How I Won, Lost and Stopped Playing the Game in 2018

Way back in January I wrote a stupid blog post. Stupid in the best way – daring and audacious and naive. I went public with my goals for the year.

Looking back, I hold “the year that was” up to the light next to my list of goals. If I angle the two just right and squint a little, they almost line up. But that’s not the full truth. There were failures. There were complete surprises.

My family moved into a new house in 2018. We sold our old house. Stress.

I spent months looking for a job and eventually found one, shifting back to part-time work and part-time music. By the end of this piece, you’ll understand why.

First, it’s time to take stock and see what I’ve learned from life as a full-time professional musician in 2018.

I Kind of Pulled it Off

At the meta-level, I won. I had four overarching goals and I inched forward in all of them.

I wanted to refine my brand, enlarge my audience, record new music and collaborate. I did all of these – just not in the ways I expected.

I Refined My Brand

I’ve settled into my self-proclaimed genre of “bowtie rock to haunt your heart”. It feels good and I hope it leads to curiosity and evokes a sense of connection and depth. If it’s just plain confusing, please let me know.

I didn’t plan on a visual update this past year, but whenI decided to release a constant stream of singles, I needed a unified design language for the cover art. I happened upon a font that instantly evokes album art from the fifties and hunkered down on “vintage vibes” as a core to my brand. I do where bowties and live in a home full of mid-century furniture, after all.

I Grew My Audience

If I fell short anywhere in 2018, it was here. I missed most of the audience-size targets I set for 2018. At the same time, I learned how much bigger some of these targets are than I thought. This life takes a whole lotta time and hustle.

My Facebook Live concerts never saw the uptake in viewers I was hoping for. These were a LOT of work for a handful of live viewers. When I’d re-share (and pay for ‘boosts’) I’d get more engagement, but it also cost me and didn’t translate to more page likes or engagement.

Summer brought a break from live streams, punctuated by our move to a new house. We were barely settled in the fall and I was looking for part-time work. I didn’t want to commit to a weekly broadcast without knowing my schedule. Here we are at the end of the year and I haven’t gone live in months.

I’m planning my ‘live’ return, but I want to be smarter about it.

I did play plenty of actual shows, and I was able to capitalize on those to sell CD’s, some shirts and get a lot of emails.

I didn’t land a festival this year. Somehow, I barely found any opportunities to even apply. I need to dig a little deeper and try again for this coming summer. Someone must need a bowtied troubadour to warm up their outdoor stage?

I wanted 100 views on every YouTube video I uploaded. Not gonna happen without a lot of hustle and I just don’t care enough. That’s one of the games I quit this year. I don’t do enough Ed Sheeran covers.

I wanted to grow my email list to 100. I did, and a little more. This is a huge win for me.

I wanted 200 Spotify followers. I’m currently at 123. I’ve picked some up without trying, which is nice. Growth there is slow and hard, but I’ve seen huge pickup (relatively speaking) in my last couple of releases. Apparently Brazil loves folk songs about heartbreak. I think 200 is still a reasonable goal for 2019.

Patreon – The Land of the Learning

Patreon has been huge for me. I get about $150 a month from a bakers’ dozen supporters who are so into what I’m doing they want to support me. That’s incredible, and month after month makes progress possible. I wanted to grow my Patron count from 10 to 50. That was ambitious and I didn’t give the platform the attention it deserved. Likely because I was busy playing a Facebook show every freaking week.

I’ve been learning what my patrons want from me. What resonates. This is still new ground for all of us.

I do intend to grow this base. I’ve got a new intro video almost ready to go. I’ve retooled my rewards tiers and given my backers cool new bowtie themed names! I now have “butterflies” – people who want to support me at just $1 a month. I’m going to be pushing for 25 new butterflies in January and I think I’ll get there. Of course, we could start now.

