8 Mindsets That Are Keeping You Broke (& What to Do About Them)

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You’ve got the talent. You’ve got the drive. You’ve worked long and hard on your craft. You have complex thoughts. Creative ideas. Hell, people even like your music!

So you’re making a decent living, right?

Cue collective sigh.

If you’re struggling to make money from your music, you’re not alone. However, you’re not doomed to this fate.

Take an honest inventory of your current career beliefs. What is your present way of operating? How is that working for you?

More importantly, are you willing to shake up your current mindsets, try new techniques, and step outside of your comfort zone? If so, read on.

Here are 8 mindsets that directly prevent musicians from achieving financial security. All are things I have gone through personally and still work to overcome every day.

1. “I feel guilty charging people for my music.”

I can’t think of a single person who loves asking for money. We like receiving money, but to directly ask is a different story.

I’ve found there are two main reasons that people feel guilty charging for their music.

Reason #1: You think you’re too young/inexperienced to deserve money for your time. As a result, you work for free.

Instead of working for free, you can set up a pay structure similar to those in other fields. For example, therapists, hair stylists, and corporate employees get paid differently for different levels of experience.

If you’re not in high demand yet, experiment with lower price points rather than going fully for free. Keep in mind that whether we opt for the senior or junior therapist, we’re still paying for the service either way. Your time is valuable.

Also, remember that people in other professions have an advantage when it comes to getting paid. It’s not that their services or experiences are worthier of monetary compensation; there’s simply more precedent and formalized structure in place to support them. Restaurant bill? Pay. Go to the movies? Pay. Go to the chiropractor and get our back cracked for three minutes? Pay.

You can create a formalized structure yourself — put systems into place that make it easier to get paid, follow up with overdue payments in a timely manner, and set the expectation that you want money in exchange for your work.

Reason #2: You know the other person is on a tight budget.

This is a common sentiment with recent music school grads, because everything is shared and free when in school. School is different. The real world isn’t school.

Assuming in advance what other people can and can’t afford robs them of the agency to make that choice for themselves. I know plenty of musicians who live frugally and eschew cars, TVs, and nice apartments in order to save up for nice gear or instruments. Grants and alternative sources of funding are also possible.

In the end, it’s up to you if you’re willing to negotiate or go pro bono, but I do suggest the practice of asserting a rate no matter what. That way, even if a client is getting a free or reduced service, they know that it’s a special case and not your norm.

2. “Self-promotion is embarrassing.”

Answer the following questions for me:

a) Are you an independent musician (composer, performer, etc)?
b) Do you hope to make money from your music?

If both answers are “yes,” then you are already the CEO/owner/operator of a business: the business of you and your music. My friend and mentor Suzanne Paulinski (a.k.a., The Rock Star Advocate) calls this being a musicpreneur.

I am a musicpreneur, because I write, record, and sell music and services. I have albums and sheet music for sale on my website and iTunes. I fulfill composition commissions for soloists and ensembles and record custom lullabies for gift givers. I perform and do violin session work. And I run a Patreon page to provide special perks and interact with my monthly supporters.

Do I do all of the above mainly for the love of music? Absolutely. But am I also trying to make a living? Hell yeah. I am most definitely in business — and if you want to survive, you must embrace the fact that you’re in business too.

Promotion is simply a natural extension of any business. We don’t bat an eye when seeing ads for Amazon or Bed Bath and Beyond.

We don’t think, “How embarrassing; they had to promote themselves.” We get it. They’re informing the public of their offerings and inviting those interested in said offerings to give them a chance. If it’s not our cup of tea, we ignore it. I can’t even count how many great foods, products, and services I wouldn’t have known about had I not seen them advertised first.

Think of it as your duty to inform interested parties of your offerings. People like to buy and listen to things that are of value to them. No need to feel embarrassed.

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3. “I’ll start when I’m ready!”

Our creations will never be ready, and we will never be fully satisfied with our skill. We both know this.

Unfortunately, I know from experience that keeping your music private isn’t beneficial for anyone. It slows your growth process.

The more you share, the more practice you have putting things out in the world, receiving feedback, and honing your voice. You learn about how to articulate what you’ve made.

Every time you post something, you create an opportunity for someone to listen, to build an opinion, to think about art, and to think of you when a suitable project or job opportunity comes up.

I’ve received numerous inquiries, sales, writing opportunities, and commissions as a result of things people heard on my album, website, or Soundcloud. Have I always been 100% happy with the things I’ve shared in the moment of posting? No.

But if I’d never posted those things, I never would have moved on to other opportunities. I wouldn’t have scored films, sold albums, or gotten any commissions. I would be stuck spinning my own voice to myself.

Guess how much money I made from my own music when I was too shy to promote it? Zero. @ChrysantheTan Click To Tweet

4. “I don’t want to be a sellout like XYZ.”

We all know musicians who promote the crap out of themselves. They have fans, followers, listeners (or at least they pretend they have listeners). They interact with these listeners. We shun some of them because we perceive their music to be “cheesier” than ours.

Our natural reaction is, Oh god, I don’t want to be like them. Sure, I may be broke, but at least I have integrity.

It’s okay to hate the music someone else makes. It’s okay to have opinions about their posts.

But actively judging other people holds you back from realizing your own money-making potential.

I used to be a harsh critic of other musicians, especially if they were more successful than me. I would brush them off as “pandering to fans” or “excessively self-promoting.”

