Being a professional indie musician isn’t for everyone: Lessons from Charles Ives and Shellac

Charles Ives, 1913
Charles Ives was a very good insurance agent but he was also one of the finest American composers. His work is extraordinary and he created almost all his wonderful music while holding down a full-time job.

If you’re trying to make even a partial living as an indie musician you’re a businessperson, and the news gets worse… You’re a small business. That’s a tough row to hoe as it’s unlikely you’ll have much support. You’re going to have to fill lots of roles all by yourself, publicist, customer relations, sales, accounts and legal for starters. That’s all you. If you know a bit about any of those roles that’s great. If not get studying.

Talent and even producing wonderful music is only a component of success. There are lots of talented people and as a consumer it feels like there’s lots of music out there to listen to and quite a lot of it is really good. The way to garner an audience is to be good at publicising yourself and managing your relationship with your audience. The way to prosper (or at least survive) financially is to be good at selling stuff and managing the money that earns you.

This isn’t for everyone, but just because your music might not be your job doesn’t devalue your music at all. It might even be the best path you could take. You might be better off keeping your music as a hobby in the sense of something done for pleasure rather than for financial compensation. This can be a great liberation. Music doesn’t have to be your career, and choosing to make your living elsewhere doesn’t make your music any worse. In fact it could make it better.

Upsides to not making a living from your music:

  • Freedom to create whatever you want
  • No worries about pleasing anyone else
  • No stress about sales and income

Downsides to not making a living from your music:

  • Music becomes your second job
  • Time and energy may be hard to find
  • Difficult to be taken seriously as a musician

There are two interesting and very different examples of musicians who have taken this path in Charles Ives and Shellac. Continue reading Being a professional indie musician isn’t for everyone: Lessons from Charles Ives and Shellac

Ideas are like piles, sooner or later every a**ehole gets them

man fixing steam pump

Ideas are just a starting point. The real trick is taking an idea and making it happen as well as possible. Derek Sivers defines ideas as a multiplier and I think that’s a useful way to look at it. He even gives some definition to the values with a so-so idea worth half as much as a good idea and that in turn being worth half a brilliant idea.

The real trick is the execution. That’s the tough part. You can’t phone in execution from your hammock in Bimini despite what Tim Ferriss might tell you, at least I’m not convinced. Execution is the perspiration generating part of the job and ultimately it is what makes things happen.

This is clear if we’re thinking about a business idea but I think this is a useful model to apply to any aspirations we may have. Writing a song is more than plucking an idea from the bosom of Euterpe.
To start with the idea needs to be captured somehow, written down on paper, sung into your cellphone or tended in your memory until it can be preserved somewhere. Then the execution can really begin. The idea needs to be developed unless you’re lucky enough to have dreamed up a complete work, melody, lyrics, chorus, bridge etc.

Sure a great idea can make a song better, but a rubbish arrangement will kill it stone dead for sure. Value good ideas but recognise them for what they are, a starting point and value the execution.