A Question Of Balance

We are not slaves, nor indentured servants, nor debtors. We owe the music industry nothing. Why, then, does it ask for everything? Unlike the majority of professions, the music industry routinely has a habit of following us home. And to be fair, a professional musician with a home studio chooses to live at work.
Our personal lives are not sacred or even sheltered. Whatever our boundaries are, whatever our limits of productivity or unemployment, whatever our priorities, all will be tested and challenged by the music industry. This threat to a healthy and balanced life is pervasive and affects everyone from aspiring graduates to career musicians. That means you.

Why is balance important? Let’s consider just a few of the things that are potentially at risk when starting or maintaining a music career: time, energy, sleep, stability, sanity, friendships, finances, families, fitness, relationships, weekends, vacations, and mental and physical health. We might have better odds in Vegas.
For many years I have been interested in how other working musicians find a balance between this crazy industry and their personal lives, and it is a subject I bring up often in conversation. Over the last several months I have pursued the topic more earnestly, conducting a little more than 75 interviews with musicians across the country in all stages of their careers.

When I first mention the subject to a colleague the most common reaction by far is an uncomfortable laugh, a break of eye contact, a shift of the body, and then a short period of silence. The question of balance is clearly a difficult one, and people generally either have no answers or are uncomfortable with the ones they have. The second most common response is ironic. The majority of people admit that it’s a very important issue and that they themselves are not particularly balanced. Beyond that there are almost as many responses as there are musicians. It seems clear that none of us have all the answers, so my goal in these interviews was to survey the landscape and share with you some of the collective wisdom of the community.

If you are not yet convinced of the importance of this issue, consider these statistics. Of the composers I spoke with, 52% said they think about balance often and an additional 35% said they think about it with some regularity, so 87% of you are already thinking about this topic on your own. When asked to put a value on balance, not surprisingly a similar 79% said it was either important or very important.

In sharp contrast to this, I can count on one hand the number of working composers who said they had it figured out to the point that it’s no longer much of a problem for them. Only 17% claimed that they felt very balanced and had developed a system that works for them, 44% said that they either need improvement or had no balance at all, and the remainder is in the middle presumably treading water. There is an enormous disparity between what people want to see in their lives and what they actually have. 87% of you think about balance with some regularity and only 17% achieve it.

When talking with many different people about what their ideal balance is and what it looks like there are surprisingly few areas of overlap, even with a sampling as large as this. There are just as many perspectives as there are people, and the point of comfortable equilibrium between the music world and the rest of the world is in a different place for everybody. What does having a balanced life even mean?

One person may say that the industry gets in the way of family life, but the next says that family obligations hinder their career. Some say music is a part of every aspect of their life, and some say it’s just something they do for work. Some insist that we must be 100% committed and always prioritize our work to be successful, and others insist just as loudly that we have to draw boundaries, say no, and take time off regularly. There is clearly no one ideal context or prescription for balance that could apply to us all. Everyone has a comfort zone, but the specifics of what that comfortable space looks like are wildly different from person to person.

Almost unanimous, however, were the causes of perceived imbalance and the first priorities dropped when things become pressured. The most common sources of imbalance will be familiar to you. Small budgets or otherwise limited finances, large expectations from others and from ourselves, short schedules, market saturation, the constant search for work, and a reluctance to turn down work or say no seem to tip the scales consistently.

Our own passion, emotional involvement, and perfectionism also play a role. Only 6% said that music was just a job they do for money. The rest of us have a built-in attachment to what we’re doing. That attachment can be described as hobby, interest, passion, addiction, obsession, or self-expression, but no matter what language is used the reality remains. We are tied to our work, perhaps intentionally and perhaps involuntarily, and this is both a source of joy and the source of all the trouble. Along with the things we desire we also get a host of things that bring imbalance into our lives, and because we love our work we carry those things with us all the time.
We cannot control the external forces that work upon us. They are larger than us and in many ways are indigenous to the music world. However, we can certainly choose how to react to them. Almost without exception the first things composers tend to sacrifice are diet, exercise, sleep, time off, personal goals, and relationships with friends, family, and partners. This is true of almost everybody, from those trying to break in to those who are about to retire.

The urgent and the important are often different things, and we are often forced to choose between them. The work may seem urgent, but I believe the things mentioned above are fundamentally important to our life experience, our health, and to some degree our very identity. In my opinion we should not routinely surrender these things without a fight, and yet almost all of us do.

Before we can try to maintain a comfortable equilibrium between our pursuit of music and our non-professional pursuits, we have to know what we want that equilibrium to look like. Several of the people I spoke to were unable to find that balance, and the unbalanced nature of the industry drove them to other career paths. Some admitted that it has been an uncomfortable struggle for decades that will probably never be resolved. Others seem to have figured it out, and they found a way to thrive in the industry while maintaining the priorities that they value.

In the unpredictable world of music, it’s important not to look for balance at close range. There will be times when we are overworked and times when we are under employed, periods of joy and periods of tedium, feast and famine, success and failure. It is a roller coaster ride, and although we can direct our trajectory we cannot completely control it. To see the balance you have to look at the big picture, at the movement between these different phases, and at how much time you spend in each place.

