Living The Dream – Crunching Numbers

Live Guitar Club

This past New Year’s Day marked my thirteenth year living here in Massachusetts since moving from Chicago. For those of you who don’t know the whole story, I left a steady office job, complete with insurance and other benefits, and moved here with the idea of teaching guitar for a living. That was the plan, anyway. And please note the use of the word “plan.” It’ll come back big time in a few moments…

More than a decade into things, I have to say that it’s going well. I’ve a pretty full slate of guitar students and I also teach four group guitar classes at the local community college. Between teaching and writing, I keep very busy and make pretty much the same money I was at the ad agency I worked at in Chicago.

But I have to confess something to the people who write or call or talk to me about how great it must be to be “living my dream” – and that is the simple fact that I never dreamed of a life like this. Honestly. In fact, this is so far beyond my old dreams that I often wonder how I managed to end up where I am doing what I’m doing. But that’s not all that hard to figure out. In the immortal words of the Kevin Bacon character in the movie Tremors, “I got myself a plan.”

Living vs. Making A Living

People are nothing if not a wealth of contradictions. This is a good thing, actually, but it also leads many away from paths they might otherwise travel, if only for a while. When we think about someone making a living in music, we almost automatically think of him or her as performers. Not only that, but as “successful” performers, and please feel free to spend a moment or two lost in your favorite rock ‘n’ roll fantasy.

But performing is just one part of the much larger picture of the music scene. Or any artistic endeavor, for that matter. There are people making their living in music in as many different ways as you might be able to imagine. Not just the obvious ones such as writers, producers, managers, agents and the like, but also the “behind the scenes” folks – the sound and lighting people, the computer technicians, the instrument technicians, the luthiers, even the people who own and run clubs and music stores (both sheet music and instruments) and CD and record shops. And teachers, let’s not forget teachers…

It’s quite amazing, when you stop and think about it, how much music there is in our everyday lives. And the logical step you should make is that there has to be people who have managed to bring it to you. The music that plays along with your video games didn’t just magically happen. Someone wrote it, produced it, recorded it and managed to get it on the product. The guitar you’re eying on eBay had to be made by someone. The amplifier or effects boxes you play around with were designed, tested, marketed and sold by teams of people.

We need to sidetrack a bit…

For close to fifteen years, I made a living as a “headhunter,” that is, a recruiter or employment consultant, if you will. I solicited companies to discover job openings and then found people to fill those openings. It was a lot of fun and also very weird because my job existed on the fact that so many people were unhappy with their jobs. As I said, a wealth of contradictions…

I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been very happy in pretty much all my jobs. Part of the reason is because I know that, at least in the society into which I’ve been born, one needs a job in order to survive. One must “make a living.” But “making a living” doesn’t have to be on a different plane than living. Way too often we use our choice of making a living as a self-definition. “Hi, I’m David. I’m a bus driver, restaurant manager, headhunter, songwriter, musician, media accounts analyst, teacher…” We don’t always see that our profession is also simply a part of the big picture of who we are.

This viewpoint also works in reverse, and this is where most people stumble when they think about pursuing their dreams. To put it bluntly, if you’re going to “make a living” in music, you’re going to have to treat it like “making a living.” In other words, you have to approach your dream with the same sort of approach that you would in choosing a college or a profession. You need to have a plan.

In Tom Hess’ many articles here at Guitar Noise, he talks about the importance of setting goals. Darrin Koltow, in his writings, also stresses the need for goals, adding that our objectives need to be both specific and measurable. We see the reasoning behind this when we’re trying to improve ourselves as guitarists and musicians. But is there any reason not to apply the same logic to our lives? If you were happy “making a living,” then would that be any different than simply living?

Getting Concrete

One of the things I tend to mention a lot in the songwriting critiques that I do at the Sunday Songwriters’ Group is the need for specific, concrete images in one’s lyrics. One right word is worth hundreds of “close” ones.

If it is truly your goal to live your musical dream, then you have to get very specific with yourself. What do you want to do? It’s not enough to say, “I want to make a lot of money playing music.” That’s way too general! Oh, it’s a good enough place to start, but without getting into much, much, much, much more detail, you might as well be dreaming. And the idea here is to stop dreaming and start making the dream happen.

