by Marti Jane Dodson
Sep 21, 2017
Money-the big green elephant in the music business living room. There are many reasons we don’t like to talk about it. Some of us feel that putting a price on our art cheapens its value, or implies that we’re in this for the wrong reasons. Some of us attend the school of Faking It Til You Make It, which means we don’t want people knowing we had to sling beers for a paycheck at midnight last night, so that we could be available for that 10 am cowrite this morning.
But I’m here to talk reality, and the money part of music has been an extremely interesting part of my journey. When a song of mine was first playing on the radio, the phone started ringing. Because we live in a culture of excess, we believe the glamorous images that are presented to us of the entertainment business. People from my past expected that, because I was on the radio, I was waking up each day in my beachfront mansion and flying my private jet to the Cool Party Where Famous People Go. The real truth: I was already in debt from years of struggle while pursuing music. The real truth: Though my song was on the radio, it took well over a year to see any financial gain from that. The real truth: I was a part owner of a corporation (my band). Translation-all the bills gets paid before you see any profit. The manager, the booking agent, the tour bus, the record label, the hotel rooms, the sound guy, the hired players, the food, the gas-it all comes off the top. Then whatever piece of the pie was left, remained to be split among myself and the two other owners in my band. Which means there wasn’t much actual pie..maybe a piece of crust and a dried up blueberry-but dang, that pie tasted good! In my most profitable year as an artist/songwriter, I dipped my pinky toe in 6 figure water. Almost. Then I slipped and fell backwards into the baby pool. Ever since, I’ve been chilling here with my floaties on, waiting for my sailboat to come in!
Moving into the songwriter phase of my career has been a roller coaster. I had a small deal early on, but about 2 years ago, it ended, leaving a six month gap with no paycheck before I was able to get another deal. (Many people struggle for WAY longer than that. This was a great stroke of luck for me.) In that meantime, I had to figure out a way to pay the bills that could be accomplished at night, so I could keep my writing calendar full during the day. A 9 to 5 wasn’t an option if I wanted to keep writing every day-and oh, how I wanted to keep writing every day-so for the first time in my life, I took a job as a server.
I am a person who enjoys new experiences, and I had some great bosses and co-workers, so for the most part this was a good time for me. I was also very grateful to have found a way to get by while I worked toward my next chapter. But one night I came home from serving, and my feet were burning from 11 hours of standing, and my hair smelled like pizza, and I had been embarrassed to have waited on some music peers of mine. I walked past the gold record framed on my wall and burst into tears. And, like most crying girls-I wanted my mommy.
I called my mom to cry and complain, and in that conversation she said something that has stuck with me ever since. I think she knew I felt humiliated on that night, to have been successful at music and then suddenly have to wait tables. She said ‘Marti Lynn (the ‘Lynn’ is how you know you’re about to get *The Business*) there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with doing honest work for an honest living. It might not be what you want, but it’s hard work and you’re making good money, and that has value. Don’t you EVER be ashamed of doing what it takes honorably, to get where you want to be.’
She was absolutely right. I was doing honest work. Serving people requires a level of grace and humility that isn’t often encouraged in the entertainment business. It requires the kind of physical and emotional endurance it takes to be in a field where 100 doors slam in your face before 1 opens. It requires you to give of yourself to others. It requires you to meet lots of new people, get them to like you in a short amount of time, and oftentimes, hear their stories and share yours. In short, everything that job asked of me was GREAT fuel for songwriting.
In a few months, I was able to sign a deal with a wonderful publisher and quit that job. So it truly was a stop on the road. For someone at my level, I have a great deal. Thus far, I haven’t generated my company enough profit for a staff lunch off the value menu at McDonald’s, but in spite of this, my publishers are very generous with me. Believe me when I say that being allowed to write songs for a living makes it onto my daily gratitude list all the time. But now time for real talk-having a great deal, in today’s market-means what I make is similar to what I made years ago as an entry level social worker. So I do all kinds of things to make ends meet. I’m not unique in that-many of my friends, both with and without deals, pursue other interests to help with cash flow. Me? I sing demos, I make and sell jewelry at local boutiques, and I have a partnership with one of my best friends selling balloons at festivals. (Holler at your girl if you need an inflatable pug!) I try to only do things that are fun to me. And they’re all pursuits that allow me to do as little or as much extra work as I want, and still write full time. And do you know what all of that means? It means I am getting by AND doing what I love. If music is your get-rich-quick scheme, then hello-I am the grim reaper, and the day has come for that plan to die. But if music is your soul food, then you’ll never go hungry. Well, spiritually, that is. If you’re literally going hungry, that’s probably a good thing anyway since artists are supposed to be skinny. (THAT IS A JOKE…if you know me, you know I think that’s a crock of crap invented by white guys in suits a long time ago, and is ever so slowly and beautifully being eroded by real people with real bodies who sing real music. Amen.)
The lesson here is twofold-one, that life is life. Bills need to be paid, my elderly cat needs salmon treats, and mama likes a new perfume once in a while (pro tip: Sofia Vergara’s ‘Sofia’ is $20 at Walmart and smells a whole lot like Coco Mademoiselle by Chanel..girls be asking me what I’m wearing all the time!)
PLEASE-don’t be discouraged if your dream is to be in a place to make your living doing music, but you’re not there yet. In the wise words of Brenda Dodson, there’s nothing wrong with doing honest work for honest money.
The second, and the most important thing-the thing that has fueled me and many other starving artists through hard times is this-music is a labor of love. We don’t do it to fill up our bank accounts. We do it to fill up our spirits. If, at the end of each time you spend being creative-you feel pride in the song you wrote, the joy that comes from expressing yourself, and the satisfaction of putting a new creation into the world-you ARE living the dream.
And if you don’t believe me, I have an inflatable pug with your name on it.
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