“7 things I wish I knew when I became a full-time musician”

7 things I wish I knew when I became a full-time musician
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[This article by Dave Ruch originally appeared on his blog.]

I quit my suit-and-tie marketing job at age 27 to pursue the only thing I’d ever really cared about, which was playing music.

That was 26 years ago.

Looking back on it, there are lots of things I wish I’d known then – things that would have saved me lots of headaches.

I hope one or more of these might be helpful to you…

1. I’ll burn myself out playing 4-5 nights a week

For 3-4 hours a night…

You probably have more stamina than I do.

For me, it only took about two and half years of full-time musicianship before I’d developed a pretty debilitating case of tendonitis owing to long bar gigs with loud bands.

advice for musicians - dave ruchIn 1995, seemingly out of nowhere, I was faced with the need to scale back my playing considerably while still making a living as a musician!

(If you’re curious about how I accomplished that, you can see more here.)

2. Health insurance is expensive!

Holy cow.

Separate from all of the current debate surrounding the pros and cons of the Affordable Care Act here in America, health insurance is just expensive, and becomes more so every year. Plan for that.

3. I can write off all my clothes

And my new computer!

For the first few years of self employment, I did my own taxes and had no idea how many deductions I could be taking.

advice for artists - dave ruchOnce I wised up and hired an accountant, I was able to save lots of money (far more than the accountant’s fee) by taking advantage of write-offs and deductions I knew nothing about.

Highly recommended.

4. Teaching people to play music is only fun if they practice

(Which they don’t. At least, not usually.)

A big part of my plan back in 1992 was to generate some income giving instrumental lessons out of my house.

I busted my butt to get students, and it worked. Over a six-month period, I had built up my teaching business to a steady roster of 30-35 students a week.

advice for musicians - dave ruchIt was great daytime work, and it did keep me in good practice, having so many hours each day with an instrument in my hand.

The more I did it, though, the less I enjoyed it.

While my students seemed perfectly happy coming back and shooting the breeze every week, going over the same stuff we’d done the week before (and the week before that), and then getting sucked back into their busy lives, it just didn’t feel satisfying to me.

I enjoyed the social aspect, but just didn’t feel fulfilled by the teaching. So, I moved on from teaching.

5. Nobody in the audience is scrutinizing every note I play and sing

They’re there to have a good time, period. Help them do that, and everyone wins.

Or, said another way – get over yourself.

6. Some days there will be LESS time for music than before

What?

It’s funny to think back on all the utopian visions I had about what my life would be like after breaking free from my corporate job to pursue music full-time.

dave ruch advice for performing artistsI pictured long thoughtful conversations with fellow artists, tons of time to play and create music, lots of leisurely work on personal recording projects, and so on.

So it’s not like that?

Well, not if you need to make a decent living. It’s a lot more like this, and this.

I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but it’s not exactly the way I’d envisioned it.

7. I can make a sustainable living as an independent musician!

Amazing.

how to be a full time musicianI really had no idea how this experiment would turn out when I decided to leave my secure job (with benefits) all those years ago.

In retrospect, I feel very fortunate that I made the break at a time when I was young and adaptable, single, and without many large expenses. I could afford to take the chance, and had a college degree to fall back on if it all went to hell.

But it didn’t!

The big lesson?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the route of the independent artist, it’s that there are hundreds of well-worn paths you can take, and many more that can be created out of thin air.

I make my entire living as a musician without intersecting one bit with the music “industry.”

Go figure.

It’s the ability to work really hard at building your business – yes, your business – that might determine how it goes for you.

For those who do this full time – what else would you add to my list here?

In this article

Join the Conversation

  • Tom Hipps

    I left my property management job a little over two years ago to return to full-time music. Boy, do I relate to EVERY ONE of your points, Dave. I experienced them all. Two things I might add are: 1) I didn’t realize what a lack of self-discipline I had. When working my day job, I had certain things I was required to do, often at certain times. Suddenly, I’m my own boss with daytime hours to fill. I discovered It’s helpful to map out a weekly (or daily, or monthly, or whatever works for you) schedule and stick to it as much as possible, allowing flexibility for “life” happening. Not having a solid plan, making it up as you go along, will leave you feeling listless and disconnected, unproductive, and ultimately discouraged. 2) I needed to learn to live within my new budget (i.e. less money). I no longer had the disposable income I enjoyed when collecting that nice corporate salary. Little things add up (“No, I’m not stopping at Starbucks–I have coffee at home.”). But you know what? Even though I make a fraction of what I made at my old job, with my new perspectives on money and its importance, careful budgeting, my faith in God’s provision, and the wonderful sense of freedom I now enjoy, I don’t feel like I have any less than before. I feel more blessed and provided for than ever.

  • Les Campbell

    I’ve been a working musician AND a tax guy. You can write off clothes ONLY if they’re costumes (think Elvis’s jumpsuits). If they’re clothes you can wear somewhere besides on stage, you can’t expense them (even if you don’t wear them elsewhere, if it’s just shirts and pants or a dress, no soap). But there are other things – strings, reeds, travel to gigs, home office (dedicated space that you use only for your musician biz). Also posters, ads, demos, all sorts of stuff. But you have to show that you’re really trying to make a go of it as a business. If you lose money year after year, the IRS is going to say it’s just a hobby (what do they know).

  • Studio 139

    That was great.

  • attilathehunbruce

    Hi Dave, Great article. I’m just a dilettante musician, so I can’t comment on trying to make a living from playing music. I can appreciate the part where it’s no longer a hobby and you’re trying to make a living off of it and the shear terror associated with making that first leap (I left a senior engineering job to bid on a government contract and had a number of sleepless nights until I actually won the contract). I’ve been a consultant for thirteen years.
    .
    One thing your readers might appreciate is that incorporating sorta legitimizes your business. I formed an LLC. This was actually very easy. However, it complicates your taxes but provides some protection for your personal assets – they sue the corporation, no you personally (unless you’ve done something egregious) so your house and care and retirement accounts are safe. Also you’ve got a lot of latitude in what you decide to expense through your company. For example, you would probably purchase all of your instruments and amplifiers and other equipment through the company along with possibly getting a company car to drive to gigs. And you’d pay for your health insurance through the company.
    .
    *** The important thing here is that your expenses all reduce your income, so they’re 100% deductible, not just some amount over a threshold. Write off EVERYTHING. ***
    .
    Hope this helps.

  • Ugh!