Do you want to be a professional musician, but don't know where and how to start? Do you really want a successful career in music, but your fear of failure is holding you back? Are you unsure about what to do if your plan doesn't work?
Most aspiring musicians receive a lot of advice from friends and family about the best approach to take with building their music career. Among the many things suggested, is the idea of having a backup plan. Many people give advice about "the need to have something to fall back on in case the music career doesn't work out" or "a Plan B". Typically, musicians are encouraged to go to school and get a degree in something they can easily find a job in, and do music on the side, in their "free time".
If/when you reach the point where your music career begins to develop, you are probably advised to work less in your day job and focus more on the music until you can leave the day job and make the music career work for you. This advice sounds good in theory, but in reality fails to work as intended in almost every case. Why? Usually the job that most musicians get to support themselves until their music career kicks off, has nothing to do with music in general, or their music career specifically. As a result, most end up in a very frustrating situation that makes it virtually impossible to achieve any kind of lasting success as a professional musician.
Before I go into detail about some reasons why this kind of "backup plan" is usually not working as intended, I want you to test yourself and the effectiveness of your strategy to become a professional musician. It will really help you to take this test before reading the rest of the article, so that you are not biased in your answers.
Do you think that your "backup plan" will work and will lead you to a rewarding and stable long- term music career? Take this survey to find out before reading further.
Reason #1: Not having an effective exit strategy.
The idea of slowly phasing out your day job while building your music career is good, but in order to work, it needs to be done in the right way. Most musicians have nothing planned or prepared that will allow them to gradually decrease the time spent at their day job and focus more on music. When choosing a "backup plan", musicians typically find a job that is the most "safe and secure" and the one that pays the most money. However, most people fail to plan the "exit strategy" and think ahead to the time when their music career situation will allow you to focus less of your time on the day job. When they finally reach that point, they realize that they are trapped in their day job and are unable to "gradually" phase it out. They are faced with the choice of either quitting the job entirely, or sticking to it until retirement (more on this shortly).
The best exit plan is to have a job that will allow you to gradually decrease the number of hours you spend on it: from 40 hours per week to 30, from 30 hours to 20, from 20 to 10, until eventually you can quit the job altogether! So you must take care to select an occupation that allows a lot of flexibility in work schedule. That means you need to be careful to select an occupation that allows a lot of flexibility in work schedule. This way, when the time is right, you can make a "gradual" transition into a full time music career. Unfortunately, most traditional occupations (such as being an accountant, computer programmer, office manager etc...) do not allow this flexibility. Remember, your boss at work will not all of a sudden allow you to "work 3-4 days per week instead of 5", simply because you want to work on your new CD an extra few days per week. It is possible to begin by working in a non-music related job at first, but do not select "any" job offer without considering the exit strategy first.
An ideal job for an aspiring professional musician is teaching guitar. Not only can you make very good money doing it, but you are in complete control over how many hours you choose to work. Not everyone may desire to teach full time for the rest of their life (and this is fine). But as long as you are going to be working anyway, why not do something that is already related to what you enjoy, help students reach their goals faster and make money in the process? In addition, teaching is already a "music related" activity that is probably much more fun to do than sitting in an office!
Another possibility is to work as an independent contractor in sales or marketing or doing consulting work for hire. Always check about the flexibility of work schedule before accepting a job offer. Remember that in most industries, the 40-60 hour work week is the norm, with little or no possibility for part time employment. This makes it impossible to make a smooth transition to a full time music career.
Reason #2: There is too much risk involved.
Slowly phasing out your day job seems to be a very 'safe and secure' approach, but it can actually backfire and "trap" you by its sense of security. If you are making $60,000 per year at your day job, and have managed (through working nights and weekends) to build up your music related income to $25,000 per year, then, all together, you have a total income of $85,000 for the year. Here is where the reality catches up to you. Should you decide to go full time into music, you will invariably need to quit your day job completely at some point. Until you can recover and build your music career to higher and higher levels, you will be making $60,000 less per year than before! This kind of risk is uncomfortable to think about for most people (especially those who get married, have kids and/or have significant expenses), and keeps them trapped at their day jobs their whole lives.
Reason #3: You are often not able to take advantage of opportunities.
What if you put extraordinary effort on nights and weekends into recording a great sounding CD with your band, spend a lot of time promoting it in hopes of getting signed by a record company and go on tour, and then you really get the opportunity to do a 10 week tour in another country in the world. It is very probable that you would not get paid a lot of money while on a first tour, but as a whole, this kind of tour is exactly the kind of breakthrough you have been searching for. What are you going to do? Are you going to turn down a huge opportunity to advance your music career? Or are you going to agree to take a huge cut in pay by quitting your day job to do the tour? I think you can agree that neither of these options sounds entirely appealing. Wouldn't it be great to do the tour and not worry about how you are going to feed yourself (and your family) while you are gone?
Reason #4: There is not much quality time and energy to get anything done.
