Life as a Full-Time Musician: Q&A with M L Dunn
Living Music by Justine | November Edition
Mike is a songwriter, performer and composer. He's on the blog to talk about building a career in music and earning money as a musician. I think it's fascinating to hear from someone who has experienced both the 'old' industry and the digital age. Let's dive straight in!
Tell us about yourself and your music. What happens on an average day?
I am not a morning person, so my days start very slowly. It took me many decades to make music my only source of income, so in the past I have done many non-music jobs to survive, and many of those, especially when I was younger, started early in the day. Not only was it soul destroying to be doing a job that was not music related, but also I had to get up early. It was awful!
So my mornings are spent waking up, meditating, answering emails, and checking composition work I did the night before (which always has a useful fresh perspective for the ears when listened to the next day), and preparing my equipment for going out to see clients. Mundane stuff, basically. My afternoons and early evenings are spent going out to clients if I have any that day, and my late evenings are spent composing. If I have no clients that day, I go for a run at lunchtime, then get straight down to composing in the afternoon. Also, on those days I need to rehearse and learn new material (guitar – I play steel strung acoustic mainly, and piano, and singing.)
When you visit clients, what type of work are you doing for them? (Teaching, composing, etc.)
It is different depending on the client – with some people I am helping them learn skills on equipment, others I am teaching them, and some of them I write music with, which I record with their playing or vocals and bring recordings of that back to my studio to make finished pieces out of them as CDs etc. I also just play music to some of my clients who have limited physical abilities – I get to know their favourite songs and learn them, then play them on my guitar and sing them. Like little one to one concerts, though I do groups too. It is very gratifying to see the effect music has on people, especially people who do not normally have access to these things, which is why I call what I do Musical Access. Music is very powerful, it is a privilege to be able to do work like this; I know I am very lucky, even though sometimes it is hard work and involves a lot of carrying of equipment, for which I am getting a little old. But it keeps me fit :-)
Have you always made a living from music, or did you previously have another career?
Well I had plenty of other jobs, but not another career, music was what I wanted to do from a very early age. I have been a runner beans picker, a furniture remover, an estate agent, a packer in a rubber band factory and a care worker, in amongst other things, but not recently. I live in constant fear of having to go back to that though.
How long have you been doing music full-time?
Full-time and only music for about 15 to 20 years I guess, before that I would have spells of doing music full-time, then something would happen (I would run out of work, or money, or both) and I would need to get a regular job for a while to make ends meet, then it would be back to the music, and the cycle would repeat, which I found pretty depressing at times.
Mike and I collaborated on Knuckles
How many streams of income do you have? (Gigging, composing, streams, etc.) Which of these bring in the most income?
The secret to surviving as an independent musician, I think, is to have multiple income streams. In my life as a musician I have, in the past, done many gigs (with bands and solo), written songs, written instrumental music, written production music (for TV & Documentary, Films & Corporate Training Videos, and Production Music Libraries, etc) sold scores of my music, taught guitar, designed and sold 'virtual' instruments and samples, and taught musical skills to adults with learning and physical disabilities. Each of these has brought in the most income compared to the others at different stages of my life.
The beauty of written music is that it can go on providing an income, through royalties, long after it is written. Sometimes that is a good amount, sometimes a small amount, sometimes a tiny amount, but it all adds up. As a composer, building up a large catalogue is very important as all the small amounts added together become more meaningful amounts, but it takes time – a lifetime really, to build up a large, quality catalogue. And income streams are changing; the Internet revolutionised everything – in some ways for the better, in some ways for the worse. I remember the second gig I performed in with my band at school, we hired a PA. The engineer, after the gig, said to me, "that was great – good music, but you will probably never make a living as a band because your songs are all too different from each other." Weirdly, the opposite of that seems to be the case, as it has been my musical diversity that has helped me survive.
How did you initially promote yourself and find clients? Have your marketing efforts changed over time?
When I was younger I had several different managers when I played in different bands and first started out solo. The purpose of a manager is to help with promotion and find you clients, but sometimes the relationship is not right – history is littered with artist manager relationships that went wrong. I was pretty lucky with most of my managers, but now I am independent. That is harder in some ways, but I like the independence of answering only to myself. I would recommend anyone starting out does try to find a mentor of some sort, just for the different perspective on your art, as much as anything else. And of course you have to pay managers, though if they earn you more it's a fair price to pay. As long as you don't let them exploit you. Which is why the relationship is so important.
When you first became independent, how did you promote your music? Were your clients people you already knew from the days when you had managers, or did you have to actively make new contacts?
