Music as Career: Keeping the Inner Demons at Bay

Gaelynn Lea Busking on the LakewalkObviously at the beginning of a New Year, there are lots of dreamers and creative types writing about The Meaning of It All. I am no exception, as I find myself asking what I want to accomplish in 2016 regarding music. I am relatively new to this field as profession, but I get the sense that eventually many artists start to feel like they are banging their heads against a wall. They’re playing lots of shows but not getting more recognition, working like crazy at their art but getting paid the equivalent of $3.75/hr (I should know, as I just did my year-end book-keeping). So how does one avoid burnout or prevent resentment from taking up residence in one’s heart while pursuing a career that seems almost doomed to be stunted, save for the unlikely “lucky break”?

I don’t claim to have all the answers about musical burnout, but I have given it quite a lot of thought over the years. Fun fact: I once wrote a song about this very concept for The Murder of Crows. I called it Bird Song (listen to it here) and although the tune had many layers of meaning for me, one of them was simply acknowledging the possibility that “making it” in music may always be just out of my grasp due to the extreme odds in general and the complicating factor of my disability. “Bird, why do you sing? Fate has clipped your wings.” (I still choose to sing despite the stacked deck, because music makes me happy). Anyway, here are a few of my musical musings:


Cynicism can bleed the life out of your art. Of course, a critical view of the world is often material for really meaningful songs, but I am talking about a cynicism toward one’s own music. Many people unintentionally nurse the resentment that clings to unmet expectations, or carry around a sense of being wronged because their music still hasn’t “taken off”. This kind of energy is a killjoy at best and has ruined many a great musician at worst. But I do think you can weed out this cynicism if you can catch it in time. The antidotes to cynicism and resentment are gratitude and love.

Even though it is sometimes difficult to do, I have always tried to keep the focus on sharing my music with others for the purpose of spreading joy and healing. I truly believe that our songs come from the soul’s highest knowledge. Many artists I have talked to (myself included) feel like their songs come from “somewhere else”, and I think that’s because writing music involves tapping into a sort of cosmic, universal energy (love, God, collective wisdom, etc). I certainly feel like writing and performing can be a spiritual or mystical experience for the artist because it taps into this powerful energy; it can be felt playing music in your bedroom by yourself, at a cozy coffee shop gig with 10 people in the audience, or at a massive show with thousands of fans… It’s all the same energy at work in different settings.

What’s humbling and amazing about music is that other people can benefit from the message or melody of your songs, too. Music can bring comfort, joy, release, or just a sense of happiness to those in the audience regardless of the venue or audience size. Some of the sweetest and most heartfelt responses to my music have been at random dinner gigs or tiny shows late at night, or even while busking on the Lakewalk. So to me, the main point of creating music is to share it with others in as many contexts as possible. When your music touches another person’s heart, the world can become a kinder and more beautiful place. The goal of playing music simply doesn’t have to revolve around amassing followers, money, or status. This is hard to remember sometimes in a world so obsessed with “success” but this thought has grounded me again and again.


Obviously when you are pursing a career in music, you will have to either get used to self-promotion or hire someone to do it for you (which is pretty expensive if you net $3.75/hr). So most likely you’ll be faced with lots of booking and promoting your own shows, in addition to writing new music and then recording it and after that trying to get people to buy it so you can recoup the savings you just spent. Some artists I know seem weary about this hamster wheel of performance and self-promotion, wondering if it is an authentic way to live. I guess I have made peace with it in this way: I only promote until it starts to feel inauthentic. Then I take a step back.
If you don’t tell people about your shows or albums, people who are genuinely interested in listening may never find out about what you’re doing. So it’s your responsibility to tell them; you owe it to those who support you. But if you are going so far as to feel “fakey” or apologetic, then you know you’ve gone too far. Stop pushing your boat through the mud and wait for the tide of renewed energy or a different event to begin the promoting again. Authenticity is key.
You don’t have to feel bad about promoting each show if you are creating music from a space of joy or creativity. The people who love and support you will understand – in fact, they WANT to know what you’re up to these days. Just stay true to yourself and don’t promote beyond what seems reasonable or sane to you.
Not everyone will be famous. Almost nobody will be famous. I probably won’t be, either. But truly, that’s not the point of music. Music is a healing medium that can touch the lives of almost anyone… and that is the point. For example, I try to play at group homes and assisted living facilities and hospice whenever I can because it is a serious reminder that music is not about you. People who don’t get a chance to see live music often almost always receive it with a gratitude and enthusiasm that is utterly humbling. All the stuff you worry about (Who is my fan base? What if I am not cool enough? What if no one comes to my shows?) dissolves instantly when you realize that music is simply a gift that we did not create and that is much, much bigger and more valuable than any capitalist label or societal measure of success. That’s one reason I love teaching fiddle lessons. It keeps me grounded and reminds me that lots of people play an instrument not to perform on stage, but just to enjoy the fun and beauty of the music itself. Performance and “fame” is just one tiny, tiny arm of the wonderful body that is music.
Since I am a performer by nature, I do try to promote my music and obviously wouldn’t turn down an opportunity to travel with it or play to bigger audiences (after all, IT IS FUN). But even here, my goal is to realize that all I can do is work hard and then whatever happens, happens. My motto regarding my career in music is “act like it depends on me, but pray like it depends on God.” If a career of touring with music is indeed my destiny, I won’t be able to force it… It will just happen because I have done the necessary prep work and I am ready and waiting in the right place at the right time. After all, several of the best things that have ever happened to me musically seemed at the time like sheer coincidence.

