Have you ever heard that question as you’re setting up for a gig, or in polite conversation with a neighbor?
Or how about this one – “So, what else do you do?”
These are often followed by a bit of backtracking:
“Or, you know, I mean, you must have another job too?”
For those of us who perform full-time, we’ve gotten quite used to these questions.
And, of course, it’s an entirely well-meaning bit of conversation, often started by someone who doesn’t know a whole lot of professional entertainers or musicians.
They’re really just trying to be friendly, making a bit of small talk with someone they assume they’ll have little else in common with.
And because what they’re really thinking is “you couldn’t possibly make a living doing this, right?” – but they’ve stopped themselves because it sounds too blunt – what comes out instead is “so, is this all you do?”
Unfortunately (for them), they quickly realize “is this all you do?” sounds an awful lot like “you don’t do anything more important or consequential than this?”
Then the backtracking begins.
The Answer is “Yes!”
I take great delight in telling people that “yes,” this is my full-time job, and I support my family of four doing it.
“You’re very lucky.”
Those are some of the typical responses.
Taking It A Step Further
Working in schools as a visiting artist as much as I do, I get the “is this all you do?” question pretty frequently, but I’ve noticed that my answer seems to take on extra gravity in deep, late winter.
This seems to be the time every year – somewhere around February/March – when overworked, underappreciated teachers start wondering (briefly, for most) what else they could be doing with their lives.
The carefree, “doing what you love for a living” lifestyle starts looking awfully appealing to worn out educators, and they really want to know how it all works.
So, we talk about the logistics.
The conversation doesn’t usually last long.
Once I start to describe how I buy my own healthcare, have no pension or 401k plans from my employer, spend more time on marketing and administrative stuff – and driving – than I do actually “doing what I love,” the reality starts to set in.
(See the article 7 Things I Wish I Knew When I Became a Full-Time Musician.)
It’s A Dream Come True
It’s just not ALL dreamy…
Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t trade my life as an independent performing artist for anything in the world.
I’m my own boss, I design my own shows, make my own hours much of the time, set my own rates, and lots more.
But I also deal with all the computer malfunctions, booking arrangements, insurance, accounting, travel logistics, correspondence, advertising, marketing, PR, taxes, retirement plans, and everything else related to running my own business.
So, Yes, This is All We Do!
But we also do it all, don’t we?
Let me know how you do it in the Comments section below.
For more, see Julie Balzer’s article On Being a Full-Time Artist
And Carolyn Edlund’s How Being a Full-Time Artist Will Change Your Life
About The Blog
Since leaving a white-collar marketing job in 1992, Dave Ruch has been educating and entertaining full-time in schools, historical societies and museums, folk music and concert venues, libraries, and online via distance learning programs.
Along the way, he’s learned a great deal about supporting a family of four as a musician.
The Educate and Entertain blog provides articles, tips, encouragements, and how-to’s for regional performers (in any region) interested in making a great full-time living in the arts.
Thank you for your great articles. I’ve been getting this question and it has in the past tripped me up. I was an attorney for 25 years and quit because I knew there was something else I had to do. Didn’t no what at the time but I just plowed forward. Ten years later at the age of 68, I do or attempt to do music full time. It does not pay the rent although it gives me great joy. In answer to the question, I wind up stammering that I used to be a lawyer and that unfortunately, music does not make enough to support my life. Which winds up confusing all of us – they think I’m some rich former asshole lawyer (not true on any account and lost almost all in divorce) and I think I’m a loser because I have not been able to make my original music pay even a modest amount. While I’ve had wonderful experiences including US and European tours, the inability to support my life has plagued me and has made me want to give up. Lately, I’ve been putting my energy into getting my lifestyle to a position where inputs equal outputs… lowering my housing costs and other related costs to my social security and modest gig income. Which looks like it will help. Any ideas for someone of my age doing original music would be most appreciated. There seem to be a lot of us who have returned to our first love, music.
Best of luck with it, Douglas. “Ideas” are what this blog is all about – you’ll find over 70 articles here to help you on your path.
Great article as always but this one especially you hit on fantastic points. Yeah, people don’t realize how MUCH behind the scenes work goes into it. Like the saying goes…if it were easy everyone would do it. I’ve got the question many times…what do you REALLY do. it’s always puzzled me as to why it’s so hard for so many to comprehend? If someone told me they were a professional basket weaver and that’s all they did I would be like…COOL! Why is it so hard to grasp that there others, not just musicians, that work outside the norm of a 9-5 job?
Keep up the good fight, Chris!
Thank you, Dave!
I had a very reveiling experience once, that changed my whole approach to this. It was the usual “Ah, you turned your hobby into your job”, and I was about to say that it’s not as irresponsible and juvenile as that sounds, when the lady continued to say that she had just quit her job, without knowing what to do next, but she just knew that this needed to be done, and how deeply encouraging it was for her to see me doing what I love to do. I was floored, and we then had a very heartfelt talk, that likely made a difference both for her and my life. You have to be careful with ready-made reactions!
