How To Be A Professional Independent Musician
I hear from kids in bands all the time who want to “make music professionally”.
It can be practically impossible. Especially if you are in your twenties, working some crap job you hate just to pay your bills. Here are a few things I have learned over the years that I wish I realized sooner rather than later.
1. It Doesn’t Matter Where You Live If You Are Gone All The Time.
Say ya wanna make music “professionally” (I assume by this you mean “for a living”). Your biggest challenge right now is likely money. If money isn’t your biggest challenge because Fighting With Your Stupid Bass Player Who’s Also Your Older Brother Who Is Always Bossing You Around And Telling You What To Play, time to get back in the sandbox (garage) and work it out.
I am also going to assume that by “making music professionally” you mean either touring or being a writer/producer. Both are decent gigs and can be pretty lucrative. What if you’re at the entry level of the spectrum and trying to get out of the rut of bill paying and bill making? That Fender Reverb didn’t pay for itself you know.
As a professional music maker you are going to be gone all the time. Like, ALL the time. Whether you’re in the studio cuttin’ fresh jams or rehearsing your band for your upcoming dates, it will take up a lot of your life.
My life started to change drastically when I started analyzing my expenses. Do I really need a $1500 a month apartment downtown? If your answer is yes, you may want to consider alternate sources of employment. Music will not pay you and your 3 to 27 band mates enough for cover this for years (even if you *do* play your cards right and/or get extremely lucky). Do anything you can the cheapest way possible, always…you’re going to need that money down the road.
I suggest moving yourself somewhere that is insanely cheap. You’re never going to be home anyway. Even if you’re not on tour I recommend getting 1 full time job and 1 part time job to cover all the expenses you’re going to have when it comes to building your career. Because it is a career. If you are really going to be doing this for your life, you are in school right now and this is your $100,000 education. So get ready to eat dirt and live in a laundry room.
2) Bigger Is Not Better.
Amp, van, apartment, rehearsal space, etc. You’re small potatoes right now small fry and it’s time you started acting like it. You don’t need a school bus to get you to the venue down the street (if that is where you are at in your career). Most careers are ten years in the making so accept where you are and know that in the grand scheme of things, you’re just putting in the time that everyone does until slowly, over time, it will begin to change. It will likely not change over night. I apologize for that.
Don’t break the bank on a huge stack, a 15 passenger van with a 350 engine and a trailer and a loft to jam in unless you know for sure you can a) afford it and b) are ready. We need to start creating a self sustainable business model so be humble and aware of your position in the world and in the time line of your eventual goals.
3) Do Something That Makes Money
Duh. I’ve said this before and I will say it again…you gotta get great. But you also gotta do what you love, right? So what if what you love is making weird acoustic instrumental music? Power to ya man. If the gigs don’t come rolling in, just be ok with the fact that you might have to work at your job at the same time for a bit, building things up over time. Maybe your experimental percussion project just isn’t gonna be touring the world anytime soon. Again, I apologize. But so what if it doesn’t? A wise man at a bar once turned to me and said:
“Once you know what you’re doing, everything is easy.”
The second you embrace that you were put on this planet to make weird bird houses, going to your day job won’t seem all that bad (“I go here so that I can afford to do what I was meant to do: Make Weird Bird Houses”). Then, one day, you will realize you are the world’s finest weird bird house crafter and, there is a substantially low number of weird bird houses in the world 😉
4) If You Build It, Some People Might Show Up.
The play by play generally looks something like this in the beginning:
You imagine starting a band, wow what an amazing thing that will be.
You get your band of friends together and imagine playing a show. Wow, won’t that be great guys?
You play your first show. Now, you’re hooked. Hey…we should go on TOUR!!!
You book a small tour, with the help of other touring bands who have done the same. It’s even more fun than that first show, cause…it happens every night!
Then you go back to your job and count down the days until you get to do it all over again.
One day, you wake up and realize you don’t have to go back to your job. Because…the tours are playing for themselves!!! There are obviously many factors in this equation, like what kind of band you’ve got, how often you can tour, and how many jerks are in the band (I’m serious).
On the side you’re selling songs on iTunes, merch at your shows and your online store, maybe you even get the occasional placement or two. Even if you can figure out one of these things, it is a model to a self sustainable entity known as a business (or something). If you’re at this place right now you will likely want to chirp in that it all happened with fans, and building relationships, and…time. Lots, and lots, and lots, and lots of time.
There are people you can hire to help you with a lot of stuff. A lot of times it’s better to just figure out how to do it yourself (I’m talking booking, publicity, radio, social media type stuff and so on).
As always I’m here for ya if you have any questions. Fire away.
I love you,