I Recorded New Music

I planned to record a full album in 2018. I didn’t. I applied for my first Alberta Foundation for the Arts Grant. I was denied, and in the process I learned just how expensive it is to buy studio time and play session players. I’ll keep applying for grants, but in the meantime, I decided to pay for studio time as I could afford it, doing my best to record new material for eventual release. The results sound awesome, but it’s been a slow trickle. Too slow.

I don’t want to wait for 2019 or 2020 to release new music, so I’ve shifted my strategy from one big album to a single every month.

To afford this, I’ve my focus to getting better at making music from home. I took an online mixing course. I released my THRILLS! EP in August, and started my monthly songs in November. I’m seeing steady growth from this already.

Once I’ve put out a year’s worth of songs, I plan to re-release some of them, with some new material, in a new physical album. Maybe even in 2019.

I Collaborated With Other Artists

While things have moved more slowly than planned with our folk-pop-duo side project, Lora Jol and I did release a killer Christmas tune this year. I’m producing another track with her right now, using my newfound recording and mixing chops.

An invitation to join folk-rock band Soft March came out of nowhere.

The band has got me collaborating a lot more than I’d planned, and given me the opportunity to play live in a band without having to form my own. It’s certainly not a money-making venture, but I have got to spend more time in the studio and on the stage. I’ve learned that a band brings a different set of opportunities and I’ve become a better guitar player. Most importantly, I’ve made some great friends.

I’ve even got to do some cowriting with the band. Take that goals!

What I Learned

I’ll go easy on my missed targets because 2018 was a far busier year than I imagined. Back in January I didn’t know I’d be moving. I didn’t anticipate a job search. I didn’t know my grant application would be rejected.

I’m pleased with my ability to roll with the punches.

I’ve learned a ton about recording my own music at home. I’ll be doing that more and more in 2019.

I’ve learned that Youtube doesn’t need to be a big part of my strategy right now, and that live-streaming every week is not a rhythm that works for me. I’ll find the right balance when I return to Facebook Live in 2019.

I’ve learned that if I’m going to be playing more drums on my own recordings, I’ll need to practice!

I’ve learned that the benefits of a band. I love playing with Soft March, but this has me itching for my own backup band more than ever. I’m leaning towards doing less shows, but bigger, full-band Von Bieker shows, in 2019.

Why I Quit the Game

Making a full-time living as a musician, if even possible for me, would take loads of hustle and compromise. Hustle promoting myself to all people at all times. Compromise with the shows I say yes to and the music I have to play.

For now, that full-time hustle won’t work for me and my family. So I’ve taken a part-time job that has nothing to do with music, but affords me the freedom to pursue my “Von Bieker” career at a more enjoyable pace.

This decision finally came in November. My wife and I were away in the mountains for our anniversary. I walked in the crisp winter air. I prayed. I reasoned. I came very close to doubling down on full-time music. Then I did the math.

My goal was to make $1000 every month, either from part-time work or from music. Not a huge sum, but believe it or not, a challenge with music.

I wrote down the ways I could get to $1000 reliably, month after month, just being a professional musician. I’d play more often, performing dozens of covers in bars where people aren’t paying attention. I’d pursue deals to get my music into commercials, movies and tv. I’d land regular house concerts. I’d travel more. I’d sell more CDs and merch. If I could do all of that, all the time, I might just make it. Maybe.

This all started to feel like a game I didn’t want to play. It was exhausting in a way that would kill the joy of my little ‘bowtie rock’ adventure.

There had to be a better way.

If I worked part time, I could pursue my music the way I wanted, saying no to the opportunities that didn’t fit without worrying as much about the finances. I could reinvest all of my music money back into music and scale at a natural pace.

This path felt right. Still does. I found a the right part-time job and I’m so grateful.

In the days ahead, I’ll be doing more of what brings joy and less of what does not. I believe that joy will be contagious, and my career will move forward in the process.

I’m still taking music just a seriously. There’ll still be plenty of hustle. Just, I hope, hustle in the right direction.

And what is that direction? You’ll find out soon in my stupid, naive list of 2019 goals.