Soundfly

Home for the Curious Musician

A Meditation on the Notion of Artistic Sacrifice

Nothing gets me thinking about sacrifice more than going out on the road. Everyone’s making sacrifices to be there.

Leila and John are both working their day jobs remotely using wifi hotspots that don’t function all that well in the-middle-of-nowhere US. Lots of nowhere. And my written log feels like something out of Oregon Trail.

Phil fractured his backbone three days before we left, and I thought we were going to have to either cancel the tour or figure out how to do it without him, but it was too late to get a fill in. He’s in a back brace, unable to load or even set up his own gear and waking up in terrible pain every morning.

Suzi drove out to Austin from Alabama on her own and is now driving around the Texas listening to tons of Metallica against her will when she could play her own gigs back home.

I, myself, spent months booking and promoting the tour, preparing the sheet music for the arrangements, finishing the recording, etc. I even slept at the studio a couple times. I also spent a few thousand dollars upgrading some of our gear so we wouldn’t have to rent anymore.

We’re sleeping on floors, beds, couches, in the van, and certainly not as much as we should be. One day, our lunch was veggie sandwiches, and dinner was the same thing fancied up with pesto. We’re packed in the van like sardines with all of our equipment, luggage, food, and collection of pillows. We downsized our gear as much as possible — half of our cargo is now merch!

Oh, and the attendance on this tour compared to recent tours accompanying the very popular silent film Nosferatu has been much sparser.

But, here we are.

John and Leila are doing something they love without losing five weeks of pay and vacation time. Phil gets to be here instead of lying in bed at home missing out. Suzi gets to drive around the country with her youngest daughter. All my prep work and the new gear have made for good shows, and we had the album ready in time for the tour (plus, it syncs to the DVD)!

In his book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, John C. Maxwell writes that leaders (and, really, everyone) have to “give up to get up.” That is the essence of sacrifice.

But sacrifice is all perception. What seems like a sacrifice to one person isn’t to another. My ex-coworkers saw me quitting my day job to be a full-time musician as a big sacrifice of security. It was certainly a hard decision to make, but they didn’t understand my 12-year sacrifice of the best hours of my day for little more than a steady paycheck. To me, it was the end of a sacrifice!

+ Learn more on Soundfly: DIY touring can be tough. Make it just a little bit easier with sound advice from our popular, free course on booking, managing, and promoting shows, Touring on a Shoestring.

In my mind, artistic sacrifices largely fall into three categories.

Time

Of the three, you have the most control over your time. Imagine the impact that dropping all unnecessary distractions — playing in other bands, partying every weekend, watching TV, video games, etc. — would have on your musical project. Compared to larger life choices we all need to make such as having children, completing a college degree, moving, or taking a new job, these are much more easily navigable alongside a music career.

You just have to make a choice. The more time you put into your work, the better it’ll be, but you have to decide what’s most important. You can only be in one place at a time.

Resources

Money, food, fuel, information, gear, relationships. These are all examples of resources. Money may seem to be the most powerful because it can buy time, security, and other resources. But don’t discount the power of relationships. They can open doors that money can’t.

Unless you have the winning combination of pop-star looks, industry connections, and extremely easily marketable material, expect to bankroll your artistic endeavors from other income sources for a long time before they start to pay you back in musical dividends. I think it’s important to think of the early days less like a job and more like an apprenticeship to the job.

You want this thing to succeed, right? Invest in it!

Be smart about it. Put your money and resources where you’ll really use them. Don’t overspend on things you don’t need, and don’t underspend on stuff you do. 

In my early days, I was always trying to break even. Looking back, however, there were lots of times I wish I’d looked less at dollar amounts earned and more at other values gained. Sure, it saved money to cook our own meals instead of eating out or camping instead of getting hotels, but sometimes these shortcuts cost us more in time, effort, and lost sleep than the dollar savings were inevitably worth.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “STOP! Do You Know the Difference Between Getting Paid as an ‘Artist’ and a ‘Songwriter’?”

Security

Health (including mental), comfort, reliability, dignity, shelter, and safety all fall into this category. Money can buy some of these things, but not all — especially health and dignity. Almost everyone sacrifices something from this category — never owning a home, earning very little money, working a hated day job, or taking big risks.

In my opinion, the first things you should be willing to sacrifice are the conveniences. These are the things that you can totally live without but would have a large cumulative impact when lessened. They’re different for everyone. Cable TV, eating out, living “downtown” versus somewhere a bit less central but cheaper. Keep in mind, however, that some conveniences may too valuable to drop, such as an expensive smartphone.

Try to set your life up in a way that’s conducive to what you want to do as a musician if being a musician is truly important to you. If you can, turn a room in your home into your recording or rehearsal space. If you’re a touring musician, trade in the Civic for a tour van and start carpooling trips to the store, gym, shows, or work, and use public transportation. Absolutely stop paying for over-priced food and drinks at restaurants.

+ Learn more on Soundfly: Are you a band leader? Learn how to hunker down and get the most out of the musical project you’re in charge of with our free course, Building a Better Band.

Musicians should only sacrifice the following things if absolutely necessary:

Sleep. The lack of sleep casts a dark shadow on everything you do.

Health. You know the old saying: If you don’t have your health… 

Relationships. Don’t burn bridges… unless it’s a toxic relationship. A venue recently dropped our show with only a week’s notice and for no apparent reason. When they said they’d like to work together in the future, I politely made it clear that it’d take an act of God for that to happen.

Take care of yourself. One thing to never sacrifice:

Your dignity. And yet, this is surprisingly easy to sacrifice. Be humble and grateful, but don’t hate yourself or let others walk on you. Your reputation with others is important, but not as important as your reputation with you.

For a long time, I thought that whatever problem arose, my worst-case scenario was that I’d need to sacrifice something. And I was ready to legitimize my art and myself with a sacrifice or three! I’ve sacrificed more than my fair share of conveniences — relationships (I’m divorced), comfort, time, and money — in order to do what I love. I used to think that if I’d only sacrificed more, I could’ve done this or been that. This is rarely true and can be a debilitating standard to which to hold oneself. 

Make sure your sacrifices count.

Managing your art can be a difficult hustle — but Soundfly can help you get ahead of the game. Check out our #Hustle series of courses to start improving your band leadership skills, touring opportunities, crowdfunding strategy, and royalty and licensing payments

Get the top Flypaper articles delivered straight to your inbox once a week.

Josh Robins
Josh Robins

Josh Robins is the guitarist, founder and band leader of Austin’s most adventurous rock band The Invincible Czars. He’s been leading bands since 1991 (at the age of 15) and was quite bad at it until a couple years ago. He shares his experiences with everything from juggling too many commitments to self-booking to the death of a band mate on his blog The Reluctant Band Leader. He really likes Opposite Day, NoMeansNo, Mr. Bungle and all offshoots, Sonic Youth, Reverend Horton Heat, Build To Spill, Van Halen’s first six albums, and Steve Martin.

Get music news and tips delivered to your inbox once a week.