Quit your day job?

Right around the beginning of the year, when everyone seems to be making new resolutions and goals, I tend to get a lot of people asking for advice on how to get a career in the music industry.  What do you have to do in order to quit the day job, and just do something music related for a living?

Notice that I didn’t say “write music for a living”, because in all honesty, I think the days of being able to make a living solely off creating and selling your own music are all but gone.  Sure, there will still be a few people who do it, but for a while now the majority of professional artists releasing material have been making their money from touring and playing live, versus selling actual records (CDs, downloads, whatever).  And unfortunately, record labels have caught on to this as well, and most now require a cut of touring revenue, further eating into artists’ pockets.  If you want to make a living making music, make sure you can play live too, simplest advice I can give there.

Still, that leaves a lot of other careers in the music industry, far too many to really mention here in fact.  Rather than trying to go into specifics for landing a gig in each of those (since those specifics will likely be outdated in a couple years anyway), I thought I’d focus on some more general concepts that I’ve learned about over the years in my struggle to achieve “the dream”.

– It’s about hard work.  When I first thought about actually making a living from music somehow, I was pretty young and happened to run across an interview with BT in some magazine.  They asked him the same question, “How do you get to a point where you’re making a living from music?”  His answer, “You have to be prepared to work harder than everyone else.”  It sounds simple, but it’s true.  You may dream of just sitting in your studio writing the occasional tune that the world goes crazy over and will pay you dearly for.  That will not happen  (fun daydream though, no?).  Even the most gifted musician has to deal with the fact that they run a business, and all the work that involves.  Even paying others to handle this for you involves a lot of work, especially to get to that point.

So lesson 1 is to he honest with yourself with what this involves.  You often see the easy side of the business, the DJ partying in the club, the band riding to gigs in limos, the singer doing her next album in some exotic location.  That does happen, but not before those artists put in massive amount of work to get to that point (and ultimately paid for all those perks and fun times out of their own pocket anwyay).  Not only is it a lot of work to get to that point, but also to maintain it.  It’s sooo worth it, but at the same time you gotta be ready to really bust your ass all the time, plain and simple.  No one is just going to drop an awesome job in your lap because you think you’re “THAT” good.

– You need to get lucky.  This isn’t some attempt to use FATE as the ultimate decider of who gets to be famous and who doesn’t.  Ask any successful artist how they got where they are, and I bet most will be able to look back to some point in the past when they got a lucky break.  But you can’t just stop trying, kick back your feet, and wait for these moments to find you.  The better and more skilled you can are, the more likely you’re going to be in a position to be there when your chance comes.

And not only do you need a lucky break, you need to be ready when it comes.  I know that there’s a few times in my life where I was presented with a good chance at meeting this dream of music for a living, and just wasn’t ready for it.  Sucks, but you live and learn.  Which brings me to….

– You’ll be in over your head.  When you do finally get a chance to prove your skills to someone in a position to advance your career, you’re almost always going to feel like you’re in over your head, like you’re not prepared enough.   You’re doing something new, and probably something you’re a little under-qualified for still.  Roll with it.  Don’t pass up the chance, just dive in and do your best, really give it your all.  Better to try and not do it, than to not even try at all.

The good thing about the internet these days, is that it’s usually pretty easy to find someone more experienced than you in your field, so help is often not more than an email away.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help, but don’t expect them to do your job either.  Keep your questions short and simple, and work fast.  In fact, having contacts like these before you need them is a good idea, saves you time when you need help NOW.  (and don’t email me, I’m busy, see point 1!)

The other thing you’ll notice about your first big gig is that you often have less time to get it done than you expected too.  Be efficient, stay focused, this is your priority.  Most of all, just have confidence in yourself, that all the training and practice you’ve put in so far (again, see point 1).

– To be a professional, act like a professional.  I know I’ll get flack from some people for this, but I see it all the time.  If you want people to take you seriously, and to put their money in your pockets, you need to be the type of person they can trust and feel comfortable around.  You can’t be a hot head, you can’t act childish, you don’t go online and act like an idiot, you never know who’s reading what you write.  You might feel like being online is a great place to express who you really are, where you can say whatever you want, and you’re right, it is.  But you have to look at it from the perspective of a potential client, or a booking agent, or an A&R person, etc.  They’re doing music for a living too, and like you want things to go as smoothly and simply as possible.  Why would they want to work with someone who acts like a fool, or always causes trouble for other people and is argumentative.

There’s certainly famous engineers and artists known for being complete pricks, but they’re the exception, not the rule.  You’re free to try that route, but you’re really limiting who you’ll eventually work with.  I can’t count the number of awesome situations I’ve been in because people thought I was a pretty chill, but informed guy (their words, not mine).  From being on the beta teams of some of the best gear ever made, to really awesome DJ and live gigs.  Be cool with people, and they’ll be cool to you.  Simple.

