The Real Poop
We hope there is music in your heart, because that may be the only place you'll be able to hear it after you've had to pawn your iPod.
Clearly, from the outside, a career as a rock star is an attractive avenue to consider. We all love music—even if it's really bad music, like polka (polka lovers, feel free to email our complaint department). The idea of playing an instrument or singing your lungs out for a living is tantalizing, but be forewarned—it is about the toughest lifestyle you can imagine.
The problem is that the only musicians and singers we see are the ones on television because those are the ones who have "made it." We aren't usually able to take intimate looks at the lives of those who are struggling, or those who have out-and-out failed. We don't see the near-starvation and substandard living conditions of those who can’t make ends meet and don’t really have any other viable skills (unfortunately, being able to flip your tongue over doesn't fall under the category of "viable"). Sure, some make it big and many others are able to eke out a living, but for the majority it is a constant battle to make money from week to week, and most either take another job for supplementary income or give up on it altogether. For deets, check out the throngs in line at American Idol auditions. And those are the people who generally suck. For every Bono, there are 10 million others who tried and failed.
We love U 2, Bono.
We’re not trying to stomp on your dreams—just trying to be real with you. We're all for thinking big and going out there to conquer the big scary world with your inimitable talents, but please, please, please listen to us when we say that you should have a Plan B. Get your college degree. Be really good at something other than music—something mainstream like business or science. (In fact, "business" isn’t a bad idea—even if you do have success as a musician, you'll likely need to be your own businessman, marketing yourself and keeping tabs on your income and expenses.) Then give your dream a shot with all of your heart—leave nothing on the table. If you ever feel beaten down and weary of the fight, at least you have something to fall back on. And if you wind up working for a nice enough employer, perhaps they'll let you sing quietly in your cubicle.
Still reading? Okay—we'll assume you have taken our words to heart but want to give it a go in spite of the threat of heartbreak and poverty. Hopefully you will experience at least a little heartbreak and poverty—you may not be much of a musician without it.
For so many people to brave failure and starvation, the dream gig must be pretty great. And it is. You are getting paid to do what you do every morning in the shower (this is more for singers than pianists, but if you've got a waterproof piano, it could apply to you too). You are making music, for goodness sakes—enriching people's lives and making them feel happy (or sad) and contributing to our wealth of culture, all the while feeding your own insatiable ego. There are gobs of money to be had (although those gobs go to the very few), and there's the chance you may be treated like a rock star because you are one. That phrase doesn't come from nowhere.
Because the source of your next paycheck is always so uncertain, you may have to work a pretty crazy variety of gigs to continue making enough money for expenses. You might get hired by a cruise ship to play in their piano bar for a couple of months. Maybe a local church choir is looking to pay for a few good singers—$50 only once a week, but it's better than nothing. As you move up the ladder and gain more recognition, you may start getting booked by some legit venues—bars and clubs around town that you pretty much have to go through in order to ascend to greatness. Or at least respectability.
Hopefully you make some good connections or get seen by a person of influence. If you're a singer, you will want to have a demo recorded, so you can pass that along; the hope is that your demo will impress someone at a small record label enough to have them record an entire album, and then that album will catch the ear of someone at a large record label, and suddenly you're a star. The reality is that most don't make it past the "demo" stage. We're talking years and years of rejection, dead ends and your parents asking you why you don't go back to business school. (They might have a point.)
It's a long, hard road (wait—isn't that a song?), but one that most dedicated musicians and singers feel is one worth traveling. You just may want to bring along a map so that, if you end up on a detour and lose your way, you can always retrace your steps and give an alternate road a try. One that doesn't start out with the sign, "Caution: Unfinished Bridge."