Music is an all-consuming job. A lot of people work jobs they don’t need to take home with them. If you’re working reception or serving at a restaurant, when you punch out, you’re done. You don’t need to think about your job for the rest of the day.
Music isn’t like that.
In fact, if you’re a musician, music is probably the thing you do when you come home from the “day job”. This means that if you decide to make music your full-time career, it’s easy to become completely consumed by it.
The nature of most musician’s obsession with music is such that even when we’re taken a supposed “day off”, you’ll end up writing a song, practicing, sending a couple of quick emails, making a social media post, etc.
Of course, there are other jobs like this. High-powered CEOs, lawyers, doctors, entrepreneurs – all of these professions require a certain amount of constant work. But it’s not the same.
The principal difference in my mind is the financial compensation for your constant work. With the exception of entrepreneurs, those careers are all well-compensated and reliable. Even in the case of an entrepreneur, the payoff is often much greater than that of a moderately successful artist.
Beyond the financial struggle, is the fact that your job and your financial well-being is completely tied up in your art. What a disaster! You have to reliably make good, viable, interesting art in order to make money.
It’s not like making the next tech device or app. It’s not like developing a new pharmaceutical. It’s art. It’s deeply tied into your emotional life. Your creations are probably some of the most meaningful and precious things in your life. And that’s how you make your whole career.
On top of all that, it’s just straight up hard. The traveling is hard, it’s expensive, there are no guarantees, nobody is looking out for you, and your chances of making it on the level of a Beyoncé are slim. Even if you’re incredible.
All this can lead to burnout, cynicism, and poor attitudes towards music, which is definitely not why you started playing in the first place.
I’m here today to tell you that it’s okay to “quit music”. It’s okay to take a break. But most of all, it’s important to set yourself up to make a career in music that won’t make you feel like this.
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Should I Quit Music?
I’m not very old, and I have been in the industry for a small amount of time, all things considered. I’ve been working as a full-time musician for three to four years.
That said, I work pretty hard. I tour upwards of 100 to 150 days out of the year, I easily work 10 to 14 hour days, every day except Sunday (and sometimes Sunday too), and I’m still full of gumption and excited about it. Which is great.
But, and this is a big “but”, I have already daydreamed about quitting. Because it’s just hard. Last January, my total income was about $600. Total. Obviously, that doesn’t even cover rent and utilities for a month. That is hard. That is stressful.
Also, touring this much is very hard on my relationship, which is important to me. Constantly weighing another tour or another show versus an actual date with my girlfriend is exhausting.
I think it’s completely natural for my mind to drift off to fanciful daydreams about going back to school, getting a degree, and landing some sort of cool job that pays me every two weeks. And has health insurance. And maybe a pension.
What’s important to realize is that in every profession you will experience a “dip”. There’s a great book called The Dip by Seth Godin, and it’s all about when to quit, and when to push through the inevitable hard days/months/years.
So far, there has been no real doubt in my mind that every hard time I’ve experienced has been a “dip”. Sure, January was tough, but I knew that February would be much busier. Sure, when I toured for a month and half straight last fall, that was hard, but I also knew it was an important career move.
If you feel like you’re experiencing a “dip” right now, go read Seth’s book. It’s a quick read and it’s cheap. This may give you a better perspective on your current situation, and inform your thinking about whether you should quit or push through.
However, if you’ve reached a point where you feel like quitting is the right move, here is my advice to you: Do it.
If you’re going to quit, I have a bit of advice for you, gleaned from friends who have followed this path:
Don’t Announce That You Are “Quitting Music”
There may come a time when you want to play again, and why would you close those doors? If you get the opportunity to make some money, play some music, and have fun, why not?
This also makes it less awkward if you want to jump back into your career – in whatever capacity – after having lived a normal life for a while.
Honestly, there is just no point in making a big announcement like this. Just play it close to your chest and do your thing.
Go Get That Comfy, “Easy” Job
If what you’re looking for is a steady paycheck, reliable hours – in other words a “normal” job – go get it. Whether it’s a music-related or arts-related job, it doesn’t matter. Just do it. If you don’t, you’ll end up wondering what it would have been like for the rest of your life.
The great thing about getting a job like this is that it will very quickly become obvious how much you value your art and your creative time.
I have a close friend who took a music-related a job, an important and potentially fulfilling one, and hated it. He spent every spare moment playing random sideman gigs, writing, practicing, etc.
It may be that “easy” and “safe” (in quotations because most jobs are neither of those in some respects), isn’t what you’re looking for. You may actually miss the stress. The lack of routine. The excitement. The highs and lows.
Or, you may not.
There is absolutely no shame in pursuing a normal life and normal career. You may find you are infinitely happier, more fulfilled, and more balanced working a normal job. If that’s the case, you’ll be happy you quit.