This may seem like a more subtle issue, but it is actually very important. If your most productive hours in the day are spent on the least productive activities, then reaching your goals will take much longer than it needs to. Think about it: if you wake up at 6:00, get to work by 8:00 or 9:00 and spend 8-10 hours there, and another 1-2 hours commuting back home, by the time you are ready to begin working on your music career, you are already tired! This is also not taking into account the time taken up by other things in life that you have to tend to. It will take a truly extraordinary effort to get anything worthwhile accomplished during the time on nights and weekends, to build multiple streams of music related income that will enable you to quit your non-music related job without putting yourself and your family in financial struggle.
Now that you see why this kind of backup plan isn't as good as it seems to be, you may ask yourself what you should do instead.
Well, having no backup plan is definitely not the solution. In order to build a successful music career, you need to be prepared and you cannot simply hope that "things will work out". The underlying problem with the conventional backup plan I described is that it originates from thinking about how not "to lose". This type of thinking lacks real ambition and it forces you to stick to that which is the most familiar and so called "safe and secure". As a result, you typically end up with what you wish for: a familiar, average, safe and secure life. However, this attitude rarely leads to significant achievements, breakthroughs and victories in the music industry.
What the most successful musicians do is arrange their backup plan or Plan B around their music career goals (Plan A). This requires real ambition and courage, and it is based on thinking about how "to win". This also requires you to think how you can integrate Plan B with your present and future life as a professional musician.
There are many possibilities for truly effective "back up" (which are more like "support") plans. In many cases, they involve designing systems and multiple income streams coming from music business sources that will support them continuously.
It's important to put a lot of thought into which kinds of "backup plans" and approaches are best suited to your specific goals. To find the right plan for you, there are two important things you need to do:
First, study how the music business works (this is key!).
Understanding it will greatly help you with designing the most effective strategy for reaching your goals in the fastest period of time. Building a successful, long term career takes a lot of focused effort and dedication. The more you understand about the music business, the easier it will be to design the kind of backup plan that will help you reach your goals instead of restricting and trapping you.
Second, be careful about taking advice from people who may have great intentions, but lack knowledge and experience about how the music industry works. Very often, our friends and family, with the very best intentions at heart, attempt to give us advice on what to do to "make it". However, if you pay attention, you will notice that this advice has a common theme, which is "here is what you must do in order not to lose". Very rarely do you get advice about how "to win"! This mentality (as described above) keeps you away from taking steps that will propel your dreams forward.
To make matters worse, although your friends and family may have the best intentions in their heart, most of the time, they simply aren't qualified to give advice about the music business. It will be similar to you asking your brother who is a plumber (for example) about how to cure a disease, or asking your uncle who is a carpenter (for example) about how to solve a legal problem. It doesn't matter that these people have your best interest at heart. If they don't know what they are talking about (in a particular subject), they are not likely to give helpful advice.
If you truly want advice that works and if you want to learn the strategies of how to reach all of your music career goals, you need to find a mentor who you can rely on for effective advice. This means learning from someone who has already done what you want to do, and ideally someone who has trained many others to do the same.
Now that you know about the problems with the conventional approaches to backup plans, I will show you the characteristics of a good backup plan (Plan B).
Your plan must be flexible. This can mean many things. One of them is having the ability to "gradually" decrease the amount of time you spend working on Plan B and increase the time you invest into Plan A! This can also mean the ability to integrate (leverage) the skills acquired (or the results earned) from Plan B into Plan A.
Your plan should be mostly passive: it will really help if your Plan B mostly consists of passive income streams that you have created by only investing the work once! It should be pretty obvious to see how this will free up a lot of time to dedicate to your Plan A (your music career)!
The plan should be diversified: do not become so dependent on only one stream of income! Many people argue that a music career is not secure, when nothing could be further from the truth. Which do you think is more likely, that a company lays off an employee in the blink of an eye (cutting off his one and only source of income, the paycheck), or that a music teacher with 40 students (who essentially has at least 40 "diversified" income streams) will suddenly lose all of his clients overnight?
By making your Plan B options diversified, you also build your own financial security, without depending on anyone else. I don't know about you, but I feel much safer knowing that I am in control of my own future, rather than putting my faith into someone else's idea of security.
4. Congruency and Relevance
This means that Plan B needs to make your primary goal (music career) more likely to occur! This also means (ideally), that the time you invest into developing skills and experience in Plan B can be easily used to enhance Plan A. For example, if you are known as an excellent guitar teacher, you can easily integrate teaching clinics and workshops with performances of your music, selling your future music CDs, other merchandise, etc.
I hope that you can see now how this strategy is vastly different (and superior) to the conventional wisdom of getting a day job, and then doing your best on evenings and weekends to launch a music career from scratch.
As you design your own path to a successful music career, compare the steps you are taking against the criteria above and modify your strategy if necessary. This will help save you from the frustration felt by most of the 'wannabe' musicians, who realize (much too late) that their strategy leaves them no way to manifest their dreams.
If you have missed the survey mentioned at the beginning of this article, check it out here.
Tom Hess is a professional touring guitarist and recording artist. He teaches, trains and mentors musicians from around the world.
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