Surviving the Holidays: How to Handle "Helpful" Advice From Family

Young musicians (and all you creative types out there), during this season of gatherings, beware of those relatives and family friends trying to “help you” with their own brand of career advice...

The Graduate


Young musicians, during this season of family gatherings, beware of those relatives and family friends trying to “help you.” You don’t need a job that requires a suit and tie. You don’t need a haircut or to trim your beard. You are not required to teach Taylor Swift songs to your 10-year-old second cousin twice removed. Hold your head high and be ready to let them all know that yes, playing in a rock band is akin to being in the entry level of a major corporation. Actually, it is more than that. You are a chief decision maker in a small business.


Yes, in their mind, they are only trying to help. They mean well. But when they say things like, “I hear they are hiring over at Boeing,” or “are you still, what do you call it, ‘gigging’ with that band,” or the more subtle, “remind me again what you were studying in school,” they are actually saying, “how soon will you put away childish things and join the adult world?”


This can be frustrating. Awkward. At times, it gets very uncomfortable. You really don’t know what to say.


Perhaps some prepared answers are in order. The kind of answers that put your band in context with supposedly respectable professions and businesses.


For example, if you feel pressure to teach pop country tunes to a young girl who obviously doesn’t want to play, you don’t need to say, “Taking the time to learn those songs would disease my very soul.” You can say, “I’d love to help, but I’m afraid I’m not the right person for that. However, let me call one of our vendors and I’ll get her a great deal.” Your “vendor” is a guitar teacher at the local music store.


When they ask, “So how is that band of yours going? Have you been playing out much?” You can respond at length, “It’s been a great year. We’ve been expanding our customer base with a loyalty program currently returning great dividends.” That might mean you have a street team putting up posters and talking about the band.


Get where I’m going? Put your answers in business-speak. “One of our partners left unexpectedly, but we raided a competitor’s top guy to replace him. So far, the machine is working smoother and we are already seeing improvements throughout.” This explains that your drummer quit and you got a better one from another band.


How about, “This year we focused on R&D (songwriting) and the results are very promising (we’re digging the new tunes). We’ve been especially excited about the results from our primary research focus groups (lots of applause for our new tunes at our shows). Next year, we plan to roll out a major new product (a CD) following a successful investor call (Kickstarter campaign) to supplant our current reserves (what little we’ve saved from live shows). Along with it, we are working out a merchandise campaign to enhance the launch (my girlfriend is designing T-shirts and posters). It’s gong so well, but we’re coming to a crossroads. Some larger conglomerates (record labels) are sniffing around us (we got a response from a demo we sent to a label). While it would give us a broader reach (a record deal), we are leaning toward managing the brand ourselves. A group of consultants we’ve hired (management) is helping us through the process. The tough part seems to be creating a valuation of the company based on future returns. By the way, have you ever been through a corporate takeover? It’s kept me up some nights. Sure it may be a way off, but preparing now will make the process easier at the right time.”


Just watch them get glassy-eyed and try to find your parents to talk about what may be wrong with you. 


If you do try to pull this off, let me know what the results are. I never tried it.


But these thoughts have been in my mind when I was in your shoes. The truth is, a band is a small business. You are an executive partner. The skills you will learn running your band can translate into any field later on. Crisis management. Budgeting. Interpersonal relationships. Marketing. Business strategy. Hiring and firing. Social media marketing. While others your age are deathly afraid of doing public speaking, you've been standing in front of hundreds of strangers three nights a week. Those nights they are studying Public Speaking for Dummies, you're driving a room of room of people into a chanting, cheering, frenzy. And you don't need no stinking pie charts. 


Here in Charleston, look to Darius Rucker, Mark Bryan, and Ben Bridwell, who may have heard “the talk” about their futures at some family gatherings. Where are they now? Doing pretty well. How about Shovels & Rope? Got some big time awards too. They toured the U.S. and were on Letterman.


Other local bands did amazing things this year—like touring the U.S. and Europe. Yup, some 20-something kids were paid to go overseas and see a little more of the world. Cubicle dude who followed the rules? He knows what the boss likes to order from Starbucks. 


I’ve got a friend who has toured the world as Kid Rock’s drummer for almost 20 years. My grade school best friend is a well respected engineer who has worked with numerous Grammy artists, and on the film version of Phantom Of The Opera. Runs his own L.A. studio now. The current VP Of International Sales at a major label was once the saxophonist in my high school cover band.  


You may never get to be at the year-end music awards shows. But starting out in a rock band can lead to a whole host of careers: Managers. Restaurant owners. Writers (last year, two of my music friends released successful books). College professors. Owner of a coffee shop. The list is endless. It's really no different than the cousin who starts out in the mail room at an ad agency. There is no guarantee that cousin will become successful or even stay in his career. He'll be working somewhere else in a few years. 

But the truth is, nobody in business will take your cousin seriously until he is 30. You can always join the corporate world later. Right now is the only time you can be a young musician.


My point is, during this season of family gatherings, don’t be ashamed of your musical passion. Even when others don’t quite understand. Just as you can’t understand why somebody would want to sit in a cubicle all day long, doing exactly as they are told.


One last thought: the people who do make long careers out of it, at some point, they make a conscious decision to go at it full force. No back-up plan. This is their career. Perhaps after the holiday season is over, New Year’s is the time to commit to music with everything you’ve got.


(Thanks to Chris Solt for contributing some ideas to this piece)