Hedging Our Bets

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by Robin Munson

Music runs in my family. My father, who had written songs during World War II as a POW in Germany, had dismissed the notion of being a professional songwriter Poker acesafter the war as a crazy, impractical idea. He opted instead to partner with his brothers in a home improvement business in order to provide for our family. My mother, who had inherited a beautiful singing voice from my grandmother, loved to sing and made no secret that she was a frustrated Judy Garland.

So it’s not surprising that all my life I wanted to be a musician and I opted in on piano and voice lessons quite early on. But I soon came to realize that my chosen profession was not exactly the most stable one in the world. My father used to quip, “It’s not a profession, it’s a cult.” And for all my mother”s encouragement in general, she lectured us on the vicissitudes of The Biz. Furthermore, surrounded as I was by very talented musicians, it seemed to me that at best, I was mildly gifted.

And even even if I could do “very good” work – it became clear that “very good” and five bucks would buy me a Starbuck’s grande. If I wanted all the little niceties of life – reliable income for rent, food, and something to put away for a rainy day, I would need to hedge my bets and get a day job.

Over the years I have had many day jobs. Right out of college I began substitute teaching, but quickly gave that up when I found a job playing piano bar at the local Holiday Inn, which paid surprisingly well! I did play piano bars for quite a few years, but the atmosphere was so toxic, both literally – from the cigarette fumes – and figuratively – from the rampant sexism and endless calls for “Tie A Yellow Ribbon” – that after a while it just wasn’t worth the money. So I taught myself to type and began finding work as a secretary.

Wanting a more meaningful “day job”, I went back to school in my 30s and got a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy and became a licensed MFT. I practiced for a little while, but soon realized that much as I do love helping people, this wasn’t quite the right fit for me, either.

When Art and I got together we created a business selling blank media on the Web. This became our parallel career track as we worked together in the studio and it really helped to pay our bills.

Five years ago I embarked on my journey as a yoga teacher.

All along, from my college years up until today I have never stopped creating music.

It occurs to me: Would I have found more success as a musician if I had put all my eggs in one basket and focused exclusively on my writing and performing? It’s a hard question to answer, and at this point, it no longer matters.

The essential question was – “Do I go ‘all in’ with my music, or do I split my time and energy in such a way that I can have a steady income stream while pursuing my dreams?”

When we lived in Tennessee between 1994 and 2000, we encountered many songwriters who might be considered successful, in that they had signed with publishers and had “deals”. Still, it was the norm for most of them to have some other way of supporting themselves besides their songwriting. We knew one reasonably successful songwriter who had had many major cuts – and supported his family as an insurance salesman., following in the footsteps of the classical composer, Charles Ives. In Nashville, far from being a sign of weakness or defeat, having a day job was seen as a sign of being a responsible, hard-working member of the community. And it in no way diminished your standing as a songwriter. If you became wildly successful you could graduate to making songwriting your full-time profession, and that was certainly the hope, but it was accepted that for most, this would remain an elusive goal.

You often hear creative types of all sorts – actors, musicians, singers – say that if they had one piece of advice for someone just starting out it would be , “If you can do anything else, do that!” It’s a powerful commentary on the capricious nature of the artistic life.

I would say this. Have a long heart-to-heart with yourself. Ask yourself how much risk you can stomach. (It’s the same question people have to ask themselves regarding whether or not to invest money in the stock market.) If uncertainty gives you a headache – If not having a 401K keeps you up at night – If you like the word “paycheck” better than the word “residuals”- maybe it’s not such a bad idea to “hedge your bets”. It doesn’t mean giving up on your dreams. For some of us, it just means supporting them.

33 thoughts on “Hedging Our Bets

  1. Robin Munson says:

    @gdomeier – I watched the video. Wow – She is one brave woman! I can’t help but admire her chutzpah, but don’t think I would feel comfortable raising money that way. I don’t think anyone should have to work for free and then be in the position where they must ask others to help them. But clearly, it’s working for Ms. Palmer, so I’m glad for her. (Is this really the future of the music business?!) YIKES!!!