– Don’t give up.  It takes time, and there will be a lot of highs and lows along the way. When you get your first big break, you’ll feel on top of the world.  Then the reality sinks in that there’s now yet another hill to climb, another goal to achieve and maintain.  Keep at it, stay confident, have some faith that you can do it.  Keeping the proper attitude really reflects in how other people see you, the image you project of yourself.  Again, no one wants to work with the downtrodden artist who complains and whines all the time.  Stay positive!

If you have any comments you want to add, or other tips, please leave them in the blog versus posting them on any forums I linked the blog on.  One of the main reasons I created a blog when there’s already so many out there, is that I wanted a place where my friends from ALL the forums I frequent could gather to discuss music topics.

This way, everyone gets the chance to see any witty replies you might have too 😉

Peace and beats,


22 Replies to “Quit your day job?”

  1. I work a day job and make music in my spare time. Out of necessity I’ve come to see myself as a ‘hobbyist’. I’ve never met a ‘professional’ but I’d love to sit down with one and actually talk through just how the stars aligned for them and how they see things in todays labour market. I wrote a blog post a while ago which doesn’t aim at the same target as this article directly is sort of indirectly related and contains my same desire to discuss real life professional music. http://eswaves.com/2010/04/09/sounding-off-why-make-music-when-you-wont-ever-be-paid-for-it/ Thanks for the article and keep living the dream.

  2. I’m an amateur musician, and perhaps unusual in that i’m not looking to go pro. Maybe this is because I am related to and know several pros – and therefore have seen how much work it takes. Maybe because i’m not good enough, not ambitious enough, not hard working enough. But whatever, I enjoy it as a hobby, doing a few live shows per year and occasionally uploading tracks.

    So anyway, the article. Excellent. Full of common sense. I particularly like your statements “It’s about hard work” and “To be a professional, act like a professional”. Earning a living through music might seem magical and amazing (and it is in many ways) but it’s important people realise it’s just like any other career and requires hard work to succeed.

  3. Yeah, the article wasn’t really aimed to try and tell people that they SHOULD be trying to be pros, more aimed at those who’ve already decided that’s what they want. In many ways having a day job and doing music on your own time is a lot easier. I think that’s the other point I wanted to really stress, that landing that dream job doesn’t mean it’s easy street at that point the work is just starting.

  4. I fall into the category of someone who does something ‘music related.’ I teach music full time with some demo recording and a number of other ‘things’ that fall into the category of ‘musical coaching.’ I do not perform nor collect royalties from song writing. I am busy as hell. The general points Tarekith has made are right to the point, even for someone like me. I have to work very hard often with little down time. But I LOVE IT. I had a lucky break in that I found myself in the right place at the right time to create a market. I am forever in over my head often flying by the seat of my pants, and I have had to shape my ‘proffesionlism.’

    Tarekith is right that it is hard to nail specifics down, and this is because everyone has differeing personalities. With this in mind I have developed a simple set of filters that I use to make decisions about what it is I do. I have a little accronym type thing called T.I.C.I.T. Its a play on the concept of ticking boxes. T=Time, I-Image, C-Communication, I-Innovation, T=Technology. Everything I do regarding the business side of my music related business has to tick some of these boxes. The more the better.

    When you are hustling for yourself, time and how you spend it should almost become obbsesive. Everywhere I look people are time poor. There are all sorts of demands on your time that will have nothing to do with music itself, so these need to be managed appropriately. I am constantly looking for ways to save time or use it differently or to ditch time wasters, both people and processes. People judge you on your punctuality, and so I make it a habit never to be late. I got this clue from students who came to me from other teachers who either were constantly running late or simply never showed up. Time and your use of it contributes to your reputation. You have the choice to shape this positively. Which leads me to image…

    Gone are the days for me of unshaven faces and shabby clothes in the name of hip fashion statements. Gone are the days of making my opinions about people and things public. Gone are the days of my ‘potty’ mouth. My clients are equally kids and their parents. I have to be constantly aware of what I say and do, especially as all of my clients live with a 20km radius of me. We are all in the same community. I cannot afford to tarnish that. This is true about my online presence, although I have been late to the game with tidying this up. I have to choose careful use of my facebook activity and newsletter/website presence. Its a constant demand that is about premeditated shaping. I have not got it nailed down yet, but it is evolving.

