For most musicians, the road to a viable career is gradual, not instantaneous. You get there by baby steps, by continued presence in your scene, and by the accumulation of experience and perspective. Eventually you realise that you’re earning most or all of your money because of your music. That essentially makes you a professional musician. But understanding this sometimes takes a while.
Working with this NZM anniversary issue’s 25 theme, here is a list of traits that are common to most working musos. Everything on this list does not necessarily apply to every musician, but most, including orchestral musicians, will find some here that resonate.
1. The never-ending story. Your music is the first thing you think about when you wake up, and the last thing you think about when you go to sleep. In fact, you dream about playing gigs and you practise licks in your head while driving.
2. You cut to the cash. The first thing you want to know when offered a gig is what it’s paying, and the first thing you mention when asked to play for a party or event is your fee – and you know how to do this without sounding weird.
3. Most of your friends are musicians. In fact the friends you’ve got who aren’t musicians are usually from way back in your past when you used to dream about playing in a band.
4. Emergencies don’t faze you. If something goes wrong you know how to fix it, because you’ve got backups and know-how. And if it can’t be fixed you know how to cancel or change plans without freaking out.
5. You’re tired of being admired. Because at this point, you’re starting to see that those who worship you have got no idea what it takes. Those who see you as an equal have more valuable things to tell you.
6. You eat like a scavenger. Scheduled meals are becoming a thing of the past, and you tend to eat while driving, reading, working on something, catching up with emails, or any other time youre not playing music with both hands.
7. You improve while doing, not trying. Command of your instrument and ease of performance means that a lot of progress is made right on the stage. Rehearsing is becoming more about setting the framework and getting tight.
8. You understand what teamwork means. It goes far beyond just knowing your part and trying to stay on the beat. Rather, your playing has evolved into musical relationships and conversations with your bandmates.
9. Your instrument is worth more than your transport. Often far, far more. Youve owned your share of used, falling apart vehicles, purchased out-of-pocket for a few hundred bucks – but you may be thousands in debt for your gear.
10. Your partner wants to know when youre getting paid. So do you, but you know that to play the game, you have to put up with delays, stalling, and occasional dishonesty before getting what you earned.
11. You listen to music analytically. Now that a long playlist of hundreds of songs is stuck in your head and many many gigs are behind you, it’s gotten hard to just relax and let music wash over you.
12. You earn trust from others. Taking responsibility for the things you say and do, putting your best out there as far as it can go and not backstabbing your mates or making empty promises.
13. And you don’t hand your trust out for free. Because, oh how you’ve been burned and you’ve seen people turn from saints into ratbags when the going got tough. Counting on trustworthy people has the highest results of getting paid.
14. You feel more at home on stage than off. In fact, your life is starting to feel like one long performance, interrupted by a few breaks to eat, sleep, and change locations.
15. You never get quite enough sleep. You get home many nights a month looking and smelling like a crushed cigarette, but if you sleep in then there won’t be any time to practice or go to the dentists office or whatever.
16. You’re always thinking weeks and months ahead. In fact, you may be much more focused on planning ahead for future gigs than aware about what’s about to happen in a couple days, or even a couple hours sometimes.
17. You have a lot of weird clothes.Mostly things that you like to wear on stage. This is different depending which style you play, but your distinction between street clothes and stage clothes is now invisible compared to most other people.
18. You’ve stopped partying so much. For a working musician, a party is a job, where the focus of many is upon a few. Youre starting to prefer smaller gatherings where you know and trust everyone, and youre appreciated on your personal merits.
19. You know most of the people in your scene. The want-to-bes and might-have-beens, the ones who seem to grind their gears and the ones whove moved on. Most important, you know the people worth working with and working for.
20. You often avoid mentioning youre a musician. This helps keep the conversation from always shifting to you and what youre doing, which is becoming a bit of a bore to repeat all the time.
21. Youve got a time-waster detector. It kicks in when you meet people who want to use a piece of you to help themselves get further, or make themselves feel important, or bury you in the quicksand of their incompetence.
22. You’ve learned to say no. Even to good gigs at times, realising all too well what happens to you personally, professionally, and artistically when you over-commit.
23. You know what good will means. For those who really care and want to make music to continue, it’s a chain of good deeds that connects us all.
24. You pay it forward. Remember how people took the time and patience to explain how things worked when you were starting out? They could sense how a few words of advice might make the difference between your success and failure. Now you’ve gained experience you take the time to help others out when the situation arises.
25. You don’t have (much of) a day job. Slowly, piece-by-piece, your career in music has been taking over. You went from full-time to part-time as the gigs got more dependable. Then more freelance work started coming in: teaching, recording, arranging charts, playing solo gigs, and so on. Now you’ve had to give up the part-time job as well, or maybe you’re just down to a few hours a week.
And no matter how dicey the music business can be, and how much of a juggling act your finances have become, you wouldn’t trade it for a hefty raise punching the clock. You’ve never been more personally involved in something in your life. You have a job with built-in rewards of satisfaction and appreciation, a thrilling risk factor, and a direct role in shaping and communicating the culture of our time. That’s what makes it all worthwhile – being able to earn not only a living, but also the kind of fulfillment that you can’t slap a dollar value on.
Thomas Goss is a producer, band coach, and composer/orchestrator with an international clientele that includes Che Fu, The Idea of North, and Canadian jazz superstar Nikki Yanofsky. He is Education Composer-In-Residence for Vector Wellington Orchestra