Deep down, I was envious that they could confidently pull things off that I was too nervous to try. Judging others caused me to operate from a place of fear. I was always scared of sharing or writing things, worried I might be doing something embarrassing that my serious peers would make fun of. I was terrified to start a Patreon page in case it failed.

I was afraid of other people passing the same judgment on me that I had passed on other musicians. Karma.

The next time you roll your eyes at a self-promoting colleague, I urge you to shift your critique to a more productive place. What exactly do you find distasteful? Can you approach it scientifically and isolate details about the artist, their content, posts, or strategies in order to learn something to adapt for yourself?

5. “I should try to hit a broad audience.”

We’ve all had the experience of posting our music and hearing the blaring sound of crickets. you may be thinking, I do share my music, but the world just doesn’t care!

Don’t give up. Niche down.

Trying to hit every single consumer is rarely successful in marketing, and the same applies to your music. Figure out who your specific audience is and spend your energy on them. If you write microtonal violin music, don’t focus too hard on getting the attention of Sarah Chang. Find out who the experimental violinists on the new music scene are and share your work with them instead.

Even if you write a huge range of music (most of us do), still try to niche down, at least in your sharing and promotion efforts.

For example, if I’m at a baby shower, I’ll talk about the custom lullabies I compose and emphasize what a special keepsake one would make for a new child. I will not spend my energy asking if someone wants to commission an avant-garde musical-poetry performance piece. Knowing your audience is one of the best ways to increase interest (and thus, make money from your music)!

6. “I must save every penny I make.”

Another friend and mentor of mine, Cheryl B. Englehardt, introduced me to the concept of money as water. The way she describes it is this: Money flows like water. It is a river, not a stagnant pond.

This basically means that money goes both ways: in and out. Thinking of money as an intimidating thing to stockpile and save like nuts for hibernation is deleterious not only to your mental health but also to your income stream. As a frugal person by nature, I constantly remind myself of this. Otherwise, my subconscious thinks, if nothing’s going out, it justifies nothing coming in, right?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not advocating for careless spending. Budgeting is very important. But you can’t “wait until you’re rich” to start doing nice things, giving gifts, making donations, and investing in yourself.

One of the best ways to invest in yourself is to spend money on education, skills, and mentorship. You don’t have to get the most expensive course or coach, but dropping a bit of cash on a mentor, a consultation, lessons, coaching, or classes can do wonders for your craft or career. You’re never too good or advanced to have a coach or mentor. As they say, even therapists have therapists.

The work I have done with mentors and coaches has changed the course of my career. I have gained not only concrete knowledge, skills, and insight, but I have also done important psychological reframing work that has been imperative to my success and artistic survival.

7. “There’s so much competition.”

This is related to the last point about money, because both of these flawed mindsets fixate on scarcity. It’s tempting to think pessimistically about how few jobs there are, and how finite the amount of opportunities, grants, ensembles, attention spans of our audience seem. We worry about people choosing our colleagues over us.

Instead of focusing on the competition, I urge you to concentrate on which things make your own voice, style, personality, and services valuable. Embrace and play up what makes you slightly different. Different doesn’t have to mean better, but it results in greater specificity. Like I said earlier, niching down is the way to go.

Imagine choosing between two clarinet teachers who graduated from the same school, play in the same orchestra, have a similar teaching style, and charge the same rate. But one of them is a huge Star Wars nerd, while the other is a diehard Trekkie. If you’re a fan of either of those worlds, this extra detail could be the tiebreaker when it comes to making your choice.

The things that make you different could be the tiebreaker for you too.

8. “Money is the only currency.”

I left this one last, because money is important, and the point of this post is to help you get paid, not take more free work.

Nevertheless, this statement — when applied conscientiously — still rings true.

If someone cannot offer to pay you, or you really want to work with someone no matter what, ask yourself what you’d really like to get out of the collaboration. Is there anything you can get out of this transaction?

Here are some examples of things you could ask for:

  • If a performer wants to commission a free piece from you, ask them to give you a high-quality recording in exchange (that they have to take care of).
  • Ask for a guarantee of a certain number of performance dates.
  • Have them take care of promotional materials that could help you.
  • Trade services. You write a piece for them. They help you out if you need a performer for a future piece or recording.
  • Ask for a donation receipt for your taxes.
  • Make sure your name, website, or anything else you’d like is prominently displayed in any relevant places.

If you’re still unsure, Ari Herstand of Ari’s Take wrote a blog that could help you determine if a gig is worth it to you: “Should You Take The Gig or Pass?”

And don’t forget to put all of these things in writing!

What’s Your Money Mindset?

Whew! We covered a lot, and now I’d love to hear from you.

What fears or hang-ups around money have you overcome?

Do you have any additional tips to add?

Leave a comment below and share this post!

chrysanthe-headshotChrysanthe Tan is a composer, violinist, and writer who specializes in lullabies and musical-poetry. In 2015, she released her chamber music album Stories, was featured on ASCAP’s website as a Spotlight Composer, and toured the world as Ariana Grande’s violinist. In addition to composing, Chrysanthe is one half of Duo Meranti, a Balkan + contemporary classical duo with guitarist Sean Hayward. At time of publication, Chrysanthe is working on her next album at a composer residency for Sound/Word specialists in Syros, Greece. If you’re interested in commissioning a solo or chamber piece, or would like to order a custom lullaby for a loved one…

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Stories album for sale here and on iTunes.

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