The Career vs. the Lifestyle

A couple of months ago I was in California for a gig and met up with one of my friends from college. Both of us studied composition and had aimed to work in the same industry, which was film scoring. I had long abandoned the nights and days spent on meeting deadlines for cues, preparing cue sheets, and playing guitars on scores and was trying my hand at being a touring guitarist for the last few years. Alex was even deeper into the film scoring scene than the last time we’d hung out and it led us to a long talk centered around career and the lifestyle you automatically adopt from said career.

When you’re doing a job such as being a touring musician, it becomes very hard to separate your career from your lifestyle, because you’re essentially on the road all the time doing the job. When you’re starting out as a film composer, you’re taking all the work you can get and you’re meeting intense deadlines a lot of the time and waiting for notes on revisions. We like to use the phrase “hurry up and wait” to describe this frustrating cycle. I guess this could be said for most jobs, but so far I’ve only had experience in these two specific fields and so I’ll talk about these a little bit.

What this talk led to was the realization that when we were studying to become composers or touring musicians or songwriters or whatever, that we’d hardly considered the implications of this when it comes to our daily lives. For a long time I think I confused these two aspects of my life - the career and the lifestyle - and I think they’re maybe still too closely entwined, but at the time when I was learning to be a composer, I hadn’t really thought about what my day-to-day really might be like, or my weekends, or the holidays, or the lack of holidays.

Here are a couple things I did discover. In both professions it was difficult to maintain close relationships. They both demanded some level of priority and a willingness to drop things, and it wasn’t as simple as maybe taking a vacation day or calling in sick to get some time off to take a trip somewhere, or make a friend’s wedding, or keep that anniversary dinner-date. Another thing I discovered is that lot of younger film composers also write for other composers, filling the role of additional music or even straight-up ghost writing. I knew that this was a thing that existed, but let’s be real, I didn’t lie awake in college fantasizing about the day when I could finally have my dream job of writing someone else’s score. I dreamed of the day I would write my own score. Sometimes we don’t want to consider the bad staples of being the amateur starting out in a scene, so we tread on ambitiously and ignore the obstacles that are to come. But, that is why I am writing this blog post, because I dove in blindly and I have some thoughts on this now.

When the time came to be a real-life film composer and touring musician, myself along with many of my peers were faced with unforeseen circumstances in our lifestyles that we weren’t mentally prepared for. I missed my friends and my family, and I struck out on relationship after relationship. I lost touch with people who were close to me to the point that when I returned home to New York I felt like as though I was on the outside and maybe even a bit forgotten about. But this is a totally normal outcome of being absent for basically a year and a half. Being in one big sleep-over with all my bandmates on a tour bus for weeks at a time sounded like a ton of fun until I realized that in any scenario I will grow tired of always being in the company of others, even if they’re totally awesome people. I missed being alone and playing my guitar in my room absent-mindedly over a cup of coffee while roommates chattered outside my door and sunshine came through my window. There were all these tiny things that added up and sometimes made me feel sad, but sometimes they made me excited because I was facing a new challenge and it all felt like an adventure. I developed a habit one tour of sitting in the back of the tour bus with all the windows down and letting the air blow on my face while I listened to Travis on my headphones. I learned how to knit because I wanted to be creative without playing music and be able to keep myself occupied in a healthy way. So I’d sit there for hours and listen to the same record over and over while the wind blew and the sun shined on me. It became my new version of sitting in my apartment alone. I started to find ways to fill the spaces in my life that were created by this new lifestyle which was carved out by my all-consuming career as a touring musician.

Now, I’m not meaning to sound as though I’m complaining or ungrateful. Of all the jobs I’ve had, touring is my favourite ever and I can’t wait to be on the road again for many years. But I realized how important it is to be real with yourself. Fuck yeah, touring and composing are great, but it’s okay to miss some of the normalcies and accept that you’re going to have to find new ways to gain stability in your life. A lot of my bandmates use exercise as a way to maintain a balance. Some of them read a lot of books or watch TV shows. Some of them needed to find a Starbucks in every town we got to, not because they love Starbucks, but because it’s familiar. Familiarity became a cornerstone of my foundation on tour; I watch the same TV shows, write a weekly blog post, listen to the same records, run the same amount of miles in the gym, and knit the same scarf patterns. It’s familiar and it’s effortless and it helps me feel like a human.

Eventually Alex and I had gone down such a rabbit-hole of stories about our somewhat abnormal lifestyles as free-lance musicians that we started to talk about how we sort of wish we’d known a little bit more about the lifestyles that are inclusive of these career choices. If you value being alone and you’re kind of grumpy and find it hard to work with others, you probably won’t want to be in a tour bus, standing in airport security lines, or sitting in a tiny green room with your bandmates for several months a year. If you value getting the right amount of sleep every night and eating healthy and doing yoga everyday and only composing when you feel creative, it may be very difficult to maintain this lifestyle if you are a film composer with stringent deadlines. But, don’t take this as a hard-and-fast rule from me, this is just from my experience and the stories of others. There are different ways to make the job work for you. But, there are also some things you really just can't get around.

This is why I recently agreed to do a clinic at a music school for teenagers. I was asked about tour and what advice I’d give about performing or writing. I tried to be as open as I could without being a bummer, but the reality is that the job is hard if you’re doing it all the time, and if you’re successful, you are doing it all the time. Being busy in your career is great but it introduces new obstacles and new challenges for when it comes to managing your stress levels or grumpiness or alcohol intake. Most jobs that include a specialized set of skills are hard because they require a lot of your time and focus, as well as the ambition to always improve. You make your own hours, you act as your own boss, and so you really kick your own ass. You sometimes temporarily sacrifice things you may not want to. You give up your free time and some of your sanity for the gig. You let people down sometimes or you let them go. What’s important is to let the love for what you do and the love for others drive you.

So here’s the take-away: if you want to go into a specific field, I’d urge you to talk to others who are in it and to truly consider the consequences. Ask them about the work, the skills required,  the costs as well as the financial returns, how they got there, etc. But, also ask them about their lifestyle. Are they happy? Do they get to spend time with loved ones? Do they get to go home often? Do they feel healthy? I’m telling you, these things may not seem important in the beginning as you pride yourself on your ability to hustle hardcore, but they sure will sneak up on you one day when you hit a wall. Be starry-eyed with a tinge of realism. It’s easier to believe the good parts than it is to accept the bad parts when you really want something.

And now that you’re equipped with some new information, go out there and be your badass-self and make something awesome happen today.

Love,

Sulene