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“Still doing the music thing, huh?”

The life of a creative and why we still do it.

“What’s that?”

“Oh…they’re just some lyrics that I’m writing…”

“Yeah…let’s put those away.”

That was a funny moment. And when I say “funny” I mean the “awkward tension” kind of funny as my supervisor confronted me on the clock. The kind of funny where no one actually laughed, yet I couldn’t help to smirk as I contemplated finishing the last line of that 16-bar verse. The kind of funny that had me thinking, “I’ll laugh about this one day when I’m the featured guest on a late-night talk show and the host and I will reminisce on jobs I once had before I finally reached my big break.” A true Walter Mitty moment.

That was me at 19. I was working a part-time job at Best Buy, going to community college and living at home with mom. Oh yeah, and I also had this tiny little dream of being the world’s next big rapper and producer, becoming a household name known to millions. Anyway, I worked at Best Buy as the Loss Prevention guy. You know him. The one guy in the entire store rocking that yellow shirt while greeting guests as they walk in? “Hi, welcome to Best Buy!” Yep. That guy was me. Panning through cameras, taking video games out of those special anti-theft cases and greeting every. single. customer. for eight hours a day. If up until now wasn’t an indicator that I absolutely hated my job, it was for the fact that I was suddenly placed in this role last minute when Salah (guy before me) didn’t show up for work one day—or ever again. Previously, I had been a seasonal cashier. So, my managers felt this was a good way to bump me up to a permanent role in the store while still filling Salah’s old spot. Um… Thank you?

See, the job wasn’t hard at all. It was one of the easiest jobs I ever had. All I did was stand there. And that’s why it killed me all the more as days would tediously drag on, while my scrawny little legs continually begged for mercy. And hey, the job wasn’t all that bad. One time I actually got the chance to take down a ‘bad guy’ for stealing some video production software. I felt for the guy too. Let’s just say, this particular man, who had just earned his teaching license at the University of Colorado, wouldn’t be teaching anytime soon. Though moments like that were entertaining at best, I was still very aware that I was out of my element. I had dreams that reached far beyond customer service. Dreams that encompassed earning Grammy awards, number one singles on the Billboard Hot 100, and A-List music collaborations. In my little young adult world of 2009, my only priority was to be the next artist on Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music label. Didn’t these people realize that I was made for more than just being some hourly loss prevention guy? I longed for the day where my artistic edge would no longer be hindered by dead end jobs I viewed as “distractions” to my creativity. I wanted to be in a full-time music industry environment—and this was not it. Sure, I was young. A little entitled. A little ungrateful. I had only been in the workforce for 3 years at that point. So, I guess jobs like that taught me some life lessons about paying my dues and the beauty of a good work ethic. My 19-year old self, however, had a hard time listening to people telling me to “pay my dues” by working a “real job” when all he saw on the TV screen were teen pop stars like Justin Bieber who never seemed to work a “real job” in their entire life.

Today, I’m 27. And while my dreams have slightly shifted, as I’m okay with not being Kanye’s next “lit prodigy”, what hasn’t changed is my love for music. Thankfully, I’ve learned over the years to take it one day at a time, realizing that my hard work will eventually pay off. I’ve also learned to live in the here and now and to appreciate each day that’s been given to me. What’s inspiring is that over the past 8 years I’ve had the honor of knowing and collaborating with creatives and artists of all kinds. Musicians. Photographers. Filmmakers. Graphic Designers. Painters. It’s crazy how so many unique personal stories come from so many different types of artists. While the art at hand might be completely different, what’s not different is that we’re all artists. Artists who stand in awe when a fellow comrade of ours finally “makes it”. Do I mean they become the next Martin Scorsese? The next Mario Testino? Maybe. Could just mean they were finally able to get some consistent work locally while being able to support themselves and their family. In the niche market where art lies, are thousands upon thousands of artists who share the same dream that I have: We want our on-the-side gig to be our only gig. Sadly, making a decent living solely as an artist can only be said about a small percentage of us. Why?

While there are many potential answers to this question, I do believe that for those of us who haven’t lost our fire, we have a responsibility of preserving our creative craft from the chaotic waves of life. If we want to actually create for a living one day, we must stay focused. See, when it comes to many artists and creatives (myself included), we don’t quite fit into the “I just lost interest” or “I do it on the weekends” groups when speaking of our craft. Growing up, we didn’t have a backup plan financially if things in life didn’t end up going our way. Us creating wasn’t an option. It was the only option. Any job that we possess now is an in-the-meantime job until we can finally do what we love for a living. We shiver when others explain how “Life just happened. The wife. The kids. You know, adulting.” Because as far as dreams are concerned, life can happen all it wants. We aren’t giving up till those dreams come to fruition. When people toss around questions like “What would your dream job be if there were no limits?”—We’re serious about the answer we give them; which then results in us doing whatever we can to make that answer become a reality.

In my early 20s I refused to refer to music as a “hobby”; because in my eyes if music was considered just a hobby, it would always be just a hobby. I’m a music producer. I’m not just someone who produces music here and there when I have free time. Same thing goes for me playing the piano. If I referred to myself as someone who just “messes around” on the keys, I would always just mess around on the keys. No. I’m a pianist. Therefore, I choose to live my life like one by routinely practicing scales, learning chord progressions and understanding music theory. It’s the choices we make along the way, as well as what we choose to believe about ourselves that’ll either pull us towards our dreams or push us away. For instance, we as artists have to:

Create in the midst of limitations.

