to the penny from working in music would have been too great a challenge for overnight, so part of my process had to be about my definition of success. Though I was earning a lot of money, I didn’t need a lot of money. I could have lived off less than half of my salary, I figured I needed around £30K per year to pay all my bills and have enough money for a few luxuries alongside the necessities. My car would need to last longer, and maybe I’d need a part-time job to pay for a holiday. Maybe if I enjoyed my life enough, I wouldn’t feel like I needed a holiday at all! But if I could earn £30K per year from music, I could live a happy life. I consider that being successful, and more than enough encouragement when starting out as a musician.
Make it Happen!
Despite my predilection for dreaming, I have always been an intensely practical person. My Dad was a bank manager, and try I as I might whatever subliminal impact there was from that left its mark. I had a house, bills, and dependants. There was no way I could simply quit my job, pick up my guitar and head into the big wide world with nothing but my dreams and determination (and my guitars of course). So pretty quickly I figured out that an almighty thunderbolt of luck was reasonably unlikely, and therefore stardom, were it to come at all, would not come quickly. I did not have the time to wait for my luck to come in, or for my magic moment to arrive. I had to eat in the meantime if nothing else. I had already had a taste of living the rock and roll lifestyle: touring, sleeping half the day, being up all night. Probably drinking too much. Probably doing most things too much. Never being at home and rarely seeing family and friends. And I didn’t want that. I wanted to make a living from music because I love music, but as it turns out I didn’t actually want to make it big!
I think it too big of a risk to pursue music the rock star way. Boom and bust. Even those who make it usually do not last for long. The world is a famously fickle place, and a record deal, whilst made by one record, can be destroyed by the next. I knew I needed to adopt several strategies and avenues for success to assure an income, and I knew I needed to make progress quickly to make it work starting out as a musician.
There are several advantages to the ‘jack of all trades’ approach when starting out as a musician, though it is admittedly helpful to master a couple. If you turn your hand to several things you can shift priorities as your interests come and go; you can cover any drop in income from one sector with an increasing attention to another, and often the skills and experience acquired are complimentary. If you become a better tutor; you’ll be a better player. If you become a better composer; you’ll write better songs. If you write more music you’ll get more exposure, which will lead to more work. One giant upward vortex!
I had the advantage starting out as a musician that music had always bubbled in the background. Even whilst working my day job I had been teaching, playing, recording and participating on the Internet (forums and fan sites primarily) so there was the opportunity to build an extra income. And that became the plan. In the short term, it meant I was even busier than before as I worked a 9 to 5 as well as forwarding my music interests on evenings and weekends, but the passion I had to succeed removed any pain from that process. I didn’t sleep much for a few months, but it didn’t take long for it to start being worthwhile.