If I had to sum up my emotional reaction to a career in music … I couldn’t. I sure know what it looks like to others: “You must be so happy, living your dream!” I get that the grass is always greener, particularly because I’m often on my side of the fence, peering enviously at my neighbors’ verdant lawns, fertilized and watered with financial security, retirement accounts, and employee healthcare plans.
Being a professional artist is intrinsically hard in America 2017. Some insidious confluence of exploitive commerce, inadequate arts education, and misplaced new-tech-addled priorities has rendered the average citizen blind to art’s human origin. People consume music but bristle at compensating its composers. I could gripe for ages, but regardless, to willfully take on a music career is to forge a thorny path through life, bereft of the trail markers and well-trodden undergrowth girding a more conventional career.
In fact, the only reason to be a professional musician is because you must. Anything short of an existential mandate withers against society’s barrage of weaponized discouragement. This conclusion is forged through experience. Experience, I hope, helps you avoid the hazards that befall me and my peers as we stumble through the trenches.
It’s not always easy. I’ve observed people who are otherwise kind and generous turn into insular social saboteurs in some musical environments. I think it’s largely because the rehearsal room and bandstand are the ultimate crucibles of ego management. The imperative that drives a music career means musicians are vulnerable creatures, amplifying each perceived slight and diminishing each success until their cacophonous inner-monologue is too noisy to care about someone else. Fortunately, this too can be one’s salvation. Knowing one’s own suffering means understanding another’s. Compassion soon follows. The next time your adrenal glands start cortisol-cranking, channel that stress productively, knowing that everyone else in the room is just as fragile as you.
When I moved to San Francisco at age 23, fresh out of music school, I had no clue that my career would be defined largely through my tenure as an editor of this magazine. Had my rigid sense of what my musical life would be (do gigs, play sessions, repeat) not allowed for the opportunity at BP, I’d have missed out on innumerable profound experiences this gig has afforded me. To be a musical success, leverage your skill set. Unless you’re one of the lucky few in a huge band or blessed with elite talent, paying the bills means monetizing all the stuff that comes naturally, while constantly refining and expanding your abilities. For me, it was initially that I loved the bass, could play decently, and was reasonably good at writing. Later I developed other skills, like amp and instrument repair, photography, synthesizers, teaching, production, and more. Not only has this curiosity kept me engaged, it keeps the lights on.
MIND YOUR MONEY
The musically relevant cities in this country are expensive, and survival is a daily struggle. There’s no reason to make life even more precarious by spending frivolously, saving rarely, and throwing money down the drain of parking tickets, late fees, IRS debt, and other financial indignities. Develop good financial habits, and know that by doing so you’re saving precious energy for the things that matter, rather than enduring sleepless nights, debating if the practical pressures of life might mean giving up. Use professional help when necessary. Lawyers, accountants, and financial planners provide real services, and while the initial cost outlays can be gawdy, the long-term rewards of dialing-in the tedious bits of life are legion.
Finally, don’t forget that you love music for good reasons. Music is an extraordinary gift and a boundless wellspring of insight, healing, and inspiration, but only if you let it be. There are times when my overstretched schedule takes me away from the instrument. My basses sit there; I avoid practice, knowing self-destructively that each day I don’t play is another perversely comfortable day I don’t have to face my limitations. What magic salve heals this negative spiral? Music. Perhaps I’ll listen to something objectively beautiful or intellectually extraordinary. Or, I’ll fight through my self-imposed obstacles and pick up a bass, slowly working myself back into our long-term relationship. Inevitably, minutes and then hours tick by, and I’m whole again, marveling that to play music is to converse with the divine; to do my part to solve one of life’s only transcendent mysteries. How lucky I am.