What you should know before embarking on an independent music career.
You will do it all. Make the music, create the demand, keep up the pace, keep the fire, stay relevant, and be your own cheering section.
There’s a reason Nashville exists. It’s a very finely tuned machine. In fact the only machine assembled to do what it does.
Making country music without Nashville is akin to driving a train with no rails. You can get the train built and roaring and smoking but it’s not going anywhere without a pass to the rails. Which just means you’ll have to get people to come see your train sit still. Which you can do!
And there are a lot of people who’ve done this thankfully. If you start trying to build your train people will help you.
There are incredible homemade trains all over the world now built by people who didn’t fit the Nashville mold. Myself included. This website is one piece of my “middle of nowhere” steaming growling cranked up locomotive engine. To further the train analogy, if the world goes by the train then the train might as well be moving right?
I play along the Gulf Coast of the United States and I’m thankful that so many people come to see me that it feels like my train is always rolling.
The takeaway for this little rant I hope is that you’ll do it all yourself unless you find people to help you which i luckily have.
If you want to make music for a living the first thing you’re gonna do is make a lot of music for yourself. If you can’t impress yourself you aren’t gonna impress anybody else. And even if you do impress yourself nobody’s gonna care until you can do something nobody else is doing. So become original and stick to it. Develop your show in front of the toughest audience you can find. For me that was drunks in bars all along the gulf coast of Mississippi and Alabama and Florida. I played what they wanted hear until what they wanted to hear was me.
If you’re looking for fame and fortune you already know you might not get it But you can have something way better, and that is the peace that comes from bucking the system and making music for a living when the industry doesn’t want you to be able to without them.
The Rail Line is rigged, kid. The rails are off limits.
So build your only train and “Sit Here In It!”
Doing what it takes
Some of this is in other essays here but I’ll be concise and to the point. So you want to make art for a living? The first thing you need is art, indisputably. Nobody will be able to deny that what you’re asking is art? It better be good.
You’re going to bust your ass. I did and do and will.
Be prepared to sacrifice your free time. Be selfish about your downtime. Say no to “let’s hangout and get a beer.”
Say no to that last minute cheap cruise. Say no to everyone who wants you to waste your time at a non art related event.
Stop going to church unless you’re playing in the band. That’s a whole day you can sit and work on you guitar chords. God can hear you. :)
Stop browsing in the grocery store.
Stop using your drive time to make phone calls.
Stop binging on Amazon Prime.
Buy a notebook and write down a hundred songs you already know the words to.
Get on UltimateGuitar and start putting chords with lyrics in your iPad. Buy a better iPad.
Find an open mic at a bar somewhere and make the hair stand up on somebody’s head.
Because if you’re going to make music or anything for a living, you will have to change someone’s life. And first your own.
That’s the only way they pay for it, if you can make their life something different even if only for a minute. Are you going to be worth their time? Take a deep breath, be honest with yourself, And If the answer to that isn’t a very loud Yes, than you aren’t going to sacrifice enough so just stop. The world needs cashiers.
You will do whatever it takes. And it will take everything.
But heres my promise to you, it’ll give you everything back and fill that hole you’ve been pouring distraction in.
A longtime ago I wrote a song that I’m legally forbidden to play. One of my favorite lines is in that song and it goes
“Happiness will only take you as high as the mountain you’ve climbed.”
The more crap you dig out of your life, the more room for all the music and love you’ll have.
Michelangelo said he could see the angel in the stone and he just knocked off the parts that weren’t angel.
You are Michelangelo, start chipping away at yourself and set that musician free.
Music and my Mama
Without my mama I wouldn’t have a music career. I would probably be in the construction industry. I grew up around construction and blue collar work. Once I even I had a job with my name on my shirt. Still have one of the shirts.
My mama actively made choices that progressed my music life. She chose not to shut me up when I was making noise as a three year old. I was already singing and even then I knew I was on pitch. I could sing every song I heard. That’s a gift of nature. What my mama did was her gift of nurture. She put music in front of me and me in front of music. She would put a record on our old record player and I would sure at the cover while she picked brand and squash and turnip greens, corn, okra, pumpkins, and dug potato’s. My mama is what god would look like as a woman. Remember that story Jesus told about the three guys and the Gold Coins? If you don’t then I’ll summarize. Jesus gives this guy a gold coin and says, “bring this back in a year and see what you can get done. Guy goes out and buys a broom and sweeps the floor of a carpet company until he buys some carpet and starts a carpet company and comes back at the end of the year and gives Jesus back a sackful of gold coins. The other guy Jesus gives ten gold coins and this guy goes out in the woods and buries it so nobody steals them. Gives Jesus back ten gold coins.
Well my mama was the first guy. Took one gold coin and grew a mountain of happiness and goodwill to her little corner of ten universe. Fed more people than you’d imagine. Babysat an army of neighbor kids. And in the middle of all this, created me. Now I’m not the kind of asshole who thinks I’m the best thing my mama did, but I’m certainly a unique thing that happened in large part because of my mama. Not many people ever make a living making music and not for as long as I have. So you do the math. My mama and my magic are inseparable. She spent money she didn’t even have to drive me twenty miles to Guitar lessons when I was a boy. She paid several different piano teachers to keep trying to help me. She played music games with me. “Name that tune.” She would let me sit and tell her about Bon Jovi. She probably didn’t care all that much for Bon Jovi but I made it absolutely clear how amazing they were and she acted amazed.
