Embracing Transition

Sakari B&W
A rare selfie in which I was feeling pretty spiffy after an interview.

It’s been a long time. Way too long. I keep telling myself that I won’t let so much time fly by in between posts, but the last year and a half or so has been a bit crazy, to say the least. Ironically, when things are happening more frequently, that’s probably when I should be posting more often, but hey. Stuff happens.

Since my last post, I had a somewhat frightening but equally exciting realization: Though I had graduated and began a full-time day job almost immediately, there came a point where clinging to the financial security was doing more harm than good.

The obvious issue was that it demanded a large portion of my time. Balancing multiple hats as a composer, performer, and teacher would be tricky even if I were only working in music. However, tossing a full-time day job into the mix left only a fraction of my waking hours to divide between the three.

Honestly, on most days, I wasn’t able to divide it up well at all. There were even some occasions where I turned down performing opportunities because they significantly conflicted with the hours at my 9-to-5.

I often left work to teach several students, only to come home, throw together a quick dinner, do one or two random things to wind down, and crash. Sometimes, I ran errands or did chores instead of actually having time to relax. If a performance or gig was imminent, I would squeeze in practice time late at night, trying to be as efficient as possible.

Since composing was time-consuming but often the least urgent, it usually took a back seat. Up until I started my new day job this spring, I did not complete a single composition after graduation but dabbled with ideas here and there.

Even worse than the physical lack of time and energy was the inability for my brain to have any mental energy left to do the problem-solving required for most music-making. For composing, it was even more pronounced.

In the job that I had, I worked in the finance department, often using problem-solving skills to perform tasks such as maintain a database, conduct payroll, send invoices, and track receivables, all with a mild customer service element thrown in. Truth be told, I love numbers. And as somewhat of a mental masochist, I have an odd affinity for tedium and can stare at spreadsheets for hours on end.

Yet, I almost swear that I can feel that kind of work using the same parts of my brain as intense practicing and composing. When I add sleep debt to the mix, it’s obvious that at the end of a full day, there was little to no mental energy left to move forward with my long-term goals.

Therefore, I did some budgeting and looked at my earnings from music-related income streams and compared it to what I was earning outside of music. It turned out that I was making between 25-30% of my net income from music in spite of working a full-time day job and doing music about a fifth of the time.

I don’t say this to brag. Rather, I say this for the other musicians out there who keep listening to the lies that you can’t make money from music. I especially say this for the non-musicians — often friends and loved ones who mean well — who continue to spread those same lies.

None of the professional musicians that I know are rockstars, but I’m not aware of any in my circles who are completely destitute either. Of course it isn’t easy, but many of them seem to do well and have middle-class incomes like the rest of the working population.

To my fellow emerging musicians: there are ways to maximize your income if you are willing to do the research and take calculated risks. This is true for just about anyone who owns and runs a business. If you are self-employed, you are a business. Even if you don’t think so, I promise you – the IRS will disagree. I won’t proclaim to be an expert, but there are many podcasts, books, mentors, teachers, and other resources out there that are great for showing you the way if you choose to go there. I’ll list five of my go-to resources at the end of this post. They echo these same points and expound upon them better than I can in a single entry.

In reality, having multiple income streams is, in some ways, more stable than getting paychecks from a single employer. I could get laid off from a full-time job and be in financial ruin instantly if I don’t have a sizable savings. Yet, if I lose a student or two in the same month, or if a gig falls through, I won’t go spiraling into despair since I would keep getting paychecks elsewhere.

After I looked at my budget, I decided that I could be content with a job that was about 20 hours per week assuming the same or a better hourly rate. I wanted a job that had morning hours since gigs and teaching were most likely to demand the afternoons and evenings. I wanted something local so commuting wouldn’t demand so much of my time and my expenses, and I wanted something that was relatively low-stress so I could have the mental and physical energy to pursue music, which was most important. In the end, I found and got hired for an office job in one of the local school districts that met all of the above criteria, and it has the added benefit of having summers off and extended holiday vacations, giving me even more time for large projects or going to career-building workshops, festivals, and conferences.

If you are an aspiring professional musician or other creative person – where are you in your journey to make your art your primary source of income? What resources and strategies are you using to inspire you to get to your career goals? Please share in the comments below, and if you know of resources, hyperlink away!

Five Resources for Aspiring Professional Musicians (in no particular order)*:

  1. The Portfolio Composer, by Garrett Hope
  2. Music Publishing Podcast, by Dennis Tobenski
  3. Break into the Scene: A Musician’s Guide to Making Connections, Creating Opportunities, and Launching a Career, by Seth Hanes
  4. The Savvy Music Teacher: Blueprint for Maximizing Income & Impact, by David Cutler
  5. Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music, by Angela Myles Beeching


*This post contains affiliate links. When you navigate to some of the links below and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission from the referral at no additional cost to you.

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