    • Amanda Palmer makes close to $30,000, instantly, for every song she writes and posts to Patreon
      https://www.patreon.com/amandapalmer?
      She is definitely not working for free.

      Might not be for everyone but there are ever increasing alternatives for making a living from your art than ever before.

      • I don’t know. I read that whole piece and was exhausted! It also sounds, by the tone of her post, it’s a constant struggle raising funds. Where did you get the info she makes $30k for every songs she writes and posts to Patreon?

        • There is no struggle with Patreon. You simply post your content and you instantly get a check. That’s it.
          You can see how many patrons she has and how much she earns with every post on the left there at the top of the page…

          3948
          patrons
          $29,242.25
          per thing

          You of course have to have a bizarre cult following like AFP does for this to work on that scale.
          I am a patron for one of our ML composers. I think gets around $300 for every new song with a video that he posts at this point (only one of those dollars being from me).

        • Fyi, there is also a video on that page. I bet reading the transcript would be a bit much 🙂

  2. I came across this TED talk today and found it interesting, and somewhat related to this thread.

    https://www.ted.com/talks/amanda_palmer_the_art_of_asking#t-2499

  3. There is no shame in being a part-time composer for me.

    Going full time would provide me with significantly less income than I make with my day job. I am doing the right thing by working and continuing to make music.

    Someday my music income may exceed my income from my day job. But I am not counting on it. The changes I see in music licensing will require even more effort and luck for most to go full time.

    No one should feel bad about not making enough money from music alone. Most people in the world are not even able to support themselves from one day job. Many people work multiple jobs just to make ends meet.

    Taking care of responsibility comes before all else in my book. Work to support yourself and continue to pursue your goals through making music as well.

    • “There is no shame in being a part-time composer for me.”
      There shouldn’t be, DI. It’s called competition.

      The theory behind competition is that it forces people to to their best work and to be innovative. It’s easy to succeed in the absence of competition.

      We can complain all we want about “saturation.” Unfortunately, that is not going to change. The market of both buyers and sellers is global.

      Moreover, this has become a “profession” that requires very little investment in time, money and training for entry. As one very snobby composer said to me “an organ grinder with a monkey can get TV placements.”

      This is the world we live in. I think that all but a very few, the most prolific, will be able to sustain themselves by composing alone.

  4. While I think it’s great that people who don’t make their living from production music or music in general can have a part time outlet for their music, I think this very fact has caused the situation the business is in. Too many amateurs and even talented part timers flooding the market and taking work away from those of us who try to support their family via a career in music. They can give their music away for free or a low fee, because they are not really counting on the money. Not trying to be rude, I appreciate everyone’s perspective, and I know I won’t change that. Just some food for thought, from a guy who scratches and claws daily in the music biz to put food on his family’s table.

    • I’ll re-post this link because I think it got lost at the end of my first reply.

      http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2010/jan/24/artists-day-jobs

      I was/am very much a pro who decided after 25 years in the music business to go to law school to help support my family and provide for a more secure future, by developing a different skill set. Doing so, didn’t suddenly turn me into an amateur. Returning to the business, full-time, didn’t make me more of a pro again.

      Now, the reality for me is that with a 50% drop in royalties from BMI, I need to do something else to make up the loss. Doing so won’t suddenly make me an amateur. It will make me a musician doing something else. I don’t see anything particularly noble in sticking to my guns and insisting that it involve music. There’s no point in playing in the the dance band on the Titanic.

      Back in the early 80’s I worked on a series of career films. One of the main ideas presented was that in the future, which is now, people would need to retrain and have several careers during their lifetime. I’m not recommending that everyone go to law school, but I really think developing viable alternate career skills is highly recommended.

      • Don’t forget composers are also feeling the effects of globalization. If you’re talking about writing library music your competition is just as likely to be a teenager with Garage Band in an emerging nation, than an accountant doing music as a hobby.

