New Brunswick

Don't quit your day job: making ends meet for East Coast music stars

Being a professional musician on the East Coast involves a lot more than writing songs and playing shows. Most of them have to work hard at other jobs to support their music career.

Nurse, farmer, bartender: most musicians have outside work to support music dreams

The Humble farmer: Musician Mike Humble of Earthbound Trio also has his own vegetable farm in Bayside, N.B. (Mike Humble)

As the stars arrive in Saint John this week for the annual East Coast Music Awards, there will be some glitz and glamour — especially at the awards gala on Thursday.

But most musicians will tell you that's hardly a normal day for them.

Being a working musician in Atlantic Canada isn't the easiest profession, and most of them actually have to hold down other jobs to make ends meet.

Nova Scotia's Norma MacDonald started out playing music full-time in the successful pub band Highland Heights, and went solo after the group split.

As the music industry hit a downturn, opportunities to play and sell music became much harder to find.

"I just couldn't keep up with bills, so I took some waitressing jobs here and there and then got to a point where I realized, if I want to continue to play music, I have to find another way to keep myself alive," said MacDonald. "And so I went to nursing school."

E.R. nurse

To support her music career, Nova Scotia's Norma MacDonald went back to school to become a nurse and now works in an emergency room. (CBC)
MacDonald works full time at the emergency room at the Cobequid Community Health Centre in Lower Sackville, N.S., a very demanding job.

While you wouldn't think she'd have the time or energy to do music, it turns out the two jobs create a balance in her life.

"I just feel like I have this stress relief that is on the exact opposite end of the spectrum," she said.

"And I'm just so glad that it's there."

MacDonald says for many, there's a kind of shame about taking a day job.

"Nobody talks about how little money we actually make," she said. "It's like this little secret that we sweep under the rug.

"There are some people that are able to make a modest living doing it, but they are very, very few and far between. We all have this point of pride, saying, I'm a full-time musician, but people are struggling, and really suffering."


Mike Humble of the Charlotte County, N.B., group Earthbound Trio has had his share of side jobs, mostly in the service industry in kitchens, and holds down a current gig as a bartender.

He prefers keeping an outside job instead of just being a musician.

"There were definitely times in my 20s where I was hoping that it would be a full-time job," he said. "But I always found that when I needed to play music for money, whenever it became about money it wasn't fun for me."

Earthbound Trio would often rather dig than gig. They are all Charlotte County farmers as well, as Humble has just started his own vegetable operation in Bayside.

"Before, we would basically play for a couple of beers and some gas money," he said. "But realities have changed us now, and it's a good thing. So we're playing pick and choose, we probably have half the weekends in the summer booked, and the other half is for family time and for working on the farms."

Data analyst

The Divorcees' Alex Madsen says taking a full-time job outside music has helped increase his creativity. (CBC)
Alex Madsen of Moncton's outlaw country band The Divorcees has decided a day job is better for him as well.

He's now with an online market intelligence company, collecting press information for corporate clients.

He used to slog out it, playing Divorcees shows a couple of nights a week, and then picking up the less glamourous work.

"I would do dinner gigs playing instrumental music, or playing a restaurant and taking requests," he said. "Or joining a cover band and supporting what they're doing, or maybe playing in a duo.

"It was impeding my creativity to the point where I spent all my time trying to stay alive as a quote-unquote professional musician and had no time left over to be creative."

Now that he has the security of a full-time job, he can spend more time writing and working on The Divorcees music.

"It's contradictory, that suddenly I have more time to be an artist now that I work full-time, but it is true."

Charlottetown's Paper Lions is one of the region's success stories, and the members all work pretty much full-time in music.

But that can mean earnings from surprising sources as well.

Instructor/ad placements

Charlottetown's Paper Lions have discovered other ways in the music industry to make money to keep the band going. (Paper Lions)
Singer John MacPhee also runs the New Business Growth Program for Music PEI, which offers a six-month course to other musicians on how to maximize revenue streams.

He teaches them all about royalties for songwriting, performing, airplay, or selling songs to TV shows or video games, or what kind of merchandise to offer.

Mostly, they are tricks he's learned along the way, like signing up for the little-known royalty agency called Sound Exchange that collects from online radio stations in North America.

"I called them and said, 'Do you know the next royalty payout, I heard there might be some money waiting for us,' and I had to give them some information, verify it was me," said MacPhee.

"I don't remember the exact amount but it was over $20,000."

The group has also made very good money by being available to record music for commercials.

"You're tasked to record a cover song," said MacPhee.

"So we did a version of 'Happy Together' and that was for a Telus commercial, and I think it's been renewed three times maybe. Literally that alone funded the last record."

For most East Coast musicians, the dream isn't to become rich and famous; it's to find a way to making a living, while also leaving time to create art.