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How to be a musician with a day job

For well over a decade, music has been my life force. However, each year I am presented with the same challenge: how to sustain my creative practice within the constraints of a conventional work/life schedule.

In pausing to consider what’s helped me to grow my identity as a musician while simultaneously pursuing teaching and writing careers, a few key ideas emerge. The first is about the importance of mindset, and understanding my own goals as a musician. Learning to identify and define my own success criteria has had a direct impact not only on the clarity of my work, but also on my confidence.

The second key idea I’ve come to realize is that making room for music—even amongst the rapidly growing list of demands of adulthood (work, relationships, etc.)—is a must. Learning how to create this space was hard, but it has been a decisive factor in my development as an artist.

The passing of time has afforded me nothing if not perspective, and with experience I’ve learned that there is a power that comes from making art on your own terms and holding yourself accountable. With this Tips piece, I thought I’d take the opportunity to share perspective and strategies that may be helpful for other musicians who are also doing the balancing act.

— Jeffrey Silverstein, musician, teacher, and writer

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How to keep making music even when you’re busy doing other things

Carve out the time. As a solo artist, I’ve learned to use my day job as a constraint to help me craft timelines for rehearsal, potential tours, and studio time. Pre-planning for future days off, breaks, and unscheduled time can establish intention and encourage accountability.

Here’s how to make this work:

  • Pre-schedule your “creative days.” Start by taking a look at your week ahead, then determine which days you think you’ll have both a substantial block of uninterrupted time and the energy to make use of it.

  • Track your progress. Estimate the number of days/hours you want to put into music each week, and find a tracking system that works for you. Monitoring progress is an empowering tool in creative work that often goes overlooked. At the end of each month, you may reflect on the following: a) Did I use my schedule in a way that supports my creative goals? and b) am I working in a way that also takes my relationships, physical and mental health into the equation?

  • Apply healthy pressure + get out there. A few years ago my wife shared a quote with me that helped kickstart her career as a freelance illustrator: “Start before you’re ready.” Now this notion of applying healthy pressure is my motivational mantra. Having recording time, performances, or tours on the calendar—even (and maybe especially) if you’re not feeling quite ready for them—can spark motivation and help sustain it. This strategy is most effective when the event is far enough in advance to allow for meaningful preparation, but not so far off that it’s easy to brush aside.

Just starting to perform live? My advice is to play shows often, but work to put together diverse bills at a wide range of venues. It’s easy to fall into a pattern of only performing with close friends at the same spots. Comfortable, sure, but you’re likely to have a harder time building a fanbase that extends outside of your inner circle—and, this kind of sameness can become less than motivating, and even draining. Get a feel for what venues feel “right” for you and what the bookers/promoters at those spaces are looking for. For more tips on touring and playing shows, here’s another Tips piece on the topic.

Get organized to stay motivated

Recognize the power of chipping away. Don’t discount what can come out of working in just 20- or 30-minute increments. There might not be an immediate sense of accomplishment, but you’ll be surprised how quickly a full album can take shape when you’re working in consistent, shorter bursts.

Collect inspiration. Always be on the lookout for ideas and references that can help inform your work, and keep track of them. Make reference-point playlists (drum sounds, guitar tones, etc.), to save parts of songs that move you, or keep a running list of bands and albums you want to take a deeper dive into. Make it a habit to update and review those sources of inspiration frequently. As you review, take note of why you added each reference, and how it relates to your vision/goals.

Set an agenda. Before you dive into your work, having a gameplan—even for a quick rehearsal or writing/recording session—can dramatically boost productivity. I try to keep my agenda limited to a few actionable items, and then leave time for experimentation that’s not tied to any one to-do item.

Get on top of your digital file management. When possible, commit to having one organized place that hosts all of your assets (masters, photos, bio, demos). Keeping your Dropbox or Google Drive tidy will save you precious minutes you could put towards writing new material or prepping for a show. For a complete guide to digital archiving, see here; or see the “Get organized” section of this guide to sync licensing.

Recognize the power of spreadsheets. When it’s time to reach out to booking agents, editors, promoters, or other bands about your work, having an easily accessible and organized spreadsheet of your contacts with their email addresses will help track the neverending shuffle of media personnel. This is especially pertinent when doing press outreach. Getting your email opened is one thing, but having it read by the “right” person opens the door. Lots more helpful PR strategies can be found in this guide.

Embrace your identity as a “musician,” even when it’s not your full-time gig

Have a creative vision + communicate it clearly.

Without intention, communicating your artist ethos gets tricky. Defining the “why” behind an album or project pushes towards clearer messaging at your live shows, on record, and in your social media. New listeners may not always immediately love the style of your music, but they will be more likely to get interested in it if they understand a little more about who you are, and why you make the music you make.

