Can Playing Guitar Pay the Bills?

[Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two part reflection piece. It’s a great read, so read it!]

A few weeks back, I got the opportunity to hang out with one of my favorite musical heroes. We connected through Facebook, and over the past couple of months, sorta formed something that I think goes beyond just rock star and fan. Then, when a friend of mine made arrangements for him to make a personal appearance at a local music store, we got the chance to meet in person and spend some time getting to know each other a little better.

Man, what a great privilege it is to get to see your musical heroes be ‘human’, and even fans themselves…to see this musical legend actually ‘geek out’, and sing and air-drum along to one of my favorite records, was an absolute thrill. It was an honor to hear his stories, and even share some of my own stories, experiencing his music as a fan.

One of the things that kinda stands out, was hearing about his struggle to continue to make a living with music these days…that even after playing on records that have sold millions, due to circumstances beyond his control, he is constantly challenged to provide for his family and keep his studio functioning and profiting. He’s always looking for new ideas and new angles to build upon his past success in the music business, and generate a steady flow of income to meet his family’s needs. And, he’s definitely not alone in this struggle. The more of my favorite musicians I come across through social media, the more I realize that artists who have been in the industry for decades, and have seen significant measures of success in record sales and critical accolades, don’t necessarily see that success reflected in their personal finances…especially artists that seemed to thrive specifically in the niche/market of CCM or Christian Rock…*another post for another time…maybe*

Ed Purcell

This certainly causes me to reflect on my own dreams of making music for a living. When I was a kid, I was convinced that I was gonna become the biggest rock star of my time…that God was going to bless my ‘ministry’ and make my blatantly Christian music go straight to number one and outsell all my contemporaries. Of course, over time, that dream settled into something a little more reasonable. By the time I was through 2 years of college, I was certain that my band was headed towards going on the road full time…that because we were a ministry, we would be able to raise funds through pledges, like missionaries or evangelists. Instead of going on to finish a real college degree, I settled with an Associate’s Degree in Contemporary Christian Music, and I went to work full time, and focused my pursuits on the band’s potential success. Full disclosure: I was sick of schooling and homework…so, the decision to settle with that degree, at that time, wasn’t exclusively because I wanted to be a rock star.

After that band dissolved, and I had floundered through a few other short-lived, part time bands, I figured that even if I wasn’t able to live making music on the road, I could at least find a way to make some kind of involvement in local music, somewhat lucrative. I tried to build a small recording studio, make a name for myself as a record producer, establish a network for local bands and venues, and even tried starting an indie record label. But, it became apparent that mixing business with music, just isn’t a strong suit for me. I lacked the skills and motivation to work the details out to spark public interest. I’m not an outgoing promotions/marketing type, and without a strong business partner, my musical career wasn’t going anywhere.

So, for the past few years, I’ve decided that I was done with trying to sell or make money with my music. I’ve determined that it’s more important to have my music heard and appreciated than to let an expectation of financial return get in the way of that. And I figured that as long as I have a good job to support my music habit, I didn’t need my artistic endeavors to finance themselves. I have the equipment to make and release my own recordings, and it doesn’t cost anything to distribute digital downloads through certain websites. So I’m fine with giving away the tunes and playing gigs that don’t cost much to travel to.

So, maybe I’m not sure where I’m going with this…

It’s just that…I guess it brings a confusing mix of thoughts/feelings to talk with someone like these musical heroes of mine. Like…it’s easy to feel jealous that they’ve been living my dream. It definitely gets frustrating when I see bands, that have made it much ‘further’ in their career than I ever did, break up just because it’s become too much work or they haven’t reached whatever level of success they had in mind. I mean…try working 40 hours a week, and getting a group of musicians that are willing to dedicate just one night a week to practice, and be able to play the late night (often weeknight) gigs. So, if you reach the level where you can eat regularly, have a place to stay warm and cozy, all while making music, you’ve fulfilled what so many of us have fantasized but never had the opportunity….and you’re just gonna throw away a life I would feel lucky to have experienced?

I know…it know…it’s not all I dream it would be…and I’m sure it’s fun for a while but most everyone gets ready to ‘settle down’ with a family and more consistency in life.

But…how exactly do I feel, about those that are making a living in music somehow…but barely scraping by…and deal with the constant worry of how next month’s bills are gonna get paid, and how to guarantee the family will be adequately provided for in the future??

I guess…I’m still exploring those thoughts. I had kinda hoped that writing this would bring some clarity. Guess I’m still working on that…

Ed Purcell
Saturday Morning Cartoons / Great 90s CCM Tunes
I've always aspired to be a musician, rather than a writer...but my passion for music and my faith drives me to want to communicate and share that passion through writing and social media. Christianity and rock & roll have been intimately intertwined for nearly my entire life, and that combination led me to obtain a prestigious college degree in Contemporary Christian Music...and if I'm educated in the field, then surely I'm qualified to write about it. I have always had a vision to be involved in 'music ministry', which has evolved into a passion for artistically expressed worship. My attempts at making music for God have taken me through 20 years of playing in a dozen or so bands, teaching a class on recording studio technology, and even attempting to start my own studio and recording label.

When I'm not making music, I want to be discussing it, or faith, or how we interact as fellow citizens...and how music and faith affect how we interact as humans. And since I've failed so successfully at making my own music, I'm certain that makes me the perfect candidate to critique and discuss others' music.
Ed Purcell on Facebook

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *