In this four-part series, I 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.
In part two of the series (read part one first), we will examine the world of a musician who has to hustle to keep pushing forward in his craft, and from him we can all learn a bit about how to choose goals that never leave us asking ourselves, "What now?"
This musician chose to go by a pseudonym, so I'll call him Gerald. Gerald is a drummer who is primarily part of the hip-hop and gospel scenes, though he does delve into other genres as well. He estimates he spends 20 to 30 hours a week between running self-guided practice, attending paid lessons with an instructor, and participating in rehearsals for the many acts he plays with (as many as five or six at a time). This is all on top of a physically demanding job where he also works 30 hours a week in 10-hour shifts. Given his chosen instrument, his financial contribution to his craft is no small endeavor either. He estimates he's spent somewhere around $4,000 on his equipment, not counting the car he got to lug it all around in.
Gerald was lured to the drums by their physicality. He began drumming around 2010 or so when he returned from being overseas with the Marines and was drawn in by his best friend at the time who was also a drummer. Aside from some guidance from the aforementioned friend, he is self-taught and has continued to play and improve this way for years before finally hitting a plateau and forking over his hard-earned cash for weekly lessons to further develop his craft. Gerald likes that the instrument is one that engages the whole body and demands power and control.
To pay the bills (because music certainly doesn't, he confides), Gerald is a bike delivery person in Manhattan. His job requires stamina and vigor much like his music does, but it also comes with an element of danger, because biking in the streets of Manhattan means fighting traffic, tourists, and even opportunist thieves to get your cargo to its destination. He said he chose this job because of the freedom it provides. "I'm able to make time for my music this way. In three days I bang out 30 hours, and I can focus on playing the rest of the time." This job far from glamorous. It requires Gerald to work in all weather, from hot summer days with air quality advisories in effect to right up until the bridges are closed for impending hurricanes or even in literal blizzard conditions in the biting cold of winter. He's been hit by cars, crashed to avoid clueless pedestrians, and even jumped. It's not a job he loves, but it's a job he keeps for the sole purpose that it allows him to play music.
Even with this grueling employment, which in this case generally pays pretty well if you don't factor in the risk of injury, Gerald doesn't have the financial independence he needs to live on music and delivering alone. He shares his Bushwick apartment with his girlfriend and a roommate. He has at times relied on AirBnB to help cover the rent. Most people pulling 60-hour workweeks don't have to rely on roommates or home sharing to make ends meet, but Gerald does for one very important reason: in New York City, music doesn't pay.
You'd think such hard work would cause Gerald to turn away from his music, but the struggles seem to have no effect on his drive. While another job with easier work less freedom to play might seem enticing to some, Gerald prefers toughing it out for sake of his craft. What keeps him pushing is the fact that has goals he is determined to reach. When we think of musicians, we often think they are guided by the idea of fame and fortune, but for Gerald, those are in the back of his mind, if they're thought of at all.
When I asked Gerald what he gets paid to play the gigs he performs, usually several a month, he said that he often gets paid nothing. Remembering that hours of rehearsal go into each performance, I had him clarify, wondering if he truly never gets paid a cent. "It's usually no pay or very low pay. If I get money at all, it's around $100 or less, and usually from the artist themselves, rarely the actual venue." I asked if $100 seems equal to the amount of work he puts in, and in answer I'm told about the cost of gas, the wear and tear on his car, the cost of the rehearsal space, the cost of equipment, not to mention maintaining the equipment, and the cost of the nearly unavoidable tickets and tows most drivers in NYC are accustomed to, no matter how careful they think they are about parking. After all of this is accounted for, Gerald says he's never played a show where he actually netted positive, financially.
So why keep doing it? Gerald says he's driven by the desire to play with great acts. Not necessarily famous acts, but other artists who bring technicality, creativity, and positive vibes to the world through their craft. Gerald wants to induce a range of emotions in his listeners. He wants them to feel whatever it is that the music says to them and to encourage creative exploration of emotions and minds. To him, music is a window to things that can only be unlocked through rhythm and syncopation, and he wants to be someone who helps others unlock that part of themselves that only music can reach.
From this it's clear that money isn't the reward Gerald is looking for; his goals will bring him a different sort of reward. From him, we can see that it is important to always remind ourselves that goals aren't always something tangible or immediate. They're not always something you can feel like you've truly achieved, an item to be checked off a list. Sometimes goals are a feeling or a state of being, something fluid and immaterial. It's ok to aim for a new car or a big bonus, but once you get there, what's next? This is where motivation and drive can often wane. However, if you aim for happiness, for fulfillment, for greatness, you'll always have something to be working toward. Since Gerald's goals are a journey, he doesn't get discouraged when that journey takes him on a course he wasn't expecting. He'll keep grinding all the same, because he knows that even when he's overcoming obstacles, he's moving forward and getting closer and closer to where he wants to be.
This is part 2 of an ongoing series. Part 3 is here.