by Head Above Music


By Ehren Ebbage

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It’s early. I woke up thinking about last night’s show and couldn’t fall back to sleep. What do you do when the venue stiffs you? Raise hell with the bartender? Make snide comments from the stage while the audience watches uncomfortably? No, of course not. Not if you want to be a professional.

My friend and mentor John Shipe once told me that success in the music industry is about being the last one standing. I’m not talking about ‘fame and riches’ success; you have better odds winning the lottery than becoming the next John Mayer. I’m talking about the ‘pay your rent’ success. The ‘I don’t have a day job’ success. After years of working towards this goal I have finally achieved it. I am a professional songwriter and musician. Recently, a friend asked me how I was able to transition from being a part time musician to making my living at it. There are a number of specific things that made a huge difference, but the ‘last one standing’ idea is the one I’d like to focus on. It is key.

I’ve been stiffed by clubs a time or two. It feels awful. I can’t bring myself to throw a tantrum or demand that the bartender pay me out of his tips; I’m always conscious of the manner in which I do business and the impression that I leave. So, I say “thanks for having me” and I suck it up and leave quietly. Thankfully it doesn’t happen often. My consolation is that I can see past it when it does. These are the experiences that make musicians quit and become bank tellers or schoolteachers, and I know it. These are the experiences that, over time, knock musicians down. Sometimes, as John put it, you just have to be the last one standing.

The ability to stay upright is a huge unspoken factor in having a successful career. Sure, you have to develop your skills, build your network, make the phone calls, send the emails, etc., etc., but you also have to be able to withstand the pressure and conditions of the career. Sometimes that means sleeping in an airport. Sometimes it means spending 3 days in a motel room in Laramie waiting for a freak blizzard to pass. Sometimes it means driving several hours to play for a half empty room for no money. Sometimes it means pawning a guitar to pay rent. It means driving a shitty car, going for months without getting your broken tooth fixed, and wearing socks with holes. It means eating a lot of rice and quesadillas, moving back to the parents’ house, breaking up with girlfriends who don’t understand. It means not buying gifts for Christmas and spending Thanksgiving in New York handing out samples of Airborne at the Macy’s parade to make a few bucks. It means waking up at 4 am to catch the green line train to Midway because you can’t afford to call a cab. It means asking for another favor from a friend who has been doing you favors for ten years.

The list goes on and on, and as I write this I realize how it must look. Who would voluntarily go through this? Me, I guess, and countless other musicians and artists who are making it work. So when someone asks me how to be a professional musician I tell them to practice their craft, get their business together, and be the last one standing.

  • The one piece of gear I love : Right now it’s my Gretsch Duo Jet reissue.
  • One thing I can’t live on the road : My pillow.  Sounds silly, but I get a good nights sleep whenever I bring it along.


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