Day Jobs – The Price of Risk

Hi, everyone.  First of all, sorry for my long silence here.  I bought a house in March.  ‘Nuff said.

I began writing this entry well over a year ago.  I’ve had to think hard about it.  (I’m trying to make my posts shorter but this one’s not going to be.)  Lots of musicians get hung up on quitting their day jobs.  Lots of people have asked me about it, some thinking I had quit mine!

So here’s my entry on that topic:

It’s easy to feel like a failure because you haven’t quit your day job to be a full time rock star but that way of thinking is based on the money-centric culture we live in.

Two years ago, a co-worker offered me free tickets to see Jimmy Buffet.  I can think of a lot of things I’d rather do than see Jimmy Buffet live.  Like my taxes. He was shocked.  “Do you know how much money Jimmy Buffet made last year?”  I was taken aback.  An artist’s annual income probably never factors into my opinion of their work.  My co-worker seemed to think that figure would make me re-think my opinion.  It didn’t but it did make me realize that other people DO judge our work by how much money we make.

(By the way, I later apologized to my co-worker. I shouldn’t have been so sarcastic and I appreciated him thinking of me when he wasn’t able to go!)

That exchange underscored the thoughts I’d been having about money and creativity.  The business world is full of big believers in letting the market guide all decisions.  When they become successful, they judge everything else through that lens.

However, the most consumed/popular market driving things are often not “the best” or even “great”.  They’re simply easiest to consume. McDonald’s. The Kardashians.  Wal-Mart.  (Jimmy Buffet suddenly sounds great).  These aren’t exactly the pillars of high quality food, entertainment or shopping.

In contrast, so many worthwhile and rewarding things in life are money losing ventures.  (See my entry on Good ≠ Newsworthy.)

Here’s a non-music example:

My Mom has been a professional parent since 1976.  She didn’t have a “real” job again until 2008ish… except we did throw a paper route together in the early 90s and she did most of the work.  Thanks, Mom!!  She gained SERIOUS skills from her career as a parent that are applicable in any situation that involves human interaction.  No one paid her to do this.  She relied almost solely on my dad for income. Thanks, Dad!!

(Of course, market lovers might argue that I wasn’t worthwhile because I don’t generate much money… to that I simply say, I’d be happy to stop buying your products so that you don’t either.)

I didn’t appreciate my parents’ efforts when I was a kid.  I had no idea how lucky I was that my Mom was willing to do that paper route job with me until I was out in the world on my own.  I didn’t have the perspective until then.

Neither did people in the 1800s —- who knew that Ludwig van Beethoven was going to be remembered and revered as he is today?   Beethoven was pretty broke at the time of his death.  He may not have had a day job but he did have to find a way forward with his music.  Thank goodness he did.

Finding a way to make it work is something musicians must do – from those of us struggling at the bottom to the ones struggling at the top.

In my 20s, I was surprised to learn that symphonies in the US – true pillars of quality entertainment –  are kept alive mostly by donations.  NOT TICKET SALES.  Take a look at The Atlanta Symphony’s list of sponsors and grants.   This site even shows the minimum amount given by each entity.  I don’t know the exact dollar amount needed to keep Atlanta Symphony alive, but I quickly perused a few US symphony web sites like Flagstaff’s and found that ticket sales cover approximately 1/3 of the operating costs of any given orchestra.  Wow!  Even these highbrow arts organizations can’t pay the bills with just ticket sales!

Think about that next time you play an amazing show to an enthusiastic packed house and still have to go to work on Monday morning.

Many of my own successes over the years have been money losing ventures that were valuable in other ways.  This blog is full of examples – like the Invincible Czars 1812 Overture CD release show at the Scottish Rite Theater.  We broke even on the dancers, opening acts, photographer, production, etc.  We didn’t pay ourselves and I paid for the publicity out of my own pocket and never recouped it.  On the other hand, it was one of our best, most memorable, well organized and well attended self-produced shows and the lessons learned were very valuable in the long run.  Compare that to any of the higher paying gigs we’ve had playing background music for some other attraction to a handful of people who just stopped to get a snow cone at the booth near the stage.

Taking risks like that 1812 show has its rewards – like being recognized everywhere!  I can’t go into places like Whole Foods or even the airport wearing an Invincible Czars shirt and not get asked about the band by someone who’s heard (of) us.  Leila and I were even approached while moving by someone who recognized her from a TV appearance.  Last month at Sebadoh a guy in line ahead of us gave his extra ticket – he turned out to be from College Station and had played our CD on the school’s radio station!  All those connections happened because we took risks instead of spending time partying or at the beach.

On that note, it’s interesting that the richest entertainers in the world are practically paupers compared to the richest people in the world but are much better known.  Andrew Lloyd Webber tops the list of richest musicians but isn’t even close to anyone on the richest people (you’ve mostly never heard of) list.

(Side Note: Jimmy Buffet’s not on either list.)

Most people don’t take very big risks.  They go to the beach.

Artists and musicians DO take those risks and something’s got to bank roll them.  So that’s the price.  We have day jobs to finance our risks because we don’t have a trust fund.  Paying the price by doing something we don’t love in order to take risks for what we do love IS the dream.  Believe it or not, the people at the top of the music food chain have to do stuff they don’t like, too.  Even Jimmy Buffet and probably Andew Lloyd Webber.

Check out letter “g” in Danny Barnes’ blog entry of a few years ago.  (Thanks for showing this to me, Adam!).    Here’s the highlight from it if you don’t feel like clicking:

“I’ve cleaned pools, painted apartments, done maintenance work, taught music, worked in a factory, threw newspapers, drove a delivery truck, cooked, all kinds of stuff, and none of it killed me.

Through it all I was able to keep practicing and writing music and studying what I was doing.”

As I said at the beginning, I’ve thought a lot about this entry and re-written it several times.  I guess that’s because even I’ve gotten caught up in the idea of quitting my day job as THE measure of success.  In truth, quitting my day job would be awesome, but I’d rather work a day job the rest of my life and make music I love than be another Jimmy Buffet (no offense, Jimmy) or American Idol sound-a-like.  I’m glad I’m not alone.