Can You Afford to be a Musician?
Updated: Jun 20
On March 23rd, 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the greater Kansas City area was ordered to undergo a 30-day "shelter-in-place." In other words, lockdown. All the restaurants and bars however, had closed a week earlier, and had cancelled all live music at least through April, or until further notice.
I have been a working musician since the early '70's and for the first time in my life I don't have a gig.
And it's not just me, as a local musician. Big time world tours are all being cancelled. I have musician friends that have been touring with some of the biggest acts in the world and they're looking for a job - any job.
My situation is not as dire as many of my musical compadres, especially the younger ones who thought they were making a stable living. I have seen the state of the local live music scene here ebb and flow over the years. The last 10 years or so, maybe even 20, has been "flow." It lulls you into a false sense of security.
Fortunately I learned some lessons back in the day which I would like to impart to my younger musician friends about how to be prepared for something like this. I can absorb this hit but for many it's too late for this round of "ebb" and they're just going to have to get through it however they can. However, I am confident that we will come out of this and, sooner or later, another "flow" will happen. When it does; I advise you in the strongest possible terms:
Get out of debt and stay out of debt.
Live below your means - always!
However you can do it and whatever it takes, do those 2 things and you can afford to be a musician.
You can stop reading now if you don't want the long story - Remember:
1) No debt.
2) Live below your means.
If you have followed this blog it may appear that I've managed to raise a large family (5 kids) and provide a reasonably comfortable living for my family with the guitar. I have - mostly - but it wasn't easy. Most of the time my wife homeschooled our kids and so was not earning money - it was all on me. I squandered money, learned hard lessons and did what I had to do when times got tough.
The basic cycle went like this; for several years at a time, it would appear the music was supporting us. But stealthily, bit-by-bit, we were building up credit card debt. It wasn't due to misuse; the refrigerator had to be replaced, we didn't have the money, so we put it on a credit card. Appliance repairs, car repairs; things like that. I couldn't pay off the credit cards every month, lack of money was why we were using the credit cards in the first place, so the credit card debt kept building. Add a car payment and a mortgage payment and, well, you get the idea.
It would take a few years, but every once in a while I would wake up one morning and hit the limit of what I was able to emotionally tolerate as far as credit card debt goes. I would then go out and find some 8-dollar-an-hour part-time job - usually morning hours - and work it until I could pay off the credit cards, usually a few months, sometimes a year, then I would quit and go back to nothing but the music. All while maintaining my usual teaching and performance schedule.
I delivered flowers, I delivered phone books, I drove a bakery supply route, I worked in a warehouse, I delivered bread, I hung wallpaper, I worked in a plastic surgeon's office 3 mornings a week cleaning and stocking examination rooms and filing.
So this cycle went on for 15 or 20 years. I tried all kinds of music-related things to keep from having to do the non-music-related things; I had a sweet home recording studio, I shopped tunes in Nashville and Hollywood, I did all kinds of stuff. I formed a publishing company and record label and self-released projects. At first it was cassette tapes (the dominant media at the time) and then CDs. The only thing that created a significant income stream was teaching personal students. Even with that going, I was still trapped in the debt-cycle.
I would teach from 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon till 7:00 or 8:00 in the evening and then go play a gig from 9:00 to 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. I'd have a Saturday matinee and a gig on Sunday many times. And that is the typical schedule I would maintain while I was working a non-musical job in the morning.
True story: During one of my non-musical part-time job episodes I was delivering bread for a local bakery for about 5 hours on weekday mornings. The bakery was over on the west side. I was playing Milton's down on Main from 9:00pm-1:00am. There was this tall, statuesque hooker that worked the block Milton's was on. I'd see her walking back-and-forth in front of the club as I was playing. One night I was out on the sidewalk on break and struck up a conversation with her. It took me about a minute to realize IT WAS A GUY! Holy crap! The craftsmanship involved to achieve the look was impressive! The next morning at 5:30am I was driving down Main going to work at the bakery and that guy was still out, working the block. Gotta admire the work-ethic.
In 1993 I was at my tolerance limit - again! But this time the job I landed was a sweet deal. It was a job working for the state in a mental health facility - a system of group homes for different client populations. There's a ton of war-stories here but I'll spare you.
It started out as a 4-hour weekday morning job but turned into two 10-hour night shifts on Sunday and Monday nights. Perfect. Get this; as long as I worked 20 hours a week I had full benefits.
I worked this job for a couple of years, paid off the credit cards, paid off my van, bought several thousand dollars worth of gear for my recording studio and then prepared to quit.
