How musicians keep grinding (and you can too)

Drive: Part 3

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 three of the series (read parts one and two), we meet a Missourian who has encountered many hardships to get where he is, and he has no intention of stopping soon. The way he continues to grind even after so many setbacks is a clear example of what it takes for a person to get closer to achieving their dream, and equally importantly, is something we can all learn to do just as well as he has.

Brandon

It's a dilemma musicians seem to have to face time and time again. No matter how talented, driven, devoted, or engaged in the music world they are, they seem to all too often have to pick something to sacrifice: their comfort or their art. They can continue to focus on their music at a detriment their lifestyle, living on less and praying music will pay the bills, or they can get second or third jobs and feel more financially comfortable but pray instead that they still have the time, energy, and flexibility to devote to their career and passion. All in all, it's what many see as an impossible decision. Brandon is no stranger to this unfortunate dichotomy of circumstances, but his story culminates in a lesson each of us can apply to our own craft.

A keyboardist and Missouri-born father of two, Brandon, who goes by B-Sauce on stage, now lives with his wife, their two children, and his brother in a nice apartment in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. He plays mostly in Philadelphia, bringing the gospel to people's ears through his music at Sunday church services, and he gets paid to do it. He guesses he currently averages about $200 a week playing the church circuit, and he loves the job, but it's not enough to scratch his musical itch, so he finds himself in New York City several times a month, toting his computer along with four separate keyboards, their various stands, plugs, and cases with him in order to rehearse with and play behind a few different acts in the Big Apple, mostly leaning toward hip-hop. He does all this even though in contrast to the church gigs, it is almost always at a monetary loss.

Brandon estimates that he spends more than 40 and possibly at times up to 60 hours a week on music, whether it be private study, what he calls "musical transcription homework," group rehearsals, and not least of all, traveling. Learning artists' music at home gets about four to five hours of his time every day, and eight to 16 hours are set aside for rehearsals every week, depending on how many acts he's currently working with. Perhaps understandably, it turns out that the actual performances take the least amount of his time. Like a large number of artists, only a few hours a week is spent actually standing in front of a crowd, so most of the work stays behind the scenes, hours and hours of effort and toil hidden away so that his time on the stage is, ironically, seen to be effortless by those in the crowd enjoying the show.

Credit: Kelsey Fox

It doesn't take much mental math to see that even if we take Brandon's work hours on the low end, getting paid that $200 a week for 40 hours of work equates to far, far below the minimum wage, and that's not even taking into consideration his monetary investment in his craft. He has paid somewhere around $7.5k for his equipment, and it costs about $132 for him to drive back and forth between his home and New York just twice. He says that the New York artists he plays with always provide some cash for his trouble, but like most musicians playing in the city, the endeavor is a net negative when all is considered.

So how did he get involved in all this to begin with? Brandon has been playing music since he was 16, and he started with the drums. He played in marching band in high school which is where he says he gained the bulk of his more formal musical education, but he says as a child he was always captivated by the musicians on stage at the church services his mother brought him to, and all he ever wanted to do was to be one of those artists. This led to him eventually getting his first paying gig at a church in Philly where Brandon quickly learned the ins and outs of the gospel music world. Brandon's playing, though driven by passion, seems also at least partially born from circumstance. He entered the music world interested in playing alternative rock and metal, but he monetized his talent by playing what he calls "super-holy contemporary black gospel music," something he admits that he knew nothing about, musically, prior to getting involved. From there, he began to realize that the person making the big bucks on the church stage certainly wasn't the drummer, but rather the man behind the piano, and thus the motivation to learn a new instrument was born. In a funny way, the growing pains of adolescence seem vividly on display in Brandon's path through music. Beginning as a somewhat angsty teen slamming out Slipknot drum solos eventually led him to becoming a musically mature keyboardist specializing in gospel and neo-soul and sending fat, thick chords out across church services and music halls.

Even after this rather lengthy and perhaps unexpected path through various musical genres, at one point Brandon had to more or less step away from the music game due circumstances that left him homeless and struggling. In college, he tried his hand at using music to fund his living, but this led to stints of days without eating and eventual homelessness. He told me about the frustrations of being offered gigs that would pay him upwards of $200, but not being able to pay for the gas to get there. He would ask for help, but "no one wanted to give money over to some homeless guy," he explained. "I'd tell them, you know, it'll be $200. I just need to get there," but all too often he found himself having to sit the gigs out. Food stamps got his family back on their feet to an extent, but the hardships he was facing were extraordinary, and eventually he and his wife to move to Missouri to live with Brandon's mom for a while. He resolved to work a nine-to-five and while spending time at a job that gave him no joy, it got him a home and paid his bills, and after several years of this he finally found himself back in New Jersey living in a Philadelphia suburb.

Credit: Kelsey Fox

Music isn't the only profession that features unpredictability, though. Recently, Brandon was the victim of layoffs at the casino close to his home where he worked. It's at this point I think many people would ask themselves, that if life is going to be a grind either way, why not grind working toward something you love? It was a similar thought process that drew Brandon back into the music world and he has continued to work hard daily on his craft, though he is seeing similar monetary rewards (or lack thereof) for his work.

Right now his meager earnings are supplemented by unemployment, but that is soon coming to an end. His wife also works and Brandon's brother works and helps take care of Brandon and his wife's two little boys, saving them costs on childcare, a great boon to the family for sure, but one that can't last forever, especially since his brother is soon expecting to leave to join the Navy. Brandon says he is worried. Unlike many other musicians in the series, he believes he can survive on income from music alone, but he still doesn't feel confident that he can make enough to give his kids the lifestyle he wants them to have, and he is thinking hard about what he will need to do to supplement soon.

Currently Brandon still has some freedom to continue to invest fully in his craft, so he continues to play in Philadelphia and make frequent trips to New York. When I asked him to describe his experience playing in NYC with one word, however, that word was "frustrating." He says there are a lot of "wannabes, hobbyists, and unskilled divas" to wade through before finding acts that are led by inspiration and drive (not to mention talent). Brandon explains that the city is such a central hub for music, that so many people from so many backgrounds and different levels of musicality congregate there that the NYC scene is diluted. Many people appear to believe that being in New York and playing music is enough and don't strive further, so people like Brandon have to search harder and harder to find those acts that have determination to move beyond a life of barely getting by in the Big Apple and aim for more. It's also a challenge to find other artists who are just as serious and treat music like a job and not a hobby. On top of this, musicians have to settle for gigs at venues that don't pay and sometimes even at venues that don't have stages adequately set up for artists to perform. Alternatively, Brandon describes Philadelphia musicians as being less focused on catching that big break and more in tune to their actual craft, playing for the love of music and driven to constantly improve and grow, rather than the ambitions New York City seems to be most famous for—being the star in the spotlight of the biggest stage that will book you.

Credit: Kelsey Fox

So if Brandon is part of both scenes, perhaps we have to ask, what is it that drives him? In his own words, Brandon says he plays music because it "softens the hard lines of language" and brings about freer and less limited expression. There is so much you can say through coordinated sounds, so much you can express with the emotion of music that spoken language can sometimes lack or be too limited to adequately express. "Life is so beautiful," Brandon says, "and I am in awe of it, but I feel so much pain too." He suggests that bringing that up verbally would often be off-putting or irrelevant when it comes to regular day-to-day conversations, but music gives him an avenue through which he can express that awe or explore that pain in an infinite number of ways. "Music is human emotion expressed through sound and silence. Music is like a universal language that I can use to project different expressions and emotions to somebody who [...] can feel it in their heart," Brandon explains. He feels that music is something that isn't limited by language and, put simply, is a therapeutic outlet, often for the creator and the listener simultaneously.

So how does Brandon keep going? How does he find it in himself to continue the grind even after so long and so many setbacks? Like so many artists I've spoken to for this article and outside of it, Brandon's main goal isn't fame or riches. When I asked him what he aims for in the music world, it is the dually simple yet monumental task of achieving longevity for his creation. "My goal is to write a piece of music that outlives myself; a legacy that will minister to generations to come," says Brandon. I should add for his sake, though, as I think with anyone, money isn't completely out of the question, because he goes on to explain that it would be ideal for that piece of music to also take care of him and his family for generations.

For him, the grind is to create something that lasts, something that's worthwhile, that you can look back on as a life well lived. This is a lesson we could all take note of: find your drive in something that makes you proud, and you'll find it's something you'll always want to come back to in the end and keep grinding for, no matter what.


This is an ongoing series. Click here to read part 4, the final installment.