A year ago, Laini Marenick (of the band Laini and the Wildfire) quit her day job and became a professional musician. Like the first year of any new business endeavor, there were many ups and downs.
Laini was kind enough to answer questions about the challenges and rewards of her new life as a full-time musician. I think her story will be useful for any artist who’s considering taking a similar risk.
An interview with Laini Marenick
When did you decide to quit your job and pursue music full time?
It was a slow process that involved me testing the waters first before I committed to the idea of being a full-time musician.
In the summer of 2015, I had a catharsis of sorts after spending two weekends in a row at what I guess you can say were “life-changing” concerts. One was the Newport Folk Festival, and the other was Lake Street Dive. I felt so alive and so real and authentic—it was like I rediscovered a part of myself that I had buried for so long—more than 10 years. I came home, and the next day our song “Newport” spilled out of me which described that exact experience.
We were already in the process of writing our debut EP, and now I was really questioning what I wanted my future to look like. Those cathartic moments at the concerts solidified the fact that I needed music to be a bigger part of my life.
That Monday morning, I told my boss I had to step-down to part time, and I was part-time for about a year and a half before I finally left my job completely in August 2017.
What pieces of the puzzle had fallen into place where you felt like it was time to make the leap?
In the year and a half that I was part time, I adjusted to making less money. I consolidated my debt. I started “budgeting.” I cancelled a bunch of monthly services. I lowered my car insurance payments and my student loans. It all adds up. You don’t realize how much money you’re wasting until you don’t have any money to waste! I also picked up a few private piano lessons for extra income.
But even with my financials in order, things were still unbalanced with work and music. My work was suffering. I was trying to direct a program for kids with severe emotional problems on a 3 day/week schedule, and it just didn’t work. And my music was suffering too. I was completely drained trying to push forward with the upcoming release of my album Wandering. Things were falling out of place rather than falling into place. I guess you can say it came down to one of those cliché “shit or get off the pot” moments.
So like any normal human, I drank some wine and asked my friend to give me an impromptu weeknight tarot card reading, which pointed me in the right direction (and inspired our song “Wandering”). Deep down, I already knew the answer was to quit, but leaving a job that I loved and had devoted 7 years of my life to (plus 6 years of school for my master’s degree in social work, a clinical license, and all of the accompanying debt) was terrifying. But at this point, I was already functioning with a lot less income, so I had some confidence that I could figure out how to make ends’ meet when I left my job completely.
How do you self-manage your workload as a pro musician? What’s an “average” day look like?
I make sure I always set aside time to schedule out my week, and that whatever I’m working on is related directly to my goals—which I create every 3 months or so. It’s so easy to become overwhelmed with the all things you have to handle as a DIY musician—social media, booking, writing, rehearsing, making videos, marketing, publicity—I mean the list goes on and on.
I usually start the day with something that makes me happy and excited to get out of bed. It often involves walking my dog and listening to a podcast, or cooking a breakfast I really like. Then I block out my day according to my goals/tasks. If I’m writing, I do that first since that’s when I’m the most focused. I spend 15-45 minutes on social media talking to people and posting content, followed by 2-3 hours on music business related tasks, which could be any number of things depending on what my goals are.
Around lunch time, I take care of any personal calls/errands, followed by a short break. In the afternoon, I usually rehearse on my own. By about 4:00, I’m headed off to teach piano for a few hours. I have band rehearsal a few times a week in the evenings. I also try to do as much food prep, cleaning, laundry, and social media at night so that I wake up with less on my to-do list.
What’s generating the most revenue for you?
It fluctuates. Generally, live shows are where we make the most money, especially when we’re able to get on any festival shows, as opposed to clubs/venues. Merch/CD sales are a close second.
That’s regarding the band’s income. A lot of my personal income comes from teaching private piano lessons. I know many people might feel like that’s a “day job,” and teaching may not be for everyone. But for me, the fact that I am doing something related to music every hour of the day—whether it’s teaching, writing, booking, etc.—is inspiring. It feels effortless and fun. It doesn’t feel like a chore. I don’t feel drained. It’s a stream of income that feeds me emotionally (and physically!), and it feels good to know that I’m helping these kids discover something that has been such a guiding force in my life.
What do you wish you knew a year ago that you know now?
I let the beliefs of the general population get to me. I questioned myself often. “Am I too old to be doing this? I’m over 30. I should be focused on having a family, not pursuing some crazy dream.”
No one was saying these things to me really, but I felt like the world was judging me. And I think a lot of women who are over 30 and not living the typical “have a family and settle down lifestyle” feel the same way. So that pressure I felt fueled some anxiety for me. I had to get the album out as fast I could before it was “too late.”
Now, I’m more focused on just writing the best song I can and not rushing anything because my biological clock may or may not be ticking. Our music attorney said something once that stuck with me: “You’re not a loaf of bread, you don’t expire.”
And though I still have my moments, I believe that most of the time now.
