I get a lot of comments and questions from people at my shows regarding the title subject, and I always seem to hear one of a few things. Folks either comment on how fortunate I am to be doing something I love, want to know if it’s truly possible to not starve and play music, or express how horrifying and terrible it is that I have to be on the road so much. With all that in mind, I decided to do a blog post and pull back the curtain a bit on what it’s like to make a living from music. I’ll be debunking some misconceptions, along with offering up some common realities, bullet point style. So let’s go!
- Playing music for a living changes the way you feel about playing music.
I don’t want to say it takes the joy out of it, because it doesn’t. But it definitely moves it around a bit. Most people I talk to that play music for pleasure talk about how relaxing and wonderful it is to pick up their instrument at home. How fun it is to jam out on something. Well, in my experience, when you play music for several hours a night, multiple nights a week, that goes away. I never pick up an instrument when I’m at home, unless it’s to practice something specific or write a song. It’s of critical importance that I rest my fingers and my voice, so I can go do those four hour solo gigs on back to back to back nights. Truth be told though, I just don’t want to sit around and play. It’s in the “work” part of my brain now, whereas it used to be in the “fun” part. BUT: the joy I get from performing and sharing music with people more than makes up for that.
- Super drunk people, smartphone addicts, and loud conversationalists are the devil.
Alright, so I just talked about how playing music for a living sort of takes the joy out of playing an instrument, and puts it into playing on stage. So imagine how frustrating it is to go to a venue that is either filled with obnoxious drunk people shouting “FREE BIRD!”, or people engrossed in conversation with their friends about the latest Taylor Swift relationship news, or THE absolute worst, people that never look up from the screen of their phone. Look, I’m sympathetic to an extent. I understand that people come out to drink and have a good time. I also understand that people want to talk to their friends, and they might need to check their phone from time to time. I don’t have a problem with any of those things to a reasonable degree. But there is such a thing as balance. Driving hundreds of miles to a gig, and then playing to a roomful of people where not even ONE audience member will stop talking or look up from their smartphone is absolutely demoralizing. It is the single most discouraging thing that can happen to a performing musician, and it sucks.
- Travelling on the road is the best thing ever.
Alright, let’s move on to happier things. In 2014, I drove almost 50,000 miles. I played in a dozen different states on both ends of the country, and I absolutely loved every minute of it. Touring is probably my favorite part of this occupation. Seeing the country, experiencing new cultures, meeting new people, eating great food…it’s the best. When people say they feel sorry for me that I have to travel so much, or get a horrified look when I talk about how much I drive a year, I really don’t understand it. It doesn’t compute. I freakin’ love doing it!
- You CAN make a living playing music.
Like I mentioned at the open, there are a few things people always seem to say. One of the things I get most often is pity from people who I assume I must be a starving artist. This is lazy thinking, and it’s an inaccurate conception. Am I rich? No. Am I making a decent living? Absolutely. Not only that, I don’t have the average $30,000 of student loan debt that most 22 year olds are burdened with. If you are talented, and willing to work at it, you can make a good, solid living playing music. Don’t believe me? Ask my friend Ted Yoder. He has a wonderful wife and seven kids, and supports them all by playing music. (Check his stuff out at http://tedyoder.com)
- Booking shows is the dumbest part of this whole thing.
I do my own booking, because I haven’t attracted the attention of a booking agent yet. (They come to you, you don’t go to them most of the time.) So, I book 150-200 shows a year by myself. The booking itself is not hard. The flakiness and inconsistency of people who book for venues is. If I’m on tour in a region and I need to book a show, here’s what I can count on. I can count on having to email or call about 30-40 venues to get 1-2 bookings, because the vast majority of venues never check their email or look at band submissions. I can count on being low-balled at some point, by somebody. And I can count on hearing from a venue that enthusiastically wants to book me, but then never follows up again on locking in the date and working out the details. It’s just stupid, and it’s how I spend a lot of my time.
- The “rock star” lifestyle doesn’t exist.
I was amusingly warned by some people when I started doing this that a world of wickedness, drugs, sex, and rock and roll would descend upon me. I’ve even heard of guys that weren’t allowed to go out and play because their wives were so concerned about it. Well, I haven’t seen it yet. Maybe it’s just the style of music that I do, but my biggest fans are 50 year old dudes. Not really groupie material. There is the occasional stalker type, and the occasional drunk lady that requires some additional explanation to understand what “I have a girlfriend” means, but that is the exception FAR more than the norm. Those experiences become stories to share, jokes that get laughed about with friends. The most experience I’ve ever had with drugs is playing an event that focused on the integration of legal cannabis and hemp into the economy of Colorado. It was attended by business people and local politicians. Yeah, rock and roll? Maybe for someone like the Biebs, it’s out there. But I’m pretty sure there is no reason to be concerned otherwise.
- It’s true. I am so fortunate to be doing this. And it’s because of you!
OK, so all of that being said? This is still the best job in the world, and I would never want to do anything else. For all of those bad moments, with drunk smartphone addicts, flaky venues, and breaking down gear at 3 AM…the great moments blow all of that away. The joy of connecting with an audience is like nothing else I’ve ever experienced. It takes me to another place, and it takes my playing to another level. I am energy dependent. If there is good energy from the crowd? I play 10 times better, and that is not an exaggeration. A bad show sticks in my mind for a day or two. A great show with an awesome crowd sticks with me for weeks. I do this for those moments. I do this for the people that feel something in my playing, and connect on an emotional level. I do this for the people that have an awful job, or a bad relationship, and find solace in music. I do this for the people that derive joy from music. I do this for anyone who thinks that Top 40 and Bro Country are horrible, and need something real. I do it for you guys. Thanks for believing in me. I’ll try not to let you down.