Why Your Most Important Tool In Being A Successful Indie Musician Might Actually Be Your Day Job
Last week, I was on a flight making my way back from Sweden to Paris. I was extremely thirsty, but didn't have any cash on me to buy a Perrier (2 euro). The flight attendant told me about the minimum purchase for cards (7 euros) and so I gathered what I thought was that amount of food so I could put the transaction on my card. Turns out I had picked a combination of items that cost 6 euros, so I told him to just go ahead and charge my card the extra amount. (I was really, really thirsty.)
To my surprise, the flight attendant waved it off and said, "You know something, I'm not going to charge you for this. Just keep it between us." I was totally shocked. It also made my day. You see, my flight started in Copenhagen, so despite having three different currencies on me, I didn't have Danish krona in order to get a drink at the airport. I was so touched, that I wrote a little thank you note on the back of one of my business cards and handed it to him. Nothing fancy, just a very simple "Thanks for your kindness, please let me know if there's any way I can repay it in the future."
It's been a week since I was on that flight, and this morning I woke up to an e-mail in my inbox from the flight attendant. He thanked me for my kindness, and had a question for me. He has a British friend in Paris who teaches English lessons, but whose real passion is composing and making music. He said his friend was having a hard time finding paying work, and if I had any suggestions for him.
I'm going to eventually pass this on to the both of them, but that little spark was all I needed to write my next article.
In the world of musicians, the "day job" is usually seen as a curse. An endless slog. Something that wastes your time that you could be spending touring, playing music, and doing nothing but music all the time, right? This article is about the advantages of having a day job, and some ways to make it work for you.
#1. Let's Be Serious - This Economy Totally Sucks. A Regular Paycheck Is Your Best Friend
First of all, this conversation was a lot different before evil madmen conspired to destroy the economy. Six, seven years ago, talking about your day job as a temporary thing was a lot more feasible. Now? Ha! If you actually have a day job in the United States or elsewhere, and you're thinking about leaving it NOW to become a full-time indie musician, there is no way I would ever tell you to do that. In fact, I'd probably give you a friendly knock upside the head and ask what the hell you're thinking. Only 54% of young people between the ages of 18-24 even have jobs to begin with, and the total US unemployment rate right now, according to Gallup, "officially" stands at 8%, with people who are underemployed making up another 18%. The article that I should be writing next should be focusing on these young people, many of whom are probably in bands, and helping them find ways to make money since they're not going to have jobs for a long, long time.
These statistics are dismal, and unless you've been living under a rock for the past five years, you know that it's been pretty bad in the US and elsewhere. A regular paycheck in this economy is your best friend. It's expensive to buy gear and instruments; everybody knows that. Have you thought about some of those "perks" that maybe you don't have right now as an indie artist, but you'd like to have? I just found a publicist. They do great work for me. And they cost money. I have a wonderful assistant in San Diego who helps me when I'm not there. I need to pay her to work for me. Then there's other, more practical things related to releasing your music in the first place: I don't have a record label so I have to pay for my CDs and vinyl to be pressed. I have to pay my graphic design firm to make posters and CDs for me. I have to pay a photographer to do some pictures for my new album. I had to pay to do some recording. It costs money to submit to festivals. It costs money to pay your cell phone bill and internet bill so you can be in touch with people. A lot of memberships to services that will help you (TAXI, MusicClout, etc) cost money.
I'm not going to go on. You get it. But while you're slogging away, doing whatever it is that your day job is, remember the end result: a paycheck on a regular basis. Despite what you may hear about how awesome it is to be a full-time musician, I can tell you from experience that a regular paycheck isn't something a lot of us get. Use this wisely! Save some of it! For example, if you get a bonus once a year, maybe time your record release to match up with it. Money is definitely the most obvious perk from a day job, but it's surprising to me how many people still overlook it. That's why it's... #1!
#2. Social Connections
Full disclosure: I haven't had a traditional day job since 2009, when I worked as an accounting assistant in a guitar shop. And even that can barely count as traditional as I was fairly free with my hours and if I needed a break, I could hang out and play guitar. I worked part-time in a coffee shop from the end of 2009 - beginning of 2011. Since then, I've been doing music and freelancing. One of the things I miss most about having a job to go to is the human interaction factor.
