Four suggestions for surviving in the music business

One of the first things I think I need to get into is money. They aren’t going to teach you the real money side of the production world in tech school. The conservatory, full sail or wherever… They aren’t going to get into the survival side of it. I spent most of my career broke. It creates a strain on your mind, your wallet and your family. Just want to share a few things I should have learned in the early days.

First. Figure out what you want to do. Why are you in this business anyway? Whether you are a road warrior, veteran tech who has sold his soul to JBL or a teen age church sound volunteer, why? What provoked you to take on an insane career choice like this? If the first thing that falls out of your mouth is money, this conversation is over now. Just get up from where you are and go find something else to do. Seriously. Right now. For every guy who has a six figure income with a studio, touring company, label or theme park, there’s probably a thousand who still qualify for food stamps. The guys out there who make that big money usually have one of two scenarios. They got a big break after years of proving themselves, learning their trade, maintaining their good attitude and doing whatever it took to pull off their gig – or – they started off rich and lie about where the money comes from. Very few people get rich by just working their butt off as a tech. Getting really, really, really good at it won’t do it either. It’s called the music business for a reason. Learn business. Learn to negotiate effectively. Learn to make deals. Be a great steward of the business you work with. Take great care of their stuff. Don’t plan to be someone’s second engineer as a career move. If you do this because you love it, then do it. If the gear and shows and people in this world appeal to you. If your heart races when you create something or pull off a flawless event. If anything about this work pushes your buttons and makes you feel like you just have to be in it, give it all you have. Learn the business side if you like to eat and sleep indoors.

Second. Know your industry and the seasons. It took me over eight years to figure this one out. I worked in various parts of the pro audio production world for about 18 years. Ten of those years included traveling as a hired gun sound tech. I made pretty good money doing it. Not crazy good, but impressive to most people. I was doing local work at the same time. When I wasn’t out of town, I had other projects I worked on. About eight years in, I had to deal with the fact that I was constantly broke or behind on the bills. How the heck was that happening. We weren’t extravagant. Lived pretty cheap. My normal check for a long weekend run was enough to pay almost all the bills each month. Day rate looks really impressive until you average it out. Once I realized it, it was revelation. Duh. My main clients worked with their main clients on rallies, concerts and events that were primarily outdoors. They apparently didn’t like it too hot or too cold for these events. Thus, we worked most of those events in the spring and fall. I was regularly on the road 10-15 days each month of those seasons. I also had installation work and small shows year round. The installation work made almost enough to pay all the bills each month, alone. Do you see whee this is going yet? For three months, I had traveling and local work to get paid on. Then the next three months I only had local. Then it started over. Rolling good for three months, broke for three months. Honestly. It took years to figure that pattern out. Because I didn’t know my industry or the seasons. Almost every tech out there struggles during November and December. It’s always harder to get gigs when there are none. Really. Learn to use the seasons to your advantage, learn to watch them.

Third. Learn to save money. It’s not going to flow like a river 365 days a year. It’s not gong to mean living off ramen noodles every week either. But it will usually bounce back and forth. At least until you get well established. Figure out what your normal cost of living is. Save as much as possible. Don’t spend it if you don’t have to. Play defense with your money. Don’t let the smooth talker with that shiny new toy have it unless you have no choice. Don’t take on debt or credit based on that day rate or how rich you plan to be. Credit cards can dig a hole you never get out of. Drive that car another year. Don’t eat steak dinners every time you get a check. Hold onto your cash as long as you can.

Fourth. Learn to see opportunities. There are plenty of ways to make money during the down time. Don’t sit there, broke, complaining about money. Find something. For me, it was eBay. During a very bad season, I desperately needed money. I had been hoarding gear for years. That mountain of gear made my house payment for almost a year. Sacrifices are unavoidable sometimes. I also worked part time for a small chain of music stores. They needed help with their pro audio side and I needed some more income. They got a new pro audio division, I got paid. The other thing it did for me, was keeping me alive. You will never get good at anything you don’t do regularly. The installation work was hard some days, but it kept me working and learning. It helped me become better at what I did. Sitting at home watching cartoons does not make you more valuable.

I am open to comments and questions. Good luck.

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