Music Career Resilience

Peter Spellman

Especially in the early stages, a career musician must wear a number of hats.  You might be a Performer-Writer-Teacher, or an Arranger-Mixer-Editor, or, more likely, a Singer-AdminAssistant-Barista or Producer-Babysitter-Sales Associate. That’s appropriate; all of us have done it.

Some have called the current times we’re living in the “Age of Ambiguity,” an era of “boundaryless careers,” where career development manifests through lateral and horizontal as well as vertical movement. Pretty familiar to musicians whose work tends to be of a freelance nature within “flexible work arrangements”.

Creative people don’t feel the need to stamp out uncertainty. They see all kinds of inconsistencies and gaps in life, and they often take delight in exploring those gaps – or in using their imagination to fill them in. Again, there are things to celebrate all along the way, if they are met with a flexibility of mind.

Write your goals in stone and your plans in sand.

When asked about what advice he had for young players, pianist Ahmad Jamal once said: “Prepare yourself to have options. Many of the greats were lost because they didn’t have options. If there is one exit door when a fire breaks out chances are you’re going to get trampled to death. You can conduct, perform, teach, arrange, produce, go to an institute of higher learning and get more options, and avoid the exit door.”

• Practice patience/Stay humble. Since success paths today have multiplied, musicians will experiment with more career-building methods and try a variety of relational constellations before the most resonate ones are found. This takes time and time is the new scarcity. Being in the Waiting Room will try your soul. But hurry and strife will just breed the same. A shortcut is often the longest distance between two points. Successful musicians are constantly reviewing their steps to ensure movement towards their goals. It’s a journey and, as the sage once quipped, the journey is the goal.

On this, it doesn’t hurt to remember the former jobs of famous musicians: Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie) was an environmental inspector for an oil company, Vocalist Chad Kroeger of Nickelback sold phones; Gwen Stefani scrubbed floors for Dairy Queen, Philip Glass was a cab driver and plumber, Jack White an upholsterer. Even P Diddy cleaned toilets. Humility is a big part of the dues-paying phase of music careers. The key is staying humble and notoverpaying your dues.

• Cast Your Net Wide. It took a coffee company and a computer manufacturer to teach the music industry how to sell music in the digital age. Non-music businesses everywhere are seeking creative ways to add music-related services to their mix. This means that you needn’t be dependent on the traditional music companies for music career success.

Think of companies you already resonate with and try brainstorming ways you can link up. Consider ones with a similar demographic to yours. Start on a local level. It might be a gift shop, skateboard arena or arts organization. It may even evolve into a full-fledged sponsorship for a tour or recording project. Finds ways to add value to what these businesses are doing with what you have to offer.

• Forget jobs; look for the work that needs to be done. A colleague shared about a music production student with perfect pitch who found plenty of work in recording studios by providing his skill as the “last mile” on auto-tuned vocal sessions. What special skill do you have that can be used as a door opener?

Project work, outsourcing, contract work, and short-term assignments are becoming the primary way of doing business today.  So it no longer makes sense to think only in terms of jobs with fixed “job descriptions.” Instead, as a creative worker, you will have a constantly fluctuating mix of responsibilities –  “packages” of “deliverables” for which you will need to continually upgrade your skills.

Some musicians like the variety and make it an asset in their portfolios. “The key to a successful indie career is diversifying your income,” suggests singer/ songwriter Kyler England. “I write country songs; I do session singing, licensing, and I help others on their gigs. That’s the key – diversifying.”

• Be Entrepreneurial in Body & Mind. Kyler is the entrepreneurial musician in action, scoping out market opps and providing service solutions wherever they’re found.

French economist, Jean-Baptiste Say, who lived at the time of the French Revolution, invented the term entrepreneur to describe someone who unlocks capital tied up in land and redirects it to ‘change the future’. He was one of the first economists to introduce the idea of change and uncertainty as something normal and even positive. The entrepreneur sees gaps to fill, pain to alleviate, needs to appease, and is often driven by a passion to do so. But it is also often done without a clear path. Indeed, entrepreneurs often blaze their own path.

The one who runs straight bumps harder. – Anonymous

Adapted from, Musician 2.0, 3.0, 4.0…Developing Music Careers in Uncertain Times. Get the whole enchilada here.

Peter Spellman
Peter Spellman

Peter Spellman found his way into music as a guitarist in various New York bands and then switched to drums after seeing the Police perform in the late 1970s. Since then he’s performed and recorded with reggae outfit The Mighty Charge, world music ensemble Friend Planet, and now with the Underwater Airport crew. He’s scored films for the National Science Foundation, composed video games for Massachusetts General Hospital, and coaches music entrepreneurs as Director of Berklee’s Career Development Center. Find him at