I’ve now been involved in the Montreal music scene in some way for 17 years, and have seen many artists and bands come and go during that time. Now that I’m in my 30’s, I’m starting to truly understand what it takes to “make it” as a musician/band. What do I mean by “make it”? I’m not talking about becoming a "star", but simply playing music for a living, which is a place where most of my artist friends want to get to. While reflecting on this, I realized that the artists that were finally able to make a living playing music had some common traits:
5 Common Characteristics of Full-Time Musicians
1. They work (very) hard
The artists and bands that I know that are making a full-time living are some of the hardest working people I know. They hustle every day and work long hours, evenings, weekends, whatever it takes to get the job done and bring in the income they need to survive. Most bands dream of quitting their day job to do music full-time, but some don’t realize that it is a job to be a full-time musician, and you might end up working harder and longer than any day job out there, but the reward will be to do what you love for a living.
2. They love what they’re doing
To make it as a full-time musician, you have to eat, breath and sleep music each and every day. In order to do this, you have to truly love what you are doing and be extremely passionate about it. It’s not always going to be glamorous, and most often it’s going to be a lot of hard work. When you’re on tour for weeks at a time, driving long hours cramped in a van, sleeping on floors and barely making enough money to eat, you really need to love what you’re doing to get through those tough experiences and breakthrough to the other side when the money does start to come in.
3. It’s not about the money
Speaking of money, I don’t know a single full-time artist that is playing music simply for the money. They have a passion for writing/performing/recording music, and they take their art and their craft seriously. It’s all they know and it’s all they want to do. Money is secondary, and when it comes, it’s simply a by-product of the work they are putting in.
Don’t get me wrong, although it’s not about the money for these artists, they do have a business sense, which is extremely important. They know how to manage their finances and put a value to the work they are doing.
4. They have support
Being a DIY artist doesn’t mean you have to or should do it all on your own. Derek Sivers, the Founder of CD Baby, wrote a great blog post talking about this subject: http://sivers.org/diy
Essentially, Derek says that DIY shouldn’t mean Do-It-ALL-Yourself, but instead should mean Decide-It-Yourself. This is so true, and all the artists I know who are making a full-time living have some kind of support team in place, either a manager, agent, small label or assistant to help them with their career.
They didn’t necessarily start out with these people in place, but over time they developed a team to help them manage their careers. In some cases they are life partners, sometimes close friends, but more often it's a professional manager and/or agent who got on board once they reached a certain level in their career development.
5. They don’t give up
And last but not least, they simply don’t give up. I can’t tell you how many artists and bands I’ve known that after 1 or 2 albums they simply pack it in because they didn’t “make it”. This especially seems to happen after a few tours. Being on the road can be a difficult experience for most people, which goes back to having to really love what you’re doing to get through those moments.
The artists I know that are now making a living full-time from their music just stuck to it, through thick and thin. A gig falls through? They find another one. A band member quits? They replace them. They just keep going no matter what obstacles they have in front of them. This is all they know, and they don’t make any back-up plans.
One final thing I’ll say on this subject is that it often took these artists years to get to the point of making a full-time living from music, usually 7-10 years. Most “overnight successes” are years in the making, and nowhere is this truer than in the music industry.
Remember, The Beatles spent years performing 8-hour sets, 7 days a week in Germany before breaking into the American market.
Author Malcolm Gladwell talks about this story and the “10,000 Hour Rule” in his book "The Outliers". Here’s a video describing the 10,000 Hour Rule:
Another example of the 10,000 Hour Rule in the music industry, this time about Fleetwood Mac: