Ep. 1: What is a Thriving Musician?

Listen to Episode 1: iTunes - Spotify - Stitcher - Soundcloud

Welcome to the very first episode of The Thriving Musician podcast, I’m thrilled you’re here and I can’t wait to dive into all of the important topics and interviews that lie ahead. First, I want to share my story with you, how I drastically changed my life through financial education and awareness and why I’ve made it my mission to share what I’ve learned with the music community.

I was born and raised in Richardson, TX a suburb of Dallas and I was well on my way to being a musician as my Mother made a point to play every style of music even country. She would say to me later in life “even though country music wasn’t my favorite music if you turned out to be a country star, then so be it.” My father loved jazz and I ended up heading that direction musically. Somehow the daycare I was attending at 4 years old offered violin. I don’t remember it too well, but there are pictures of me holding one and I’m thankful there are no videos. I do remember starting piano lessons at 6 years old and I absolutely hated practicing in fact my Mother would have to pretend my practice sessions were recitals to get me to do them. Then in 6th grade I chose the saxophone. Everyone starts on alto, but I switched to baritone the first chance I could and it has been my bread and butter ever since. For those of you outside of Texas who may not know this, the music education scene here is very competitive. I participated in my share of all-region, area, state competitions and also unfortunately marching band. While focusing on music I also earned my Eagle Scout, enjoyed playing hockey and nerded out pretty hard in math.

I wasn’t exactly sure what a career in music looked like, but I knew at least from my high school’s standards that I was good at music so I pursued music in college. I didn’t really know where to go, but heard Berklee in Boston had a great program. I also applied to Southern Methodist University here in Dallas and University of North Texas in Denton. I was biased against UNT because of how extremely competitive and cut throat the program sounded so I chose between a full ride to SMU or massive student loan debt from Berklee. Thankfully, my brother sat down with me and we made a hypothetical spreadsheet comparing what my finances would look like between the two choices. It was obvious to me after looking at the numbers to attend SMU. I studied classical saxophone with Don Fabian and fortunately studied jazz with Akira Sato who would become my first mentor and the one who prepared and helped me transfer to UNT. I decided to transfer because SMU did not have a jazz degree and tuition costs were rising and my scholarship wasn’t. I would go on to earn my Bachelor’s and Master’s consecutively in jazz studies with a focus on saxophone performance studying with Brad Leali and touring with the One O’clock Lab Band. I was fortunate to take a Music Business Entrepreneurship class at UNT that sparked a flame of interests beyond performing music that led to recording my first album and pursuing further endeavors including this podcast. So shout out to Stockton Helbing for teaching that class. He is a fantastic musician, educator, father and entrepreneur and maybe we can get him on the podcast.

After finishing college I went on to perform with notable acts like Aretha Franklin, Father John Misty, Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, The Temptations, Korn and many many more. Of course I was also part of the local scene performing and recording with countless original groups around the metroplex including my own band. Some notable venues included Austin City Limits, SXSW, Meyerson Symphony Center, Snug Harbor, and various jazz festivals across the country. I’ve recorded on 30 albums to date, contracted and arranged for horns, served as marketing director for orchestras, bands and solo acts and taught at every level from beginners to college.

Around 2015 I was pursuing my original music pushing my new album, playing shows, developing my website, business cards and social media all the while playing private parties, top 40 music, weddings, recording sessions, clubs, etc. making a living performing and feeling a sense of accomplishment in my freelance career. But having a Master’s in Jazz Studies, performing in world class venues with world class musicians wouldn’t matter come August of that year. During the summer I was touring the west coast with a brazilian band and immediately upon returning home I left for Italy with my family to celebrate my grandmother’s birthday. All in all I was away from home spending way more than I was making for 5 weeks straight and I came home with $67 to my name. I have a screenshot of my bank account to prove it.

No savings, retirement, investments, or anything other than my instruments, my car and a few gigs I had lined up in a few weeks. I have always been a habitual saver because my mother grew up poor and learned the hard way how to save which rubbed off on me heavily. I always made sure to have enough in my account throughout my life up until this pivotal point. Alongside the shock of this sobering moment I was starting to get frustrated with the process of pursuing my original music, lack of security and the starving artist stigma surrounding the music community. I wanted to thrive instead of survive and eventually came to the conclusion I wanted to seperate the need to make money from my music and keep my art pure.

