20 Things No One Will Tell You About Being a Female Musician
"You've come a long way, baby" said an attractive and glamorous woman, effortlessly posing and smoking a cigarette. She stared at my 6 year-old self from a magazine ad, flaunting her bronzed legs and slouchy, shoulder-baring top. "Look at her," I thought."She's got it going on. Someday I'll be as sexy and put together as her." The irony that this platitude was echoed from a cigarette ad was lost on me.
I started out in the professional music world 20 years ago and it's been a path that has been hard, but worth it. Would I do it again, absolutely! Are there things that I wish I had known starting out? Absolutely!
The reality of being a female musician is far from simple. I've found that for every platitude, there's a hard truth that you must face when you're in the midst of building a career. This is doubly hard when you're a woman who's striving for a career in an industry that is based in the youth, image obsessed world of music.
Here's my (hardly definitive) list of 20 Things No One Will Tell You About Being a Female Musician:
1.) Looks matter:Listen, I hate that this is a factor, but I'm trying to give you the real deal. Looks matter! If you examine the history of American pop music, you'll find it populated by attractive, slender people. It's easy for record companies, clubs, other band members, etc. to "buy into" what you're selling when it's packaged nicely. If your sole purpose is to be the lead singer in a band, you'll get more work if you're slim and pretty,
So if you're looking at yourself as thinking, "Oh, crap, I'm not [insert the thing you're not]" don't despair, because....
2.) Looks don't matter as much if you beat your own musical path:If fitting into a conventional box of attractiveness sounds horrible or unattainable to you, you'll need to create your own projects. Recently, there's been a surge of female artists who don't fit into a conventional ideal of attractiveness. Maybe they're plus-size, dress in oversized clothing or have some other factor which defines their looks in an unconventional way.
What do they have in common? They're all originals. They all have immense talent, drive and something different to offer.
3.) Music History is all about men:Up until a few decades ago, women were not a huge factor in the music industry. Sure you had your torch singers, select singer-songwriters and pop mavens but by-and-large, music history has been dictated by and comprised of men. It can be hard to identify with and draw inspiration from the male experience when you occupy a female body.
It’s ok if “the greatest songwriters” bore you to death or seminal recordings don’t “expand your consciousness”. After all, they were written from a completely different perspective and for completely different people (men). Seek out and champion women writers that the public isn't hip to. It's our duty to remind the world that we make up half of it. The better half!
4.) Bar owners will try to leverage your body for gigs:I've mostly had good experiences when trying to procure gigs, but there is always that one dude who wants you to "go have dinner" or "come check out his bouzouki" (yes, this actually happened) in order to secure the gig.
Don't even waste your time with these sad manipulators, because guess what, whenever you don't acquiesce to their demands, the gig is gonna go bye, bye. Also, warn other women about these sleazeballs, and if you have the gumption (and the text evidence), call them out on social media. The time has come to hold people accountable for their treatment of people who are in vulnerable positions.
5.) Don't sleep with other musicians:The quickest way to destroy working relationships and potentially lose credibility is to get involved with other musicians. Is it fair or just to be labeled as a groupie when you're actually a colleague? Is it fair to have everyone in your creative circles know your dirty relationship laundry? Hell to the nah, but will it happen? Sometimes…. yes.
Now you can fight this if you really want to. I am all for women dictating who they let into their lives, romantically. It works beautifully amongst two very mature people who are in it for the long haul. I have known female musicians who have made this work, but is it worth the risk when there’s a whole audience full of contenders?
If you're a female musician/singer, you'll have plenty of adoring fans who will jump at the chance to take you out. If you're single and ready to mingle, feel free to explore your options in the audience. Keep the bandstage free of relationship/sexual woes.
6.) There's no "sick pay" or "vacation time" for musicians:Be prepared to not cancel gigs unless you're at death's door. Now, this could all be changing with the worldwide pandemic (COVID-19), but in times past, we all worked sick.
Here's why, nobody gets paid unless you work. If you call out, there's nobody who can replace you. It's not as if being a professional musician is a skill that you can learn in a weekend. It's not Microsoft Excel. Also, if it's your project and you call out, there's three or four other musicians who have to leave money on the table that night as well. Call out enough and people will stop accepting gigs with you or the club will drop you.