For example, the only reason I ever met Alan Sparhawk is because he happened to hear me playing with Charlie Parr during an impromptu jam at a Farmers Market. I didn’t even realize Alan was there listening that day. So when he called me a couple weeks later asking if we could talk about doing a project together, it felt surreal. Even now, five years later, when we play shows I often find myself marveling at the mystery of it all.

However, one small detail has to be mentioned here – Alan would never a seen me and we wouldn’t have formed a band if I wasn’t out in the community, playing music whenever possible. Action is key; going through the motions is truly half the battle. If you want to be a musician, play as much as you can – open mics, bars, dinner gigs – all experience is good for honing your craft and getting your name out there. Because as cliché as it sounds, you have to start somewhere. Fate will not be able to find you if you are hiding away in your room; it will seek you out in the field as you fight for what you love.

310586_129254760514062_1884632052_nA LIFE OF MUSIC, WITHOUT THE STROBE LIGHTS

Even if that lucky break never comes, I believe it is possible to have a fulfilling and even financially feasible locally-based career in music if you play your cards right (feasible ≠ loaded, let’s be clear). Music can be a significant source of income in many different contexts – one can teach lessons, play for people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities (these places often have budgets for entertainment), write grants to bring music into the schools or to work on an awesome idea you have, gig like crazy and get a part-time job to make ends meet. The point is to be creative and find a way to make music your career.

In these alternative music-as-career scenarios it is important to keep your vision clear with a healthy dose of gratitude and realism regarding your current situation. Have fun! Enjoy the ride and focus on the positives of each and every show… there are always positives to be found if you look for them. One way to ward off negative thinking is to avoid comparing yourself to others who are “making it” nationally when you are playing locally. It is so easy to fall for the “grass is always greener” mentality, but it’s not healthy for you and its messages are usually distorted anyway.

First of all, most people who “make it” in music are suddenly faced with a whole new set of problems that are annoying and frustrating in their own right… Life will not be magically fixed by fame. Second, the vast majority of people who “make it” nationally are discovered only after years and years of grueling work and tiny local gigs just like yours. Duluth’s beloved Trampled By Turtles had been playing for a looooong time before they ever got featured on national television. So it’s not fair to feel that anyone has it easier than you or that your path is somehow doomed by comparison. Just keep trucking and if your music does end up taking you somewhere awesome, remember to write home!

Perhaps a local music career isn’t as glamorous as touring the world whilst playing for hundreds of adoring fans every night, but at least you are staying connected with that creative part of yourself and sharing the songs of your soul instead of wasting away in front of a computer at a 40 hr/week job you hate.

Even if you can’t leave your day job for financial reasons (I hear raising kids costs money), do yourself a favor and stay connected with your music if at all possible. There is an open mic that would love to hear from you! Keeping in touch with your creative side does your heart a world of good, and allows you to maintain your musical skills should you ever have the time to play more seriously. So many of people come up to me when I am busking on the Lakewalk with an expression of regret as they tell me they “used to play, but the instrument just collects dust now.” They are so afraid to start playing again because they feel too rusty… that doesn’t have to be your fate! Even if you have never played or haven’t touched your instrument in years, it’s never too late to (re)introduce yourself to music. The joy it can provide you and bring to others is well worth the first few months of learning and working out the kinks.

No matter where your music takes you or how many people hear your songs, remember that your music is valuable. Remind yourself often that each life you touch through music is equally meaningful and important – because every person matters.

Screenshot_2015-10-16-00-08-08-1SET GOALS ANYWAY

I am a big fan of goals and dreaming, so I am not trying to imply that you should cower in the corner instead of reaching for the stars when it comes to pursuing music. I simply think that perspective can be your best friend or your worst enemy as you navigate musical performance.

For example, I do have some tentative goals in mind for 2016 to keep myself moving. They are a priority to me in that I actually want to put time and energy into them, but I realize that one has to have a light grip on goals like these or else there is a risk of strangling the joy out of music. But here they are, in no particular order:

1) I want to spread the music from my solo album to a wider audience this year. I recently sent 100 CD’s off to a company called Tinderbox to be mailed out to college radio stations in the states I have selected. Over the next couple months I will be following up with these stations and hopefully making more musical connections in different states.

2) I am hiring an assistant specifically so that I can book more shows in town and on the road… I am hoping to book at least one DIY two-week tour this summer so I can get an idea if touring is something I could handle more often. One challenge of being a performer with a disability is playing shows out of town… But with the proper support I do believe it is possible.

3) Next summer I would like to record another solo album, this time it would consist of live-looped Christmas carols. I just love playing  them and they work really well with a looping pedal.

4) I plan to continue collaborating with Alan Sparhawk in our atmospheric alternative duo, The Murder of Crows. He is very busy with his main band LOW, but somehow we have managed to keep making music whenever time allows since we first met in 2011. Playing with him has taught me so much and allows me to connect with music in an entirely new and wonderful way. We recently started recording again, so hopefully we’ll be able to share some music with you soon!


When it’s all said and done, it will not matter whether you or I were ever famous. What will matter is that we tried and that we learned from our successes and our failures. It will matter that we created, and that we shared our soul’s wisdom with others. It will matter that we loved people and treated them well. It will matter that we cared for the planet and those in need. Rather than fame or fortune, may love and beauty and hope and healing be our legacies as musicians.

Best of luck in all your musical endeavors this year, Friend… Remember that I am cheering for you!


Author: violinscratches

Gaelynn Lea is a musician and public speaker from Duluth, MN. She is passionate about disability advocacy, personal growth, and authentic living. She was the winner of NPR Music's Tiny Desk Contest in March 2016.