Before trudging ahead with shows, album art, or reaching out to press, you might pause to consider the following:

  • What words or values do I want people to associate with my music?
  • How do I want people to feel when they hear my music?
  • What unique sound or message am I offering?

Get clear on your social media strategy.

Defining your social media goals can lead towards a more productive, healthy relationship with the platform of your choosing. If you’re already pressed for time, spending half an hour debating what photo to post adds up quick. Learning to use Instagram, Twitter, and other platforms where your community spends time, in a way that connects to your goals as a musician—be those building community, reaching new listeners, or driving album pre-sales—makes participating in social spaces less draining and (as I’ve experienced it) way more fun.

I’ve found Instagram stories to be a dynamic tool to quickly call attention to the work of others, poll my peers for advice on booking/gear, and to experiment with different ways to engage my followers. Aesthetic isn’t everything, but it’s hard to argue with a clean, coherent feed that supports your vibe as an artist. The Allah-las are a great example of a band using Instagram to further their vision as musicians, as their posts convey a mood that’s driven home by their sound and music videos.

Build authentic relationships.

Some of the best relationships I’ve built through music have started with expressions of gratitude. If there’s an artist, promoter, label, or writer you admire, let them know. Asking to meet up for a coffee or a beer is okay, as long as you aren’t expecting a reply and are mindful of their time. Navigating the particulars of a city’s music scene can be complicated, and in that opaque landscape, face-to-face interactions can provide context and comfort.

If you do connect to someone you admire in person, commit to practicing deep listening. Instead of driving the conversation towards a point that only pertains to you, listen with the joy of simply hearing someone else’s perspective. Deeper connections are formed when someone doesn’t perceive you to be trying to “get something” from them.

Another way to build authentic relationships is to hire and celebrate the work of local artists. There’s a magic to working with engineers, illustrators, or other musicians who are all working to uplift the same community. Having the option to connect IRL with someone you are collaborating with contributes to longstanding creative partnerships rather than one-off, contractual obligations. Furthermore, it often opens dialogue around what voices are missing from the community and how you can become an agent of change.

Being authentic also means setting a precedent. Even if you’re working with a friend or acquaintance, setting the expectation that you’ll be able to pay or trade them something communicates you respect their work, time, and ability to further their career. Don’t be that person who always asks for a guest list spot. If you can afford a ticket, pay the cover. If not, post about the show, tell a friend about it, or buy some music from their Bandcamp page.

Learn to make music on your own terms, and create your own definition of success.

Above all else, you must consider yourself a musician. Say it loud and say it often. For so long I hesitated to use the word. I demoted myself to “dabbler” or “tinkerer” simply because I wasn’t on the road permanently or releasing/performing music as much as I was made to believe I had to. Telling people I was a teacher was safer and easier to digest (or so I assumed).

These days, I consider effort expended as the number one qualifier of “being” anything. Through a softer lens, I’ve managed to tap into a deep source of creative energy that I hadn’t felt in a long time. Recognizing that I derived worth from the combination of being a teacher, musician, and writer—and truly identifying as all three—has allowed for a more well-rounded view of success for me, as both a professional and as a person. I’ve learned it’s okay to tell someone you’re an artist/writer/musician, and then list your bill-paying job second, if you want to. Most people are asking who you are, not how you make money.

Finally, as you continue to put in time as a musician, be clear on your own definition of success. If you’re having trouble clarifying this for yourself, try a short journaling exercise:

  1. List the “ingrained” definition of success in your mind, and the people you believe put that idea into your head.
  2. Determine whether or not you feel comfortable adhering to that definition. Is that really what will make you feel fulfilled?
  3. Brainstorm what it would feel/look like to veer from that path.
  4. List the values associated with your own definition of “success” (financial stability, creative freedom, personal fulfillment, etc.).

At the end of the day, Jeff Tweedy says it best: “If you feel like singing a song, and you want other people to sing along, just sing what you feel, don’t let anyone say it’s wrong.”

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About the Author

Jeffrey Silverstein

Musician, teacher, writer

Jeffrey Silverstein is a teacher, writer, and musician based in Portland, Oregon. How on Earth, his debut solo release for Driftless Recordings, is out now. His written work can be found in print and online for Bandcamp, the Grammy’s, Aquarium Drunkard, etc. Before relocating to the PNW, Silverstein received his master’s degree in Special Education via the New York City Teaching Fellows program. He is passionate about the ways in which music, education, and meditation intersect and is set to release a new LP in spring of 2020.