    Communicating your image as well as your sevices or products is a constant challenge in the ‘e’ world. Occasionally I meet someone who does not do internet banking or who does not have an email address, but they are about 2% of my clients. Methods of communicating for me are essentially via word of mouth, social media or direct marketing. So a lot of my efforts are concentrated on making these a pleasant experience. I am not a natural ‘social media’ person so I really have to work hard at this one. Its on my to do list for 2011 to bump this up. One thing I do is when it comes to email, I have a rule of never letting a night pass by with out responding to someones request or inquiry. Sometimes I fail at this and have been taken to task by customers. Wether its reasonible or not, there is an expectation about promptness and emails that is becoming prevalent. Don’t leave people hanging…

    Innovation is a tough one. For me its not about inventing new things but about using things innovatively. For instance, I am currently in the process of researching doing all of my business accounts via my iPod Touch. The will not only save me a lot of time but it will give me some flexibilty in how and when I maintain these. From a music teaching perspective I will be teaching electric guitar via iPod touch’s and my JamHub starting this February. I know I am the first in my area to be doing this and it will be unique to me for sometime, until someone else in my area decides to do the same. Just an example or two…

    Technology. This follows on from innovation, but it can affect all of these catagories. Staying on top of technology development in your chosen area or proffession can afford you many opportunities in not only running your business but making money directly from it. An example I am about to utilize is a feature in my Newsletter program that allows people to book for upcoming events. I will use this for people to book their lesson spots term by term. This will save a tonne of time on the phone and many personal emails. Its a simple example based on software but as a one man show I am relieved I can streamline this area.

    There are many other ways I apply these filters to my music related business. They are unique to my circumstance but I am sure others can find some value in them. Its important that if you are heading out on your own that you maintain an open mind about people and processes, and that includes yourself. It will be very humbling at times. Always ask questions about the activities you are doing. Try to have solid and thought through reasons for your actions. Having someone you trust to bounce ideas off of is important, and if this person is your significant other, make sure you have a depth of relationship that can handle objective critique.

    Hopfully someone can take the bits they like from this and blend them into their experience.

    All the best for 2011.

  5. OK.. I know there are people who constantly need reminding that they are not as amazing as they think they are…
    But am I the only one that thinks this guide is not really that helpful?

    That you have to work hard, lucky breaks are helpful, being ready to take said break, taking the job seriously..
    How many people are there that really don’t already expect this?

    I guess perhaps this guide would be useful to someone who has decided they want to produce, but hasn’t actually started to yet…

  6. I agree actually, they seem like such obvious things. But time and time again I see people completely losing sight of the obvious, and yes, they need a reminder. And honestly, there’s a lot of people well into the game that are still really not realizing what the day to day is like doing this kind of thing for money. It’s not all lazy days and partying, and a lot of people sort of think it is.

  7. Thanks Tarekith,

    You’re articles are always insightful 🙂 Very good read especially as I’m off to study Audio Engineering later in the year!

  8. awesome post some good tips but i think what really needs to happen first is that artist need to take the music back it’s a shame that artist get pennies to the dollar on brilliant works of art. it’s also a shame that things will probably never change.

  9. Great article, Tarekith. It’s such a timely topic for me because this year, actually, my most important goal is to get to that point where performing live dance music is how I “make a living”. Meeting somebody who is actually doing it (from the LivePA board, actually) has been incredibly helpful and validating/reaffirming/justifying in a way.
    I can’t really understand why I want to “do it for a living”. I don’t like thinking of it in that way. It’s just that, the thing I love doing the most is performing live, promoting, and developing my live show. It’s what I want to do all day. Is that enough of a motivation to want to do it for a living?

  10. Hello, great article, and here are my 2 cents:
    – if you are not able to perform live, as i do, because i think no one wants to watch some fat guy tapping on notebook, it is hard to promote. So, buy some hardware, and fuck with it in front of people, but notice, that this costs money..
    – my music is crap and deep underground and i have no “fans” – but i think, that my sound is perfect, im good in recording, mixing and mastering, so i can have music related job in some studio, or mixing a movie, doing sound FX etc – well, im still searching..
    – be unique, do revolution – for examle, record entire album of farting-samples – the people will notice you! but i dont think you can make lots of cash..
    Thanks for the attention and cheers, i`m writing this from my hatred day job pc..

