By Zach Collier
In a study conducted by Reach Provo in 2018, the magazine found (unsurprisingly) that one of the primary concerns among musicians in Provo was how to make money. This is a plight common to musicians all around the world. The starving artist stereotype exists for a reason. Apart from having a naturally transient population due to the existence of two major universities in Utah County, the starving artist stereotype may be the reason most Provo artists give up on their dreams, and most bands don’t have the longevity we wish they did. They’re scared of failure, don’t have a clear path forward, and feel like they need to grow up and be that orthodontist their mom always wanted them to be.
If we want to make Provo the Nashville of the Mountain West, we need bands with longevity. But longevity is hard to have when you can’t pay the bills. So the question remains: how do you make it as a musician? This is Part 1 of our Making It In Music series.
First, decide what “making it” means to you.
If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.
Throughout my time as a professional musician, I’ve met people who have found interesting ways to make it in the music industry. They do music daily, working with well-known clients and performing in legendary venues. Their music reaches audiences all over the globe. All of them are talented beyond measure. They are happy and proud of what they do.
Not all of them do the same thing. The most important lesson I’ve learned from these people is that no two paths are the same. However, there are some similar directions you can travel.
Which direction you choose to travel depends on your deepest desires. Do you want wealth? Do you want fulfillment? Do you want security? All three? There are ways to get there. But you need to decide where you want to go and what your priorities are.
What follows is a description of potential destinations.
The Professional Hobbyist
The Professional Hobbyist is the type of musician who does music for the sake of doing music. This title has nothing to do with talent level, but has everything to do with a desire for security.
Music is a volatile business. It’s full of big risks, potentially big rewards, and a high financial failure rate. Many musicians struggle with burnout, and some end up cursing the very art they set out to create.
The Professional Hobbyist loves music as an art form, and wants to love it forever. They have little interest in monetizing it (though many still make great money from it on the side). Instead of looking at music as a money maker, they look at music as the end goal.
So the Professional Hobbyist takes up a flexible career that allows them to do what they love. Some become teachers, because it provides insurance, free evenings for rehearsal, and a paid summer that allows them to tour. Others get into computer programming, because it pays well and allows them to work remotely while they are on the road gigging.
Renowned folk artist Gregory Alan Isakov is an excellent example of this. Raised in Philadelphia, he studied horticulture at Naropa University in Colorado. In college, he played gigs while also working as a gardener. He had no deadlines for when his career was supposed to take off, because music wasn’t his career. He was planning on doing it his entire life anyway.
His dual love of agriculture and music have worked well for him. Vail Daily had this to say about his lifestyle:
There are two seasons for Gregory Alan Isakov — touring and farming.
That’s why you only find the singer/songwriter on the road primarily in the fall and winter. For much of the summer, he’s got work to do on his small farm near Boulder starting in the springtime.
“My season’s about 18 weeks of production,” Isakov said. “I do salad vegetables for restaurants, mainly. I’m working pretty hard at it from May through the end of September, which is why I tour in the winter.”
But when he is on the road, he sells out shows. He’s playing in Breckenridge on Thursday, and his following shows in Aspen and Park City, Utah are sold out, as are dates in Estes Park, Steamboat Springs, and two dates in Gold Hill. 
His album Evening Machines was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Folk Album in 2019, and he’s worked extensively with the Colorado Symphony. He has over 2 million monthly listeners on Spotify.
While some dread working multiple jobs to make ends meet and want music to be the all-consuming thing, some find this lifestyle perfect. Isakov said, “I’ve been doing both for so long, I just feel too much of one isn’t good for me.”
The path of the Professional Hobbyist provides stability and security, while still having the possibility of sold out national tours, wealth, and Grammy Nominations.
The Working Musician
Similar to the Professional Hobbyist, the Working Musician loves doing music for the sake of doing music. However, unlike the Professional Hobbyist, they hate doing almost anything else. The thought of a traditional 9-5 makes their skin crawl. Possessing a naturally entrepreneurial spirit, they are able to think of creative ways to make money from doing music.
This path puts fulfillment above security and wealth. They don’t want to be rich and famous. They just want to do music all day, every day, all the time – and still be able to feed their family.
These are the people that start music schools. These are the ones who teach piano and voice lessons full time from their home. These are the ones who own their own recording studios or music stores.
These are the guys that build out sample and loop libraries. These are the people who record entire scores for Broadway musicals and rent the backing tracks to schools and community theaters. These are the people who crank out hundreds of workout remixes a year for gym chains like Vasa.
These dudes start music festivals and music venues and practice spaces.
These are the musicians that gig constantly, playing cruise ships and weddings and parties and corporate events.
These are the ones that start magazines about local music (lol).
It doesn’t have to pay great, but it has to be music related, and it has to be personally fulfilling. Will you have fame and notoriety? Not necessarily. Will you be around music 24/7 and get paid to do it? You bet. This ability to get paid to constantly do music and music-related things gives you ample time to hone your craft, plus money to spend on making your art. How much money you end up making from your art is totally up to you.
Notable local Working Musicians are:
Ron Saltmarsh – head of the BYU Commercial Music Program, session musician, and member of the band Joshua Creek
Scott Wiley – owner of June Audio, session musician, founding member of The Lower Lights, and husband of Sarah Wiley (who helped found Rooftop Concert Series)
Dave McDougal – does sound for the LDS Motion Picture Studio and founded a music company that provides Broadway backing tracks to thousands of clients all over the world.
Most musicians begin their journey inspired by a Superstar. Whether it’s The Beatles, Oingo Boingo, Weezer, Taylor Swift, or Jay-Z, we grow up idolizing some musician and their art. This leads us to make art of our own.
Unfortunately, not everyone is cut out for this. It requires a certain kind of insanity to believe that you deserve the attention of millions of listeners. It takes a crazy amount of faith in the worth of your art. You have to evangelize constantly. Gig relentlessly. Practice for hours every day. Network. Market. Advertise. Go without meals. Sleep on floors. Max out credit cards.
It’s a daily grind full of rejection. So so so so SO much rejection.
Maroon 5 used to be called Kara’s Flowers, and their first major label record was a total flop. Colbie Caillat was rejected by American Idol every time she auditioned. Portugal. The Man was a band for 12 years before “Feel It Still” propelled them to international stardom.
Sadly, most of us will never win a Grammy or be on the radio. And that’s ok. But if you’re crazy enough to go for it, don’t give up. Even if it takes you 12 years and a name change or two.
Since most musicians begin their careers inspired by Superstars, some feel like that’s all there is to aspire to. And if their record doesn’t go platinum by the time they’re 30, then they need to burn their guitar, never do music again, and resign themselves to med school. Some of these poor souls are hating their 9-5 job at a law firm somewhere, unaware that they would have made an excellent session musician, voice teacher, or Spotify curator. They didn’t know it was possible to be a Working Musician.
This isn’t knocking lawyers or doctors or whatever. It’s just that some people really wish they were doing music instead of those things, and didn’t realize there were other options. Some who would be excellent Professional Hobbyists don’t know that they can be an insurance agent AND have millions of streams on Spotify. A hobby like that is nothing to be ashamed of. Quite the opposite. It’s really cool.
Some people are born Superstars and get there seemingly overnight. Some Professional Hobbyists eventually become Superstars. And some Working Musicians are secret Superstars who live quiet lives but just got home to Provo after performing with the Killers in Australia, like local legend Robbie Connolly.
Every life is beautiful, every path is different. Don’t be ashamed to take the musical path that’s right for you. The only path you shouldn’t take is the one where you hide your talents, stop making music, work a job you hate, and die with your songs still inside you.