        The competition could be your neighbor’s kid. I got a call this week from a former law colleague, asking about how his 15-year old daughter could get into the business. Garage Band was part of the curriculum in her public school music classes starting in 5th or 6th grade! He said she comes home from school every day and “knocks out songs in no time” and that “all the kids know how to do it.”

        • Thanks for the the link. I think some folks confuse being an “artist” with being a professional composer/musician. There is some overlap, but not much. When you are an artist you write music that speaks to you, and is your form of expression. I really think production music composers, are more like craftsman. We create to order, or with an end placement in mind, to meet a need, and to make money. I have “my” music that I work on from time to time, but that’s not what I send to libraries. And your neighbor’s kid just might “write” better music than alot of those “amateur” folks sending music to the libraries we all work with! To me, and (the dictionary), just because you can do “pro” work, it doesn’t make you a “professional”. You need to be making a living doing it, or at least attempting to. I like to build stuff with wood, but I wouldn’t consider myself a “pro” unless I was making my living doing it. Just my 2 cents.

    • Robin Munson says:

      You’ve brought up a great point! Yes, I understand what you’re saying. Problem is — “Which came first? the chicken or the egg?” As far as I know, the music business was already extremely unreliable as an income source back when I was just a young whippersnapper with a few songs and a demo tape. My desire to find alternatives came not of a desire to have an easy life, but out of a very real threat to my survival. You see, I had gotten into this inconvenient habit of eating! But I do understand the dilemma. It’s a shame that trying to organize music creators is like trying to herd cats. Can you imagine what would happen if all the composers united and demanded fair compensation? (And at this point, we’re talking about global organization. Sigh.)

  5. Thanks for that insight, too. (I know next to nothing about finance.) It’s really hard to know whether it’s possible to reach that very high level without going “all in”, and I’ll bet there is more than one answer to that question. But you’re so right – Whether achieving that super-high status makes you happy is an entirely different discussion. That’s what I love about having these conversations on MLR. It’s just great to share our experiences and our feelings and our “takes” on all of that. It’s good to know that we have a community of people from all over the world and so many different backgrounds and that we can all benefit from each other’s accrued wisdom.

  6. I spent some time getting an education and working in finance. The thing about hedging is, it almost always comes at a cost. There is no trade/investment with the full upside potential but limited downside risk. If you want protection, you have to pay for insurance and/or give up some potential rewards.
    I bet the same is true for music. If you don’t go “all in”, you will never reach the level of those who are going at it 24/7. Whether getting there makes you happy is another question though. There definitely are other professions with a higher average income, clearer career paths, more benefits…

  7. Robin Munson says:

    HAHA! Love that image (the hearse with the trailer hitch). I like your approach, Vlad. Very pragmatic and it cuts to the chase. We none of us know how long we will be here. Cancer taught me that one. So – You’re right – We pursue what we love pursuing bearing in mind that we need to pay the rent, too.

  8. Robin Munson says:

    Wow, Soph – So happy for you! It sounds like a wonderful life you have carved out for yourself! I think you’re right – that we do need a certain amount of time and space to flourish as artists. I worry sometimes when I haven’t felt very inspired for a while, but then I realize that there is a lot going on unconsciously, and that sometimes a break from the keyboard can be the very thing to get me back into the creative mode. Really good point! And oh – I have such admiration for your work with middle school children! I did a little bit of subbing when I was fresh out of college, and although they’re wonderful – ten year-olds can be challenging! Kudos!

  9. I am sure this is about to become therapy for me, but here are my two cents: at 41 years old I have always made a living with music. It is a hard lifestyle and many sacrifices are made in pursuit of this dream/work, despite putting 125% in 24/7. Recently I watched a dear loved one die at the age of 47 – perfect health, thin, lived responsibly – just an act of God. And also recently I watched a loved one enter a nursing home with dementia – that part of life is just awful. This is what I took away from these events: you likely have at least 70 good years on this planet with one chance to make yourself happy. Find what makes YOU happy and chase it with wild abandon while at the same time making sure your rent is paid. I’ve never seen a hearse with a trailer hitch.