Back when I first starting making music I had this obsession with not sounding “local” or like a beginner. I was very aware of what sounded good and what didn’t sound good. It’s very easy to compare music on the radio to music of your own and realize “My music doesn’t sound nearly as good as that.” I hated the fact that someone might hear my music and think I sounded anything less than that of a major label artist. That’s just the thing, though. I wasn’t a major label artist. I didn’t have all the resources and knowledge to put out the same quality track that, say, a Pharrell Williams could. I had expectations far beyond my level of expertise; and when me, my MacBook Pro and my 18-year old brain couldn’t figure out how to achieve those grand expectations I had, I ended up not putting anything out. How tragic is that? Listen, as an artist, you will have limitations; especially if you’re just starting out. I think of videographers who would die to shoot on a RED, but instead have a Rebel T3i from 2011. I’m not saying you have to put out crap. But not choosing to release anything because of certain limitations is a waste! Be excellent at what you do. And then when you’ve reached your cap of what is possible, release your art. It will get better. Another example is:

Take the jobs you can get.

Don’t think you’re too good to take certain jobs that relate to your craft just because it isn’t exactly what you pictured yourself doing. I’ve encountered countless photographers who would prefer to shoot top bands in the indie rock world, but for now are super grateful to shoot local weddings to keep food on the table. A lot of these photographers are even able to quit their day job thanks to gaining a good reputation amongst young couples wanting to get married. It might not be their first choice, but at least they’re getting paid to use a camera. They’ve truly become the young professional! Ironically, I find myself at a lot of these same weddings DJing the receptions. A couple times a year I get paid to DJ weddings of close friends and acquaintances in the community. 6 years ago I wouldn’t be caught dead DJing a wedding. My producer friends and I looked down on wedding DJs. Though they called themselves, “DJs”, we never saw them in the same light as a David Guetta or Calvin Harris. We associated wedding DJs with that cheesy guy calling everyone to the dance floor to do the Chicken Dance. Despite my reservations, I began to get request after request from people wanting me to DJ their wedding because they respected me and my taste in music. I was super humbled and honored. These people wanted me to be a part of, arguably, the biggest day of their lives while also paying me? Who was I to say no to that? I swallowed my pride and recognized these opportunities as blessings. Besides, who says a wedding DJ has to be cheesy? I treat my wedding sets as if I were in some exclusive nightclub in LA. A third example is:

Get serious about time management.

Boy—is this one hard. As artists, our job is just beginning when we clock off from our 9-5. From the moment we get home, our creative craft is now waiting to be refined. If we actually want our passion to sustain us financially, sacrifices have to made. So, what do we decide to do with our free time? It’s tempting to get home from work and unwind for the next 5 hours watching Netflix. Everyone else is doing it, right?

When music first became a passion of mine, I had no life but making beats and recording. Sun up to sun down I was editing tracks; minimal hangout time with friends unless it involved some collaboration that furthered my musical ambitions. Why do you think I was writing rhymes during my shift at Best Buy? Since then, my life has slowed down drastically with making music. Setbacks like computers crashing, getting out of debt and personal life issues have caused a massive halt to my production career. A halt that has caused me to get out of my normal rhythm of creating music. It’s been so easy in recent years to think that I could just settle into life and coast. Time management? Trust me. I know firsthand what it’s like to waste time. Watching TV, surfing Instagram and chillin’ with friends has been my reality more often than not lately. Sometimes I hang out with people while simultaneously thinking, “What am I doing? I could be making music right now!” I’m more social than most people I know, and because of that, I must be aware of how much time I’ve simply “hung out” with people when I could’ve been further perfecting my craft.

You ever know someone who’s just ridiculously amazing in their respective field of art? Like, as you’re watching them just dominate in their creative element you’re thinking “Dang…what am I doing with my life? This person’s unreal!” I’ve had the pleasure of personally knowing a top artist in the Chillwave genre who, in the past 5 years or so, has blown up all over Europe. I’m not exaggerating either. It’s one production collaboration with some superstar like Ariana Grande and this guy’s on his way to becoming the next Kygo or Cashmere Cat. Man—does this dude grind. Before he was discovered, all he did was lock himself in his apartment making track after track for hours at a time. I was lucky enough to collaborate with him on a couple. To some, he might’ve seemed like a hermit. But now, we know why. His payoff is being able to travel all around the world doing one-man shows nearly 365 days a year. Wow!

After seeing his life, I’ve been inspired. I was given a reality check as well. This guy made sacrifices of all kinds to get to where he’s at – and it might’ve included choosing not to binge watch every season of The Office in one week (me in 2010). I’m not saying you can’t have a life. I am, however, saying that ‘hanging out’ and ‘chillin’ could be a distraction from career goals if out of balance. I’ve had to be super intentional about choosing to get back into producing music. It’s not just going to happen. I know as well as anyone that the way you spend your time will determine where your priorities are.

Thankfully, things like my relationship with God have given me the hope I needed to carry on past the rough edges of life. When I don’t feel like practicing my piano scales on my out-of-tune piano, or I don’t feel the motivation to continue to produce on my laptop keyboard in GarageBand because my MIDI keyboard interface broke, I’ve realized that if I’m able to bring glory to Him by making music, then it’s totally worth it. I’m continually learning to understand how these hurdles I’ve been through this past couple years just add another piece to my story that I hope will inspire others. They also make for good songwriting material too.

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What’s the reason why you got into creating in the first place? I have a couple reasons why I got into music. One of my main reasons was that I never wanted to settle career wise. I wanted to get paid for something I grew up doing for free. It’s also cause I’m a dreamer. When I hear that the market I’m in is very difficult to be successful in, the fires of determination burn within me even more. Don’t compromise. Do what you love and figure out how to get paid for it.

When someone asks you a question about your creative career like, “Still doing the music thing, huh?” You can sit back and say “Yep! And I don’t plan to stop anytime soon.”

Written by David Leal

David Leal is a recording artist, music producer and writer from Colorado Springs, CO. His work can be found on iTunes/Apple Music, Spotify, Google Play, Amazon and SoundCloud.