7.) Working without a safety net for a couple decades will age you:Working as a professional musician often means working as an independent contractor. This means no health insurance, no 401K and no HR department. Do you know how many musicians depend on Medicaid and food assistance to get by? A LOT. Multiply health woes/stress/unhealthy lifestyle factors by about 20 years and you're gonna end up taking a few years off of your life. It's a sad reality that musicians don't live as long as many other professions. It's a hard knock life.
8.) If you rely on your looks only, you better have a back up plan:So remember how I said that looks were important? Well the opposite is true too. IF you depend on your looks to get gigs, eventually folks are going to figure that out. Once your looks start to fade, you will be replaced. If you don't have some substance to who you are as an artist you won't have longevity as an artist. That being said....
9.) An amazing female musician will have life long work:We all know that the music industry is heavily male, but there is an advantage to being a female. If you do your job and do it well, it's my belief that you'll actually get hired more! I've found that band members love having a "girl in the band'. Why? Women play music from a different perspective.
Women know how to listen, on stage and off. We are taught to be aware of others’ needs and be supportive. These are all great qualities to have on the band stand. Also, women are fun to watch play music. The women in the audience respond to having women in the band and it makes the audience stick around longer. Women in the audience keep men in the club. This translates to dollars for you and the club.
If you're a lead singer, learn to play the piano on a couple songs, or learn to play the tambourine. If you're a bass player, take movement lessons to learn how to make your body groove while you groove on your instrument. If you're a guitarist, learn how to do back-ups and sing behind the lead singer. Don’t forget to help with load in and load out if you’re the singer. Lend a helpful hand to the other folks in the band. That equipment is heavy and annoying!
10.) The more you can offer on stage, the more valuable you'll become to the stage:
11.) Pick a life partner outside of a creative industry:I know that life sometimes doesn't work out the way you plan, but if you are looking to fall in love and be with someone, try to look outside creative circles. The reason why I suggest this is for reasons of stability.
Two people who want to be together have a greater chance of survival if one of you is the "special unicorn" and one of you is the "unicorn tender". The special unicorn is drawn to all the sparkly things and brings rainbows into people's lives, but the special unicorn needs outside adoration, validation and attention.
The unicorn needs a unicorn tender to bring her back to earth. The unicorn tender may be the one who says 'no' when the unicorn wants to fly off into the clouds. The unicorn tender may be less flashy than the unicorn but can be more grounded and robust. The unicorn tender has health insurance....catch my drift?
12.) Start a 401K:Start a retirement savings account for yourself in your twenties. Contribute regularly. You will thank yourself at the end of your amazing career, when you're not destitute like many creatives end up being.
13.) If you buy a house, buy one with rental income:If you decide to take on the investment of buying a house, try to buy one that you could rent out a portion of in case you or your career falls on hard times. You can also buy a space that has a part that you could lease out to other musicians for a practice space.
This has saved me a lot of money and allowed me to have more financial room for exploration of my creativity. After all, is being a landlord that much more work and commitment than being a homeowner. No, it’s not, I can vouch for that.
14.) Become a master of the side hustle:Now when I say "side gig" I am not actually talking about a musical gig (although it could be that too). I'm talking about alternate ways to make money, honey. It's good to broaden your skill set for when times are lean so you don't have to depend on a partner to make ends meet.
Here's some of the side gigs I'm cultivating right now: college songwriting professor, content writer, copywriter, ESL teacher, ASL learning, marketing, Airbnb host and private lesson teacher. There's a myriad of hustles that you can get into to stabilize yourself. Think beyond music. It doesn't make you a sell-out, it gives you longevity.
15.) Be wary of the "Party That Never Stops":It is frighteningly easy to become an alcoholic or a drug addict in this business. When the bar not only pays you a percentage or base pay but also in booze, it's so hard to not constantly want to party.
You will also invariably be playing music with people who have substance abuse issues. If you haven't come across some, you just haven't played music long enough. Drinking/drugging too much is endemic to professional musicians. I think most musicians are adrenaline junkies to begin with so it's no wonder that a reasonably high percentage of them develop problems.