I realized then and there that it might well be that a big portion of such comments, that I had experienced as condescending at the time, might have actually been an expression of appreciation and respect. After that incident, I recalled someone apologizing (almost weeping) to me that he had “only” become a leading CEO in a bank, when in fact what he really was moved to do was be a musician like myself. At that time (age 25, just had left my two children because living with their mother was impossible, no money, etc.), I had deep doubts because of “not being someone” and all that stuff. I experienced this situation as bizarre, and actually funny in a tragical way, that we both thought the other one “had made it”.
And even those who mean it condescending often only do so because they don’t know what to do with someone who follows her/his Heart. Even there, an honest reply might open up a lot. So it’s better to not go into defense or justification, but rather treat it as “Ah, you don’t seem to know much about an artist’s life. May I share some?”
Great story Rumi; I’ve had very similar experiences. Life is a series of choices and it’s always so easy to assume that other have made “better” choices than we have. Then we hear from them that they feel similarly about us. For the record, I never think of the “Is This All You Do?” question as condescending – more of a conversation starter that ends up sounding awkward after they say it.
Thanks, Dave, for sharing. Lots of great info and stories from you and the readers. Much appreciated. Yes! Hear these questions a lot: “Is this all you do?” “What style of music?” “Where do you play?” My narrowed down response is accompanied with a friendly smile: “I’m a multifarious music professional: performer, teacher, piano technician; here’s my card; all the details are on the website, including my calendar. Come out to a performance sometime. It’ll be great to see you there.” If they’re insistent on having a conversation, sure, but brief. Sometimes a referral will result (gig, lessons, piano tuning). Upon reading your other articles, I’m brainstorming the path of “educate and entertain.” Thanks again!
Alright Allen, keep us posted!
I hope you are well..😀 Thanks for your great articles. I can relate to that question. I’ve been making a living as a musician full time for 12 years now and I get that question a lot. Mostly from listeners actually. Although I know that most of the time they mean well it’s the “You’re lucky part” that can be hard to hear.
I know there is some luck involved, and I’m thankfull for that, but most of it, for me, is hard work and dedication. 😉
How do you answer people who tell you you are lucky ?
Thanks! Take care
Eric John Kaiser
Yeah, good question Eric John. I guess it depends on whether I’m feeling “lucky” or not. I do feel lucky to have found something that makes me happy – many people do not.
I just announced to my friends on Facebook that I am “retiring” from my show circuit after 35 years. Many things have gone into this decision, and I won’t detail them here, but it has been quite a ride.
My shows are primarily Renaissance Faires, weekend work, you might say, and for most of those years, those weekends were what paid the bills. I went full time in ’91, and was able to make a decent living primarily from the sale of CDs (I have 7) and tips. I also played “street” venues in San Francisco, and was fortunate to be able to join musical programs at The Cannery, Ghirardelli Square, and Pier 39. Pier 39 is the only one that remains as a viable venue, but for street, what a venue!
The grim reality for me is that the decline in CD sales has left my income wanting. I have pretty much ignored the exhortations of friends about getting on iTunes and other digital media (though I do miraculously receive an occasional stipend from Sound Exchange for digital broadcasts. I view what I do as a street musician to be a sort of intimate experience, selling my CDs is an extension of that, so for me, it is much more than just a commodity that I can make some money.
As musicians or performers, you may not realize it, but your work is transformative for your audience. You don’t realize it while you are doing it, maybe, because it is just what you do. I am getting an outpouring of comments by people who have found me to be an inspiration, some of whom became performers themselves because I inspired them. That is very humbling.
One of my friends said “Time to do some house concerts, maybe.” I think that’s a fine idea. And suddenly, many of the resources that Dave has been sharing are starting to look a little more attractive. Long ago, I played a lot of weddings. I did a few school programs. Long ago, I played at the Natural History Museum in San Francisco, long ago I got tapped to play in a program at Davies Symphony Hall .In spite of these things, I have never had that much confidence in my abilities. In a street setting, if you end up galumphing through some tune clumsily, who is going to notice? Or, so what? It feels different on a stage, The focus is on you, and you’d like to be good.
I don’t plan to exit the world of music any time son, but it is time to fall back and re-group!
Thanks for sharing that, Glenn. Sounds like a great plan, and as far as I’m concerned, if you can perform on the street and engage perfect strangers, you’ve got just about everything you need to be successful on a stage with the focus on you. It is that ability to engage an audience that would carry over and serve you very well in the other areas. Best of luck with it, and keep us posted
Thank Dave. Like you , I’m proud to answer the curious question, “yes, I’m a full time performer and teacher” is the short answer. I hate the computer part of my job but at least I can choose to do that part when the sun’s not out unlike most people on the planet.
The question came to me the 1st time about 60 years ago as I was leaving the stage of a very prestigious nightclub. Being 19 at the time I gave a smart..ss answer. I still wrestle with it in my retirement. I still haven’t come up with an easy answer.
Let us know when you do!