What have been your biggest successes in your DIY marketing efforts?
Twitter has been really great for us. It’s unusual, I know, since Twitter is typically just a black hole of politics and random people DM’ing you to “check out their latest song.”
We developed a method that helps us connect with like-minded people, and we’ve made friends and fans all over the world, which is really cool. Anyone we follow usually will check out our page, and see our music video (great video content is important) which is pinned right at the top. Usually, they’ll start engaging with me right away.
I talk to everyone who talks to me, and I ask our Twitter followers personal questions. I know a lot of them by name, not just their Twitter handle. Lots of people have impressive numbers in terms of Twitter followers. But the fact that a lot of our followers feel connected to us and have become fans of our music is a big win.
The other thing I’m really proud of is all the press coverage the band received for Wandering. Doing my own press campaign was grueling work— 50 different blogs, tons of research, some harsh rejections, and Excel spreadsheets that seem to go on forever—but still, I’m so glad I decided to DIY it. I got a ton of features for the band and ended up on the cover of the entertainment section in a major local newspaper that’s sold statewide.
How about your biggest failures?
The Spotify playlisting company we worked with when we released Wandering didn’t quite give the impact we hoped for. We got added to a few playlists, and the increased plays were cool to see, but nothing ever materialized. We were hoping for exposure to a larger audience than what our results showed, and that some of those listeners would become fans of the band (not just the song). That didn’t seem to happen.
I will say that the team we worked with was GREAT, and we may try it again in the future. But for this particular release, it was disappointing, especially since this was where almost all of our album marketing money went. It felt like a huge failure since we kind of banked on this to help “take us to the next level.” It didn’t.
Besides streaming promotion, there some piece of the puzzle that’s still missing, that you think could take things to the next level… next time?
I think we have yet to create that undeniable song that becomes the trademark for the band. I love all of the music we’ve created so far and I’m extremely proud of it. But, we’ve been a band for less than 3 years, and the songs that we’ve put out are literally the first songs I’ve ever written.
Our EP and album were definitely experimental in terms of us figuring out our sound and who we are as a band. I think now we’re a lot clearer on that, we play better together, and we’re better able to blend the guys’ hard rock roots with my love for 60s soul and powerhouse female vocalists.
So, the focus as of right now, is to write the best songs we can write. We’re also working with a producer this time around, who produced some gold and platinum records. Up until now, all our songs have been self-produced, and I think having that extra set of ears is going to be huge for us in taking our music to the next level.
Your “Live from the Lake” video series is really cool. How did it come together?
One thing we’ve learned is that video is king when it comes to engaging people on social media. We thought doing a cover series would be a fun way to engage our fans and maybe get some new fans, but we wanted to make it a little more exciting than your average cover video.
We are lucky enough that our drummer, Rob, has a boat and we usually all hang out on the boat in Lake Zoar anyway, so it felt like a natural fit. Our bass player, Mark, brings a small recording device for the audio that he later runs through ProTools, and we film using an iPhone on a tripod.
People loved the first one so we rolled with it! They are SO much fun to film, but never without challenges. The wakes, the camera falling over, bugs, the shaker falling IN the lake (shakers float by the way)—we have more outtakes and blooper reels than you can possibly imagine!
[Editor’s note: Release ALL those blooper reels!!!!]
We are currently in a writing phase and hope to have some new songs out by Spring 2019. Other than that, I’m diving deep into social media marketing so we can expand our following and hopefully by the time our new songs come out, we’ll have some really excited fans.
What would you tell someone who’s ready to take the plunge and tackle music full time?
The stories you hear where someone just impulsively “quit their job” one day so they could pursue their dreams are misleading and make all of us feel like being a full time musician is impossible. Maybe that technique works for a small portion of the population. But for the majority of people, including myself, becoming a full time musician means months and maybe even years of planning.
Take one small step at a time, until you’re financially and emotionally ready. You’ll be surprised at how your motivation increases and opportunities open up as you gradually start spending less time on work, and more time on music.
And when you do take the plunge, have a routine in place and specific goals/tasks that you work on everyday—some related to the actual music making part and some related to the business side of things.
What are your go-to resources for your career?
The DIY Musician Podcast is my favorite, and one of the early sources that I credit to giving me the courage and knowledge I needed to figure out how to pull off being a full time musician. I also really like the Break the Business podcast and I find the Song Exploder podcast very inspiring for writing.
I also own some of Tom Jackson’s Live Music Method DVDs. Totally worth the investment for any live band who wants to up their live performance game. And if there’s something you’re really confused by, but know you need to do it to move your career forward (like licensing, or social media marketing) take an online course. I’ve taken courses with Dave Kusek’s New Artist Model and Bree Noble (Female Musician Academy) and have had positive experiences with both.
Thanks to Laini for all the info. You can hear more of her music HERE.
If YOU recently took the leap to full-time musician, I’d love to hear your story. Holler in the comments below.