Some of my clients with learning difficulties I had known from when I worked in care homes, in one of those periods of my life when music was not paying my way. When I no longer needed to work there as the music was providing a better income for me again, I was asked to carry on the music making I had begun with them. It then spread by word of mouth; I have never advertised that side of what I do.
In this age, technology to make music has improved exponentially, but skills need to be learnt to operate the gear. So, again, it's all about the relationships. Sometimes going off at a tangent can lead you to a place you want to be even though you did not realise it would do so when you set off on the path. Trust your instinct, I guess, is the lesson there. And yes, I still have contacts from my younger days too, none of that stuff goes away, if you keep in touch with people, though one of my former managers is dead, sadly, and he was the sort of guy who knew everyone. He was a very inspiring character.
Do you work with the same clients regularly? If yes, how do you maintain strong relationships with them?
Yes, many of my clients stay the same. Once again, it's all about the relationship – if something is working, and everyone is happy and enjoying the work, why change it? But of course, I am always looking to develop new musical relationships too. That is what keeps life feeling fresh, and is one area where the Internet has changed things for the better. In general, if you work with people you like, life is much easier, so I try to stick to that.
Our first collaboration was Dear Beloved Demon
How do you balance projects that earn the most money with projects you enjoy but earn less? Do you have any time management tips?
The old Hollywood tradition of 'one for them, one for me' has worked for many people. I have written music for some projects that I would not have perhaps chosen to do ordinarily – at one point in my life I was making quite a handsome living from writing production music, but it was at that time my only source of income, so if someone offered me work I pretty much had to take it. I discovered that is quite a dangerous situation to get into. For me, music has always been my passion, the driving force of my life, and it can be terrifying to suddenly come face to face with the idea that you may not actually enjoy your passion any more, which can happen if you take on work you would not normally choose to do, repeatedly. I would say in general 'earn less, enjoy more', but like everything in life there is a delicate balance to be struck.
For me, spending the hours of my day doing work that was not improving my musical skills in some way was the biggest waste – but everyone is different and I have known of some people quite happily working all day at jobs they hate to spend their evenings and weekends doing what they love, which is I guess the path of the enthusiastic amateur – and there's nothing wrong in that. In fact, in some ways it can make for a happier life as you keep everything in balance and don't threaten the thing you love. But for me, and I'm sure many others, I just could not do that; the pull was too strong. As for time management, I cannot offer any good advice really, as I just work nearly all the time, which is probably not healthy, though I do try and temper it with occasional physical exercise (I'm a cross-country runner), which is probably the most time effective method for trying to find some sort of balance in the life of a compulsive muso.
What do you find challenging about being a full-time musician? What should people thinking about going full-time be prepared for?
Ha! I could write a very long list for that. But, as someone I respected very much once said to me when I was complaining about the hard path I had chosen for myself (or so it has seemed at many points of my life): "Mike – whoever told you it was going to be easy?"
I think, for me, one of the hardest things (and I know a lot of writers, painters and artists of all types would agree) is the commonly held belief of some people that if you make music you are so lucky to be doing what you enjoy that you don't need money for food, rent, mortgage, travel etc. I don't know how these people think we stay alive, but the truth is, it isn't always fun, and sometimes it is much harder work than a 'regular' job. But at the end of the day you just have to suck that up, you are not going to change the minds of people that think that way, and ultimately, for all the sorrows, hard work and stresses it is a great, great privilege to make a living from music, and even more so to share it with other people and make their lives better through that, even if it's only in a small way.
We also collaborated on Conscience
What’s your biggest piece of advice for somebody wanting to pursue music full-time?
I could be very glib at this point and just say 'don't!' But the truth is, if you're going to do it, you are going to do it, your soul won't let you do anything else. Possibly, probably even, to look back on a life and regret the things you haven't done, if you really felt you wanted to do them, is the worst possible outcome – worse even than failure and poverty. Also don't think other people know better than you how you should be developing your craft. I remember as a 22 year old being told by a music publisher, "Michael, you have to decide right now, do you want to be a writer of music or a performer of music? You can't be both you know." Well I am both, and I'm still here, several decades later, making music, and helping other people make it. But at the time I thought 'he must know what he's talking about' and I worried about that for years – that I could not decide between the two. Only you can do the things you can do – it's easy to forget that. So don't forget your own worth. And follow your bliss. It will give you the energy to get to where you need to be next.
Thank you to Mike for being part of the blog. The links you need for Mike are below. Listen to his music and say hi on the socials!
Listen to 'One More Thing For Love' and 'Be Like This River' (both feat Mella):
Other articles in this series: