Over the 20 years that I’ve been a working musician, I have gleemed many an insight into what it takes to be able to do this for the long haul. With my current band, Fishtank Ensemble, we just released our 3rd album, ‘Woman in Sin’ and are currently touring about half of the year. We are an almost completely do-it-yourself band.
So what does it mean to be a successful struggling musician? It means that you are pursuing your passion, music, while still able to pay to your bills and live a reasonably good life (and hopefully save a little). There are so many trade-offs in choosing to pursue your dreams. Non-artistic people think it’s an easy decision to ‘not get a real job’. Tthat might be true when you’re young. But the older you get the harder it gets. These following tips are knowledge that I’ve learned from my experience that will help you down your path becoming a successful struggling musician, and eventually, just a successful musician.
In part 1 of this 3 part series, I will be outlining the more practical aspects of what this entails. These are very tangible ideas and suggestions that may even be obvious, but they are things that every musician should know and can be implemented everyday. In part 2, I will focus on the more philosophical and less tangible aspects of being a successful struggling musician but arguably the more important skills and wisdom that you need to know (after mastering your art that is). These will be suggestions and ideas that will keep you in the game for the long haul, because that is what it will take to be a successful struggling musician. Part 3 will be all about utilizing the various tools available to us. So, here we go …
Practice – This one is obvious and already thoroughly covered in other articles here and here so I’ll just make a brief point: The progress you make is measured over years. So be consistent and diligent and over time you’ll be amazed at how far you come.
Learn to play drums and piano – No matter what instrument you play, every musician should really learn to play both drums and piano in addition to their chosen instrument/s. Why is this? For any instrument you play, you’re going to have to play rhythm. It’s an inherent part of music you can’t escape. I started my career as a drummer but later switched to guitar. But my time spent learning to play the drums has served me immensely well. And why should you learn to play piano? Because it’s the most logically laid out instrument. Unlike guitar for example, every octave is in the same place and it’s easy to visualize everything because it’s perfectly laid out in front of you. I’m convinced that the 3rd interval between the G and B strings is what keeps the millions of people out there who dabble on guitar from really learning the instrument and becoming great. Another reason you should learn piano is that it’s the easiest instrument to write and orchestrate with on the computer. If you write songs, you probably want to demo and/or record them on the computer, and if you can play piano, you can produce any sound that’s ever existed right there from the synthesizer on you DAW. I can get by OK on piano though I’m not good at all. But I can figure out a part, practice it, then record it right into my DAW with any sound I want, simply by being able to play the piano.
Learn to play as many songs as you can – Learning cover songs is a great way to understand what it takes to make a great song. It’s also a great way to start playing gigs. There’s a million of bars out there that need music all the time. It’s not the end-all-be-all, but it’s a great way to start gigging, gain valuable insight and experience and hopefully even earn a little money.
If you haven’t already, start writing songs now – There are tens of thousands of great cover bands out there, but what sets apart a band that people take seriously versus a great bar or wedding band is original songs. Do you think we would have ever heard of the Beatles if they remained a Rock n’ Roll cover band in Germany? I don’t think so. You should realize that unless you’re extremely gifted, you’ll probably write really bad songs for years. If I could play you the songs I wrote for my first 5-10 years, we would both have a good laugh. But the important thing is that I was writing songs, and over time they got better and better. It’s also important to write about what moves you and what you know. The best songs are ones where you can feel that the person who wrote it actually experienced what they are singing about.
Play as much as possible – It’s pretty daunting and difficult to set out on a national or regional tour, especially if you haven’t done it before. So start out locally. Find the bars, clubs, events, farmers markets, art centers, etc. in your local area and start playing there. Once you’re comfortable in your small, local pond, start spreading out in your region more. If you live in a big city, there wont be any shortage of places you can play. And don’t limit yourself to just the traditional places like bars and clubs. There is a whole huge world out there and guess what, it needs music, especially live music. City centers, Farmers Markets and street fairs are great places to busk, provided they allow that. One band I know, ‘The Blasting Company’ starts playing on the street in front of the hottest clubs in Hollywood starting at about 1am, just as people are drunk and starting to leave. This has been a very successful strategy for them, because they impress the intoxicated patrons, make tips, but more importantly make connections and get hired to play parties and other events. Continue to think outside the box and you will discover there are still more creative places to bring you music. Places like museums, wineries, parades, art opening, schools, camps, etc. Doing this, you will gain invaluable experience both on stage and off. Which brings us to the last tip of part 1 of being a successful struggling musician.
Embrace the business aspects of your music career – Unless you’re born into a famous musical family or get very lucky, there’s only one person who will nurture your musical career through it’s developing years, you. The irony is, it’s not until you are making enough money to be successful until managers, booking agents, publishing and record companies will be interested in you. But where were they through the hard years of figuring everything out and eating cup of noodles everyday? The time to really start thinking about and acting on this is when you are ready to start playing live in front of an audience. From that point on, it is imperative that you take this aspect of career as seriously as you take the music. Hopefully, one day you will be successful enough that you won’t have to produce, manage, book and promote yourself. But having a good grasp on this will continue to help you even then. I will touch much more on this in part 2, but for now understand that no one will take your music career seriously until you do.
Douglas ‘douje’ Smolens