This Glamorous life: Three Less-Than-Great Things About Musical Self-Employment

Last time we met, I raved about how great my life is (annoying). Welcome to the Evil Stepsister of that post. Today, I’m going to dive into Three Less-Than-Great Things About Musical Self-Employment…a.k.a. minor complaints I have that probably don’t compare to what most people have to endure, but that are nonetheless trials for myself and any aspiring music maven.

So I have this scooter. A Yamaha Vino, really cute. Silver, only goes 40mph, and I use it to zip around town and run minor errands. It sits in my garage for half the year (thanks, schizophreic MISSOURI WINTERS) and someone suggested putting this stuff called stabilizer in the gasoline to keep it from going bad (pulling bad gas  into the motor will WRECK your engine). When I asked how much to put in, they said that since the gas tank only holds one gallon (I kid you not), that basically a drop or two would do it. I feel like this is a good analogy for the life of any DIY musician. You just need a few drops of stabilizer to keep things solid. For me, that drop or two is my studio, which provides the bread and butter of my income and allows me to frolic in other musical meadows with relatively minimal financial risk.

I’m not a 9-to-5-er, so I don’t have a pension. Most of the jobs for which I get W-2s do NOT take out taxes. Speaking of skills no one teaches you, figuring out self-employment taxes is very much akin to a nightmare gone bad. You know, the kind where everything starts off rosy and a little too technicolor, but then something minor puts you off and you think “well, that seems out of place.” Then before you know it, you’re falling down a black rabbit hole of doom and trying to force yourself to wake up from it all. Just a regular weekend spent filling out my Schedule C. Last year, our final tax submission turned out to be over 20 pages. Uncle Sam must really hate me.

As a 100% self-employed household (my hubby, the computer scientist included), we have to be especially savvy with our budget, savings, and debt, lest we end up in jail for tax evasion or a night in the ER. Before Obamacare, I had no health insurance, which was nerve-wracking, but ultimately my choice. At any given point, my income fluctuates anywhere from a few bucks to as much as a thousand or more.  For however flexible my life is, I don’t get paid when I take off unexpectedly. I’m clever enough to pad in paid vacation weeks throughout the year, but when I unexpectedly get ill (hello, egg allergy I didn’t know I had), I suck it up and either make up the lessons or credit them. I know I already mused over the rockin’ benefits of having the ultimate-flexible lifestyle, but the tradeoffs to self-managing your stability are truly worth it. For instance, last year I knew I was going to be spending two weeks in Italy in the middle of September. I had to do some special finagling of my studio calendar so that I could be paid for the whole month without incensing a riot among my students and parents (I taught an extra week in December and May, easypeasy).

There’s a learning curve to all this that most musicians either don’t give a flip about, simply don’t have time to figure out or aren’t in the situation to try. 75% of my musical network just doesn’t want to think about this because it’s too much work and a helluva lotta math. I once legitimately used a systems of equations to figure out how much to charge for 30-minute and 60-minute lessons, and how many of each I would need to make a living, while only allowing my hour-long lessons to take up 25% of my schedule. You have not lived until you feel the satisfaction of figuring out that; my trig teacher was right – I did use math in real life! And the thinking pays off…

Isolation & The Splinter Effect.
Here’s where I’m going to get personal. Some days of the week, I don’t actually see or even speak to another human being other than my husband and the mailman. I also don’t see the same people every day and used to pine over the fact that I was missing out on a dysfunctional-yet-comedic cubicle network of friends, a la The Office. Dealing with this made me feel uber-isolated for a while. Eventually, I realized this isn’t the same as being lonely, and the distinction is important.

Working to stay connected with actual human begins sometimes takes more effort than a P90X workout after carbs. I figured out that the solution is taking initiative to organize events that involve me wearing more than my workout shorts and sports bra. I assume if I want to see people, I’ll have to make it happen, which is hard to do when your home studio can feel like a vortex of Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey. I know when I start crusting over that it’s time to get out of the house.

Then there’s this thing I call the Splinter Effect. When everything you do is splintered off into these factions (teaching, performing, musical theater, chamber music, studio…etcetc), you start to see the same effects in your social life. As a result of my self-chartered musical career, I hang with people twice my age, strangers from other states (online, okay? I’m not some weirdo), old teachers, people I went to school with that have settled in the area, and the list goes on. I run with musicians, thespians, some lawyers, artists, dancers, computer scientists, physical therapists, and even doctors. I’ve learned to be okay with the fact that adulthood friendships are pretty much nothing I perceived them to be when I was in college or high school, despite what Friends led me to believe. This is no doubt what people in every field, musical or not, experience. I think the situation is just exacerbated by the fact that most of the time, I don’t even say actual words until a student walks into my door or I start my day at the college. Unless you count dachshund-talk…but that’d be stretching it (“nee-go-ah-SIDE-tuh-POO-Poo?” yeah, no).

Motivation & Self-Discipline
I can’t tell you how many times I have a conversation that goes like this:
Inexperienced-yet-promising-aspiring-musician/teacher/performer: So when do you usually teach?
Me: ya know, at the college it’s during the day. For my studio, I usually have to wait until kiddos are out of school around 3.
IYPAMTP: :::grimaces::: omg if I ran a studio I’d sleep in. I’m soooo bad about sleeping in! Do you sleep in like, every day?

To which my hearty reply is a resounding “thank you very little!” I’m fortunate enough to have had things like punctuality and self-discipline nailed instilled in me from a young age. Heck, half my job is literal practicing, which you can’t really do without forcing yourself into the right mentality. As a practicing independent teacher, I get up at a reasonable hour (usually 7 or 8, sometimes earlier) to do things like write, compose, catch up on research, or balance the studio books. Only rarely (more so during the summer or after a recently-ended show) do my mornings entail a mini-Netflix-binge. When they do, they are promptly balanced out with an afternoon or late evening of work, because if I don’t do that, I feel unproductive and a little guilty, though I’ve managed to get over that as of late.

I do NOT recommend the self-made musical lifestyle for ANYONE who can’t create or follow their own structure. There’s a fair amount of goal-reaching happening in my life, as in “sing at least 6 weddings this year to supplement my income” or “in the next 8 months, try to get together enough original material for a compilation of voice solos” or “put on pants today.” Conversations like the above leave me incredulous and a little cynical. It’s like, really? You got through four five six years of a music degree and you can’t set an alarm OR achievable goals? Lately, I’ve become more understanding of the fact that everyone operates differently, and so I can see how others find it hard to believe that I actually do parcel out my day into little pockets of time so I can get stuff done. They’re even printed on my ical, which has a tendency to make things so. But lord knows there are days where I look at my schedule, say screw you guys, I’m going home…and then promptly take a nap. But 90% of the population couldn’t handle keeping those kinds of behaviors in check. Good thing my drill instructor choir director taught. me. things.

So that’s the glass-half-empty perspective. What do you find difficult about the musician’s lifestyle? Go ahead, let it all out…it’s okay. Later, we can carry out Sacred Rites by writing all our grievances on paper and burning it as symbolic, joyful representation of doing what we love! YAY MUSIC.


  1. Colleen Ostercamp says:

    Robin – thanks so much for taking the time to entertain and inform!

    Keep it up – I love it, and I can hear your voice and enthusiasm as I read!

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