  11. Thanks for the addition to the conversation, ks.
    1) I’m gonna be blunt cause life is short. I’m not trying to be a dick, or argumentative, but I really want to reply to some of the things you’ve said. This is all in response to the idea that you can’t make a living performing live. I agree with some of it, but…Your arguments against being able to “make it” are totally indicative that you don’t believe in yourself…and that’s not necessarily your fault. You have to find other people in the world who ARE doing what you want to do…or just bite the bullet and believe that you could be the first. How is it going to happen if you don’t believe it will? Belief is behind all motivation and action. Besides, fat guys behind laptops ARE performing out there and ARE getting gigs. If people feel the music along with you and you make some effort to “perform” then nobody cares if you’re fat or not. That is so not a reason to not pursue your goals.
    Everybody knows that hardware costs money. So does a computer to make music to begin with. Being a DJ a couple years ago used to involve TONS of money, on tunrtables, a mixer, RECORDS. But that didn’t stop a gazillion people from getting into it. Bottom line is, you gotta spend money to make money. Physical interfaces for computers are so mass produced now. Save up, get a used one on craigslist or whatever, get a friend to paint it, and put a guitar strap on it. Just those little efforts are separating out the serious ones from the hobbyists. Prove to people that you are there to perform for them, to share the experience with them. If that’s not your thing, find someone who VJs and develop a show with them. If you have good visuals, you’re already ahead of alot of people. And finally, you say that a fat guy tapping a laptop is hard to promote…but remember, it’s not just your live show concept that promotes itself, it’s your releases that promote your live show. I denied this for years and suffered the consequences. Having releases promotes your live show in a big way, from what I’ve learned. I’d like to hear some other opinions on this.
    2) Sounds like you don’t have confidence in your music. If your “sound is perfect” and you’re “good in recording, mixing, and mastering” you’re way ahead of alot of people there, too. That’s great. You could a: try to develop your arrangement/songwriting skills or b: hook up with someone who has what you claim you don’t have. You have to be your own fan before people decide to do the same. If you are happy not doing your own music, but can do SFX, scores, jingles, etc, go and find a job or make a job doing it! The world of game/web music is HUGE and ever growing.
    3) Yes, being unique is so important. When you say you don’t think you can make a lot of cash, you can’t make a lot of cash. You can, you just don’t think you can because you haven’t seen it done or don’t know how, or just don’t believe there’s a way. Are you already doing the standard stuff just to have a foundation? Myspace, Soundcloud, ITunes, Amazon, etc?

    If I am too blunt, maybe it’s because I need to tell myself all of this stuff on a daily basis. I am struggling with the same awful awwwwful day job…but it’s actually something I’ve locked myself into so that I can save up and then live for almost a year without a job–and thus pursue my music full-time. Ks, I really wish you the best.

  12. I see myself as being in the “enviable” position of never having wanted to make a career or living off of music — it’s just been a passionate hobby. I think your advice is great, Tarekith, particularly the item about being professional, particularly with respect to online activities. Thanks for writing (and keep it up!)

  13. the struggle is a beautiful thing, powerfull. there is a simple thing people also forget. being pro or amateur means you must do something musical all the time if you want to make a living. fine it`s a job. but hobby music gives a pleasure, an essential art emotion in music, cause you do not have to do anynthing. you can decide to do when the feeling comes, and you decide how to do – nobody tells you how you`re suppose to sound. having less time this way, less time leaves the money-job, but the art quality is pure and free. the choices in life are difficult. thanx for the article.

  14. Having to do music all the time is something I struggled with for a long time. Back in 2000 I was offered a chance of doing commercial music regularly, and I turned it down because at the time I feared it would kill my own creative output. In hindsight it would have been a great stepping stone, and a good paying gig.

    Now that I do music for a living, in a way my own music has taken a turn for the better too. At least, it’s easier for me get ideas down and work on projects, since I’m almost always in the studio. Once I get out of the studio though, I don’t usually want to hear music anymore. 🙂

  15. A great article and yes most of these things are obvious but great to be reminded of from time to time. The new site looks great and I have been enjoying the articles for some time.


  16. Interesting article and very helpful. Like some of the other comments, I have to agree in particular with the professionalism comment, more specifically about pricks! When starting his DJ career and looking for gigs etc. Dave Seaman famously wrote a note for himself on the front of his diary saying “Be Nice To Everyone”. This sounds obviously but it’s so true! People remember nice guys for sure, but I guarantee you they will remember the dicks more and I know in my line of work (music-related) this has often been the deciding factor in who we book for a job. So be nice 😀

  17. I play professionally, all over the world. I’m very lucky but I don’t make any real money out of it. For the majority those days are gone. So I started a social enterprise using my skills to work with young epople who are disengaged and using music technology to do it.


    And to be honest I get as many kicks out of doing this as I do flying off all over the place to play great gigs.

    Your right though you do have to be prepared to work bloody hard and yes people do need reminding of that occasionally

  18. You only get one life. This is not a dress rehersal. There are no do overs except for the ones you create for yourself during your time on this earth. There are DJ’s making millions of dollars per year right now. I am sure there are producers making money as well. Personally I am born and bred a DJ but have spent years learning how to produce as a vehicle to get there. Times sure have changed along the way but when I ponder the enormity and the fleeting essence of life and all of the things I have experienced in music along the way I can’t help but expect even better times to come. I wouldn’t have gotten involved with this scene otherwise. I like the BT quote – once you committ yourself to long, hard work in anything that you do you have already separated yourself from 95% of the competition.

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