It doesn’t take long to realize how difficult (though not necessarily impossible) it is to make a living by playing music alone.
Luckily, most people get into playing music professionally for reasons that far transcend financial motivations, like the love of writing and performing music, recording albums, and touring. Still, a musician has gotta eat, and bologna and Wonder Bread will only carry you so far. Inevitably, side jobs need to be brought in to complement late-night gigs, transportation and recording expenses, and of course, food and lodging.
I feel like the musician’s side job is actually something quite remarkable. I’ll openly admit a deep-seated hatred of fluorescent lights, shirts that require ironing or tucking, or slacks of any make, cut and creed. I’ve never had a side job that required my participation in these questionably “adult” activities. Instead, I have had the unprepared pleasure of tackling general contracting—which makes no sense considering my degrees in English and Philosophy.
I’m a full-time musician, semi-retired student, and sometimes-contractor (“contractor’s assistant” is more appropriate). Regardless, this side job allows me to be fully committed to my music career, while allowing my checking account some wiggle room.
I advocate the side job as much as possible.
The main reason is my musical career is a lifestyle, not a hobby. It is not something I take lightly. It’s not weekend recreational activity, after my Powerpoints and spreadsheets are finished. Not to be melodramatic, but my life depends on music; it’s such a part of me that it encapsulates my entire life. Hell, I’m listening to music as I think and write about music. Completely normal behavior, I think.
My construction job, or guitar and pedal steel session work, or even freelance writing, allow me to stay committed to my creativity, while keeping it mostly affordable. I’m constantly reminded how fortunate I am to play music professionally, and holding a side job reinforces that. My creative outlet doesn’t suffer from working 9-to-5, and I truly value that the work I do enables me to pursue my passions.
There’s a great risk when you commit to making it as a professional musician.
You venture into some real fear and trembling. I couldn’t do what I do without side jobs. The money made from playing shows and selling albums, at this point, keeps me (and the rest of the band) in equilibrium. We can keep playing shows, tour, record and occasionally buy new gear. Free drinks and bar food are great perks for musicians, but not enough to survive (healthily, anyways).
People don’t buy music like they used to, either. We’re regularly missing out on legitimate album sales (thanks a lot, Spotify!), and it really does cost money to play music full-time. I could find a full-time job, sell my soul to someone making a little more than me, be completely at peace with my spare tire, and start shopping at J. Crew. Truth be told, I’d sooner cut my own hands off. I’m committed to my lifestyle, and that will always be my priority. Holding side jobs as a professional musician allows me the freedom to remain committed to the music I make.
Photo of Alex’s telecaster (handmade by Jason Fink) by Alex McMahon.