I’m going to tell you something I wish somebody had told me years ago: having a day job does not make you any less of an artist. In fact, having a day job can actually make you a better artist.
This may be hard to believe when anything less than five hours practicing or composing every day feels like slacking off. I know how you feel – the music world is full of overachievers, so to stand out, you need to over-overachieve. That means taking on every project you can, and smashing them all out of the park. That means late nights with strong coffee. That means completely dedicating yourself to music, which leaves no time for a job outside the field.
The problem is that you might not have a choice. Orchestral and academic gigs are eye-wateringly competitive, and increasingly insecure. Teaching work can be hard to come by, and even established composers can find themselves without paid commissions for months. So unless you’re able to live with your parents indefinitely, you need to think about ways to bring home the bacon. For a lot of you, that will mean a day job – a job outside of music. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s great!
Before I explain why, let’s set a few things straight. Having a day jobdoes not mean you’ve failed as a musician. Having a day job does not mean you’re ‘selling out’. Needing money to survive does not make you less brilliant or creative, it makes you human. There is nothing remotely romantic or enjoyable about living in poverty. Not knowing how you’re going to pay rent will not help you make music, and it certainly won’t make you happy.
Now we’ve cleared that up, here’s the good news: day jobs can be great for your music career. I didn’t realise this until very recently, when I set about organising my first ‘real’ concert (which you should totally go to! Click here to find out more.). As I went through the process of budgeting, applying for funding, re-budgeting (because you never get all the funding you ask for), commissioning composers, sourcing musicians, securing the venue, liaising with technicians, figuring out and implementing a marketing strategy, ensuring everyone gets paid, and generally making sure everybody is happy and confident, it slowly dawned on me that almost all the skills and knowledge I was drawing upon came from my work experience, not my BMus or composition portfolio.
I’ve always had to have a day job – sometimes two or three – but I never considered how any of them could help my music career. Now I’m a little bit older, I can look back and connect the dots. Retail experience helped me land a receptionist job. That helped me negotiate my way into volunteering with an arts organisation, which eventually turned into my first arts admin job, then my second, and then my third. Without arts admin experience, I might not have had the confidence to apply for the funding to put on ‘This Will Be Our Reply’. Without that funding, there’d be no concert, and the four amazing works that I was able to commission probably wouldn’t exist now.
I’d be organising concerts no matter what, but I’d be doing it the hard way – by making mistakes and learning from them. This doesn’t mean I’ll never make mistakes, but the learning curve is much smoother than it otherwise would have been. Sending marketing materials to venues has shown me what a great campaign looks like. Preparing financial reports has helped me hone my budgeting skills, which in turn has greatly helped funding applications. Working in sales has taught me how to negotiate and close a deal. Managing tour logistics has helped me become a forward planner and problem-solver. Juggling all this with music has taught me the importance of prioritisation, goal-setting and keeping calm under pressure – though I still struggle with those sometimes! Thanks to my day job, I have no problem navigating invoices, contracts, press releases, budgets, EOIs, promotional images, public liability insurance, even visa applications. These real-world skills are invaluable, and without them, I’d have a tough time organising a concert.
Unexpectedly, working outside of music gives me a sense of mental balance. This is obviously different for everybody, but splitting my time between composing and tour management works really well for me. Every part of my brain gets some exercise. I can think strategically, logically, creatively and critically – and I can switch between these modes quickly, several times a day, because that’s what I’ve been doing for years.
Even if your day job has absolutely nothing to do with music, you’ll be surprised at what you find when you keep an open mind. The sketches I drew on a call centre desk became the score for Quasi. My friend Anderson Alden wrote a piece inspired by glass shards from a construction site he worked on. Inspiration comes from all sorts of places, not only your desk or instrument.
Obviously, it isn’t all sunshine and roses. Working two jobs is hard work, especially if only one of them provides a regular income. There have been times when I haven’t slept more than six hours in three days. I’ve had to decline composition opportunities due to work commitments, and vice versa. But compromise has a funny way of helping you discover what truly matters to you. And when you discover it, you’ll be well equipped to make the most of it.
So never apologise for supporting yourself in ways other than music. Don’t feel bad for answering phones in an office, or serving overpriced coffee to overpriced suits. What you learn in those jobs will serve you for the rest of your career – and at least you’ll keep a roof over your head. Most importantly though, remember that if you’re making art, then you’re an artist, full stop.