When I freelance, most of the time I don't even ever meet my clients. I had a client in Arizona I worked with for almost 10 months and never once met her. Your co-workers are among a very powerful group of people who will often support your music, possibly even if they don't like it. Your music is also one of those GREAT things to talk about to people that isn't too personal, yet is a good way to get to know someone. We all know that stage of "getting to know your co-workers," where you're not sure if you should ask about the pictures of the 4 Dachshunds in Santa outfits on their desk or not. Take this stage and run with it. When you're interacting with your co-workers, make sure you're talking about your music! You're going to be really surprised how many of them support you, will come to your shows, and perhaps you might find that you work with a great jazz saxophonist who would love to play (for free) for you on your next album.
If you work in a customer-service oriented business/retail establishment, this can also work in your favor. I used to work at Lush Cosmetics for a long time. This was before I got really serious about my music, but I still met a ton of interesting people. And this ties into something else: Make sure you have business cards! Order them now! I wouldn't even have had the inspiration to write this article if it wasn't for the fact that I had a business card to hand out to someone. When I worked at the coffee shop, I met a lot of people who I gave a card to. Some of them regularly read my e-mails now, and some of them, well, I don't know if they keep in touch at all. But the more people you tell about your music, the better. Don't overlook this opportunity at your place of employment.
One last thing is promotion of your shows. Make sure your flyers are work friendly if you're trying to do this. A lot of places of employment have some sort of bulletin board. Ask if it's okay to put up a flyer for your latest show. If it's not, make smaller flyers and pass them out to your co-workers. Word will get around. The main point: don't underestimate the people you work with. They may annoy you. They may not even like you. But most of the time, you'll be surprised at the support you can garner among them.
#3. Perks Of The Job - Use Wisely!
Every job has its perks. For example, since I'm a freelance writer I'm working in my pajamas right now. One of the best parts about having a job are these perks. Do research, find out what they are, and use them to your advantage!
The most obvious one is a copier or a printer. Again, use wisely. I am not in favor of any of you getting fired for abusing these privileges, but let's face it, it's something that all of you do anyways. Basically what I'm saying, is don't blame me. Maybe your job has a copier or printer that you can use to print some press materials, or black & white flyers, or letters or labels. I may or may not have mailed press kits using an old employer's discounted rate on the postal machine and I may or may not have paid them back in cash, saving about $1 per press kit vs. USPS rates. I cannot say if this happened or did not happen, but it might have.
There are other perks that can be equally helpful to you. Does your employer offer a free lunch every now and again? Take advantage of it, and save the money towards something else. (That $8 can mail out several CDs to fans or press kits). Is there a program where you can get things like discounted car insurance, house insurance, or renter's insurance? Go for it! Save that money. If you work at a retail establishment and it's feasible for you to save money on a discount (for food or perhaps clothes) take advantage of it.
There are often a lot of employee discount programs that your employer won't even TELL you about unless you ask. So make sure you ask! You could save a couple hundred dollars a year on this stuff and use that money for your music.
Special Perk - Internet Usage - Use Wisely!
If you have internet access at your job, use it wisely. It will eventually get around/out if you're just going to ReverbNation, Facebook, Bandcamp every single day. Be careful and again - don't get fired over this stuff! If you have a computer with internet, and it's feasible, spend a small portion of your day doing a bit of research. Even 15 minutes a day of research on blogs, venues, etc., can be incredibly helpful. Let's face it, we all goof off on the internet from time to time at work. Just be careful.
#4. Paid and Unpaid Vacation Days
This is usually the biggest sticking point I hear from most people with a day job. "But I want to go on tour!" Okay. Even after reading my last article, you still want to go on tour. Well, you still CAN go on tour. Most jobs offer some kinds of vacation, whether they're paid or unpaid. The standard in the US is from 1 week to 2 weeks. If you get more than this, good for you! I also want to make a distinction here between people who have unpaid vacation. If all you have is unpaid vacation days, do whatever you want, just remember to budget for when you come back from tour. I have made the mistake too often of going on tour and not having money when I returned. So much so that I started to put a $50 bill under my pillow so that I'd have money when I came back.
These days can be your best friend for a lot of reasons. Let's say you're in a band that gets asked to play a couple showcases at SXSW. Well, since you have a day job and you have perk #1 (a regular paycheck) and you also have perk #4 (vacation days) do it wisely! You don't have to tour for 6 weeks at a time to be successful. In fact, the most fun I have ever had on tour was on the ones that lasted 10 days or under. If you budget wisely, you can fly to Austin and play those shows, maybe take only 2 days off from work, and stumble back in on Monday morning. Or New York, or wherever.
