Inside Making a Living as a Musician

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the bluesBeing a musician isn’t an easy profession by any stretch of the imagination. It takes hard work, perseverance, and unshakeable self-esteem. And despite all the media about high paid recording artists, the average musician makes about $24.20 an hour (May 2015), according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Still, there are some 173,300 working musicians in the U.S.

The definition of musician by the Labor Bureau included performers, recording artists, composers and songwriters, session players and music teachers – “because they each play an important role in the music ecosystem,” defined the Future of Music organization.

Most musicians decide early on that they want to enter the entertainment sector. Musicians like singer/keyboard player Tony Mclachlan, who decided back in high school he wanted to be a musician. “I heard “Fencewalk” by Mandrill with Claude “Coffee” Cave on clavinet and that did it for me. That was the beginning of my journey,” he says.

NYC-based Blues musician Lamont “Jack Dappa Blues” Pearley started out as a rapper in Brooklyn as a young man, but also wrote rhythm and blues songs.  “I think I always wanted to be a professional musician since I was a little guy listening to a Fisher Price record player. I would listen to everyone. But I’d say from the ages of 20 to 23, I figured I could make a career out of it,” he recalls. “After years of working toward a goal, I really realized what it meant to be a professional musician so I had to regroup at my age and pretty much start over.”

Musicians face many challenges in their careers. Like any career in the arts, there is a lot of rejection involved. Even connecting with like-minded people can be a challenge. “Probably building a network is the biggest challenge.You need people looking out for your best interests even if it means they will get a cut of the pie. Someone told me once that 50 percent of something is worth more than 100 percent of nothing,” says Mclachlan.

Since the average music careers don’t involve superstardom, creating a steady and constant stream of income is a major challenge. And remembering that your art is also your business. “The biggest challenge, other than raising kids and taking care of a family, is making sure income is flowing is and understanding that your art is your business. And you have to look at it as such if you want to make a living as a musician,” explains Pearley.

He continues, “Especially an independent musician. You are an entrepreneur. You must run your music and content like the products they are, you have to invest–put money up to make money back and repeat. Then, once you have a full family, and you’re an adult you have to make sure as you work to pay bills, you’re not spending bill money on a dream or a whim, but make good business decisions that will affect your business and family in a good way.”

Creating your own style is very important when competing with a sea of other musicians. “Brand your own specific sound so whenever someone hears something they will know, that’s Tony Mclachlan (Tony Mack) on that track,” Mclachlan points out.

Says Pearley, “Everyone believes they bring something different to the table, which is true but I think it’s an attitude. Do you think you are the savior, or do you think you are bringing your perspective in hopes to continue the legacy? I work toward the latter. I’m a folklorist as well as musician. I study, celebrate and preserve my heritage and music through my work. I love music with a strong passion, but I also realize that is just one part of a whole. It’s also different in my ‘genre’. I’m the Blues, but I started in Hip Hop. My journey lead me to understand where my family and music come from. So that journey, which I’m still on, has led me to not just stand out as a musician, but it aligned me with even greater musicians who share the same enthusiasm, attitude and will to preserve our history and music. Then it becomes what it’s supposed to be, a community of griots and inspired writings from above, rather than who is better.”

Most career counselors tell you “You are not your job,” but for most musicians, playing music is not a job it is an extension of themselves as people and they use their craft to make a unique connection with other people.  “Those who love music as a fan have been looking for someone and some music to connect to. So if you approach your music and voice with substance and honor, the right group of people will find you, not fly-by-night consumers,” says Pearley.

Even though the profession is highly competitive, there are various forms of income streams, besides performing. “Other than the recording and artist avenue, there’s still songwriting, studio/session work, teaching, live gigs and jingles. We are only limited by what our mind can visualize,” says Mclachlan, whose band, the FreshBand Featuring Tony Mack, just finished their latest CD, “The Strikers Reloaded.”

According to Pearley, there are many options. “If you are a great musician, you can make money as a studio or performance musician, where you get paid to play for album cuts or live performances. There is also writing blogs, teaching, workshops…driving cabs,” he says with a laugh. “There are many ways and it really depends on your goal, voice and journey. A job is a job until you do what you dream of. I know musicians who write books, who are barbers, who work at Trader Joe’s. Some are bartenders. Me, personally, I’ve had many jobs–from working at Footlocker to bouncing to video editing and producing.” Pearley is currently doing a radio show called “Jack Dappa Blues” on WFDU HD2. He also produces podcasts and video content on his own website,Talking Bout the Blues.

Additionally, he shoots videos. “My multimedia work is becoming a business where I get sponsorships for content and the like,” notes Pearley, who is also raising funds for a Blues music-based, family feature length film entitled, “The Story of Johnny Spirit.”

Both Pearley and Mclachlan have advice for up-and-coming professional musicians. “Don’t give up hope. Stay true to your craft. Practice. Study. Watch. Listen. Learn. And when it’s time, give back,” advises Mclachlan.

Says Pearley, “Study the greats and not so greats–everyone brings something to this world, everyone has a great voice and has their perspectives…you’ll learn a lot. Secondly, you must be dedicated. Nothing happens overnight. So if you are in this to put your mother or wife or whoever in a big house, you’re better off playing lotto,” he laughs and adds, “This is a business of growth like every other small business that has been started. Thirdly, learn who you are, who your family is; understand your lineage, culture,and heritage…You’d be surprised how that will actually give you a unique voice.”