Over the next 18 months I read countless books including The Slight Edge, Think and Grow Rich, Mindset and so many more. I continuously consumed podcasts and online courses all of which I will put in the show notes of this episode. My research and studies led to an interest in real estate. I read more books, went to a 3 day seminar, joined the Real Estate Investors Association here in town and started strategizing my way to buy property. I found massive difficulty buying property as a freelance musician for many reasons I will discuss another time, but I started saving, making better financial decisions, valuing my time more and taking massive action and eventually bought my first condo just under 2 years after my dreaded experience.

I also increased my yearly income over 180%. My yearly income increased 68% from 2015 to 2016 then again by 70% from 2016 to 2017 for a total two year increase of 186%.

I also chose a random month to show you a more detailed look into the change that occurred each year. In October of 2015 I earned $1,385, then in October of 2016 I earned $3,864 which is an increase of 179%. Then in October of 2017 I earned $7,705 for an increase of another 100% for a total two year increase of 456% in the month of October. Honestly I had no idea this was happening until much later and I still can’t believe these numbers are real.

I say all of this only to inspire you. In the end money is essentially make belief and only exists because we all believe in it. Money doesn't buy happiness, but it does give you choices and control over your life.

I continue to perform and freelance, but now focus on teaching musicians financial literacy through my company Thriving Musician LLC which I founded in 2018. I am currently studying for a certification in financial planning at SMU in order to fully serve the community as a professional musician and certified financial planner. I now give talks at music schools, blog regularly and offer online courses and consulting to musicians seeking financial and creative freedom.

It is my belief musicians are mislead throughout their childhood, education and careers. Many young musicians hear words and phrases like starving artist, survive, poor, you better have a backup plan, musicians never make any money, only a small percentage of musicians actually “make it” which for me personally led to a pursuit of proving everyone wrong instead of following my truth.

Music schools are an excellent resource to learn fundamentals, theory, history, performance practice, aural skills, and build a network, but typically don’t offer insight into what happens next in the real world in regards to self-employment, personal finance and music business. (Side note, many schools are adapting and including music business, but still no sign of personal or business finance.)

After a childhood and education like that, it’s no surprise the music community in my experience lacks a sense of self-worth, abundance mindset, entrepreneurial business approach, understanding of personal finance and value of time.

Career musicians are responsible for adapting to our rapidly changing music industry. In addition to artistry, professionalism, and social savvy, 21st century musicians need resources to thrive financially. Record labels, promoters, radio stations, booking agents, music schools, and industry gatekeepers are slowly giving way to a new breed of musician who takes control of their career and future by learning how to build websites, implementing marketing strategies, recording, mixing and mastering their projects, building businesses, filing their taxes, and most importantly managing their finances.

The “Starving Artist” stigma has plagued creatives ever since Henri Murger published Scènes de la vie de Bohème in 1847 romanticizing poverty among artists. The book was later adapted into the opera La Bohème and spun off into films including Rent and Moulin Rouge. The widespread attribution of “the bohemian lifestyle” onto creatives would mask incredible stories of wealthy artists such as Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It’s a shame creative communities across the globe harbor toxic mentalities amongst themselves and mislead students of the future.

Musicians are led to believe there are two possible outcomes when it comes to a career. Either you “make it” and become rich and famous or you’re poor and starve to create your art. I believe these two outcomes are extremes on a spectrum and account for a small percentage of musicians as a whole and there is a mysterious majority who fill in the middle of the spectrum who I call Thriving Musicians.

These are musicians who either make a living with music or from another source which funds their music. They understand and manage their personal finances and goals through savings, retirement, investing, taxes, income, and music business. Thriving Musicians have a healthy mindset and take care of their mental and physical health. They are self-aware and generate increasing income and many times multiple sources of income.

Thriving Musicians generally go unnoticed in our community simply because no one is talking about them and quite frankly they are content to go unnoticed. They don’t seek popularity, publicity, fame, virality, or followers because they have found happiness and purpose in their life which is as fulfilling as it gets. They also make decisions that lead them toward their goals and away from poverty, toxic relationships, and the starving artist lifestyle. I’m going to interview and shine a light on the Thriving Musicians of the world to show you and the future of the music community how to achieve and why you deserve the same opportunities in life as everyone else.

Creatives, specifically musicians, have the power to thrive no matter their circumstances or upbringing. This podcast aims to provide you with resources for improving your financial awareness and mindset. For many struggling musicians, money is a sensitive subject that brings with it feelings of scarcity and shame. A healthy financial mindset serves as a foundation from which you choose how to live, invest, and create your art free of financial anxiety.

To summarize, I’m here to demystify the starving artist stigma, educate the music community and help you work towards financial and creative freedom.

Thanks for listening and keep thriving!


Learn more: www.SpenserLiszt.com

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