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How to be a happy, productive, and financially stable self-employed musician?

It’s a topic I’ve wanted to tackle for ages and now feels like the right time.

Money. Income from songwriting. Having a ‘day job’. Earning a living. And so on…

I could think about it in a variety of ways.

Option 1: making a living out of writing music is the dream. It would take years of hard graft and exploring all the little opportunities, building your own fan base and finding different income streams that add up to a liveable wage.  

Option 2: the money is irrelevant – the aim is to become so successful that money is no longer an issue. It’s not about building a sustainable artistic career, it’s more about getting to the top as quickly as possible so that you can look out over all the options and choose your path from there.

Option 3: artistic work is something that needs long-term financial support, not the other way round. Any money earned directly from songwriting or playing original music concerts is a bonus, but the second you start trying to rely on it, it puts too much pressure on the creative spirit.

This third option is one of the major things I took from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic (a book I read last week) – the idea that you should be looking after your creativity, not the other way round, as if it were a separate, living entity (in fact, Gilbert believes that your creative spirit is a being in its own right).

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At different points in my life, I’ve been drawn towards each of these approaches.

When I first started writing songs as a teenager, I was all about Option 2 and becoming a star: specifically, the next Muse. (I was basically a mini, less-talented but slightly nerdier Matt Bellamy.) I wanted to be ‘discovered’, be the front man in a famous band and didn’t really think about money at all.

Studying law at university opened up Option 3 as I looked to get a ‘real job’ and make enough money to grow my music – with recording studio time, PR campaigns and whatever other investment the band needed. But in the back of my mind, it was still about hitting Option 2 in the longer term as we would hit a tipping point of success.

Then I went freelance three years ago and suddenly a creative-only income (Option 1) didn’t seem too far fetched. And it also felt more natural – I was fairly entrepreneurial in my mindset, and liked doing things for myself instead of paying other people to design websites, write press releases or manage things.

But now I feel torn between all three…

And also, I realised that the FAR more important question behind all of this was not how much money or where does it come from, but what will produce the best art?

Which approach enables me to be the best artist I can?

Because ultimately, that’s what it’s all about – living my life as someone who creates for the sake of creating, trying to have the most powerful impact on other people’s lives.  

So now I think it’s time to explore more deeply what I want in the longer term, because I believe that whichever option I choose as a financial strategy could have a big impact on whether I reach my artistic goals.

(Hopefully this will open up some thoughts and questions that apply to you too!)

Why would I want to make music a sustainable source of income?

There are several compelling reasons I would want to make a living out of making music.

Most obviously, I would only need to spend my time doing things I enjoy. Unless I find other enjoyable, fulfilling ways to earn money, this is the only way I can achieve this.

Also, it feeds into my entrepreneurial spirit and gives me a real life opportunity to practice the business side – investing in advertising for a return, keeping clear accounts, growing my ‘brand’ – as I would for any other business.

There’s also an argument that instilling my musical work with financial urgency will draw some heightened work ethic out of it – I’ll be forced to work harder to survive, therefore find better ideas and create better music. In other words, I’ll simply be that much hungrier for it.  

A fourth advantage is that by understanding how to exploit your music’s earning potential, you’re more clued up and ready to work with other partners (labels, publishers, booking agents) as and when your success grows. You understand the finances inside out so you can better choose the right label (or spot the wrong one) etc…

Stepping back from these reasons and thinking about the sort of person who might go for Option 1 – they would need the right entrepreneurial spirit and wouldn’t think that financial stress would hamper their desire to create truly genuine art.

Why I prefer the idea of supporting my music with a ‘day job’

I think that people obsess over source of income as a way of defining identity.

For some, the question of how much money you actually make off being a songwriter – and whether or not it’s enough to pay your rent – is what makes you a true songwriter.

I disagree… I feel no shame in having multiple income streams, including some totally non-musical ones, as long as I’m in the right mindset to create and making enough time for it.

For me, how much time you invest into songwriting is a far more reliable indicator that you are a ‘songwriter’ for those people who need to put you into some kind of box.

To put it another way: you are how you spend your time, not how you make your money.

This might be harder to quantify or measure, but as I don’t feel the need to justify myself to the rest of the world, I don’t mind.

I also like doing a lot of things that have nothing to do with songwriting. If anything, I think it’s important to have enforced ‘switching off’ time, away from creating music. It provides a space for unconscious incubation of ideas and gives you a different perspective on the world.

Specifically, I’ve discovered that I love the process of writing non-fiction (and don’t really mind what the subject matter is – whether it’s technical finance or legal copywriting, or a biography for a graphic designer, or a humble blog about my personal development…)

So I (fortunately) have found other ways to earn money that I can enjoy, as long as I don’t have to do them full time and can retain control over my lifestyle.

Where this leaves me now…

My absolute non-negotiables are as follows.

First, I don’t want financial stress – my income source must be relatively reliable so that I don’t have background anxiety when I’m trying to create

Second, I want at least 60% of my working week for creating and sharing my music. I do a lot of things besides just writing songs and posting them online – I make videos, I write, I spend a lot of time reading to gather inspiration for new lyrics, etc…

Third, I am happy to earn money from music, obviously, but never want the desire to make money to take priority over the quality of the music itself.

With that in mind, I have made a couple of decisions this year to help me achieve these:

  • I have committed to keeping my spending as low as possible, and avoided an expensive lifestyle and generally turned down any consumerist instincts
  • I set aside 3 hours every morning for my copywriting work – ring-fenced time during which I can’t be distracted by any musical work or social media demands.

Together, these two rules (effectively, I work a half-week to sustain a modest lifestyle) ensure I have enough money, both to live and support my musical growth, so that any extra income from music is a bonus.

Thank you for reading – please leave a comment with your thoughts or let me know what you’d like to read about next!