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Do the Hustle: Being A Full-Time Musician

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Above image: A number of KC-based musicians do it for a living. Among them is trumpet player Clint Ashlock (second from right). | Photo: YouTube

Being a full-time musician can often be grueling — it means late nights, juggling projects and jobs, splitting time between being creative and maintaining an independent business. It takes work that typically extends beyond the conventional 40-hour work week, and it involves a lot more than delivering music to the masses.

Several Kansas Citians have dedicated their careers to the pursuit of music — whether that means they play in touring bands, perform at weddings and private parties, teach an instrument, compose music for commercials, or some combination of the like. It requires a continual push to be creative and skilled, along with the necessity of sustaining an unpredictable career — through networking, marketing, booking and other administrative details. 

The good news is, there’s more than one way to earn a living through music. Read about four KC-based musicians who decided to turn their passions into vocations.

Clint Ashlock

Clint Ashlock | photo submitted by artist

Among other roles, Clint Ashlock is the artistic director of the KC Jazz Orchestra, freelances as a trumpet player, writes big band arrangements and teaches lessons. | Photo submitted by artist

How do you earn an income?
My main income is as artistic director of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra. I’m pretty lucky, as there aren’t many full-time salaried jobs leading a big band. We have a concert season at the Kauffman Center, and play several other things during the year. Mostly, I organize the band and arrange a good deal of the music, then act as band conductor and play a few trumpet solos on the concerts. Having just moved to a heavier workload, I’ll be reconstructing our educational mission [we’re a 501(c)(3)] and trying to bring our social marketing into the 21st century, to hopefully grow our audiences a bit younger.

Aside from that, I freelance as a trumpet player (and sometimes piano). Mostly jazz gigs, although I play more pop-based music with a few groups as well. I make some income every year from writing big band arrangements, adjudicating jazz festivals, teaching some lessons, and doing some music photography on the side.

When, why and/or how did you decide that music would be your full-time job?
Basically, as soon as I started working on being a music student, I knew that that’s all I wanted to do as a career. Even my post-college retail job was at the now defunct Mars Music. That was a great environment.

Being a full-time musician usually means wearing a lot of different hats beside just being creative; it also involves promotion, networking and continually learning. How does that work for you?
As a jazz musician, I am inherently awful at business and promotion. Or so it seems. I think we are all getting better at this, though. Understanding how to reach our target audiences, and then engaging them efficiently is the biggest chore for most creatives. I think I’m getting better at this, but still have a lot of work to do. The jazz world is a little different from the non-jazz world, but the former needs to bridge the marketing gap with the latter.

What plans or goals do you have to keep your career sustainable?
The best advice I’ve ever gotten is to not be a jerk. Sometimes I think I do a good job of that, although a lot of having a successful career in music is — to me — winning a game of attrition. I try to show up as a musician every day. I practice, I write, I show up to all my gigs on time and play my tail off at them, I get along with [nearly all] of my bandmates, and try to help promote a positive atmosphere for the musicians and the audience. Again, my job at KCJO gives me a good deal of fiscal safety, for now. It’d be great to have something like this for the long haul, but again, I think that just showing up every day, in all the ways, and sounding good when you play is a huge part of it.

Martin Bush

Martin Bush of Hyborian | Photo: Tex Houston

Martin Bush fronts touring band Hyborian, and doubles as a performer and DJ at weddings. | Photo: Tex Houston

How do you earn an income?
My primary gig these days is playing in Hyborian, but when we are in town, I spend most weekends playing weddings. I play acoustic and sing for ceremonies, cocktail hours and dinner, and then DJ the reception after. The money is great, and it gives me time to do all the managerial stuff for Hyborian during the week.

When, why and/or how did you decide that music would be your full-time job?
It was during my early 20s, then it became part-time when I moved to KC and started bartending. When I started doing the wedding music thing in 2012, I never really even thought about going back.

Being a full-time musician usually means wearing a lot of different hats beside just being creative; it also involves promotion, networking and continually learning. How does that work for you?
When we aren’t on the road, weekdays are spent learning songs for the weddings I am playing that weekend and doing all the booking and such for Hyborian. It really is a full-time job to keep a band afloat these days, in between rehearsals and side gigs.

What plans or goals do you have to keep your career sustainable?
I’m a lifer, I’ll die on the road, I’m sure.

Noah Davis

Noah Davis | Photo: Todd Zimmer

Noah Davis recently made the leap to become a full-time musician and stay-at-home dad in June. | Photo: Todd Zimmer

How do you earn an income?
Merchandise sales, busking, fans that download music, and finally, gigs. I’ve found the best are private gigs. Over time, I’ve opened myself up to other possibilities, such as licensing and writing for other people.

When, why and/or how did you decide that music would be your full-time job?
I wanted to be a full-time father and musician for a while. When my son was born a few months ago, we had a daycare dilemma — it’s extremely expensive. My wife, Sarah, suggested I stay at home and pursue my music full-time. I think it’s so awesome how adversity and/or life issues can cause you to seek your dreams even more. On June 1, I left my job, and started my full-time journey.

Being a full-time musician usually means wearing a lot of different hats than just being creative; it also involves promotion, networking and continually learning. How does that work for you?
Being a businessperson and artist can be a tough job. I think we, as artists, want to share our art — soul’s love — with everyone. And we love what we do. When asked to play for free, our hearts scream “yes,” but our wallets say, “Sorry, I can’t.” But many times, you’re expected to work for free or “exposure.” For me, the trick is:
Establishing a set rate that you desire to be paid, with some flexibility.
Saying “no” to pay-to-play gigs and the ones where you have to sell tickets to your friends.
Leaving myself wide open for non-paying gigs for those who champion human rights and deeply touch our community. This is great exposure for a great cause.

