This is probably one of the questions I’ve been asked more than any other for the last six months, and I usually answer with the honest but terribly vague, “Good. I love doing it.”
So how is it really going? I’m going to answer that question completely honestly (if in a very long-winded post), even sharing the detailed numbers most artists are unwilling to share, but which everyone is secretly very curious to know.
First off, for any who don’t know already, I’m working for myself now, earning money by selling my music, books, and crafts (Seasonally, with the crafts). I am the only breadwinner in our home, which means that I am the only source of income for our family, and I have no other job or source of income (unless you include tax returns). My wife is a full-time mother who home-schools our kids, so she’s working her tail off, but not bringing in a cent. So when I say I’m working for myself, I mean I am attempting to support my family on my music and writing.
And, just so you can understand our financial situation: We own a house with a small patch of property. It’s a small, three bedroom modular home in what used to be a full trailer park. We bought it several years ago, in good condition, for $69,000. Because we were already low income, we qualified for a government aided home loan, so our monthly mortgage payment is just under $470 a month.
Jenni and I have been very careful to stay out of debt. Our house loan is the only loan we’ve done since our marriage, and we hope it’s the only kind of debt we ever have. Basically, we’ve tenaciously avoided consumer debt. I’ve heard it said, and I’ve tried to preach and live this principle: in order to make it in this kind of market, you’ve just got to be smarter with money than everyone around you. We’re still working on that, but we’re quickly learning the necessity of it.
Other than utilities, Internet, tithing, basic medical expenses, and basic food/stuff supplies, we don’t have any big extra expenses. We don’t even have membership of any paid website subscriptions.
So, with that as a backdrop, I’ll talk about how I was able to quit my job to work full time for myself.
We’ve been working toward having me go full time for many years now. Two years ago, I was laid off my job, and for two weeks (after discussing it with Jenni and determining that we could afford it), I scrambled to create, market, and push the music and writing as fast and furiously as possible. The immediate response was so encouraging (though still insufficient financially at the time) that after I again got a job, we began planning how we could work toward going full time as soon as possible. We determined that the absolute base money we needed to live month to month was $1,400 per month. So we decided that as soon as we had $8,000 sitting in our bank account, which would give us just under six months living, I’d quit my job and work full time for myself.
The plan was that during that six months, we’d earn enough to keep going, if only to push it far enough ahead to allow more time to get us to an average of $1,400 per month before our money ran out.
So we did. Actually, our tax return of about $7000 was 7/8 of that initial $8000. I put in my two-weeks notice, and Feb 1, 2013 was my last day working for someone else.
Ever since we got started several years ago, the sheet music has been a better seller than any other product–by far.
At the time I quit, we were selling an average of about 1 piece of sheet music per day. I continued to write more music, and put it on sheet music. I updated my site, did all the SEO stuff, got smarter with my social media use, and tried everything I could think of and everything I studied to get the word out about my music. And the sales increased. Over several months, the one per day average began to fluctuate between 2 and 4 per day. One day there’d be five sales, then after two days without any sales, there’d be two more sales, etc. It even almost got to the point where a day wouldn’t pass without at least one sale.
Basically, the average sheet music sales now is about three per day. With site fees and everything, that’s about three dollars per sheet music piece sold.
Then there were the book sales. They’ve been a little harder to follow. Since publishers generally send out royalty checks every three to six months, it was harder to track the progress of my books, but all in all, they seem to be bringing home (as in, total that we get to keep) about $25 per month, which is about the same amount as I was getting for books before going full time.
I mentioned crafts. Specifically, I mean toy foam swords. A couple years ago, I designed some fun dueling swords for kids, and sold a few at the local 24th of July parade. This year, over the summer, we attended three parades and made a total of about $500 take home.
Those have been our three major sources of income. So on average (keeping in mind that the amounts for these items come in various chunks and time frames), our present monthly income is sitting at approximately $100 for swords, $250 for sheet music, and $25 for books, totaling about $375 per month. Clearly this is nowhere near the $1,400 per month that would make the business sustainable.
And our funds? Running pretty low. In the six months after starting full time, we earned just under three months living.
At that point, Jenni and I discussed the issue, and came up with a plan. We figured that if I decided go work for someone else again, I’d be able to find a job within a month. That figure is based entirely on the fact that it’s never taken me longer than that to get a job. So we took the date we’d be out of money and set it back a month and decided on that date, I’d go looking for a new job. We also gave it a name. The day I have to start looking for a job is called ‘doomsday.’
Since I continue making money, doomsday is moving forward. If, for example, I made $1000 this week on sheet music and sword sales, that would push doomsday forward almost a month. Our rule of thumb is that ever $50 I make pushes doomsday forward one day.
Since my six month mark, when we came up with the doomsday plan, doomsday has moved up about a month and a half, so that for the moment, doomsday is at the end of this month. Obviously, in order to push doomsday ahead faster than it approaches, we’re going to have to start making more money fast.
And I’m doing my best.
I’m still confident we can make this work. If not this time around, maybe on the next time we have $8,000 saved up. Still, repeating the exact same efforts would probably not be the best way to go.
So how can I claim that the “music and books” thing is going good? Simple. I’m making a few hundred dollars a month on them. How many people are able to do that? And many–possibly most sales are returning customers. People often send the kindest notes saying how the music or the books touched them or their family. Even if the music and writing isn’t fully supporting us, it’s certainly going good.
Without question, I have a lot to learn about marketing and business. But I’m not sure I’ll be learning much of it while not seriously working on it.
Even if I have to go work for someone else for a time, I’ll keep working toward going back to full time. I’m still optimistic that we can find a way to make this work. I’m glad I still have a few weeks to push forward, and I still plan, if at all possible, to push doomsday forward inevitably.
Dreams take work. They take hard work. And it’s work I’m willing to do.