What that balance looks like is different for everybody, so I am not particularly concerned with where the fulcrum of balance lies or how much time is spent on one thing or another. Some will never ignore a work related phone call at any hour, and they talk about music as a kind of addiction, passion, or calling. Others have rigidly scheduled time when they are off duty and don’t even think about music. Where the balance lies is an individual decision and a preference. What is relevant to all of us is the process of keeping that balance over time.

Despite the enormous variety of perspectives and opinions, those who feel good about their balance have one thing in common. They first chose a lifestyle and business model that they are comfortable with, and their career and life pursuits were then fit into that concept. Those people are fundamentally proactive instead of reactive. They know what they want their lives to look like both day-to-day and long term. They pursue those things actively instead of just trying to juggle everything that comes their way. They also make small conscious decisions on a regular basis that mirror the same fundamental concepts. Those small decisions can basically be split into two groups: Some establish boundaries between a music career and the rest of life, and others aim to integrate the two. Usually both approaches are in use simultaneously.

I’d like to mention some boundaries that seem to work consistently, but before any of you workaholics get upset, it’s important to note that the boundaries work in both directions. A locked studio door may block out the world while you work, but it can also give you a mental break during the hours (or minutes) that you’re away. These are just fences, and you can position yourself on either side.

Most often mentioned were boundaries of time that more or less boil down to scheduling. Locking doors, turning phones and Internet connections on or off, and generally scheduling things in advance are the most often mentioned and simplest solutions. We can’t do everything, especially not at the same time, and recognizing the limits of our time and how we can use it is critical. Many people spoke of increasing extra-musical commitments as the years go by, and most alluded to the fact that they simply became more efficient or focused in order to manage it all.

Mental boundaries are also important to keep you focused on work or give you space from it. There was an enormous amount of variety here as these solutions are more individual in nature, so I will avoid mentioning any specifics. Consistent, though, was the fact that those who felt the weight of all their responsibilities at all times also felt somewhat overwhelmed. Those who were able to clear their minds of clutter and focus on their immediate priorities had a more obvious sense of calm and peace with their situation. There are times to multi-task and times to focus. The composers I spoke with often talked about an ongoing search for mental boundaries or mental balance. When that is achieved it seems much easier to balance the task-oriented parts of our lives.

As much as we hate to admit it, there are also some real and tangible boundaries to our abilities. There are limits to our energy, our finances, our desire, our productivity, our abilities, our connections, our skills, etc. Those who openly admit their limitations are more likely to find productive ways to change them or work around them, so a certain amount of honesty with oneself seems in order. Those who try do it all try to do it alone, and try to do it now are the ones who feel unsettled or unbalanced.
While boundaries and limitations are important, concepts that allow an integration of our music and the rest of our lives are equally important. After all, most of us would agree on some level that being a musician isn’t just something that we do. It’s something that we are.

Most of us tend to integrate music into many or most aspects of our lives. For many of us music is our work, our hobby, our relaxation, our leisure activity, and our love. While on the surface this seems like an enormous bonus and perhaps evidence that we’re in the right industry, this is also precisely the thing that can lead us down the path towards imbalance. A certain amount of integration is desirable and enjoyable for us and for those around us, and a certain amount more tips the scales. Those amounts vary with the individual, but for everybody there is a slippery slope that leads from interest to passion to obsession and back again. The integration of work we love into the rest of our lives is a luxury, but it can also be a danger. Our personal lives are not sacred or even sheltered.

Few would argue that this is an unimportant subject, but while the concept of balance is generally valued the implementation is usually perceived as lacking. Surrounding this subject is a consistent gap between what most people say they want and what they actually have.

The moral of this story is not of my own creation. This is the common wisdom gleaned from about 75 interviews with composers like you. These are your answers, your solutions, and your advice.

Most importantly, almost any lifestyle can be compatible with music. You can work as a composer from any city. You can do it part time or full time or 100 hours a week. It can be the number one priority, or in the top 5, or in the top 20. This is an industry without rules. Everything goes, and anything can turn a profit if you’re clever.
The common wisdom says you should choose your ideal lifestyle first, and choose work that fits into that lifestyle second. Those who have done it in that order are much more content with their lives and with their careers. Consciously and proactively guide your life and your work instead of reactively juggling whatever comes your way. In an industry as nebulous and undefined as music we all have the luxury and the responsibility of creating our own destiny in a very real way every single day. Create your experience actively and not passively.

Work hard and stay organized enough to make it happen the way you want. Be aware of your priorities at all times and take small consistent measures to maintain them every day. Realize that doing so means saying no to things regularly, because every priority de-prioritizes something else.
Give yourself what you need, whether it’s twelve uninterrupted hours or regular breaks, time with a partner or time away, external support or isolation, total immersion or total separation. Whatever you need, find it or make it. Only you can create your most fertile and ideal working situation, so you are 100% responsible for creating and maintaining that space.

Lastly, remember your love. Every one of us began in this industry because we were attracted to and passionate about music. Guard that love, find the hot spot of that flame, and refuel it regularly. Without a love for music this is just another job, and as jobs go this is a tough one and probably a bad business decision. Pursue your passion and keep your sense of wonder alive. That is your voice, that is your joy, and that is your future in music.

A special thanks to all of you who contributed your time and consented to talk about this rather personal topic with me.