by Jéan Gabriel, a professional musician and writer for numusician.com.
"This is a personal story dedicated to the hardest working musician I know.
I hope this story inspires you too!"
Some of my earliest memories are smashing pots and pans with wooden spoons in our family lounge while my dad rehearsed with his band, I absolutely loved growing up surrounded by musicians. As a kid, I just thought it was normal. I thought being a professional musician was a totally normal way to make a living, after all, my dad had been doing it pretty much all his life.
As I got older, I realized how incredible my dad is having created a career from music, supporting a family of 5, always ensuring the bills were paid and food was on the table. While his brothers and sisters all had so-called ‘normal’ jobs in various industries, he was the only one brave enough to rely on music as a way to earn a living.
Whether you’re thinking about going into music full time, or already doing it, I’ve got a few amazing stories which I think every musician could learn from.
In my early years, my brothers and I were sheltered from whatever was going on. There were times where my dad looked a little concerned because gigs were far and few between, but equally, there were moments where cash was rolling in and he was off buying new cars and kit, building a studio in our back garden, etc.
It took him a long time to find consistency. He formed bands of different sizes throughout his life, from 3 piece to larger 6 piece bands aimed at playing covers. He was a true band leader with a talent for convincing clubs and venues to fill their Friday and Saturday evenings with live entertainment. He found work in small pubs to big hotels, and no matter what, ensured the quality of his product was right up there.
It was definitely not easy to manage the different ego’s in the band, and he often had to deal with changing out members when it became difficult to rely on. He registered his band as a business, ensured everyone got paid well and on time. To this day, he keeps a hand-written set of books for his earnings, tax and expenses – a bit old school considering all the technical solutions available for invoicing and tracking money, but still effective.
He started to get a bit of name for himself, inviting potential clients to gigs to show how having a brilliant band attracted people, and he started to find a consistent set of resident gigs to cover 4 – 5 days a week.
After leaving music school, he invited me to play with him in his band as the resident drummer. As far as work goes, it was the best gig I ever had. We definitely didn’t always see eye to eye (father and son working together can be difficult), but he ensured I earned a great living.
Being an 18 year old fresh out of school, I started to learn the hard reality of being a gigging musician. It’s hard to carry a PA system and gear through delivery entrances, up never ending flights of stairs and through narrow walkways. It started to set in that you’d only know if you had work a week or two in advance, you’re never sure if you’re going to get a booking because there aren’t a lot of assurances from venues, which stressed me out.
The biggest take away for me was realizing that, if you intend to make a living from music, you have to also be able to effectively manage your own stress and anxiety. I found the easiest way to mitigate the stress of having no gigs is to build a healthy cash balance which keeps you afloat from month to month. I found saving enough to act as an ‘overdraft’ and only going into reserves when work is tight made it much easier to balance the highs and lows of the music industry.
After a year of playing for my dad, I decided to take a break and visit the UK for the first time (where I now live). At that point, although there were a lot of gigs still going, the market was starting to change and my dad recognized this. Venues started to pay less money, and the perks were far and few between.
He decided to start working as a solo artist, developing a load of backing tracks while performing live on guitar and singing. He worked with a few vocalists too, often performing as a 2 piece band. Venues were looking to offer entertainment but their budgets were diminishing, so paying for a 1 or 2 piece band made a lot more sense for the same result. The other positive is a smaller footprint, most venues didn’t have a stage or much space to host a live band, opening up more venues to work in.
He absolutely nailed the transition from band leader to solo artist, keeping up his income. PA systems were also getting more micro sized, lighter to carry and more powerful so it was easier to do solo. But, unexpected problems were on the way which, as a family, we had no idea were coming.
My dad had always managed to stay cash positive but never really managed to save a great deal of money (3 teenage boys know how to deplete cash really fast!). My mum and dad had managed to buy a property early on, and actually had an incredibly cheap mortgage. Our living costs were not all that high, and it was pretty easy to survive in quieter times. We would go on holidays, and life was good. By far, the best investment they ever made was purchasing an affordable house with an ultra-cheap mortgage.
But, as life tends to go - my mum started to struggle with her tormented upbringing and her mental health was starting to get worse the more time went on. My dad, being the ever loving husband wanted to support her, and they felt that it was time for a change, so they put the house on the market.