Let’s look at our statement again:

“I want to make a lot of money playing music.”

Without batting an eye, you should be asking the following (and more):

“How much money?”

“What kind of music?”

“Whose music?”

“Playing how often?”

“All by yourself or with others?”

Each of these questions, in turn, has to be broken down even further. Don’t be afraid to be nitpicking. More importantly, don’t think that asking questions means that you don’t believe in the dream. People who can’t question their dreams or who see questions as attacks are not interested in making the dream happen. They are expecting to magically wake up one day and that somehow it’s all working. Don’t laugh, because I’m sure you know some people who even expect to learn the guitar this way!

Let’s get back to that first question. It’s pretty important because it will set the stage for how much you’re going to have to work. Music is one of those very skewed professions in that the amount of money people make is all over the board. But what really makes it a hard question is that most people honestly don’t know how to answer it. And it doesn’t really matter what profession they are in or want to be in.

So let’s fine-tune the question a little more: How much money do you want? How much do you need? And then let’s get to the really important one that you have to answer as honestly as possible: Why?

Let’s backtrack a little again: I’m not here to give you any answers to these questions. But I am here to tell you that how you answer them (and how honestly) is going to be a big part of determining how far you get in your pursuits of your dreams.

When I made the decision to move to Massachusetts, I also made the decision to give my best shot at making a living as a music teacher. That was only the first step. The next was to figure out what that really meant. And that meant two big things: figuring out how much money I needed (and wanted) to “make a living” and how I was going to get that money.

So I sat down and worked on the first question. I wrote out every single expense I could think of that I would incur simply by living somewhere. Food, clothing, shelter, all the basics. Then all the stuff I didn’t want to think about but had to: medical insurance, taxes, transportation, communications, materials. Then all the stuff that I didn’t even think twice about ever in my life. It’s amazing how quickly things add up.

According to the Census Bureau, the 2015 median household income in the United States is just shy of $56,000. That’s for a family of four. The median personal income is slightly morn than $30,000. But none of that really means anything to anyone. If you live in New York City, you’re not likely to live there long making $30,000 a year. Circumstances have to be taken into account on an individual basis and this is why I can’t give you any answers to these questions.

But I can answer for myself. I figured that since I was doing alright in Chicago and that since my trips to my soon-to-be new home revealed that the cost of living was going to be pretty close to the same, that my goal would be to try to make the same amount of money in my new home as I did in the old one. I had specific numbers to work with.

And having a specific goal is key, because it makes everything else work for you. Let’s say, for the sake of having a specific goal (and for the sake of making the math easier for me!) that we decide we want/need to make $24,000 a year teaching. This means that you need to make $2,000 a month. And if you’re charging say $20 for a half hour lesson, then you need to teach a hundred such lessons a month. That’s slightly less than twenty-five lessons a week, which means five students a day five days a week. Now you have some real numbers that mean something.

But before you go thinking, “Hey I could teach two and a half hours a day and make that happen! So why not double it and make twice as much money!” you need to take a lot more into account. Yup, more questions!

Where are these students going to come from?

How will you handle cancellations of lessons?

What about student turnover? (after all, no one should be taking lessons forever…)

When do I get to take a holiday?

What do I do during the summer if no one wants lessons?

Again, each of these questions leads down a different road. And you are going to have to deal with them at some point, so why not come up with a few answers ahead of time?

No Decision Is Ever Final

The thing to remember is that all answers, just like life, are momentary and may have to be reviewed time and time again. After all, your needs and desires are constantly evolving and the ways to meet those needs will likewise require some tweaking and adjusting over the course of time.

The major point I want you to take away with you is really very simple: If you want to make a living in music, then you need to start by getting very specific about your goals and then going through your numbers in order to see how feasible it may be.

In the meantime, though, please send any questions you might have my way. If I can’t answer them directly, I’ll do my best to find someone who can answer them for you. Write me at [email protected] or PM me on our Forum page here at Guitar Noise.

Until next time…