Ultimately her greatest gift to my music career was she listened to me make music. She’s done so many other things for me that I have to make that distinction: greatest gift to my music career.
Mothers are rarely one thing. And we have to remember they are more than just mothers, they were piece first and put that aside for a while to make us. It’s a prison sentence and mountain top experience at the same time to have children. My Mama and Daddy created a perfect hot wax environment for a musician. I started grooving my life at an early age and they kept my world spinning, the needle digging out the verses of my life.
My parents are still very alive and healthy and the subjects of the “Fifty Years” song. If you haven’t heard that then I hope you’ll hang around this website til you do. It’s not the kind of song the radio plays anymore because it celebrates love and commitment instead of “Now! Right Now/ Hey Girl/ what you doing Right Now!!”
Our culture is imploding as you can see since you’re on this “way upstream” musicians website looking for the country you used to love.
Well, I’ve said enough to you. Now I’m gonna call my mama and thank her for listening.
Let’s make up a little song right here I can sing to her-
HEY MOM, I HOPE YOURE PROUD OF WHO I AM
IM DOWN HERE ON THE BEACH PLAYING IN THE BAND TELL ALL THE FOLKS BACK HOME I MISS ‘EM AND KISS ‘EM
BUT MOST OF ALL MOM,
THANKS FOR LISTENING
Jumping off a cliff
What did it feel like to make the decision to try to make a living making music?
It felt like the only option I had. It wasn’t so much a jump as a fall.
Other than driving a semi again, which I prevented myself from being able to do by not checking the renew box when I moved to Alabama, it was the only thing I could do to feed myself.
I pushed away any chance of letting myself off the hook. I bought a Prius so I could play as many places as I could. I moved into a cheaper apartment so I could spend more on business cards and promoting myself and my music. I bought better equipment so I’d look better at shows. I got my show clothes dry cleaned. I never bought alcohol.
I’m gonna tell two slightly conflicting version of the Same choice ok?
Here’s one- deciding to make any kind of art for a living is like jumping off a cliff, with or without an audience. With an audience has its advantages and disadvantages. Maybe they invest in your future with you, friends family and early fans. Or maybe they’re there to see you hit the ground. And don’t think that because they let you hit the ground they aren’t your friends. Hitting the ground is one of the most educational experiences you get. Dont be afraid of it, but don’t do it intentionally.
Jumping off with no audience is like Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire driving away from a job he loved singing Tom Petty at the top of his lungs. There’s nobody with you but you fee as though you met yourself for the first time in a longtime. It’s good to know what your resources are, you.
My first cd was the ultimate in “recording artist.” As in, I did everything. Whether it’s really art or not I’ll let you decide but for better or worse it’s mine in a way that few musicians can ever claim. I wrote produced and played and mastered everything.
I think you get what I’m saying about the jumping off a cliff.
Here’s the other way to see it- falling off the cliff.
If you’re a musician, painter, actor, street performer...you’ve been doing things that moved your life into “edge of the cliff” space your whole life.
You’ve been, by omission or commission, been making a run at the cliff. Just up until now you’ve stopped short of going over.
But this time the life you’ve previously turned back to is right behind you and your on the edge of the cliff. You’ve moved your daily actions to a platform diving board over the abyss and really there’s nothing to go back to.
So all you have to do is fall off. Though in my case I dove off. I wanted my head on the bottom so I’d know how close the bottom was. I wanted to see it coming. If you jump off and keep your eyes on the sky your feet will hit before you know it.
I can’t tell you which is more likely to make it, jumping or falling. But I can tell you if you are close enough to fall and fight to hang on to the top of the cliff everyday single day of your life will be a lie. You’re an artist fighting the fall because of the fear of uncertainty. I can’t tell you where you’re going by hanging on the cliff top, nowhere.
Jumping in means you’ve actively thought about some of the ramifications. Falling in means you’ve already put yourself through some of the “boot camp” of what you’re gonna face. And maybe you’ve grown wings!
Jumping in gives you options you might not have in your hand when you fall. Falling in means those same thing are probably already implanted in your head by living so close to the choice/edge all those years.
Let’s get out of metaphysical headspace here for a minute and get specific.
One of the things you’ll have done if you’re a Faller is subconsciously developed a habit of going out to hear live music. You have musicians for friends.
If you’re a Jumper you’ve saved money and know exactly how much money you need to pay your current bills. What the world calls “the nut.” And you’ve been looking for ways to cut some of your expenses. “Do I need cable?”
The answer is no. Turn off the cable.
Sell that Escalade while you’re at it. Your kids will gladly ride in an old Ford Esacpe if it means you’re gonna finally be the happy guy you’ve historically only been at Disney world.
If you wait and Fall off you may do long term damage to yourself and loved ones before you do. You’ll claw your life to death before falling into a choice you were born to make.
So make the preparations, put in your two weeks notice and Jump!!