I’ve heard it all a thousand times. You can’t make a living in music, or any art for that matter. I heard it when I went into school for music, and my wife heard it when she went into school for art. Fast forward a handful of years, and we’ve gotten married, bought a house, and led pretty comfortable lives. The best part? Every penny that our family makes comes from art. My wife is a graphic designer, and I’m an audio electronics tech and musician. It’s not an easy path, and it means you’ll probably never see a forty-hour work week again. At the end of the day, though, you’re making a living doing something you hopefully love. I’m not going to try to lay out a hard and fast path in this blog on how to pull it off (a lot of luck is needed), but I’ll do my best to share tips as to how to make it work.
Every household needs a budget. Whether you actually have a spreadsheet you fill out or just set very general limits. When it comes to budgeting, I’ve seen artists make the same mistake over and over again. Do not budget anything that isn’t steady. I play a lot of gigs every month. A handful with a regular group I play with (weddings and events), a couple fill-in gigs, and a jazz brunch every single Sunday morning. The ONLY gig that gets put into our budget as income is the brunch gig. The other two categories can vary wildly from month to month, but I can count on that brunch gig. It’s not that those other gigs don’t exist, but all of it is treated like lagniappe. Those gigs don’t pay bills. Those gigs pad our savings, so that, if for some reason we have a slow month or two, everything is all good. I’ve heard so many musicians say phrases like “I can count on at least 6 or 7 gigs a month.” They’re wrong. If it isn’t 100% steady, don’t count on it.
As I mentioned in the previous section I play with a regular group that plays weddings and events. Some musicians will scoff at the idea because it isn’t creative or innovative, but the pay is great. You can call me a “sell out” or a “part of the problem”, but I really don’t care. I’m getting paid to play music. By doing pay gigs, I’m allowed the financial freedom to do original music the right way. I’m not pressured to make money on creative projects, so I have the freedom to take my time, not rush things, and let it develop organically. The best way to keep a pay gig is to just do the simple things that a lot of burnouts don’t. Show up on time, know the music and be as kind and helpful as possible. It really isn’t much harder than that.
Never underestimate the power of networking. That’s how you get those odd hired gun gigs. Be sure to always give out your information to every musician you meet and be sure to get their info as well. You never know when you will need to book them for a gig. Take care to build your reputation as a solid player that can fill in. I’ve been able to pick up so many of these gigs by doing a few simple things…
1) This is not the time for creative statements. Play your part and play it well. Don’t do anything crazy, just get the job done.
2) Show up early. I mean like an hour early. This makes an impression on the band leader.
3) Don’t be uptight. No one likes a stick in the mud. Joke with the other musicians and be friendly. Be sure to exchange numbers with as many people in the group as possible.
4) On the other hand, don’t be too comfortable, and by that, I mean don’t get drunk. A drink or two to loosen up is fine, but keep it under control.
5) Always keep a calendar to keep your life straight. There is nothing more embarrassing than showing up to a gig on the wrong date.
The best part about following these simple rules is that, eventually, you’ll fill in for a gig that becomes regular. All of the regular gigs that I have are a result of me subbing for a gig, doing a good job, being professional, and ultimately becoming the first call bass player for the group. Even if you don’t find yourself in the first call slot, you will be called back to fill in for future gigs with the group. There is no shame in being the second call guy. If you can cobble enough of those gigs together, then you’ll be in business.
I hope this blog is in some manner helpful. Just because we’re artists, it doesn’t mean we have to starve.
My name is Nathan Heck, and I am the lead technician at Lone Wolf Blues Company, where I have worked since 2009. I studied bass at Southeastern Louisiana University, where I received a minor in music. I also have been an actively gigging bass player in the New Orleans area for the last seven years.