I remember once answering YES to that question, and the lady who asked responded, “Well, SOME of us have responsibilities’!”
Saying the word “fulltime” and adding “plus nights and weekends” might give them a better sense
I live in South Africa and it’s the same here. You’re introduced to someone and they ask,
‘So, what’s your line of business?’
‘I play the piano and write books.’
‘Oh, that’s very interesting, but what do you actually do for a living?’
or, during a break at some solo gig at a posh venue. ‘I see they feed you here,’ I usually sigh at that one. But if I’m feeling nasty, I reply, ‘No, as you can see I’m feeding myself.’
Then there’s the writing bit. ‘I have such a good story and I’m gonna write a book someday. But starting, that’s the thing. How do you do it?’
‘One word at a time,’ is usually a good answer.
Yes, full time music and writing has served me well for over fifty years, but it’s work nevertheless. Keep your articles coming, Dave.
Thanks Michael – it’s great to hear from South Africa.
It’s a loaded question. For me it brings more questions and the need to define what the questioner is Really trying to figure out.
Making a living seems harder than ever. I am thinking I lived in a Golden Age in NYC in the late 1970s when there was much work and always an audience for innovation.
Once I was no longer a symphony player (which helped pay the rent, that was my Day job), it seemed like I am working hard to explain and legitimatize a profession that was revered back in the Day when Churches and Aristocracy hired and maintained their musicians.
(Depends on your type of music making)
If you are raising a family there might be limits to travel time. The musician within is not gone and the skills are transferrable…the organizational part. Maybe teach for 10 years while working on recording projects. My Day Job was raising a family and I wore many hats to pull that off well.
Tour before and after the kids need you full time. Or on Spring Breaks. But lecture/demos at Universities occurred mostly before beginning a family.
I say I have 2 children and 5 recordings as my body of work as well as a lifetime of performances with amazing musicians.
If you are an independent musician and not a household name the next question is typically, “So where do you play?” “What kind of music do you play?”
After 40 professional years, I’ve just about done most everything in 2 or 3 genres.
Where?…name a hall or a state or a city or country.
What Genre? name a stye, a time period, a country.
I feel a growing gap in understanding between the listeners and performers of music that is purely instrumental
Sometimes I say, please visit my website, it’s all there. OR check out this book, my story is there. You can listen at…..I don’t have a great paragraph summing up my Bio.
I no longer have the “elevator speech” I had to have to get the gigs.
Interesting post! Thank you.
Vicki – yes! It should be such an easy question to answer (“where do you play?”), but it never is for me. I’ve always assumed what they’re looking for is “I play every Tuesday at the XYZ club” – something they can latch onto, and perhaps even try to come to at some point. It’s a completely reasonable question, but since I’m so diversified and specialized, I’ve just never figured out a succinct answer to the question.
Maybe you are right- The question is simply where can I go hear you every Friday night?
There are few, if any, permanent jobs for performing musicians.
If your hometown location does not have a venue or audience where your music is valued, and only major well-known venues on the national level seem to spark the look of recognition, that’s how I’m saying it today. (It probably sounds egotistical but i’m just trying to expand the limited question. (We are much more than a couple of Carnegie hall performances or the busking on a street near there in the old days.)
But that answer omits some important aspects of my playing that also shaped my musical evolution: Indian Raga, electronics, chakras : )
Guess I will have to write the memoir. I’m retired and have the chance to look back and see how it all went down for me.
Thank you for the discussion.
Yup. Sounds familiar. I say I teach and play for a living, but someone will ask what my day job is and I say I do this full time professionally. It’s what I do and I’m kept very busy doing what I do.
Lol. I do get that question often. It always makes me smile. I am a private event singer/guitarist. I perform mostly cover music. I’ve been lucky enough to have been doing (only) this for almost 15 years now. I’ve became so successful that my wife quit her high paying job 6 years ago.
Yes. We are so lucky.
Thanks for your blog and encouragement! I’ve been performing, composing, publishing, accompanying, coaching, recording & teaching music for decades now. I began out of college in the 60’s wanting only to be a jazz pianist and quickly found out that the few paying gigs available wouldn’t be enough to earn a living and that you have to be flexible in what you’re willing to do. Today when someone asks what I do, I say that if it involves music I probably do it. And not just jazz which is where my heart is but country, folk, rock n roll, classical, musical theater etc. Flexibility, as you mention frequently in your blog, is the name of the game!
Hi Marilynn – thanks for checking in here and sharing your experiences. Have you thought about creating a “show” around your jazz piano playing – something with a theme of some kind that could be booked at arts centers, concert series, and other gigs that pay really well?
Oh yes . . , the daily question! The only part of your job most people see is indeed the fun / exciting part on stage. So, unless you are a household name, most people assume you are struggling or that daddy is bankrolling your hobby. The truth is is that there are LOTS of opportunities to be a successful working artist, you just have to be willing to to the work part. 🙂
So well said, Lacy – I couldn’t agree more. There are tons of ways to do this on our own terms (as opposed to the industry’s terms) for those willing to put in the work.