Day jobs. For many musicians, these are the things that keep food (pizza) on the table and enable us to play a style of music that isn’t widely consumed by the mass market. Not everyone in the bluegrass music field needs one, but many have one to one degree or another, even if it represents an extra $60 a week (or 50% of a typical bluegrass musicians total salary).
For those musicians fortunate to have played music full time from day one, never having had one of these day job things, let me explain what they are: It’s usually a kind of service you perform for someone else besides your band leader. This person or company will likely pay you even less than your band leader does (and you thought that wasn’t possible!), and it’s also likely that you’ll perform this “job” outside your “home,” just as you do when playing music. You will often be required to arrive at “work” at a specified time of the day and remain there performing your services for a specified length of time. It’s like having to show up for a sound check, except the time that you’re told to arrive at your job is a lot firmer than your sound check time, and someone will actually be there when you do arrive, often waiting for you. This job may even necessitate that you get up earlier than 11:00 AM!
Some musician’s day jobs are music-related, and that’s always a plus. I have a really good day job right now, and it’s one I never take for granted, but it was not always the case. During times when playing music wasn’t providing 100% of my income, I’ve been employed doing the following jobs (these are all real, by the way, I promise):
- Milking cows
- Baking bagels
- Sweeping floors
- Sorting and packing apples
- Driving a farm produce truck
- Maintaining indoor plants in office buildings
- Making and serving Chicago-style hot dogs and other high-calorie food
- Doing almost every job at a local radio station, from being a D.J. , to writing news and ad copy, to dressing up like Simba from the Lion King and scaring little children at Walmart
And, I almost delivered children’s books for the mob, but I turned it down at the last minute (a long story I’ll tell you in person some time).
Can you identify the common thread running through all of these jobs? If you answered: “None of them pay very well,” your name will be entered into our giant sweepstakes (that last one that I turned down doesn’t count; that paid quite well). Many had their good qualities to be sure. Some of them I even miss. Others still occasionally have me waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. But they all paid the bills at a time when they needed to, and for that, God bless them every one.
If you find yourself needing a day job, but you’re not sure what low-paying job to look for, perhaps I can at least steer you in the right direction.
I guess we should first dispense with the obvious, and that’s giving music lessons out of your home. This is a handy way to make some extra money, it pays well by the hour, and it can now be done via the internet, so you now don’t even need to clean your house (not that many musicians teaching out of their homes do), you can just clean the small area that will be visible behind your chair. In fact you don’t even need to have a home. You just need a computer with a webcam and some reasonable source of light.
Beyond that, you may have to look for a job outside of your home, and perhaps outside your immediate field of expertise. If you do, though, be sure to look for something that has flexible hours that may accommodate your touring schedule.
This can be a tremendous challenge, because not every business is ready to support and cover for an employee whenever they happen to be going off on a tour of Iceland. Employers in Nashville are the exception; they can be highly understanding and flexible. This is probably because the manager also has a record deal and a band. The owner of the company is a songwriter who co-wrote that annoying song you keep hearing on the radio (you know, the one that’s just a big list of stuff). This is not the norm in other parts of the country.
Another thing you’ll want to look for is a day job that’s at least somewhat compatible with your typical musician personality.
I don’t mean to generalize, because professional musicians can be very different, one from another, as you know if you’ve ever played in a band. Some musicians come at music from the mathematical side, and they approach art more logically than artistically. Some, though certainly not all, banjo players are in this category; for them the endless thumb-index-middle sequence is part of a grand formula. For the rest of us, it’s a break to Little Darling Pal Of Mine.
The majority of musicians, though, especially those in a play-by-ear, improvisational genre are more the dreamy, right-brained artist types. The world, meanwhile is run by left-brained people, and you have to be cautious about entering their world and working for or with them.
A while ago, I wrote a sort of guide for right-brained people on my web site’s blog (www.chrisjonesmusic.com), and I recommended some good potential day jobs and businesses that would be suitable for the artistic types among us, and some that should be avoided. A lot of that information applies handily to the musician seeking a day job, so I will share some of that below. Yes, I’m about to plagiarize myself, which I have no problem with (If money gets a little tight after the holidays, I can sue myself).
In an ideal world, we could easily find a classified ad for a job that would seem to be tailor-made for us. Sort of a musician’s dream job. Something like this:
“Wanted: someone to help guide an up-and-coming company, producing something very difficult to describe. Hours are flexible, ranging from 45 minutes to 45 hours per week, depending on your inspiration level at the time. You’ll be called upon to develop broader concepts, leaving day-to-day management to your assistants. You will brainstorm with others over coffee, seeking innovative solutions to problems that may or may not exist. Meetings may evolve into jam sessions, so proficiency in a musical instrument is a plus. Ability to play shortstop and draw cartoons is also helpful. You may be called upon to take trips to Italy for no reason. Salary is based on your lifestyle needs and will be paid in a mixture of cash and root vegetables as barter.”
Sadly, outside of some pockets of northern California (where coincidentally a lot of marijuana is grown and sold), jobs like this don’t exist. There’s a chance that you may end up working somewhere that will demand that you show up some time before lunch, and you may have to sit through tedious meetings, listening to someone reading minutes of the last meeting that consisted mainly of reading and approving the previous week’s minutes. Such is life when working with our left-brained brothers and sisters, bless their orderly hearts. But you can seek a job where at least your creativity can be harnessed, and where maybe your somewhat erratic schedule can be understood and tolerated.
With that in mind, here are a few day job or side career choices I would strongly discourage for a bluegrass musician:
- Accounts receivable clerk
- Accounts payable clerk
- Anything else clerk
- Nuclear sub mechanic
- Air traffic controller (announcing suddenly that you have to “cut out early to make your sound check across town” is particularly frowned upon in this line of work)
Here are some that I encourage:
- Ice Cream Truck Driver
- Greeting card designer
- Organic eggplant farmer
- Museum tour guide
- Disc Jockey (willingness to dress like a Disney character a plus)
Good luck in your chosen side career. Feel free to use me as a reference.