What I Wish I’d Known Sooner
As the daughter of two professional musicians (Susie Burke and David Surette), I kind of had a head start when it came to my music career. They taught me that it’s possible to make a good living as a musician without getting famous, that community is everything when it comes to making a life in music, and that doing your taxes as a self-employed person is an absolute nightmare. I first came to truly appreciate that perspective when I was studying at Berklee College of Music, where my parents’ lessons were kind of a foil to the industry-driven, fame-conscious people I saw around me. I loved my time at Berklee, and I carry so much of what I learned there in my playing and singing and my everyday actions, but I also knew that I was not going to get famous playing the kind of music that I play, and that was exactly what I wanted. Growing up in the traditional music world gave me the gift of a community- and experience-centered understanding of music, and my education at Berklee gave me a higher caliber of practical skills and professional ambition.
Despite this high-quality music education, though, I still stumble across new pitfalls all the time, new information or insight that I wish I’d had before. If I had a time machine and could give some advice to my 19-year-old self as she started college, here’s what I might tell her.
First and foremost, being a musician means also being a small business owner. I wish I’d learned more about what that entails as soon as possible. I knew about this growing up, sure. I had a vague awareness of my parents doing their accounting at the dining room table. But I think I assumed that someone would eventually explain it all to me, or I’d just magically acquire all the knowledge I needed by the time I had to start doing these things myself. Obviously, that is not the case.
For some reason I only took one music business class (a primer course on music law) at Berklee, and I kick myself for that pretty frequently. I got a lot out of that one class, and Berklee offers more business/law courses than any other school I’m aware of, but they don’t require those courses for everyone and I think they should. You can’t necessarily expect college students – let alone music students – to have the foresight to take the classes that will be the most useful to them. (Frankly, it baffles me that every student at every music school isn’t required to take classes in business, taxation, and law.) I think I’m doing okay at this point, but there’s been a lot of lightning-fast learning on the job, a lot of frantic Google searches of “how to publish a song” and “what is an LLC” and panicked mid-April phone calls to my parents asking how much I can write off my taxes. I feel like I’m getting by on the bare minimum of required knowledge, and if I’d taken it upon myself to learn more about these things sooner, I would have been more prepared for what came next.
Relatedly, I wish I’d learned to give myself deadlines, because they won’t always be given to me. This is something I’ve discussed before, in my columns about songwriting and productivity, but that’s because it’s something I return to continuously in so many areas of my life. I’ve been in many situations relating to running my band’s business where something was asked of me on short notice, when I could have done it sooner. This ability to take initiative is a crucial element of running a successful business, and it’s one I’m only developing now because it wasn’t really forced upon me before.
On a more creative note, another piece of advice I’d give to my younger self is to not let myself feel limited to any particular musical genre or scene. I would still define myself as a folk musician today, but I wouldn’t limit myself to only that. I’ve noticed that my tendency toward being a creature of habit has kept me from venturing outside the safety of my folk bubble until recently. The music scene I’m part of is relatively broad-minded, genre-wise, but it does feel like a bubble nonetheless. It’s wonderful to be part of a tight-knit music community with so much common interest and experience, but it’s also nice to venture out of that bubble once in a while. I want to spend more nights going to see a DIY basement show or a funk band’s residency at a local bar and seeing what kind of inspiration comes from that. I’ve been playing gigs on electric guitar with my friend’s band Corporate Punk recently and absolutely loving it. I’m even starting to learn the drums and am planning a sort of comedic-political-country-punk side project with one of my bandmates. These are things that I might not have decided to do only a couple of years ago, not because I haven’t wanted to do those things all along, but because they wouldn’t have even occurred to me as realistic possibilities when I was thinking of myself as only a folk musician.
I’m sure that I will have much more advice that I’d want to give to my current self in a few years. I’m just shy of 25 — I don’t claim to have anything really figured out at this point. But there’s one thing I’m glad that I did figure out early on: It’s okay to ask for help and advice. Social media, and the multi-generational closeness of the folk community, have been really helpful to me in that regard. I’ve had a few really fruitful conversations with more established musicians that came out of me sending them an email saying “Hey, can I buy you lunch so you can tell me all about [navigating Folk Alliance/booking gigs/guitar gear/etc.]?” I continue to do this, and I now try to make a point of making myself available to other musicians who might ask about what I’ve learned.
Oh, and one more thing, since I’m writing this on a plane: I wish I’d learned to pack light sooner. Traveling with only a carry-on-sized suitcase absolutely rules. It took me almost 25 years, but I’m starting to get the hang of it!