You put money in, you get art out

Smart Ways to Make Money in Music | My Piano Lessons

A couple of weeks ago an old college friend posted a picture online. It was a picture of our college class from 20 years ago. 

As usual, while everyone else in the picture was being relatively sensible, I was grinning like a loon (too many others in the picture to check with, so I’ve just snipped myself out so you can see my blurry, loon face). 

Because of that I ended up reconnecting with a couple of old college friends. There was a theme – none have had truly satisfying musical careers. 

I was pretty clever at school. Yeah, it’s kinda conceited to say so, but it’s true. I got a little trophy for getting the best exam results one year. I was always in friendly competition with Meena, the only other person in my year who tended to do as well. But I didn’t go to the sort of school that cared, so they didn’t try and keep me on at sixth form (well, apart from Mr Haque who really wanted me to stay on and do science A levels. Sorry, Mr Haque). There was no career guidance either, and I wouldn’t have listened anyway. All I cared about was music. 

So I went off to college to do a music diploma, and I did well (very well. I did extra units and got really high marks. Did I mention I was clever?). I became a better musician because of that course. Then I went off to uni, got better at music, went into music teaching before switching career into a day job that has nothing to do with music. 

I never made a serious attempt to make a living from being a musician. Teaching it was one thing, but earning money from performing and composing? No. Too precarious for me. I think I had the musical chops, but I never really had the entrepreneurial skills necessary. 

It transpires that quite a few of my college-mates gave it a stab. 

And having caught up with them, I was reminded why. It can be a really difficult job. 

One was a member of a successful band, touring all over Europe and selling thousands in merch at every gig, but never making a penny. 

Another got nowhere in metal bands before packing it in to sell real estate in the middle of America.

Another spent years on the rock covers band circuit, occasionally having a run of good gigs, but not really making progress for years. 

In short, not huge amounts of professional success. But loads of musical success. 

Away from college friends, I also know musicians who have had struggles with money, struggles with mental ill-health. All of them are musicians who have tried to rely on music as a way of making a living. The musicians I know with day jobs are generally speaking happier for it. 

You put money in, you get art out is, I think, a line from the Terry Pratchett novel Maskerade (or paraphrase. I could go and check. But I am lazy). I think that’s the best way to think about music. There is this pernicious and destructive myth that a lot of us musicians fall for – that you can win the lottery and become a rock star. Just work hard enough, make the music good enough, and you will turn this art into your living. 

If you can, great. But that takes a good head for business, a realistic model for making it work, huge amounts of luck, and even then I don’t think I’ve met a musician who didn’t make money from something besides performing, recording and composing. 

I know for a fact that I, with my full time non-music job, make as much of my own original music as most of my ‘proper’ musician friends.

I know that thinking of the art itself as a goal has lead me to be much happier than when I thought it needed to be something else. 

So, daft as he is, I am quite content with the decisions 18 year old me made. 

Music doesn’t need to be a job. Most musicians don’t ever consider earning a penny from their music, the ones who do are a tiny, tiny minority. Music is a goal, a thing to create, not a thing to earn from. 

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