[This article was written by Jay Rutherford of the band Los Colognes. It was originally published on the blog of Artist Growth, a service that helps musicians and managers streamline touring, finances, merchandise, royalties and more, all in one place.]
Like millions of other morons out there, I’m attempting to make music both the primary joy and primary financial security in my life. My band Los Colognes has achieved marginal success, just enough to get mom and dad off our backs, so to speak. Without further adieu, here’s me convincing myself I have achieved some wisdom, when in reality I have no psychological control over any of it yet. Pretend this is the Old Ben Kenobi version of me, from somewhere in the future.
1. “Making It” Versus “Making It”
The single greatest test is simply this: do you enjoy where you are at, right now, right here, making music everyday? Or is some part of you holding off joy for the fantasy of “making it” big? The one where you close your eyes and see 100,000 people singing every word?
It’s not going to happen. The medium is up for grabs. Streaming this, over-saturation that. We all know the drill. Everyone’s got GarageBand and no one wants to pay for anything. You need some Quantum Physics shit to calculate the chances of becoming Chris Martin or Taylor Swift.
It’s about the simple stuff, like seeing progress in your playing, singing and writing. It’s the raw, first stuff you fell in love with. If you lose that, you’re never going to be happy.
2. Cultivate Your “Zone”
You’re not going to harness the power of making music every day if you spend all your time whacking off in the Matrix. Find your practice, as they say in Yoga. I love a good binge-watching session on Netflix, but if you don’t put the technology away and grab your instrument then you’re not going to improve.
This is where the magic comes, in the stillness of the practice of music, whether drum rudiments, writing a new tune, or harnessing the feel and methodology of the greats that came before. Show up. Be Present. Cultivate the “Zone” where something comes out of nothing. Best thing about that? It’s free!
3. First, Gig Often, Then, Gig Smarter
You’re not going to start off getting huge guarantees opening for big time acts. You’re going to start off playing lots of shitty little shows. You won’t make money, and probably no one will be in attendance. You’ll be glad those performances are not on YouTube. But soon, before your eyes, the band will improve. The sets will be tighter, or more adventurous. The social connections will grow like fractals. It will take on a life of its own.
As soon as this happens, play less. Create a buzz and a demand. Play “events,” not shows. There is nothing more annoying than promoting your big show with a band that you find out just played another local venue last week. Not cool. Have a plan for your shows to ensure a sense of mystery.
4. Grow Up, Embrace Annoying Business Shit
At first it’s really annoying. Create this account. Sign up for this thing. Acquire this page. Set up this profile. The business side is literally everything that playing music isn’t, yet somehow if you can do as much of it on your own, proficiently, you’ll be setting yourself up.
Keep your masters and publishing
Use an app like Artist Growth to keep track of your expenses. Figure out the relationship between the owners of the business and the hired guys. Make sure everyone knows their role and is happy.
When you expand to having a manager, an attorney and a booking agent, you’ll know how the numbers break down. This is what separates the men from the boys. Nobody is going to do it for you. Figure it out. Otherwise everyone will be drunk, stoned and confused.
5. Diverse Portfolio
My band has been fortunate in that we’ve had some minor success on Spotify, a few songs on TV, and been granted some decent festival opportunities. The money isn’t astronomical, but it has kept the business above water, which in this day and age is something to be proud of.
Having said that, the downtimes will come. You’ll need to have moneymaking opportunities to fall back on. Otherwise you’ll become depressed and no one will like you or want to be around you.
We do AirBNB at our house. We play on other people’s records, or back other songwriters up. We have service industry jobs. We set up AV equipment at convention centers. Whatever it may be, point is, throw all your psychological eggs in one basket but not all your financial eggs. Be smart so you can ride the waves.
6. Ups And Downs
Speaking of waves, the ups and downs of this job – from your schedule, to your lifestyle on the road, to the emotional rollercoaster – will drive you nuts. And then, in turn, your sweet significant other, who will fall in love with the novelty of you being a musician at first, will eventually resent the shit out it.
You are not “Jim” from “The Office.” Your field isn’t stable. Your sense of self worth isn’t stable. Your sobriety isn’t stable. Your eating habits aren’t stable. Your sleeping habits aren’t stable. Your shoes stink.
The only remedy is to acknowledge the waves. Give yourself and your partner some grace, and try to find a center when you have the space and time. Revisit your “Zone” and then spend quality time with those who care about you. It’s not easy. Refrain from hyperbolic proclamations like telling everyone in the band on the last day of the tour that you’re “not drinking for, like, a week”.
7. Hating, Complaining, Comparing
Every religious, spiritual, and new age self help book will tell you that this is bad karma. However, the music business is frustratingly arbitrary. You’re going to see somebody who sucks get big. You’re going to see other bands get better opportunities. You’re going to see politics and nepotism. You’re going to turn on the radio and hear garbage. It’s going to eat away at your soul from time to time.
If you do decide to drink the Haterade, drink it in the tour van only.
8. “Selling Out”
The once great “Punk Rock” ethos is dead. The greatest email you could receive today is that some sweet soul is going to place your song in a TV show or a commercial.
(Hopefully you read point 4 above and you’ve kept your masters and publishing.)
You may not care about the product. You may think the TV show is garbage. It probably is. But here’s the deal:
If your song has integrity, and if you believe that when people hear it a positive exchange occurs, and if it fits the vision you started with…
…then HELL YES!
This will fund your next record so you don’t have to be an annoying Kickstarter dick. Selling out? More like Christmas come early.
9. Embrace Absurdity (see: Jeff Goldblum in ‘Jurassic Park’)
You’re going to want to attach to everything emotionally, but you shouldn’t. Amazing shit might happen, don’t hold too tight. The van might break down, don’t get too upset. Read a bunch of Kurt Vonnegut books and embrace the eternal “so it goes”.
Nothing makes sense in this business. The great chaotic fractal is expanding outward and you have nothing to do with it. Everything might end in “one big pile of shit.” When the good comes, laugh like Jeff Goldblum. When the bad comes, laugh like Jeff Goldblum. You’ve already discovered the joy of making music every day, and that’s more than most.
10. When Success Chooses You…
… make sweet, sweet love to her, but realize when you wake up she will have already gathered her things and left sometime in the middle of the night.