My parents sold the house for an amazing profit and decided to invest in a property 3x the value of what we had, with a much more expensive mortgage to match. At the time, my mum’s hair salon provided a decent turnover and there were a lot of gigs going around. The move initially did wonders for her health, it felt like we had it all under control.
Even though it all seemed to be going well, the much higher mortgage did mean much more stress ensuring both the salon and gig bookings remained at the same level, and any quieter months meant a lot less cash to survive.
The added stress played its toll on my mum, and resulted in a break down. They sold the hair salon and my family went from being a two income household to completely relying on my dad’s music career. One of the biggest mistakes our family made was not investing in health insurance because it was not something our family could afford with all the other overheads. Being South Africa, healthcare is extremely expensive. The cost of all the hospital visits and ongoing medication meant going into the red in a big way, and the stress really started to pile on.
My dad realized he needed to act quickly and so decided to sell the house. It wasn’t a complete disaster because they had still managed to make a profit despite not owning the property for very long. We had to move into another cheaper property. My dad really stepped up, ensuring he had a lot of work in the pipeline, and managed to keep the family afloat.
My mum’s health continued to deteriorate over the years, and my dad had no choice but to sell again to move into a much smaller property with a much lower mortgage. Again, they still managed to make a profit on the property and the end result meant not having to deal with too much overhead in property fees.
Although it may seem moving from our family home was not financially sound, it did pay off because the market remained positive. I’d imagine if the initial move was to a more affordable property, it would have meant much less stress.
The doctors eventually came back with the worst possible diagnosis, my mum had stage 4 cancer spread throughout her body. It was heartbreaking and definitely one of the darkest times our family have ever experienced. My brothers and I put together a fund raiser and we had an incredible response from family and friends all over the world, we just about managed to clear all the medical debt and all the medical procedures needed but despite our best efforts, our mum unfortunately passed away.
We went through a period of mourning, as to be expected. After recovering from all that, my dad really focused on work, he’s now in his 60’s is still as busy as always. He always tells me that if it wasn’t for music, he doesn’t think he would have survived the impact of it all. No matter how bad times would get, you’d find him smiling on stage, ripping through solos and entertaining audiences. Music offered the kind of therapy he needed to keep it together through all bad stuff going on at home, and ultimately the income our family needed.
Reflecting on the many years of my dad’s involvement in the music industry, all the way through the 70’s to now, there is so much you could learn from both his successes and failures.
Firstly, learning to work in the industry as it evolves is the most important aspect of ensuring you continue to get work. In the 90’s, there were no shortage of big band gigs in our town. When venues started to ask for cheaper options, my dad found a way to create it by creating his solo career. He continually invests in better gear, developing better backing tracks and discovering new music to play.
Secondly, investing what you earn is super important. Buying a house should be right up there on the list, but not biting off more than you can chew will mean a lot less stress. Building a buffer of cash is another big one, making sure no matter how the market plays out, you’re able to live comfortably on your savings.
Thirdly, try to plan for the unexpected. I’m sure if my dad could go back in time, he would have invested in medical aid and, if possible, income protection insurance – because no matter how you invest, all your hard work and earnings can disappear overnight when it comes to illness.
Lastly, do your homework before you put your hard earned cash into an investment. My dad managed to save up some cash after my mum passed, and decided to invest in bitcoin. He lost his account details and lost his entire investment. The investment itself wasn’t actually a bad decision, but because of his lack of knowledge on how bitcoin works, it ended up being a complete loss.
My dad continues to be my biggest inspiration. I remember a lot of people thought his career choice was a crazy one. Many people have told him he couldn’t do it, but he’s a living example of someone who has made an entirely successful career from it.
The music industry is filled with so much potential. Once you’ve found a way to make a consistent living from music, being smart with how you spend your money will mean you’re never in a position where you have to stress out about it.
Being able to simply enjoy what you do is what it’s all about, and no matter what happens along the way or the doubt others may have in you, you can honestly say ‘I have the best job in the world’.
Jéan Gabriel is a writer for numusician.com, a blog dedicated to helping music artists on a variety of subjects. With experience working in studios, in theaters and stages across the world, Jean’s music career offers unique insights into the music industry which he hopes will inspire others to make music their career too.
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