I'm no prude and I've been guilty of overdoing it on a gig, but for the most part, I'm good about this. It's too much energy to perform with a hangover, I do not recommend.
16.) Know what you want and empower yourself to get it:The most powerful people I know, know what they're worth. This is something that can only be gained by experience, but you gotta know when a gig is not worth doing. The old adage, "Too much exposure can kill you" is true. Usually when someone is asking you to do a gig for free you are not going to benefit in a quid pro quo manner. You better believe they have to pay the caterer, DJ, event space, etc. Don't let them get away with not paying you.
17.) Become a thrift store junkie:I buy most of my clothing at a thrift store. This gives me an edge because I don't wear what everyone else is wearing and I can afford to cultivate a huge variety of looks for stage. You don't need to break the bank to look like a million bucks.
Whatever vibe you want to present on stage is fine. You can go for a super sexy, rocker, sleek, hippie, street vibe. Just make sure that your clothes say something about you and ensure your clothes have an ‘energy’. Nobody wants to go see somebody on stage in a t-shirt and jeans, unless (!) that is the energy you wanna put out that best represents your music.
18.) If you're a vocalist, invest in and bring your own mic:This is a no-brainer. Do you want to show up at a club and sing through an inferior microphone all night? Potentially ruining your voice, making yourself sick and projecting a sound that doesn't represent your best self? I'm gonna answer for you....no.
I used to never bring my own mic. I used to just use whatever mic the venue supplied. This was sheer laziness on my part and I'm ashamed to admit this on a public forum. I have since had enough bad experiences to learn that this is an amateur move. I want to be in control of as many factors as I can while I'm performing so that my performance remains consistent and dependable.
19.) Don't take abuse:Don't take abuse from band mates. Don't take abuse from friends. Don't take abuse from club owners. Don't take abuse from romantic partners. Remember, YOU ARE THE SPARKLY UNICORN!!!!
This is my last bit of advice and I'm hoping that it won't be too controversial.
20.) It's ok to not want to have kids:
You know how they told us we can do everything and "have it all"? They were wrong. There are not enough hours in the day to have a frenetic, all-consuming solo career and be a great mom. There just isn't. Something's got to give.
For every example of a successful mother who is 'doing it all', I can guarantee you that either her career is compromising, her body is compromising or her children are compromising. There are dozens of stories of famous women who had children and had to leave them behind to go tour, go to work for 14 hours a day or be gone all night, every night. The kids shouldn't bear that brunt of that.
It's ok to want to not bring children into the world because you don't have space in your career. That's ok (regardless of what your family may say). I'm giving you permission to feel ok about that.
Conversely, it's also ok to let your career slide a little because you want to be a mom. Listen to the words of the great Dolly Parton on this topic, “I would have been a great mother, I think. I would probably have given up everything else, because I would’ve felt guilty about that, if I’d have left them [to work, to tour]. Everything would have changed. I probably wouldn’t have been a star.”
According to a report by Oxfam and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, women in the United States spend two hours more each day cleaning, cooking, taking care of children and doing other unpaid work than men. While things are slowly equalling out for moms, women still do a lion's share of housework and parenting.
I'm so fortunate to (mostly) not have to deal with this in my own household. My husband is the bomb in every way! From cooking, cleaning and parenting, we are a good team. Millennial Dads are bridging the gap in a big way in regards to household and emotional labor.
Still there remains an unavoidable fact, Moms play a bigger role in the early years of their children's lives. It's a biological imperative.
You'll be the one growing the child, feeding the child and nothing is more irreplaceable than "mama" to a baby and toddler. Speaking from experience, balancing a music career while negotiating motherhood feels overwhelming most of the time, and I've got it easy compared to most.
So don't do it unless you're ready to give up some factors of a thriving career. If you love your career and the thought of endangering it to have children scares the crap out of you…. then just don't.
Amy Trail lives in New Orleans, LA and is a singer/songwriter/pianist, Professor of Songwriting at Loyola University and a wife to Jim and mother of two boys. Find out more about Amy at www.amytrail.com