  10. I’m fortunate to have the best of both worlds perhaps..

    My day job involves teaching media, songwriting, recording, photography, film and all sorts in a junior school. So, kids of about 10 years old. I’m very lucky to have landed this bespoke creative role!

    Then,i have half days Fridays when I try and get in my studio at home to get some work done. Usually however, I spend the holidays I get from school to work on my own music.

    I will say this though, being creative constantly can be very draining. My best work comes from inspiration, space and time. I never rush getting my cues out the door.

    So, music pays for food, leisure and school pays for mortgage, and bills.

    I couldn’t survive without the other. But, I’m living the dream doing everything I’ve always wanted to do. You need luck and the right people to see potential in what you do.

    Also, I imagine the life of a full time composer to be very lonely!!

    Soph.

    • “Also, I imagine the life of a full time composer to be very lonely!!”

      Back in the day Soph, as we “old folks” say, it was great. I loved going into the studio, working with session players and engineers, etc.

      Since the advent of the DAW, yes, it’s a lot of solitary confinement! 🙁

      _Michael

  11. Robin Munson says:

    That’s wonderful, Michael — It is quite a luxury to be able to take your time and truly pour your heart and soul into your work. And if your “day job” affords you that opportunity — HOORAY!!! I’m not sure that is universally true, though. I think it depends on the nature of the day job and what other types of demands there may be on your time and energy. But so glad that you’re on the path that works for you!

  12. Robin Munson says:

    ‘. . .So even doing a line of work that I would have thought sufficient to feed my soul so to speak, it wasn’t until I started recording back around 2002 and also returned to gigging that I was able to fill that void, and recognize that making music was just part of my makeup”

    Yes, I have had that feeling, too. No matter what else I do, I keep coming back to music. For some of us, it’s in the blood. We can’t help it. I get mad at The Business, but I never get mad at the music. So for now, at least, it feels like the balance is pretty good for me. It’s always a work in progress.

    Thanks for sharing your experience with us, Chuck. It really helps, I think, for us to share as a community. Writing music can be a very lonely profession and it’s good to know we’re not alone.

  13. In this relatively small town in upstate New York, in the 80s. as far as I knew, there was no library business. You taught music lessons or taught in schools, and you played the then (what was to me then) the fairly lucrative wedding/private party/club circuit. Did that for about 5-6 years (club circuit, played maybe 3-4 weddings I my life), went back and got my Masters degree in social work and still work in that field as a traveling in-home counselor. I also gave music up for about ten years , but there was always a “hole in my soul” during that time I couldn’t fill. I didn’t even know the hole was there, just kept trying to latch onto other hobbies I couldn’t seem to stick with. So even doing a line of work that I would have thought sufficient to feed my soul so to speak, it wasn’t until I started recording back around 2002 and also returned to gigging that I was able to fill that void, and recognize that making music was just part of my makeup. That pro tools system died after 4 years, and again I was just gigging. When a long lost aunt, (cliché but true) passed away and left me some money, I decided to take a chunk and reinvest in a studio, as a songwriter. Joined the car company. THEN discovered the world of production music. That was almost three years to the day now. I was getting the occasional forward there and hoping to use the service as much as possible to improve my skills. I thought I had maxed out that benefit there really as much as possible, and another gentleman, still a member here, pointed me to MLR. Although I had another year membership at the car company, spent more time here then there. Joined some RF and some NE libraries and though it more worth my to me to submit music to them then pay $5 a track to submit there. And here we are. Much has changed since I went “all in” in 1985 (after about ten years of playing in a garage band, meticulously learning the guitar solos to Free Bird and Stairway To Heaven,etc). If music is a part of you, as many do, return to it. One of those “If you love something set it free” scenarios. What’s not to love after all. If you don’t , as anyone would remind you, you have choices. If you do it strictly for money, there are certainly better ways to spend your time. If you, like myself, relish the thought every day of making music and have a somewhat entrepreneurial spirit, then there is has been nowhere where it’s been more appropo to say “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey”.