Finally, I’m in no way saying I won’t simply play for the love of music. However, if you are a full-time musician, you are a business. And without income, there is no way to keep your business open.

What plans or goals do you have to keep your career sustainable?
Making my music sustainable takes a lot of focus, but I believe it starts in building a foundation. Over the years, I’ve worked “normal” jobs so I could buy a house and owned “cash cars.” You see, buying is cheaper than renting and having no car payment is liberating. It gives you stability as a musician. If all else fails, you can host house shows, which are growing in popularity. You find yourself not having to “beg” for a gig, but rather taking your time and booking the right ones. It’s sort of planning for the future.

In order to sustain my music career, there are two things that are very important to me. First, I don’t compete with other bands or artists. Whether they are younger or more popular, it doesn’t matter. This is not a competition. Second, I never compare myself with other musicians. I don’t watch “The Voice” or “American Idol.” Imagine where music would be if Bob Dylan or Tom Waits had to win on one of those shows to be recognized. I look like Noah, smell like Noah, play like Noah, and sound like Noah. I am 100 percent Noah Davis and 210 percent authentic. This is how we survive as artists and leave something behind for the next generation.

Alex Ellis

Alex Ellis | Photo: Rachael Rene Photography

You may know Alex Ellis from local label The Record Machine, but he spends most of his time writing music for films and commercials. | Photo: Rachael Rene Photography

How do you earn an income?
I’m very fortunate to be able to create financial opportunities, primarily writing music for media. Be it film — shorts and features — commercials, theme songs, or jingles. In addition to that, I make a little scrap on the side working part time as an electrical engineer, recording engineer and as a product manager at local indie label The Record Machine.

When, why and/or how did you decide that music would be your full-time job?
It’s been a long time coming. I started writing on guitar when I was 14. My very first song consisted of three chords, and after I finished it, it brought me a new joy that I hadn’t felt before. It was reminiscent of a beautiful day relaxing on the beach, without a care in the world, but fully content.

When I moved to Kansas City 14 years ago, I continued to play in bands and eventually purchased some recording gear with a few friends. My friends eventually went off to do bigger things, and I ended up buying out a majority of the gear. That lead me into the world of audio engineering, where I learned about the importance of arrangements, different instrument frequencies and how to evoke emotion with music. During the same time, I continued to write, but kept running up against a consistent problem. I love melody and stacking harmonies, so whenever I would turn over a song to a vocalist — more often than not — it was handed back to me with the challenge of removing multiple melodies because I didn’t leave any room for vocals. It was, and still is, a bad habit, and I was told a handful of times that I should write for film, because in most cases, I didn’t have to worry about vocal melodies. After a few years, I decided to take the jump into writing for media, and it’s been very good to me so far.

Outside of my passion for music, an engineering job was what moved me to KC. After about 10 years in, I noticed that my life was quickly becoming dull working the “dreaded” 9-5 job, Monday through Friday in a cubicle. The company and all my coworkers were great, and it paid very well, but I wasn’t the same person on the inside; it didn’t feed my soul. So I had to make a decision, which was to choose my happiness and liveliness over money. A buddy of mine had once said to me,”It’s just money. You can always make that back.” How true of a statement is that?

My wife was also happy when I made the switch to stay-at-home dad because I now have time to cook, clean and take care of a majority of the chores.

Being a full-time musician usually means wearing a lot of different hats beside just being creative; it also involves promotion, networking and continually learning. How does that work for you?
I spend about 80 percent of my time networking and auditioning for jobs, 10 percent of my time studying composition, with the remaining 10 percent actually writing. I was fortunate enough to go back to school in 2011 to get my master’s in music business from Berklee College of Music, which taught me a lot about the business side, as well as how to notice trends so I could do my best to stay ahead of them.

It quickly becomes exhausting having to keep jobs in the pipeline, so that when I finish one project, I have one or two more lined up. But, trust that I wouldn’t trade it for a suit and a cubicle. However, during my 13 years as an engineering consultant, I learned how to build and foster relationships, as well as how to plan and deliver projects on time, which are such important skills to have in this extremely competitive industry. I never lose sight of the fact that there are better musicians out there always making moves to get work, which is a huge motivator.

Likewise, some musicians will not consider writing music for media because you don’t have 100 percent creative control. You’re part of a team with the director, producers and/or financial partners having the final say. You’re working for the picture, to advance it, to pull people in, to subconsciously entice viewers to take a deeper journey into an alternate reality. That’s what I love about it. No project is the same. I get paid to study and produce different styles of music, to research different cultures and work with some amazing players, as well as other creative minds that look at the world through a different lens.

What plans or goals do you have to keep your career sustainable?
I’m a planner — always have been and always will be. I have a handful of big goals that I want to achieve in the long run, which I’ve broken down into yearly, quarterly and monthly sub-goals. This keeps me focused on going after work that builds towards a bigger purpose.

One of my main goals is to score a film that is submitted, and hopefully, accepted to be screened at a major film festival. When I audition for these types of projects, I make sure to first meet with the director to see what their motivation is behind marketing the film, how ambitious they are and how focused they are in getting their vision across. Everything is calculated and needs to make sense. I rarely go after work that doesn’t somehow benefit my long-term goals.

I also have learned to put my ego aside and to always look for a learning opportunity when a job presents itself. I’ve taken jobs that I might not 100 percent have been into at the time, but have learned that everything in this world is connected and builds, which has lead me into wonderful relationships and bigger opportunities.

—Michelle Bacon isn’t exactly a full-time musician, but she is known for playing in a bunch of bands and will write your band bio if you want. It’ll be way better than this one.