For any of us who have dreamed big about their art–and making a living from it–this post is for you.
I should start out by saying that as I write this, I do make a living from drumming, but not all of it is from playing. Most of it currently comes from my teaching business.
At one point or another, you’re going to deal with the issue of making enough money with your artistic endeavors. Let’s face it. Art is a luxury. People don’t need art. Some would argue this point. How soulless would the world be without art, right?
I agree. But still, we need food. We like art. So making a living with art isn’t easy.
The following story touches on the beginning of my struggle with the issue of earning a living vs making art. When I was 14, I was lucky enough to have been accepted to three very good specialized NYC high schools: 1) The High School of Art and Design; 2) Stuyvesant High School; 3) The High School of Performing Arts.
The High School of Art and Design was a pretty well-respected art school (I was drawing a lot of comic book style art then). Performing Arts had a great drama program and Stuyvesant was highly regarded academically.
I hadn’t really gotten into drumming yet. In fact, I thought I wanted to be an actor. So, my mom asked me: which high school did I want to go to?
“I’d like to go to Performing Arts, mom” I replied.
My mom paused a beat and then said: “So, you want to wait tables?”
Wow. That stung. Not an encouraging statement. But perhaps realistic.
That was my first experience with the idea that art would be a difficult way to make a living.
So, I went to Stuyvesant. I don’t regret it. I learned a lot, worked hard and learned how to study and how to focus. And that has helped me a great deal in working on my drumming and on my business.
I was mad at my mom for a long time about her saying that. But it came from a mother’s worry for her son. She wanted me to be able to make money. An understandable parental perspective.
So, here’s my philosophy on making money. I want to enjoy it. I don’t ever want to work a job that I hate. Whether it’s a music job or otherwise. I have indeed worked in all kinds of jobs.
I have waited tables and bartended. I was a short-order cook. I was a construction worker and I was terrible at it. I painted houses and was miserable doing it. I worked as a media planner at an advertising agency.
As a drummer, I’ve played in wedding bands and I didn’t find it enjoyable. I played in an off-broadway show and I hated it.
I’ve also played drums in many original projects including my own band. Many gigs and recordings–some with signed artists and some unsigned. I’ve always loved these jobs although they haven’t always been the highest paying. I’ve done a bunch of studio work and I’ve always loved that.
I was a music executive years ago (Sony Music/Columbia Records/Legacy Recordings) and there was a significant period of time that I enjoyed it. But eventually, I started to dislike it. I yearned for my creative passion, the drums. Finally, I quit Sony so I could return to drumming full time.
When it comes to being a drummer, my philosophy is to mostly play music I like with people I like. I would prefer to play the music that original artists make with those original artists themselves rather than playing that music in a cover band. However, don’t misunderstand–I’m not “above” playing covers. I do it regularly and enjoy it.
Music is kind of a sacred thing for me. That’s why I won’t do gigs that I don’t want to do. I don’t want to mess with that sacredness. If I were to work in a wedding band and hate it, I might as well be doing something else that is not related to drumming for money.
Part of this aligns with the thinking of philosopher Alan Watts, who basically says that if you chase only money rather than spending your time working on and doing things you enjoy (for most of you reading this, that means your art), you will waste your life. Imagine going to a corporate job you hate simply because it pays you a lot of money.
You go there every weekday. You spend most of your time doing that. Imagine if you hated it, but you stayed because the money was so good. That seems like a horrible life to me. I agree with Alan Watts. If you do something you like and you get really good at it, you can earn a good wage from it, one way or another.
Here is one of the Alan Watts musings that has been influential for me:
I became good enough at the drums to teach and that earns enough so that I don’t have to take gigs I don’t like. This allows me to give my respect to my art and play only with the people I want. I don’t say this with haughtiness, it’s a choice I have made because I don’t want my drumming to ever become the same to me as “any old job.”
Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re no good if you don’t earn all of your money directly from the so-called purest form of your art. Wealth and patronage are historically a big part of the development of much of the world’s art and music. There are plenty of people in the arts who probably wouldn’t have been successful if they hadn’t come from wealth.
I’m not saying that’s what needs to happen. Certainly being wealthy is not the only answer. But what I am saying is that it’s OK to have support, or figure out a way to get it.
For me, the answer was in starting my own business. It’s been everything for me. It has allowed me to pursue my passion with vigor. Even more, the business I’ve started is directly related to that art–it allows me to give the passion and knowledge of the art form I love back to others who are interested. That excites me and makes me feel good. And because of that, I know my business has meaning to me.
So, these are just some thoughts. Consider what’s important to you. How would you be happy spending your time? I believe that is one of the most important considerations. There’s nothing wrong with becoming good at business. In fact, I think it’s essential in the world we live in today.
Don’t compromise. You can have what you want. You just have to be persistent, thoughtful, intelligent and focused.
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Some deep and real talk in here
Mark Feldman says
Hi Michael –
Thanks…I appreciate it. I try to be transparent and honest about my journey as a drummer. If you’re finding any of my writing about this helpful, then I’m happy about that! The aim is to help.