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  • Max Black

The Scenic Route: From Music to Finance and The Journey Back

Updated: May 28, 2019

I find myself in an interesting situation at the moment. I am a musician down to the marrow of my bones. I’ve been playing music, mainly on guitar, since I was 5 years old. Yet, for the last two years I have worked a 9 to 5 desk job in finance selling stocks to stock brokers and raising money for public companies.


After studying music for 4 years at Humber College in Toronto, I spent a few years gigging, teaching, writing, recording, I even got into acting and did a bunch of photoshoots for some quick cash. At the same time I saw of lot of my friends starting to buy condos or houses, get engaged, and some are now married about to have kids. They are dentists, doctors, lawyers, or they work in finance or real estate. I estimate that I'm approximately 4-5 years ‘behind’ them because before getting a bachelor of music I spent 5 years in Montreal at McGill for psychology. But…I dropped out in my last year and made the decision to do an entire second undergrad, this time in music. 9-and-a-half years in school, people. I could have become a doctor, as my mother relishes every opportunity to remind me.


After the McGill debacle I took 6 months to refine my guitar skills, teach myself some music theory, sight reading, and study up on jazz music as the Humber program revolved around a core jazz curriculum. By the time I started music school, most of my friends were beginning their careers. During music school, and for a couple years afterward, I felt like I was still figuring my shit out while everyone else was moving upward in life. I hated that feeling. It was like I was running on a treadmill, even though I was finally doing the thing I really wanted after my epic false start at McGill.


Maybe now is a good time to add some colour and mention that McGill was tough for me. I had a great time getting out of my hometown of Toronto, partying, making friends, etc. But I also smoked a ton of weed, became lazy, wasted endless hours playing video games, fucked up my transcript by skipping classes and bombing exams, hid it all from my family, and ultimately became depressed and quite ashamed of my behaviour and lack of direction. After all, I didn’t really want to be on this well-trodden path of university to career. It felt stifling for me and I never really functioned well within the boundaries of institutional education anyway. However, external pressures got the best of me in my last year of high school, as they often do, and I worked my ass off to get the grades I needed to put myself in this situation. Ironic, right?


Things started to turn around after one particularly rough stretch punctuated by being cheated on by my long-distance girlfriend at the time. Soon after, I met a girl I fell in love with who helped me become more aligned with myself because she was so amazingly authentic (she’s probably the only ex that I consider myself really friends with to this day). Meeting her, and going to see a therapist who helped me understand the reasons for my behaviour, set me on the path to music school. I’d love to get into the psychology behind why a lot of us make the kind of poor choices I was making (and still make sometimes to a much lesser degree), but I’ll save that for another post.


There’s no clear path to success in the arts. With music it’s a lot of practicing, playing empty weeknight gigs, low-paying weekend shows, teaching, part time work, rehearsals, etc. If you’re lucky you may get hired for some cool tours and gigs with bigger artists. But the work can be pretty patchy. So, after four years of music school and three years trying to make it work while watching all my friends get to the next stages of life, when the opportunity spontaneously presented itself for me to take a job in finance with good prospects for promotion, I considered it seriously, with great internal conflict, and eventually followed up for a formal interview. I was quite worried that I was “selling out”, as they say, to make a more stable living and achieve some status for once, in lieu of making music full time.


I was extremely conflicted about it as taking the job may have meant giving up on my musical aspirations. After all, I dropped out of university in my victory lap to pursue them! Something needed to change though. I didn’t feel like I was living up to my potential in the few years I spent after music school grinding it out in the field. If you’ve never tried teaching music to children, don’t. It’s the worst. Especially if you’re an ambitious person like me.


So, I took the job in a field I knew almost nothing about. I started making 100-150 phone calls per day to stock brokers in order to introduce them to companies whose stock I would try to sell them. It doesn’t sound glamorous but you learn a ton talking about stocks, capital markets, and business with so many knowledgeable people per day. It’s intimidating at first. I was asked many, many questions I didn’t know the answers to. I definitely bullshitted my way through dozens of conversations, but that stuff forces you to learn quickly and I was able to move up in the ranks pretty fast.


It helped that I joined the company in a time when it was growing rapidly. They’ve probably hired about 50% of their staff after hiring me. I also became a registered investment advisor by writing my Series 7 examination to become more knowledgeable about finance. I learned more about trading stocks and started making some additional income on the stock market too (although I’ve gotten slaughtered on the market from time to time as well). Being creative also helped. Almost everyone else at the firm has a finance or business background. While I do have a bit of am entrepreneurial mindset, my creative bone has helped me stand out more. I’ve come up with some valuable ideas the company has since implemented. I make slightly fewer sales calls these days and focus more on training and managing a team of salespeople, business development, and managing accounts.


What about music? Here is the biggest irony of all. Since joining the company I have become hyper focused. Before, when I was doing music full-time, I didn’t have a strong sense of direction. I was teaching, gigging, writing, recording, managing, acting, modelling, etc…and none of it was paying off in the ways that I wanted. Having this job has limited my time, and forced me to focus on which musical activities will yield the most fruit. I know it sounds counter to the spirit of the creative arts, talking about music in the framework of success when the journey is supposed to be its own reward, but bare with me.


My favourite thing to do in life, simply speaking, is write a song, rehearse it with solid players, then record it and spend hours meticulously editing and producing it. Not much is quite as fulfilling to me. If I could wake up every day and do only that while being able to support myself, I might be content. And that is now essentially what I focus on solely outside of work. I work 9 to 5 and in the evenings and on weekends I’m normally in the studio working away. The finance gig has forced me to really nail down that process. I’ve gone from the shotgun approach to music, doing everything I can, to being a scalpel. Now, I always have 2-3 songs at various points in the process between idea to pre-production, a couple songs recorded and ready for edits or overdubs, and 1-2 ready or very close to ready for release.


Another bonus is that with the income from this job I can afford to be in the studio when I want to be. The seemingly opposing forces of a desk job and professional-level creative endeavour have become integrated in an interesting way. I even partially shot my first music video at my office, saving myself a chunk of cash. Much of the video is about breaking free of corporate servitude, so even the situation itself worked its way into my creative process.


Things have lined up in a way that is enabling me to start churning out high-quality material in regular intervals. The plan currently in motion is to release a single every 2-3 months and I am ahead of schedule to do that. I have my pipeline of music and content, the stuff for imminent completion or release, and the financial support to execute. It’s beginning to look a lot like some of my clients’ businesses: Something in production, something currently being sold, and cash on hand to operate and/or expand operations (still missing that positive cash-flow from operations part on the music side!).


Of course, time and energy are my new limiting factors. I have to be very selective with what I work on. That has its benefits and detractors, but at a certain point in order to expand musically I will have to take another leap. What exactly that is, I’m not yet sure. But so far, this leap has paid off. It goes to show that sometimes shaking things up and jumping into the unknown feels like you're giving up on whatever it is you were doing before, but ends up being exactly what you needed to move forward.


I’ll have to check back in again in another year or two to see where this path ultimately leads. Will it be back to music full-time with a new strategy on how to achieve success in this fickle business? I’m not sure. I sincerely hope so. But for now, I’m glad I made the leap. The lessons learned are applicable to almost every aspect of life and I feel more empowered than ever to make great decisions for myself in order to get where I want to be and enjoy the journey. As for catching up with my friends…I haven’t. I took a longer path, but if I’m honest, I do usually like to take the scenic route.


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