Life as a Full-Time Musician: Q&A with Mella Barnes
Mella worked as a session singer on Conscience
Mella's on the blog to talk about her journey into full-time musicianship, and the realities of this. Let's jump right in!
Tell us about yourself and your music. What does your average day look like?
One of my favorite things about my job is that there’s rarely an average day :) Sometimes I’m singing for hours at a time, others I might switch it up and have a voiceover, sometimes I’m writing music, or sometimes I have a rare free day and that’s when I do all of my administrative/entrepreneur tasks like accounting and organizing (which I also love because I’m a huge dork, haha.)
I would say I have between 3-5 gigs a day on an average day, but it ebbs and flows depending on the time of the year. Summer is usually not that busy because people are out enjoying the weather, but this year has been surprisingly busy. I’m not mad about it though!
Did you build your income (from music) gradually whilst working another job, or did you take a risk and pursue music full-time with little guaranteed income?
Kind of both! I started session singing when I was 14, so it was obviously not a full time gig then. I kept doing it throughout high school and college, and then I did a series of terrible desk jobs that I hated. Eventually I had enough clients and business sense that I was like, “why don’t I just try it full time?” I did and never looked back. I definitely don’t recommend people go full time into music without some money saved up though. It’s a tough business and there are no guarantees. There are some months I’ve made barely enough to pay my bills and had to use my savings, but that’s fine because I don’t have kids (unless you count my beloved pets.) I also have a business background which has helped me immensely through the tough times, so there’s a lot to consider before jumping into full time as a musician.
How did you get into this work? What did you do to promote yourself at the start?
I come from a musical family, and most of my cousins and uncles have recording studios. I started singing songs their friends wrote when I was young, so I got to learn things like mic technique, studio etiquette, etc. I didn’t really promote myself back then, it was just a matter of my relative knowing someone who needed a singer. Today, social media is so important, as well as my blog and website. Those are the main ways to make connections nowadays so it blows my mind when musicians won’t use those avenues!
Do you spend money on advertising now? Is this less than at the start?
I actually rarely spend money on advertising. I found that when I did, a lot of my leads were not serious. Many people think they want to hire someone, then they learn the price and change their minds. I understand because music isn’t a guaranteed income for anyone, so it can be scary to hire someone without a guarantee you’ll make the money back. However, if you’re serious about your music and want quality, professional work, there are reasons to hire pros (I blog about this all the time, haha.) Anyway most of my leads today come through my website and/or referrals.
Many musicians aspire to full-time musicianship but earn very little. What could they change or do differently to earn more?
You *HAVE* to treat this like a business. Step one is simply to be professional. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a job simply because I showed up, or because I bothered to call or email back. You need to learn every aspect of business if you’re going full time. That includes marketing, customer service, technical support, website/social media management, accounting, organization, planning, scheduling, etc, etc. It can be overwhelming, and you can hire someone if you can’t do some of it, but it’s unlikely you’ll be able to do that before you’ve been working a few years and making enough money.
First, examine your online profile. Look at your social media, your website, your body of work (soundcloud, reels, whatever you have.) Does it look professional? Would YOU hire you? If not, take the steps you need to look more like a pro. Image and presentation is everything. Get professional photos. Have a nice, professional website that wasn’t made in 1999. Make sure your reels are high quality, AND that you can provide that same high quality to your clients.
Next, examine your work quality. Do you have adequate recording equipment, and a quiet room to record in? Are you tech-savvy with your gear and DAW? If not, do what you need to do to make those things professional? I’m really not trying to steer people away from this! I want people to succeed but there are a LOT of elements that go into it that people don’t realize, and this is what holds them back. I do business and technical coaching for session singers so we cover all of this in greater detail in private lessons.
Are you largely an independent artist, or do you work with a record label or publisher? Do you have a manager?
I’m 100% independent. I had a record deal when I was younger but it fell through and I was too defeated to ever try again. It’s a tough industry and when I was younger I was very timid and everything affected me deeply (I think a lot of songwriters can relate, haha.) I got depressed and stopped pushing myself as an artist, and that’s when I decided to go into session work full time. Now I do my own solo stuff as a hobby, and some of my clients are my biggest fans so it all worked out!
How much travel does your work involve? When you have to travel, how do you budget for this?
I very rarely travel because so much of my work is done online. However, I just went to Florida for two weeks for session work and that was a hot mess (literally). Not because of the gig, but because of my pets. I have 2 senior chihuahuas and a long-haired rabbit, and I couldn’t find ANY hotels or Airbnbs that would take all of us. When I finally did find one, it was infested with the largest cockroaches I had ever seen, so I was terrified to sleep. I’m back home now and needless to say I’m not sad it’s over, haha. It kind of reminded me of why I don’t like to travel for work. I’m happy to go to people’s studios but there’s really no need. I have my own pro gear and booth and I can deliver it much faster than it would take for me to travel anywhere.
What do you find challenging about being a full-time musician? What should people thinking about going full-time be prepared for?
The most challenging thing for me is the variable income. I’m a Type 1 Diabetic and my medicine is NOT cheap, so I have to make sure I’m constantly bringing in enough money just to stay alive. I’m not above taking on a side job here or there if I need it, but I’d love to one day be 100% confident that I’ll have enough clients and work to pay the bills all the time. I’m working on it but it’s still a struggle mentally for me, and maybe it always will be due to the health factor. I’m just so grateful for what I do and I hope I can do it forever.
Anyone thinking about going full time, please carefully consider everything I mentioned above. Also ask *why* you want to be full time. If you are just doing it because you love music and want to only do that, you’ll burn out pretty quickly. There are resources available for people considering entrepreneurship; I would consider checking those out to see if you really want this or not. You can have an awesome side-hustle as a musician and it can be just as rewarding! But if you want to go full time, as long as you’re prepared I definitely think it’s possible.
A massive thank you to Mella for taking the time to do this Q&A. Please show her love, find out more about her work, and listen to her music, using the links below.
Also, remember to subscribe to this blog. I have more Q&As with full-time musicians on the way!