I recently had a great conversation with a friend about developing careers- the challenges, rewards, and setbacks we all face every week.
My friend, while very understanding of my lifestyle, kindly said (I paraphrase) "this is fine for you to pursue music when you have no responsibilities- when you don't have any significant financial commitments. But once you start having a family, you have to give up on it and get a job that pays the bills."
I've heard this same speech since I was in high school- no one really believes you can follow your dreams and pay the bills at the same time, perhaps because they never were able to do it themselves.
Instead of arguing with my friend, I decided to let him in on a bit of my financial situation. I pay $1,230 a month just on rent. I pay two car payments, all utilities, insurance, food, and for the feeding and care of a large husky dog. I also have paid out thousands of dollars over the past year for two major medical problems. And by God's grace, my income has covered it all.
And I've been doing this for the past 2 years, without any outside financial help. And without working a "real" day job.
My friend was surprised- he wanted to know how I do it.
I was lucky enough to do it in little steps.
Right out of high school, I made a decision to have a career in the music industry, and I started working toward that end. My parents, being very supportive, offered me a choice- they'd support me if I chose to go to college (while I was offered some great scholarships, I opted not to go), or they would allow me to stay at home rent-free for four years- provided that I used that time wisely to develop a career. I chose the latter option, and threw myself into getting a head-start on my peers in music.
I fell backward into teaching piano, which provided enough financial capital for me to buy a few pieces of decent gear, which I then started using to get gigs at small coffeehouses. I formed a rock band at the same time, and got a crash course on the complicated nuances of touring, managing the needs of a pool of musicians, and generally running a business.
At the same time, I got solo piano shows at bigger and bigger venues, until I was lucky enough to catch the attention of a local established booking agency. They got me well-paying shows in the lucrative corporate market here in St. Louis, which helped support for my passion of recording and producing original music.
I stumbled accidentally into producing musicians when some of my rock band's fans that were also musicians insisted I record an album with them. When the album actually turned out well (to my surprise), it sparked an interest with other artists, which led to recording other bands. In the meantime, I continued to tour and work hard with the rock band, playing tons of shows and releasing three albums with them. Piano lessons grew through word of mouth, and next thing I knew I was teaching 20 students piano lessons on every Tuesday. I was making around 900 dollars a month for a one day a week job. Not bad pay at all.
When the recession hit hard back in 2009, we shuttered the rock band and I threw myself into working as a sideman, playing with dozens of groups around the midwest. I now had the gear and experience I needed to really do well, and I got a lot of calls. My big dream now is to get to the point where I'm touring a significant chunk of the year with major artists, working on original music when I'm not gone with a group, and helping other artists develop their careers through recording/producing music.
Because I didn't have to jump in and immediately start making a living as a musician like most of my friends have had to do, I was able to start with little steps. I could take risks others couldn't, seize opportunities that weren't possible for my friends, and make big mistakes that I could actually recover from. And I was lucky enough to get a ton of amazing advice and support from dozens of people. Even now, I'm still able to take risks my peers just can't- for instance, I'm currently splitting my time each week between St. Louis and Nashville, making connections to further my career as a sideman.
And I guess some of this would come off as bragging, if I felt like I did any of it myself without help. I didn't. I stumbled backward into almost every single great opportunity I've ever received, creeping forward in my career in little bits, not of my own doing, but because I was there with very few commitments, I was willing to learn, and I had wonderful people to help me. I am so thankful to be so unbelievably blessed.