Making A Living Making Music. Part I: Money & Mind-Set

11/24/2010 02:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I come from a long line of DIYers. No one in my family had a conventional job, except my Uncle George. He was a teacher and H.S. administrator. Everyone else in the family was in business for themselves. During the 70s and 80s, on the upper west side of Manhattan, as a family of six (I had three older brothers) we lived below what the government considered the poverty line. We went without a lot, but compared to poverty in other countries, we were in many ways still rich.

My father bought and sold, borrowed and traded. He built and repaired instruments, appraised art, and at one point, did bronze casting for Salvador Dali; I always enjoy bragging that I met Dali as a child. My mother was a classical musician and caring for four children by the time she was twenty-four.

My parents were bohemians. I grew up in a kind of warehouse of art, instruments, and animals. There was drinking, fighting, laughing, singing and some free-basing. No one ever suggested to me growing up, not once, ever -- that I should have a job. It never came up. I went to Princeton, and graduated at the top of my class -- it did not occur to me even then that I should have a job. The tall buildings filled with offices where people on the subway went to work every day, may have well as been distant planets inhabited by seven-fingered aliens. What did people do in there? I was unaware of the working world. The only career advice given me was from my grandmother who was an abstract and impressionist painter, "Do what you love and the money will come," she said to me. I believed her.

I have been making a living making music since I graduated college in the early 90s. I have done it touring, teaching, selling albums, singing jingles, licensing songs for film and television, and inventing a device that teaches singers how to use diaphragmatic breath support. (BTW, I will be appearing on "The Late, Late Show w/Craig Ferguson" on Thursday, Dec. 16th on CBS, performing a song I wrote for an album I recorded independently.)

Many voice and songwriting students come to me with the same quest and question. Music is what they want to do, how can they make a living as a musician, singer and/or songwriter?

I can give a step-by-step guide how to tour doing living room concerts, how to get songs in film and TV, how to start your own business, and see through an invention, but you have to understand my perspective and decide if your desires are in line with mine and if the guidance is right for you.

Initially I had nothing to lose, no one to be responsible for and no one to disappoint.

I had been working at something from the time I was in single-digits (babysitting since I was 8, then later retail, tutoring math and teaching theater to younger kids when I was in my teens). I was accustomed to finding or creating work I enjoyed and to the independence that came along with it. My wants and needs were relatively little. Growing up around artists, being part of a theater company at Lincoln Center, attending Performing Arts H.S., I was surrounded by working artists who were not rich or famous. They were heroic. I saw integrity and dedication to art over anything material. Working as an artist on the fringes became something I admired and wanted to do. The combination of my upbringing and my personality made it as if I had no choice but to be DIY as an artist.

I cannot tell you how to make money making music, without explaining myself in part, why I have chosen certain routes and avoided others. You may decide to take what is useful to you and discard the rest.

To be a relatively successful independent artist, you have to be resourceful, self-motivated, tireless, purposeful and flexible.

The good news is there are more things you can do to be a full-time working musician than you have time to do them. That's also the bad news.

Making a living making music has five components, as I see them: you can make money playing music (touring), with recordings of your playing, teaching others how to play, establishing a business (merchandise) around your playing and with publishing (the written form of your playing for others to play).

I will start by explaining how to book and host living room concerts, aka "house concerts," as this is, in my experience the most direct and immediate route to begin making a living as a singer/songwriter. Like musicians of times past, essentially, you can sing for your supper, although it's more lucrative than it sounds.

(Stay tuned for Part II Booking House Concerts.)