How To Be a Successful Musician With a Day Job

musician with a day job
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musician with a day job
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Photo credit: Dan Senior

It’s tough being a musician with a day job, at least the way you want to be. I used to work in customer service and do music on the side – lots of late nights, early mornings, and weekends spent making music.

It might feel like you lack the time, energy, and focus to really get your music career going. But there’s good news: you can make small changes today to better balance music with your day job.

So below are several of those changes. If you implement them, you can shift the trajectory of your career so it’s aiming where you want it to.

Define Your Own Success

What it looks like to be a successful musician with a day job is up to you. Success is subjective. Everyone’s job and life look different.

What do you want to do with music? Will it stay a hobby, or do you want it to be your career? Specifically, what kind of musician do you want to be? These are questions you have to answer honestly.

Defining your success means you need to stop comparing yourself to other musicians. Each of us has been through different life circumstances, we’ve had different musical influences, and we want different things from music and life.

Know what music is to you and what role it will play in your life. This will help you balance your day job with your passion.

Change Your Internal Dialogue

The way you think is important. It can change the way you behave in the world.

For example, which of these two sentences feels better to you?

“I wish I had more opportunities for my music career.”


“I want to use the resources I have to make the best of my music career.”

To me, the latter option is more exciting. It’s more forward-thinking. And the way you think changes the way you talk which changes the way you act.

So here are some tips for changing the way you think, shifting your internal dialogue to a more music-centric vibe.

Say “no” more

Saying “no” frees you up to say “yes” to the things that matter. If you say “yes” to anything and everything, you’ll become overwhelmed and scatterbrained. And then you won’t have time or energy to go after the really good opportunities.

Derek Sivers, the founder of CD Baby, said it best.

“If you’re not saying ‘HELL YEAH!’ about something, say ‘no’,” he writes. “…When you say no to most things, you leave room in your life to really throw yourself completely into that rare thing that makes you say ‘HELL YEAH!’”

The “hell yeah or no” approach has helped me make decisions not just in regard to music, but in my life in general. So if you’re not totally and completely into the idea of a project or collaboration, feel free to say “no.”

You will feel free if you do.

Say “don’t” instead of “can’t”

I don’t make beats. I don’t make generic pop music for sync libraries. I don’t rap. Technically, I could do all of those things (to varying levels of skill). But I don’t.

Notice I didn’t say “can’t.” Because as a musician, you can try anything you want. When you say “can’t,” it sounds like you’re lacking something.

So instead, try saying “don’t,” even for your own mental health. Saying “don’t” sounds like you’ve made a definitive choice about your music career, because you have. It’s not as if you would do something but, for some reason, you’re not able to. You’ve decided not to do something so you can focus on what you want to do.

Build Habits

Many of us are waiting around for motivation to hit us. Once that arrives, we say, then we’ll start making music. But that’s totally off. What you need is discipline. Discipline is how you form habits. And habits can actually get you somewhere.

Author James Clear has a 5-step process for forming new habits:

  1. Start with a small task/habit
  2. Gradually improve that habit
  3. As you alter your habit, chunk it into pieces (keep it reasonably attainable)
  4. When you miss a day, quickly get back on track
  5. Be patient


I would highly recommend reading Clear’s book Atomic Habits. It has very specific tips about how to form and keep new habits.

Change Your Definitions

There are some ideas that don’t serve us as musicians. And we should remove them from our thinking and language.

Forget “perfect”

Perfect doesn’t exist. Once you reach what you thought was perfect yesterday, your measure of perfect will have moved. This is the nature of the gap between where you are and where you want to be (see video above).

Author Jon Acuff knocks down the idea of perfectionism in his book Quitter: Closing the Gap Between Your Day Job and Your Dream Job.

“90 percent perfect and shared with the world always changes more lives than 100 percent perfect and stuck in your head,” he writes.

Perfectionism is when you obsess over details until you talk yourself out of making or sharing something. Forget perfect. Shoot for your best.

Ignore “overnight successes”

Look at any “overnight success” and you’ll find years of good work ethic behind it. Building a music career while holding down a day job is hard work, and it will probably take you some time to reach your version of success. Just know this now so you’re not discouraged later.

You may not be the most naturally gifted musician, songwriter, or singer. But you can reach your music goals with consistent effort, even if it’s in little bites. Your music probably won’t blow up right after you pick up an instrument for the first time. And even if it does, you won’t be ready for the attention.

Put in the work one day at a time.

Don’t overwhelm yourself with big steps

The musicians who don’t quit are the ones who will reach their music goals. The key to longevity is baby steps. Becoming a successful musician with a day job takes many, many small steps. It takes many days strung together.

Once you know what your success looks like, once you know what direction you need to go, take small steps forward.

You’re probably not going to go from being a musician with a day job to a full-time career in music in a month. Or even a year. So prepare yourself to be in this thing for the long haul. It will seriously help you avoid burning out.

Create a Plan

I spent 10 years being the type of musician I thought I should be. But there are many ways to pursue music, and it took me a decade to realize that. That’s when I figured out something: I needed a plan.

So I made one. And it has been the most helpful thing for me as an indie musician.

If you want to make a plan, I suggest you start with this post on how to create a plan for your music career (and just generally get your sh*t together). And this post will show you some practical ways to find and pursue your chosen avenues of income.