Updated: Mar 17, 2020
The reality of pursuing a career in any creative field, specifically in music, is filled with a great deal of opposition, both from within yourself, and from the world around you. This topic has been heavy on my mind for quite some time, and I felt like sharing some advice to encourage those of you who are trying to pursue a career in a field that everyone seems to doubt the sustainability of.
I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a musician. It was not just the apparent thrill of that lifestyle that looked attractive to me, but music seemed to be the only thing that I was really good at growing up. Sure, I was decent enough at school, I played competitive club level soccer, and I had people skills that got me into every job I ever interviewed for. But I still always felt below average at all of those things. I was rarely the honours student, I sustained a knee injury in soccer that made playing the game unbearable, I was great at job interviews, but I hardly ever got any because my resume was what you would expect from a typical high school student.
But music was always something I was particularly good at. I just clicked with it like I hadn't with anything else in my life. I loved writing lyrics, and I was able to self-teach myself basically any instrument I tried to learn.
I went straight to university after finishing high school, and just completed my 5-year psychology degree in April of 2017. I worked harder than I ever have in those 5 years because if I didn't, I would have failed miserably. I did enjoy being in school, but there was a part of me that felt like my potential was still being extremely limited, and that I was putting all my time and energy into the wrong thing.
After graduating, I got a job as a behavioural therapist with the school board, and I enjoyed it at first, but I found myself very quickly entering the same state of mind that I had in university, where I felt like I was doing the wrong thing. I eventually cut back on my hours, and began to take music more seriously.
And here we are.
The tips I'm about to share are things that I am still learning, and things that I am still struggling with every day of my life. This is by no means a list coming from someone more enlightened than you are, but it is coming from somebody who has to face the consequences of choosing a creative career path every single day. Here we go.
1) Be Prepared to Disappoint Everybody You Love
This to me is the hardest part of being a musician. My family is not proud of my career choice, and in fact, they very often remind me that they wish I had chosen something more sustainable to pursue. I am the only full-time musician in the entire bloodline of both my mother and father, and so that makes me the first to ever pursue a career of this nature. I wish I could tell you that I have been met with nothing but support, but sadly I cannot. My family has done for me what they could, and they have financially supported my music endeavours quite extensively at various points in my life, but when the discussion of music being more than "just a hobby" came into the picture, it was not met with joy of any form. If you are wanting to pursue a career in music, or in any creative art for that matter, you need to want it more than you want the acceptance of even your family. This is especially true if you come from Asian decent like myself. Unfortunately, many Asian cultures do not understand the importance or the value of the creative arts, and so if you are Asian, and you are wanting to pursue a creative career, you need to be prepared, and willing to dissapoint your family. You need to always remember though, that you did not do anything wrong, you have the God given ability that you have for a reason and if your family is not supportive of that, that's on them, not you.
2) Be Prepared to Work Harder than Everybody Else
This is something that I have been learning the hard way. In many creative careers, especially in music, there is no "one-size-fits-all" way to earn an income. Very often you will find that you need to look for multiple revenue streams, and you need to be prepared to put a hell of a lot of extra time into making all of those streams sustainable. For musicians, this means that you need to be looking for performance opportunities everywhere. Paid, unpaid, if you have merch to sell, there is no reason you shouldn't be out performing. This also means looking for other ways to make an income. For me, I teach piano and guitar lessons to people who are new to the instruments, and I also write music for other artists and even companies. One of the strangest jobs I have ever gotten was writing children's music for a children's author from San Diego. I literally had to write songs about sharing your toys, but it paid really damn well. If you are not having much success in finding paid work in your city, then outsource yourself to surrounding areas. You'd be surprised at all the small town festivals or farmers markets that are always looking for live entertainment. Most of the time, the organizers don't know where to look, so they'll hire their cousin to come play crappy Bob Dylan covers when they could have hired you!
3) There is Nothing Wrong with Having a Day Job
The reality is, that as much as I would like there to be enough paid work to go around for all of us, there simply just isn't, and it is only the best and most audaciously resourceful that will be the ones to take the cake. What this means then, is that some of us will have no choice but to do a job we don't like, in order to give us the money we need to do the job we do like. For myself, I found that being a behavioural therapist took up far too much of my time, and it left me absolutely exhausted at the end of each shift. I eventually stepped down into an Educational Assistant role, that allowed me to work whenever I wanted to, and take time off whenever I wanted to as well. This job doesn't pay very well, but it helps to keep the money coming in when I have no gigs lined up, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with having what I call a "safety net job". Just be very aware of how much time this job takes up, because if you're putting in far more hours into your "safety net job" than you are into your creative career, then you might want to ease off before you start missing out on opportunities.
4) You Need to Be Your Biggest Fan AND Your Biggest Critic
As I mentioned earlier, if you are going to pursue a creative career, you need to be prepared to not be taken seriously. What this means then, is that you have to grow a thick skin towards the criticism of people who just don't get it. You have to have an incredible amount of confidence in who you are and what you are doing, and you need to be prepared to not have a single person ever reassure you.This may sound harsh, but I'm trying to prepare you for the worst. You also need to be your biggest critic as well. Because you are the only person who is going to stop yourself from making a sustainable career out of what you're doing. If you know that you should be creating content, but the newest Netflix season has got you hooked, then you need to have the willpower to get your own ass off the couch, and get to work. Being self-employed means that you will not have a manager calling you out for being lazy. You are your own manager, and if you allow yourself to slack off, then you are the only person who is going to suffer for that.
5) "The Money Will Just Come" Is a Myth
I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say "if you are good enough at what you do, the money will come eventually". I'm sorry to say, but this is a complete and utter lie. We live in a different time and age now where your talent is not even remotely as important as your ability to get your name out there. Ever wonder how half the people who are making millions in the music industry got to where they are when they can't sing in tune, they can't write their own lyrics, and the only song they can play is "Hot Cross Buns"? It's because they didn't take no for an answer. They had a goal, and they did not sleep until they accomplished it. The money will not just come, nor will the success. You need to see everybody else as your competition, but competition that you want to be friends with. There are no handouts anymore, we're in a different game with social media. You need to get smart with it, and work harder than everybody else.
If you've ever been asked "so, what do you do?" and you've felt a sense of embarrassment in saying that you're a (insert creative career here), then I hope these tips helped you even just a little bit. This is not an easy road that you are choosing, but if you stick with it, and do it well, it can be an incredibly fulfilling one. The world has enough accountants and engineers and it needs more art, so go out and make it.