I’ve been playing drums since I was in the third grade, but it’s only within the last few years that I would say that my family and I are what our society considers “comfortable.” I’m also now what most people would call middle aged, so it took a long time for it to really pay off, but I’ve been happily chugging along for a long time prior to this.
Many times after shows or during clinics I get other drummers coming up to me asking me how to make a living playing music. I always answer their question with one of my own: Do you really feel as though music is your calling? If the answer is a wholehearted yes, I usually reply with “Then stay in line, live simply, and keep practicing, because your number will be called eventually.” It’s the person with the most endurance that wins this game.
That said, there are some things you can do to make the wait a little easier. Most of my life I could fit everything I own, including my drums, into my VW bug. Keep your expenses and overhead low. Do not spend more than you take in. This seems like a simple concept but I find musicians are the worst at it. Our vision of ourselves being a success is so strong in our minds that sometimes the line between fantasy and reality becomes very blurry. We try to live and appear as if we are rock stars when we can’t even make the rent. Find a cheap apartment. Buy an inexpensive but reliable car, not one you need to make payments on or worry about if it’s going to make it to the gig.
Don’t be afraid of the day job. I’ve been a barista, bucked hay, cleaned up a slaughterhouse (true story), waited tables, driven forklifts, anything to pay thee bills. It’s okay. It doesn’t mean you are a failure or not good enough to make a living only playing music. Check your ego at the door; you are not too good for a day job. Debt and creditors severely interrupt practicing, but day jobs don’t. You can’t practice effectively if you are stressed to the hilt about bills.
Get health insurance. If you have one monthly bill besides rent and phone, make it this. Ask at your day job if you are eligible for their plan. If not, research and purchase a plan that helps in case of a medical emergency. Ask your musician friends what they are doing for health insurance. Don’t smoke. If you already do, then quit now. Besides the fact that it will kill you, it’s a very expensive habit so you’ll die penniless.
Don’t be a gear head; you can’t afford it. Buy a single quality used set of drums and cymbals in sizes that are usable in a wide variety of musical styles. Keep them tuned up and sounding great.
Don’t be a complainer or a gossiper and don’t surround yourself with people who are. This is an easy trap to unknowingly fall into. You are responsible for building your audience. If you only bring a few people in the door of the club, your band cannot expect to get paid well and won’t have room to complain. You don’t need a manager or a record label. You need to get in the van, travel, and do the legwork. By living simply – which means making your art, musicianship, and growing a fanbase the main priority – eventually all the other things will fall into place.