Then I had a thought; this is the best part-time job I've ever had. If I kept this job, would it be possible to pay off the house? If I didn't have a house payment, maybe I could get out of this cycle for good and then I could afford to be a musician.
I ran the numbers and concluded, yes, I could pay off the house. If I devoted my entire paycheck and made the highest possible payment I could make without incurring a penalty, I could do it in 3-and-a-half years. It took me 5.
BTW - it was at this point that I learned about front-loaded interest. I had borrowed $40,000 on a 30-year note and made minimum payments for 8 years. I'd made $40,000 in payments and still owed...$39,000! Ouch! I can get cheaper money from the Mafia! I vowed to never, ever put myself in that position again.
I refinanced my original note and a 2nd mortgage we had taken out to pay for siding. I borrowed $51,000 on a 15-year note and paid it off in 5 years. I saved tens of thousands of dollars in interest. That's tens of thousands of dollars over 10 years going to ME instead of the bank!
I won't go into the details here, but it almost killed me. After 7 years of working 70 to 80 hours a week at my teaching, gigs and the mental health job - 2 years to pay off everything but the house, and then 5 more years to pay off the house, I collapsed from sleep deprivation and chronic exhaustion in April of 2001.
It was very dramatic and had all the classic elements; panic attacks, waking visions and out of control emotional swings. The only thing comparable to it in my experience was an LSD trip gone wrong back in 1973.
I paid a price, and in some ways I'm still dealing with the effects of it, but I have not had to have a non-musical job since then.
When you live below your means, you have a different set of problems. Namely, what to do with the money! Now what?
My wife and I agreed; after the house was paid off, nothing would change. No new car, no vacation; from all outward appearances nothing would be any different, except....
Now I would make house payments into retirement accounts.
I consistently shoveled house payment money into retirement accounts for about six years and watched my account balances grow. I would divert from that occasionally when an unexpected expense would come up in order to keep us out of debt. Sweet! The plan was working!
In 2007, I suffered an injury that laid me up for a month. At the time, I had no savings. My cash flow had been going into my retirement accounts. You can read that story here.
The bottom line of that episode was that I realized the necessity of maintaining savings, even over retirement investing.
Then in 2008 the market crashed and I lost 40% of my retirement. It was a gut-punch. All that work and sacrifice.
I left what money remained in the market but quit contributing and worked out another plan that didn't depend on or even involve the market. Retirement plan C as it were, because A and B definitely sucked big fat donkey balls.
As I said, Plan C did not involve the market. It involved savings, and the idea that I would never quit teaching, gigging and doing my web-based activities for as long as I was physically able to do so. I'm old enough that I will be able to collect my Social Security. It's not enough to live on but will definitely take some pressure off. You youngsters are going to have to not plan on that, I think.
Also, after my wife was done homeschooling, she got a business going and actually makes money too! I'm not used to that. I didn't factor it into my plan. Gravy!
We've stayed out of debt. We pay out-of-pocket for home renovations and repairs. We pay cash for old cars. We don't buy anything we can't pay for. We pay off the credit cards every month - without fail. We live well below our means and accumulate savings.
In my "retirement" I will continue to do what I love just like I always have - just less of it.
Now this. All restaurants and bars shut down and no gigs. I lost all my gigs in a two-day span the 3rd week of March. It was somewhat disorienting.
So the gig situation is a hardship; it's significant lost income but the teaching has held up remarkably well. I moved my students to Skype and FaceTime and 99% of them have stuck with me. Plus I make a little here and there from MasterGuitarSchool.com.
I intend to move back to face-to-face lessons as soon as allowed (it's the best way to teach and it's the best way to learn) and I am confident that the gigs will return in time.
In the meantime, we're looking at a month, if not more, of this current lockdown situation. Besides the fact that I'm jonesing for a gig (I think it's probably an adrenaline addiction among other things), I'm not worried.
You know why? 'Cause I have enough savings to get by for awhile. And you know why I have that savings?
Because I'm debt-free and have lived below my means for the last 20 years.
This morning my wife made the comment,
"You know, if this had happened to us in our thirties or forties we'd be screwed!"
Yup. But we're not screwed, because we're debt-free and live below our means.
Now I realize I haven't given you younger musicians any light on how to survive this current situation. I don't have any. But you will get through it. You may lose your shirt, your house or your car. But you'll survive. Who knows, maybe the government will help, that would be nice for a change. I would be pursuing every possibility for help; Unemployment, the $1200 government checks they're talking about (I'll believe it when I see it), anything to help get through this crisis.
And when things start to turn around, remember what I've told you here. Do whatever it takes, whenever and however you can do it, to get out of debt, and live below your means.
Then you can afford to be a musician.
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