The Biggest Worries Holding You Back From Doing Music Full-Time...

Courtesy of Jesse Sterling Harrison

All over the world, there are people contemplating quitting their day job for music. If they have a relatively secure position at a company, almost all of these people are probably scared to leave it... Most of them won’t.

Being a professional musician is a dream for many and reality for just a few. If you want to be one of them, you’ll have to face the fears that are holding you back. That doesn’t mean ignoring those fears. Fear, like guilt and pain, is a signal that we need to pay attention to something. Those questions have some logical basis and should not be ignored. They represent problems that need to be solved to successfully dive into the business.

Will I make enough money to survive?
For most working people considering any career change, this is the ultimate question. Poor people have money problems. Rich people have money problems, too: protecting their assets from financial predators, wondering if “friends” are really just after their money, etc. Most of us, however, would take those rich-people's problems anytime.

When you’re a pro musician – unless you’re an employee of a school, orchestra, or a salaried member of some artist’s band – you're a business owner. Business owners need to be marketers. They have to have a clear idea of what their product is, they're able to make a 30-second “elevator pitch” to anyone who might be interested, and they have the ability to articulate that message to listeners.

When people ask what kind of music you make, paint them a picture. Make it obvious.

Here’s a description that isn’t great: "We’re a post-punk band influenced by early Talking Heads." That might work for music geeks who are familiar with early Talking Heads, but for most people, that’s a vague and meaningless description, which means they cannot in any way properly imagine what you might sound like.

Here’s a better one: "We play unplugged versions of '80s hair metal." That is specific. Such a description will resonate with lots of people and give folks an idea of what you sound like, as well as where and when your sound might be appropriate. People will know that you’ll be strumming acoustic guitars and singing "Livin' on a Prayer."

Having a ready and descriptive pitch will help a lot. Pro musicians should have a niche, whether they’re doing originals, covers, or both.

Beyond just knowing what you are and sharing that with everyone you can, you’ll also want to brainstorm other ways to earn money that you might not have considered.

For example, there are pro musicians all over the world, who make most of their money with government or nonprofit grants. You could also give instrument or vocal lessons. If what you do is a little obscure, consider starting a second project that’s more easily marketable. (But don’t give up your passion project! ...More on that later.)

In a half an hour, you can certainly brainstorm several moneymaking ideas that are worth exploring. Then, explore them in the days, weeks and months ahead. You’ll see quick results for what works and what doesn’t, and that will help you focus your energy.

Of course, one more thing to remember is that the world of work is a continuum. If you have a full-time job in a non-musical field, can you do that work part-time? If not, is there another source of part-time income you can secure than won’t interfere too much with your music?

There are probably a million options, and all of them involve trade-offs, but having more than one source of income is incredibly handy in an economy noted for stagnant wages and a lack of job security.

Where will I get my health insurance?
Hopefully you’re not reading this question and thinking, “But I don’t have insurance now!” If you’re in your 20s, maybe you’ve had the luck and luxury of not having any serious medical problems so far. But if you’re cursed with even a relatively minor problem like chronic asthma, you’re going to need regular medication, and that gets expensive fast without insurance.

So, there’s no doubt you need insurance. There are three ways you can get it, whether or not you play music for money.

You may be able to jump onboard with a spouse or domestic partner who has insurance. This is, in some ways, the easiest method and will require the least paperwork. Try to obtain insurance through your state. Some (but not most) have care options for those who don’t have access to a corporate plan.

Take advantage of the Affordable Care Act. You can start the ACA process to see if you qualify. When searching for information about state or federal health plans, make sure you’re on legitimate government websites and not private sites that try to charge a fee, or harvest your information for unscrupulous ends. These scammers are rampant these days.

What if doing it for a living makes me lose the love?
Well, the first thing is not to get stuck doing stuff you hate. If you were born to be the front-man in a goth band, you’re not going to be happy playing “Tequila” in a casino. You must, must, must keep your passion project alive, even if it’s not your biggest moneymaker. Part of the reason is to feed your passion, of course, which is practical enough. But what’s even more practical is that your greatest passion is your greatest potential success.

The art that you pour your heart and soul into is the art that may eventually have the greatest impact on others. It’s the thing you might someday be famous for, so don’t keep it on the back burner. Though you may diversify what you do to find other revenue streams, make sure that your favorite music stays in the mix.

Secondly, be aware that there is some drudgery involved in every career. Actors have to sit around for hours getting their alien makeup on, or running around Tunisia in a hot costume for 100 takes of the same shot. Football players have training camp. Musicians have paperwork, and the time-consuming practice of booking shows.

Don’t dodge that work: do it first, and save the fun stuff to reward yourself when the grunt work is done. Don’t let the stuff you don’t enjoy hang over your head; do the worst first. If you can manage that stuff, deal with it, and shunt it aside, you’ll be having a good time most of the time.

What if I'm not good enough?
We all know that financial success is not a referendum on how good you are. We can all think of some mediocre talent who’s adored by the masses for some reason, or some just-competent sideman who seems to get all the big sessions.

Almost every musician has a favorite target for this criticism. Why? Well, you know you’re better than that guy, and if he can do it, so can you. Seeing someone who's not so great ascend to the upper rungs of the business also reminds us that it’s about more than chops. You need connections, persistence, and a little luck to get the breaks. All you can do is stay after it, keep practicing, and remember never to give up.

Of course, the other answer to this question is that your ability should never be static. Like real estate, your musical talent is an asset whose value you can control. By consistent practice, learning tricks and techniques from others, and being secure about what you still don’t know, you can keep climbing and keep improving. There’s no better way to make sure you stick in the business.

Jesse Sterling Harrison is an author, recording artist, and part-time farmer. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, three daughters, and a herd of ducks.