Allow Yourself Time To Truly Be Without Music
There will be pressure to go to shows. To answer emails. To practice. To play side-gigs. If you don’t want to do this, learn to say no.
You may need some time away from music. All music. That is okay. Take that time.
If You’ve Been Daydreaming About Some “Normal Life” Goals, Go Make Them Happen
Go traveling. Go camping with your friends. Play video games. Get married. Get a dog. Enjoy life. If you don’t do these things for fear of potentially impacting some future music-related goal, you are negatively impacting your time off.
Just be normal and live.
Should I Take A Break?
Absolutely, yes. Take a break. Nobody works every day. That’s crazy. Most jobs literally mandate that you take two weeks off of work. You need that time.
I’m not saying you have to go on a “vacation” to Mexico or anything, just take a break. Get a serving job and hang out with your friends. Go spend some time with family. Take a few extra days off around Christmas – you’re a musician, you can do that!
Or, if you feel like you need to take a longer break, a year or a couple months, do it. Nobody will fault you for this, and to be honest, people generally care a lot less than you would think.
Again, I think it’s important that you take some time to think about how to take a break, without harming your career when you return from your break. Here are a few things I would suggest:
Don’t Make A Big Deal Out Of It
I never understand why people do this. If you feel the need to, explain that you’re taking a much-needed break, then do so. The problem is, people will want to know how long the break will be, why you’re taking it, and so on.
That is annoying and personally I feel it’s an optical mistake. Why say anything? Just take a break. Work on you. If you feel like it, post a picture on social media once per month, just to maintain your presence.
Again, this way you leave yourself open to gigs and opportunities that you may want to do. If you don’t want to, just say no. If you need the extra cash or feel like playing a gig, go for it.
Set Up An Email Auto-Responder
If people are trying to get in touch with you directly, it’s important to let them know why you’re not answering their messages. In this case, just set up an auto-responder that says something like:
Hey! I’m taking a much-needed vacation and won’t be checking this email very often. I check my emails on Monday mornings, and will get back to you then. If the matter is urgent, get in touch with my manager, or call me. Please, only call if it’s truly urgent, as I’m really having a great time living life.
Who could fault you for doing such a thing?
Decide What You Want To Do With Your Break & Do It
If it’s as simple as just bumming around your hometown going out for brunch and hanging out with friends, do that. If you want to do some traveling, go for it. If you want to write a memoir, get started!
It’s important to not let time-robbers like emails and tedium get in the way of your break. It’s also important not to do too much. You’ll always end up with less time than you thought you had.
How To Set Yourself Up For A Career That Doesn’t Kill You
Of course, it would be ideal if we never felt that we had to take a break or reached a point mentally where we had to quit. That sucks and doesn’t feel good at all.
Even though I’m totally green to the industry, I’m always thinking of ways that I can make this career long-lasting and fulfilling without getting burnt out.
Here are a few tips from my friends and a few from my personal experience.
Take Breaks, Even When You Don’t Need Them
They don’t need to be long, but if it’s a beautiful day outside and your friends are going to the park, you should definitely go to the park. You mind needs space to wander and be creative, and then you’ll come back feeling refreshed.
Get A Hobby
Go fishing, write stuff, go to the gym, join a club, just do something else. This time that you spend doing not-music will become important to you.
Treat these hobbies like anyone would – obviously, if you have to miss a fishing trip in order to play some great shows, that’s something you’re going to do. Just remember to make time to live.
Set Yourself Up Financially So You Don’t Have To Stress Too Much
I write these articles for three reasons: 1) I enjoy it, 2) it helps me think through problems, and 3) it ensures that I have an income stream that doesn’t rely on music.
Sometimes, music will rob you of all your money or will simply not provide you with any for a time. This is incredibly stressful and should be avoided.
I would say that most full-time musicians have diversified their income stream so as to lessen the stress of a freelance lifestyle.
For some, this is writing, editing, doing admin work, booking other people's shows, and the like. For others, it’s something completely unrelated to music. Either way, consider how you’re going to make your life a little easier.
Have Realistic Expectations For Your Career
There are literally thousands and thousands or artists and musicians who make a living without ever achieving real “fame”. Get comfortable with that idea, because you can have an extremely fulfilling career as an artist without ever being “famous”.
Personally, I want to get to a point where I’m playing 1,000 to 3,000 seat theaters on tour and making around $70,000/year. That is my goal. I would be comfortable with that level of success.
My success does not in any way hinge on me being a recognizable face. I would also be completely happy with a similar income, but working more in the studio, producing, mixing, engineering, etc.
I have considered and am still considering (my mind is far from made up) all the different paths I could take that would lead to a happy and fulfilled life, and to me, there are many.
Life has very few rules. You can do pretty much whatever you want. The music industry also doesn’t have any rules. There are a nearly infinite number of paths to take. You just have to choose one and be open to change.