[Editors Note: This article was written by Patrick McGuire.]
The phrase “it takes money to make money” applies to lots of ventures, and music is no exception. But while it might be tempting to put the tab for your next album or tour on your credit card, you might want to think twice about going into debt over making music.
How an all or nothing approach can drown you in debt and kill your music career
Learning how to write, record, release music and tour in a way that’s commensurate with your resources is essential if you’re set on making music over the long-term.
For most musicians, this is a major challenge that often proves to be much harder than simply sticking to a budget. Musicians have to be a bit crazy in order to be successful––especially in today’s brutal industry––and holding the somewhat-manic belief that you and your music can do anything can help you defy the odds and find an audience.
But while an extreme, defiant attitude can bolster some musicians, it can be detrimental for others, especially when it comes to money.
Popular culture tells us that it usually takes an all-or-nothing approach to make it in music, and it’s got plenty of compelling examples to show for it. Whether it’s in politics, Hollywood or music, the rags to riches story is an irresistible one, and that’s why we pay attention to them. If you’re having trouble finding success, it’s because you’re not sacrificing enough, conventional wisdom dictates.
This, of course, is absolutely untrue.
The stories we often never hear about those who give up everything for the sake of their dreams and still never make it provide a more accurate portrayal of what happens to most musicians who sacrifice everything on behalf of their music. The biggest reason a musician shouldn’t go into debt for the sake of their music is because doing so might lead to the end of their career.
Whether it’s by racking up credit card debt buying instruments and studio time or choosing to tour for a few months at a time in lieu of earning a steady income at home, musical debt can pile up quickly for an artist if they’re not careful. Major problems over debt and finances have prematurely ended the careers of countless musicians, though we rarely hear about it.
Why you should take care of yourself first and your music career second
Working a side job to help pay the bills.
Saving up to buy a new synthesizer until you have the cash to pay for it.
Putting out a few singles instead of an entire album.
You’ll never read about things like these in an artist’s press release, but financial literacy can absolutely help make a musician more successful. It takes a great deal of sacrifice and investment for a musician to find success, but when an artist puts their music above their health and relationships, things become unsustainable. Going into debt over music is usually a byproduct of a musician’s failure to prioritize their relationship with their craft in a sustainable way.
Sure, you can do nothing but tour and record music for a while, but without earning consistent money, you won’t be able to keep it up for long. And what happens when you get home from tour?
For musicians who go into serious debt over their music, the aftermath can take years to recover from––decimated credit scores, exploding interest and blown career prospects are common. But the worst part of all is that many serious musicians never make music again after going into serious debt.
Approaching finances in a practical way isn’t as sexy as the thought of a musician giving up everything they have to eventually go on to make it big, but it’s something that can help you make music for the rest of your life. Taking care of your own financial needs first, and the ones involving your music second, will help put you in a sustainable situation.
Making music within your means
Music costs money to make, there’s no getting around that. But there’s a Grand Canyon’s worth of difference between making music within your means and getting into debt through recording and touring.
Sustaining a music career within your financial capabilities often means saying no, adhering to a budget and embracing patience. It heavily favors long-term goals, prospects and needs over short-term ones, and this can be tricky, (especially for young musicians).
For some artists, making music within their means puts them in the vast category of musicians who have to make music in their spare time. For others, it looks completely different. But no matter what a musician’s unique situation is, avoiding debt at all costs is one of the best ways to ensure they can keep making music for the rest of their lives if they want to.
Patrick McGuire is a writer, composer, and experienced touring musician based in Philadelphia.