I received this question via email this morning and decided to turn it into a blog post:
QUESTION: Hey, I’ve been a fan for years now but I’ve been meaning to ask, how does one go about getting their foot in the door musically? I don’t mean with a band necessarily, but I’d like to session work as well as generate different streams if revenue online… I figured you could offer a bit of insight. I would appreciate it greatly!
ANSWER: Thanks for being a fan of my old music. Since I’m not currently a working musician (I haven’t even played much music at all in probably 5 years), I can only give you advice based on some of the successful musicians I work with.
1.) First of all, if you really want to increase your opportunities, it helps to live in a place where there is a lot of music work available. You’re going to have to connect with people who can pay you for your services, whatever they are. Later, once you’re established, you can live pretty much anywhere that’s near an airport, and even do a lot of session work remotely.
2.) In general, music is a terrible career if you want stability. I know many talented and hard-working musicians who graduated from places like Berklee and Musicians Institute and are still struggling month to month. They take whatever gigs they can, teach lessons, go on low-budget tours for small artists, and play in cover bands in order to pay for rent and food. It’s a treadmill, so it requires endless energy. After some unpredictable amount of time, they will start to get gigs that they can brag about on their resumes — although their income might not change all that much. Which means they have to stay on the treadmill while pretending not to be on it anymore! The rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle may seem like a dream come true when you’re full of nervous energy in your 20s and have no responsibilities, but it will most likely become hell as you mature.
3.) I know only a few (what I would consider) successful working musicians. I’m referring to those who can afford a “middle-class” living. They tend to have the following traits: sober, easy-going, hard-working, honest, financially responsible, appreciative, and realistic. And yes, you mentioned “different streams of revenue.” These successful few are not caught up in hype and pretense, which means they are willing to do real work, not just the glorious work. They don’t live in a fantasy world of “making it big.”
4.) Don’t be afraid to “green light yourself.” I don’t remember who came up with that term, and it’s probably a cliché by now. But don’t wait around for someone else to tell you that you’re officially a musician. You don’t need endorsements and a record deal and connections to get started. Only a handful of people ever took me seriously as a musician in the beginning, but it wasn’t until I saved up and paid Virgil Donati to play on a song that I got some attention from others and sold CDs. I had to decide for myself that I mattered and deserved it. Too many musicians are passive about their success.
5.) Get over the “I’m the chosen one” next-lottery-winner / gambler mentality. And don’t do the “I will suffer for my art” thing. Learn about healthy compromise. Don’t take your image / Wikipedia page too seriously. Stay away from drugs and alcohol. Being a musician is a marathon, and you’ll need all your health and good judgment and energy for as long as possible. Unless you want to collapse when you’re 40, a financial disaster with shaky hands.
6.) Try not to get involved with people who don’t share your principles. In the long term, non-virtuous people have a high-probability of failing. You’ll come across a small percentage of fools who happened to stumble into some form of “success.” It’s possible for some of them to stay alive / malfunctioning for a very long time on residual income and / or inheritance. As much as this can piss you off (and it definitely pisses me off sometimes), don’t let it distract you too much. Read some Warren Buffet and don’t invest in volatile stocks (A.K.A. losers).
7.) Rather than worrying about “getting your foot in the door” just focus on being valuable. Often, if you just consistently do great work, doors will open for you. Be patient. The music business is a life-long process if you truly want a career in it.
I hope those ideas are helpful. Remember, I can only base this on my own observations from the outside. I’ve met some amazing professional musicians, but mostly a lot of overgrown children. Maybe this is all too philosophical / abstract, but that’s what’s on my mind lately.