If you book a tour wisely around your vacation days, you can play 10 shows in a row while only having to take 5 days off from work. Start playing your shows on Friday night, take Monday-Friday off, play shows on Saturday and Sunday and again, drag yourself back to work on Monday morning. Another tip that I haven't utilized too often is what I like to call "the long weekend" tour. This is where you take 2 days off instead of a whole week and tour for the weekend. My recommendation is to take Thursday-Friday off and tour Wednesday-Sunday. Also make sure you're tuned into the days when you don't have to work anyways. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, President's Day, 4th of July, etc.
This is also part of a bigger booking strategy utilizing concentric circles around your hometown. The secret to successful touring mostly involves playing the same places over and over and over again. This is one way to get attention. It's not going straight to NYC and expecting anyone to give a shit about your band: hint: they won't. It's about getting yourself known in your local region. Look at a map of your hometown area and plot a route that brings you back in 2 days, 4 days, 10 days. Then make sure you're playing those cities every three months or so. Eventually, people will start to pay attention.
If you want to do a longer tour say, in the summer, and you want to exceed your paid vacation, just ask your boss if you can use some unpaid days. If your boss likes you, you might be able to get away with it. Just make sure you've budgeted well before you leave so you're not broke when you come back! (See above)
#5. Hometown Reconnaissance
It should go without say that the best place to get attention/press/etc. is in your hometown, but it doesn't seem obvious to a lot of bands. The best and easiest place to get reviews of your music and attention for your band is in your hometown. If I'm being halfway logical here, I'll assume that since you have a day job, you live somewhere, and you're in a community somewhere. Use all this, plus the above, to put focus on your hometown shows.
I've been bouncing around the world for the past couple years, and my hometown seems to change monthly. It's an exciting life of adventure, but there are few places that feel like home anymore. And having a big show where a lot of your friends come out to support you is one of the major perks of even having a hometown. It's a huge advantage to you, utilize it and combine it with all the perks above.
If your job is in a different location than where you live, get out on your lunch break and pass out flyers in that area. Bam! You're promoting in a different part of town and you didn't even have to go out of your way to do it. Utilize the other members of your band, too. Share the information with everyone you play with. If you have three or four people in your band you have that much more help with your mission. Maybe your drummer works right next to the big venue in town that you've been dying to play. Send him over on his lunch break or after work to give the venue a press kit. Take a different way to work one day, if you have the time, and explore the new hip neighborhood you've been hearing a lot about. Maybe there's a place you can promote yourself or a cool new venue there.
The most powerful resources are often the ones we have right in front of us every day. Instead of being bored that you're in your day job, or tired of being stuck in the same city, get to know your city and your neighborhood better than you ever thought possible and mine it for information. Also, if you pass this information along to other touring bands, they're more likely to help you when you come through their town.
In conclusion, I hope that this particular article helps you to balance out your perspective. Whenever you see interviews with musicians that you really like, keep in mind that the average salary for a musician in America (who's SUCCESSFUL) is $35k per year, without benefits. I lived in 2011 on less than $12k, and still owed $1000 in taxes at the end of the year because I was working independently. Keep in mind that a lot of those musicians spend a lot of time struggling financially and looking for more regular (paid) work, despite how popular they might be. Even more sobering and heartbreaking are the musicians who are well-known and admired who have taken their own lives in part because of financial distress (Vic Chesnutt, among others.)
I'm not one to sugar-coat stuff; in this economy, if you are honestly complaining about your day job because you want to be an indie musician, you're delusional. No further comment. Remember that your perspective is everything. You're only "stuck" somewhere if that's what your perception of it is. And take it from me; it's hard to write songs and make good music when you're worrying whether or not you can afford to put gas in your car or food in your belly. Take the perks of your job and use them to your advantage, and always focus on the positives in your particular situation.
Normandie Wilson is a jazz/lounge singer, pianist and composer who lives in San Diego, California. You can catch her performing around town by herself, on marimba with indie-mariachi sensations Red Pony Clock, or with her new vocal harmony cabaret group, Blue Velvet. She has a book coming out in 2014, titled "Misadventures, Mistakes, and Miscalculations in Independent Music," in which she will detail every dumb thing she's ever done in her career, so that you don't have to. Visit http://www.normandiewilson.com
to learn more.