You can't monetize your entire hobby

There’s a quote in one of my favorite TV shows, Halt and Catch Fire: “Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets us to the thing.” -  Joe MacMillan (played by Lee Pace), Halt and Catch Fire

Music was the thing that got me to the thing. I had a lot of hobbies and interests, but picked music to carry that weight because:

- I’m good at it.

- I’m fast.

- I don’t burn out on it easily.

- Selling it doesn’t bother me the way it does for other hobbies.

And that worked out…mostly. Even after all that, it took a lot of gifted money to finally get there. I was burned out, ready to give up. But you know what? Had I paced myself and paid attention to my physical and emotional state, it would feel less like a Pyrrhic victory. I got the tools for the non-music thing, but now I can’t look at my music tools without wanting to curl up into a little ball. The fun and enjoyment that got me into music in the first place is gone.

The burnout will pass. I hope. I miss making music right up until I try. Right now, I’m focused on learning to apply my tools to the thing—mostly writing—while using this newsletter to turn my experiences and perspective into something useful for others.

If you ever decide to follow my path and turn one of your hobbies into money to get you somewhere else, be prepared for the possibility that it’ll take longer than you expected. I had to bust my butt at it for years releasing hundreds of hours of music just to have enough saved from it to even think about buying a computer that didn't struggle to handle the thing. Now I’m absolutely fried emotionally on the subject of music.

Don’t do it the way I did it. Don’t get desperate. Don’t pump out 30 things a week for a month every few months hoping something clicks enough to make it all worth it. Pace yourself. You don’t want to be ruined for that hobby on the other side.

What I would change knowing what I know now

So you still want to ply your hobby as a trade.

Fine.

Okay.

Whatever.

Here’s some ideas.

My mistake, I think, was trying to turn the entire hobby into a money-making machine. See, my first “beats,” as the kids say, were nice little loops. These served as focus music. I would whip one up in the morning, then do something else. I wrote a 50k word novel with that! A draft the world will never see, but I still got it out.

And then I shared the music with some friends.

“You should sell this!”

Oh no.

And so I did. I had a little Bandcamp. I had a little Patreon that quickly rose to $4/month. I saved that up to buy some proper mixing headphones. Then I used that to make better music, and then suddenly it was $30/month.

Oh dear.

So I used that to buy a little MIDI keyboard. I used Reaper and the free Synth1 to make music at the time. The keyboard came with Ableton Live Lite. I’d wanted it for a long time, but never had the money. I rationalized that using my hobby to fund my hobby would make my music better.

But what really happened is I felt an ever-increasing obligation to produce, and at ever-rising quality. Flash forward to a year ago and I’m rocking Ableton Live Suite—sweet!—on a nice laptop with the good but not best edition of Komplete 13. Mostly paid for with gifts, but the new tools already paid for about half of what I spent on them.

What I would do now, and what I’ll probably do in the future, is keep making my little loops, but save the more substantial stuff for paying commission work when I’m able to start doing that. It’s still fun to help someone else navigate their music tastes to figure out what kind of music they want me to make for them. I tried designing and selling sound packs, stuff like presets and sound effects, but it wasn’t any fun and nobody bought them.

I was happiest playing around in LMMS with its ridiculous half-assed copy of Fruity Loops’ interface, so long ago, before some A/V nerd associate put me on a sound quality kick that led me to Reaper. I had no idea what a chord was, but I sure did make them!

So that’s it. If you must sell your hobby, keep whatever got you into it for yourself. If you loved making focus music, keep it to yourself, and make a job out of the parts you don’t have an attachment to yet.

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