  14. Robin Munson says:

    Interesting, Michael. You have had quite a career! The Charles Ives route is a time-honored tradition dating back to – well – let’s just say it’s gone on for a long time. Art’s father played in a square dance band all his life. The band stayed together for over 50 years. He supported his family with his filling station and repairing cars, and I think he liked his work. But when he picked up his guitar it was pure joy! You could see his whole face light up. All in all, he had a pretty great life and struck the right balance for him. Thanks for sharing your insights.

    • The reason for my choice is that I don’t want to be on the treadmill of cranking out as many cues per day as I can. That’s not the creative process that I enjoy. I recently spent an entire day getting a piano sound “just right.” If you read interviews with composers / producers like Hans Zimmer or Quincy Jones that’s the way they do things. If having a day job means that I can spend days, or even weeks, on a cue rather than cranking it out it is well worth it to me to have a day job.

      For my own personal satisfaction, I would rather spend 10 weeks producing a collection that has a shot at getting into an upper tier library, or that will stand out and have longevity in RF libraries, which may earn more money over a longer period of time.

  15. The essential question was – “Do I go ‘all in’ with my music, or do I split my time and energy in such a way that I can have a steady income stream while pursuing my dreams?”

    __

    As always, insightful commentary Robin. What if the focus shifts from income /money to the idea of “my music?”

    For me it’s always been about the music, When I decided to be a composer at 10 years old, it was a decision born out of pure passion for music. Mansions, cars, bling, the trappings of success were unfamiliar concepts. It was simply the music, the joy of music! It’s very easy to forget that as one progresses in this career.

    One thing that people would ask me time and again when I was scoring documentaries or corporate projects was “when are you going to do YOUR music?” They were right. The music that I was composing was my client’s music, what they wanted, what their projects called for. So, in the 90’s I took a detour into “my” music for a while. But, the record business was already dying, and being on the charts along with “five bucks,” as you would say would “buy me a Starbuck’s grande.”

    I detoured back into the library business as a “staff” writer and got a paycheck to produce a CD per month. It wasn’t quite “my” music because I was writing to briefs, but it was close. I had a lot of creative freedom and they usually gave me briefs that were in my wheelhouse.

    Eventually, cutbacks forced me back into the freelance life. After having experienced the regularity of a paycheck I decided to go for the “ultimate” day job and I went to law school. For a decade there was no music in my life and I was miserable. So, as crazy as it sounds, I came back to music.

    But, in those ten years, the business has changed dramatically. The volume of content and the number of composers has exploded, and the value of music has dropped. For me the question was, is there a place for “my” music. Maybe not in broadcast media. The kind of music the gets regularly placed on cable TV / reality TV is not my music…not what I enjoy writing. So, then what?

    For me the answer is clear….Charles Ives. Do something else to support my music, which will give me time to focus on the music. It’s always been, and always will be, about the music and with any luck the joy and passion.

    I wish everyone all the best as you all find your path.

    _Michael

    http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2010/jan/24/artists-day-jobs

  16. Robin Munson says:

    I completely “get” that. It’s a very personal choice. I do know of people who have done well pursuing their art to the exclusion of everything else. But I also know people who have gotten themselves into dire straits that way. There are so many factors that play into this. Thanks for the comment!

  17. The essential question was – “Do I go ‘all in’ with my music, or do I split my time and energy in such a way that I can have a steady income stream while pursuing my dreams?”

    I choose steady income stream 100% of the time. Dreams fade and you have to wake up. Too many people are chasing dreams instead of dealing with reality first. Chase dreams after everything else is situated.

    Like the new saying goes “Do what you love, but always follow the money.”

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