Hiding in Plain Sight: A Great Living in Music

As a fulltime musician, I'm making just pennies on streaming music. My CD sales aren't much more than $1,500 per year either.

I do no audio engineering work, no "session" work, and I don't give guitar lessons.

I don't work at a music store either, or play in a symphony.

My songs get played on the radio only a few times a month.

My entire living is in live performance, but I don't do weddings, and I'm home most nights.

Few people outside my region (and only some within) have ever heard of me.

And yet, I make a great middle class living as an artist.

What on earth do I do?

I work as an educational performer; a teaching artist. You could do this too.

My Story:

From the day I picked up a friend's acoustic guitar at age 15 and learned to approximate the chords to "Heart of Gold," music is all I've wanted to do.

Six years in white collar marketing jobs after college did nothing to diminish my interest in playing; in fact, it was quite the opposite. I remember looking around the office and wondering why I was the only one who felt like they didn't belong there. (Turns out I wasn't.)

So, in 1992, I made the break, moving from Washington DC back to my hometown of Buffalo NY to pursue a career as a local musician. The rents were reasonable, I had lot of connections there, and the whole thing just felt more "doable" back in old familiar surroundings.

And so it began. Playing out in the bars (which stay open until 4am here!) and giving guitar and mandolin lessons out of my house, I was making an O.K. living for a single guy in an affordable city. I did everything I could to prove to myself (alright, and to my parents) that I could make this work.

But it was the phone call from a musician friend late in 1994 that changed everything.

He explained that he'd been doing a "school gig" with a trio of musicians, and they were losing their third member. He knew I was a decent player and a history buff too: did I want to fill in on a few gigs, doing Erie Canal music in elementary schools? "Arts in education, they call it" he said.

"Oh, and the gigs are at 8:30am!"

I've never looked back. I absolutely loved it, and what I've discovered in the intervening years is nothing less than an entire world of "under the radar" gigs where working conditions are great, audiences are there to listen, and paychecks come in prearranged, guaranteed amounts (three things notoriously elusive for the freelance musician).

These opportunities truly are hidden in plain sight; they're right there in your community, as a matter of fact. And the next town over, and so on.

I leave from home most mornings now, travelling to schools, libraries, museums, historical societies and community events within a four- to six-hour radius of home; occasionally farther flung.

I play music at each stop, weaving history and cultural information between songs and always working to fully engage my audience in the material I'm presenting, be they adults, children, or both.

A typical day includes a school performance or two; I might be singing songs and demonstrating instruments from around the world for third graders, or helping middle school students write songs about something they're studying. Then, I'm on my way back home for dinner with my wife and kids, or stopping off at a library or museum for an evening performance/lecture/concert en route.

The next day? I might get up and do it all again at a performing arts center, or another school, or a community event. Or, it might be an "office day." I need at least two of those each week in order to keep this all going.

The great opportunity here lies in the fact that just about every audience loves to learn something while they're being entertained, and this combination of performing arts and education has been a natural since at least the days of Sophocles and Euripides.

But the content certainly doesn't need to be history-based.

For me, it's music from various places and time periods in American history: Westward Expansion and the Gold Rush, Immigration to America, New York State history, the War of 1812, and more.

For you? Maybe it's songs you've written about environmental issues, or the ravages of war, or quilting traditions in South Africa; you name it. Combine your art form with interesting and educational content and a whole new world opens up.

So, let's look at this for a moment: I am niche beyond niche, and yet, I'm thriving as a musician sans Spotify. Specializing has helped me get involved with all kinds of different and rewarding projects too. Just in the last few years, I've been featured in a nationally-syndicated PBS documentary, named a Public Scholar for the New York Council for the Humanities, and toured folk clubs and arts centres in the UK, all as a result of pursuing my interests and forging a path apart from the mainstream music industry.

There's a great need for more teaching artists out there, in education and in our own communities.

I'm happy to help point you in the right direction. The "Educate and Entertain" blog, with lots of tips and advice, is at daveruch.com/advice.