On Quitting Your Day Job

Isa Burke, right, and her band, Lula Wiles

In the last few months of 2015, when I was in my final year at Berklee College of Music, I was working as an assistant to the college’s American Roots Music Program. My then-boss Matt Glaser received an email from ND’s then-editor Kim Ruehl, saying that No Depression was looking for an intern for a few hours of work per week and she wondered if a student from Berklee’s Roots Program would be interested. Matt asked if I knew of anyone who might be a good fit, and I immediately, breathlessly said “Yes! Me!” And so my work for No Depression began.

A year later, some staff members left the ND team, so I took on more work and became something like a community manager, doing a variety of tasks including answering emails and managing ND’s Instagram account. If you’ve liked one of ND’s Instagram posts in the last year or so, or emailed us wondering where your copy of the print journal is, that was probably me on the other end!

Since graduating from Berklee, I’ve juggled my job at ND with my band Lula Wiles’ intermittent touring, as well as my own teaching and freelance gigging. The ND team works remotely, and since my schedule is all over the place, it’s been great to have a job with flexible hours that’s not tied to a particular location. But more than that, it’s been wonderful to share a workspace (even a virtual one) with a group of people who love this music world as much as I do, while coming at it from all different directions. Their passion and various perspectives have brought so much to the first phase of my post-college professional life.

You may notice that I’m not quite writing in the present tense. So, yes: I am leaving the No Depression team. (I will continue writing this column, though!) In a couple of weeks, Lula Wiles will start several months of near-constant touring, which we plan to continue doing for the indefinite future. At some point I realized it would not be possible for me to manage No Depression’s email inbox from the back of the tour van on a full-time basis, and I realized I would have to make the leap that every creative person simultaneously dreams of and dreads: I would have to, as they say, quit my day job.

As I’m sure you know, “Don’t quit your day job” has long been used as a snarky insult to be lobbed at a creative person. The implication, of course, is “This work sucks, so it will never make you any money.” It seems that creatives are often asked to qualify their work in financial terms, as if you can’t be a “real musician” unless you meet some arbitrary threshold of hours per week or percentage of money earned.

When I’m asked what I do, I say “I’m a musician.” (Sure, it’s more complicated than that, but the gig economy has made it difficult for a lot of people to sum up what they do in one word.) People don’t always accept that answer at face value. They ask questions like “Okay, but what do you do for money?” If I feel like explaining further, I say something along the lines of “I tour sometimes, and I teach and do freelance gigs, and I also work part-time for a music journal and website.” Sometimes that seems to satisfy them. They say “Oh, so you actually are a musician.” And don’t get me started on “Those who can’t do, teach.”

That attitude has always made me squirm. Of course I’m proud and excited that my music career has reached a point where it can be my primary source of income for a while. However, I want to reject any mode of thinking that privileges financial gain over personal fulfillment, and assigns value to art by its profitability or its dominance in a person’s financial life. A band whose music pays the bills is not necessarily a better band than one whose music doesn’t pay the bills. That’s not to downplay the hard work that my bandmates and I have done, or the quality of our music, but humility demands that I acknowledge this truth: If you do well in a creative field, it’s not necessarily because you deserved it. The opposite is true as well: If your creative career never takes off the way you want it to, it’s not necessarily because you didn’t deserve it.

As we all know, the music industry has reached a point of near-inviability for indie artists. Since people aren’t buying music anymore, musicians who aren’t independently wealthy have to take on grueling touring schedules if they want a shot at making a decent living. That’s not a reasonable expectation for everyone. Some of the best musicians in the Boston scene are content to be local players. They might head out on tour once in a while, but they have chosen to prioritize their home life, their family, and the thriving music scene that’s already at their doorstep. If that means taking on a so-called “side hustle” or “day job,” that’s nothing to scoff at.

Success is an elusive concept. I know my 16-year-old self would be stunned and thrilled to see where I am now, at 24. I thought I’d be working in coffee shops for years after college. (And that’s not to say I have ruled out the possibility of working in a coffee shop later on, if folk stardom doesn’t pan out for me!)

As day jobs go, though, my time at No Depression has been much more than just “the thing that pays the bills.” In addition to my musical aspirations, I wanted to work in writing/publishing/media when I was younger, so this job has fulfilled a part of my identity that I had almost forgotten about. It has been really wonderful to experience this side of the music industry, and to work with such a talented and passionate group of individuals. I’m excited for what comes next, but I’m sad to say goodbye. Fortunately I’ll be able to continue documenting whatever does come next. I hope you’ll all keep reading!

I only came upon ND a week ago, and wish it had been sooner. I focused right away on your column because you did that 4-part songwriting series, something that interests me (and many of my peers) tremendously. So I'm sorry to see you go, truly. Timing! But anyone can understand why. I hope you have a great run, and I also hope you keep asking the uncomfortable questions that got you here. The inner life of a songwriter/musician/artist of any stripe is something we all have in common, and the doubts, abuses, expectations that live there we deal with, and find ourselves needing answers to, continually. Art and money, a false equivalence if there ever was one, but embedded in the mindset of every American. It's part of what makes us who we are. So it makes me glad to see you making this choice. Good Luck!

Hi Isa;

Good to know you'll be continuing the column...but even BETTER to realize that Lula Wiles will back on the road tearing it up and breaking hearts! I hope to catch up for a phoner sometime soon since I see you've got some nice gigs in the New England area to promote. New Lula Wiles songs; four words that make me smile!