New York City is it. We've heard it time and time again: If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. And that's probably why so many musicians flock here. Some do it with their family's money in their pocket, having a cushion to fall back on if they don't get that big break in a few months. Others, however, often engage in an odyssey of sorts to move from near and far to the Big Apple with not much to their name and only their dreams as their guide. These visionaries are in it for the long haul and will do whatever is necessary to follow their passion. But what does it really take to be a musician in New York City? With hundreds of venues to choose from and thousands of other musicians vying for a spot on the stage, how much work does it really take to make it in the music world in New York? Obviously getting signed and hitting it big are pipe dreams for many, but what about just making enough to live on? When you grab your drink and dance along to the live band at your favorite bar, have you ever thought of what it took to get them there?
In this four-part series, I will interview different New York City musicians who have been living the grind for years. I want to know how much they put into their craft to get where they are now, how they survive the day-to-day, and why they feel like all the hustle is really worth it in the end. How do they stay so driven, and what can we learn from them?
To understand how and why artists do what they do, we need to first understand what they do, so let's start with Dan. Dan has been singing since he was in first grade and writing music since he was 12 years old. He devoted himself seriously to the bass at 14 and picked up the guitar two years later. Following in his father's musical footsteps and growing up watching live music from a very young age, Dan felt a strong pull to participate in music most of his life. Growing up in northwestern New Jersey, Dan pursued graphic design in school, but never stopped playing. He hopped around the country-- New Jersey, San Diego, and back to New Jersey-- before finally landing in New York City over 10 years ago. He has resided in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bushwick ever since.
Dan has a pretty nice place, though, sharing a newly renovated and very cool apartment with three others. Even in a neighborhood classified as "up-and-coming," Dan admits music has never paid the bills. "Even though I have gotten paid," he explains, "it doesn't come close to breaking even with what I have invested." Going over some of his music-related expenses, Dan explains how much of a sink this craft can really be. "I pay for a personal practice space," and in addition to that recurring cost, Dan says, "I have spent thousands of dollars on equipment." After a laundry list of costs, including that space, multiple amps, a PA system, various guitars, basses, and pedals over the years, he's still not finished. He still has cameras and software and other odds and ends to account for. "So at the very least," Dan concludes, "I have spent at least $5,000 over the years, and that's just if we don't include travel or other overhead. The return on all this investment is quite low. Dan says when he gets paid, which isn't every time he plays, he gets between $50-$100.
Credit: Kelsey Fox
Cost isn't the only challenge a musician like Dan faces. Being a musician in New York City is tough. "It's a real challenge to distinguish yourself among so much music, good and bad. We practice so hard and still there are some better, but many worse. So it's hard for someone to sift through the garbage to find something special." This is a recurring theme I hear when I talk to musicians in the Big Apple. So many people flock here, good and bad, that you can sometimes feel lost in the noise. The fact that a large number of New York City bars and venues don't pay their acts or even make sure back-to-back performances are of the same caliber (or even the same genre) means artists often feel frustration rather than exhilaration when they are gearing up to get on stage.
But there are good things too. Dan says, "Over the course of living here, I have made [lots of] contacts and have discovered communities and venues. I have played many of the clubs in the city," and continues that of course, "there are many more I could add to my resume."
But the struggle is real, and someone might ask themselves why a person would put themselves through so much for what seems like such little pay off. Why keep grinding so hard for so long in such an unforgiving place? When Dan explains, it seems simple. He says, "[Music] is essential to who I am. Without music, I am nothing. It may seem dramatic, but music saved my life. It gave me purpose when I had none. It is also something that gives me a satisfaction nothing else ever has."
Unfortunately, one can't live on satisfaction alone, so Dan has a day job as editor-in-chief for a New York City-based online publication, Popdust.com, and that job he calls "a great situation giving [him] the ability to make an impact on the music community." Though Dan appreciates the work, he adds that it is "still like I am working 2 jobs, the day job and the music life."
Despite the necessity of a double workload, Dan is happy, and I think his story presents a lesson we can all benefit from: Even when facing a mountain of challenges, multiple jobs, and frustration from circumstances out of your control, if you are working toward something that you love, you can still find happiness and fulfillment. Having drive doesn't mean making no compromises, nor does it mean you can't have room in your life for anything else; in fact, sometimes those other things help facilitate your goals. What drive is, and what Dan shows us, is doing what's necessary to stay in the game, stay motivated, and stay working. Giving in is not giving up.
Credit: Kelsey Fox
Looking toward the future, Dan's goals regarding music are always to continue to improve and to impact the music world. He is intent on, in his words, "sharing what I believe to be what's missing in some music: a consciousness." He explains that he doesn't mean for this to sound "hippy-dippy," but that he wants to connect "to something we all share at a concert." We've all felt that high when surrounded by other fans watching our favorite band perform, and that connectedness is what Dan wants to facilitate with his craft. He wants to combine the music of his lifetime with recent technological advancements and says, "I want to create an online experience that is interactive and will bring the musicians and fans closer all over the world. I want to do something great!" He wants to do something on "a large scale that resonates with us all."
Maybe what we should learn from people like Dan with unending and especially enviable drive is that their motivator isn't always a big payday at the end, but the satisfaction they gain from the actual act of performing, of improving, and of sharing their craft with others. When I ask Dan if he's ever going to stop, his answer is clear: "I will keep doing it. I couldn't stop if I wanted to. This is for life." He ends with an emphatic, "Thank God!"
This is an ongoing series. To check out part two, click here.