What I Learned from My Musical Midlife Crisis

Establishing Shot

It was late morning in western Oregon. The air wet and mild. The sun busily dodging clouds in a half-hearted attempt to burn off the morning dew. I was standing alone on a wooden sidewalk, smoking and thinking about the task at hand: a nineteen hour drive back to Boulder. I wasn’t sure I had the gumption to walk the block and a half back to the van, much less drive for nineteen hours!

I was exhausted. I was shaky and weak. I was fifty pounds overweight. My steady diet of drugs and alcohol had, in the past, been quite efficacious but my body was starting to resist the constant strain. I was breaking down both physically and emotionally.

I shuffled back to the van. My bandmates were in a hurry to get back home, they wanted to drive straight through. After a bit of haggling it was agreed that we would make the drive home in one shot as long as I didn’t have to do any of the driving. I popped a valium, laid down in the back seat, and, for nineteen hours, I only rose for the occasional rest stop.

This was our last official gig as a group. The band was dissolving. We’d criss-crossed the country for about four years and built up a good head of steam in the process, playing high profile festivals and sharing stages with the big national names in our scene but we hadn’t managed to build a sustainable model for our endeavors. We were experience rich and cash poor. I was exhausted. I was shaky and weak.


My wife and I decided to move our operations from the Rocky Mountains to rural Missouri. As we packed our things and as we drove east across the plains to our new life in the Midwest I kept asking myself a series of questions that went something like this:

  • “Why is it I can never quite achieve what I hope to achieve?”
  • “Why do I always come close to success but then always fall just short?”
  • “Am I defective or should I just learn to lower my expectations?”

When we arrived at our new home I had made up my mind; I was no longer pursuing a career in music. I would be a writer or a farmer. Hell, I didn’t know what I was going to do but I knew I didn’t want to put myself back in the music game where the pain and disappointment of failure was imminent.

I announced to my wife that I was through with music and I was moving on to new endeavors. She took the proclamation in stride. I put my fiddle under the bed and, in the two years spent in the farmhouse, I only removed it once when some old friends had driven out to visit and insisted that I play some music with them. It went right back under the bed as soon as they took their leave.

Revelation and Resolution

The farmhouse stood on five acres of land just a short walk from the Missouri river. We grew the majority of the food that we ate. When we weren’t tending to the garden, the grapevines, or the apple tree we would often stroll along the river, passing the time the way country folk have done for hundreds of years, just walking and talking. Just living for the sake of living. No hustle, no stress.

It was quite the opposite from the life of a musician on the road and I found it to my liking. Then, amid the peaceful and quiet days of my new “slow cooked” country lifestyle, I started to feel the pull of the music scene. My old aspirations were re-awakening and I wanted to be back in the game again.

I wanted to get back in the game but I didn’t want to meet with the same disappointment. So I started asking myself a different set of questions:

  • What do I hope to achieve?
  • What would constitute success for me?
  • What would that success really look like?
  • What would it take to bring these aspirations to fruition?
  • Was I willing to do what it would take to achieve this success?

I’m not sure I fully realized it at the time but I was having a revelation and that revelation was this:

The secret to success is knowing exactly what you hope to achieve and knowing exactly what you’re willing (and not willing) to do to achieve it.

After you’ve done this preliminary work and you’ve clearly defined what you want and what you’re willing to do to get it, then all that’s left to do is to consistently take steps toward accomplishing your new goal:

Define your prize and then keep your eye on that prize as you walk steadily toward it.

The Conclusion

That’s the simple secret to accomplishment…to a feeling of success.

Where I’d failed in the past was that I hadn’t zeroed in on a destination and was, therefore, doomed to always land somewhere in the vicinity of success and never on the mark.

I’ve grown fond of the quote, “If you aim at nothing you’ll hit it every time”. I had no mark and was only aiming in a general direction. As a result, I was only able to land in the general vicinity of success. With no mark at which to take aim I was never going to hit a bullseye!

So, if you find yourself asking questions like:

  • “Why is it I can never quite achieve what I hope to achieve?”
  • “Why do I always come close to success but then always fall just short?”
  • “Am I defective or should I just learn to lower my expectations?”

I implore you to ask a different set of questions:

  • What do I hope to achieve?
  • What would constitute success for me?
  • What would that success really look like?
  • What would it take to bring these aspirations to fruition?
  • What will I need to do to achieve this success?

The Simple Three Step Process

Define your prize, keep your eye on that prize, and move steadily toward it.

Follow this simple prescription and I’m sure you will have surprising results. Here are a few of the positive outcomes I’ve, personally experienced in my “post-crisis” life and music career:

  • I lost forty pounds
  • I redefined my relationship to intoxicants and became happier and more productive as a result
  • I released three successful (read profitable) solo recordings.
  • I graduated from bars and clubs and now play concert halls, listening rooms, and festivals almost exclusively.
  • My average income per gig is four to ten times more than my “pre-crisis” take
  • I live comfortably and worry-free on my musical income and that income increases every year

I know this might be starting to sound like an infomercial but it’s the truth. I invite you to make your dreams your truth, as well.

What do you want?

Do you know exactly what you want from your music career? If not, take some time to think about it. Write down your thoughts and get a clear specific idea of what your prize looks like. Then start out after it. The journey will take care of itself if you know exactly where you’re heading.

Thoughts, Questions and Comments

I’d love to get a conversation going on this topic. Please leave your thoughts, comments, and/or questions in the comment section below or email me directly:





12 thoughts on “What I Learned from My Musical Midlife Crisis

  1. Banjo Matt

    Ryan, I have been trying to absorb all of your great information, as I am in a different midlife crisis. I am almost 40, and have worked as an environmental activist for most of it. However, since I started playing the banjo 13 years ago in grad school, I have been more and more drawn to being a professional musician.

    I play in a local bluegrass band here in New Orleans, but am interested in doing a solo act that could also be educational. My problem is I have what many in my field would think is a great job. I get paid well to fight the destruction of our planet. But, I find myself unhappy at work, despite a good paycheck and boss…

    Most of the time when you hear about somebody quitting their day job, it is to leave a cubicle soul-sucking job. I don’t have that, and I feel guilty even thinking about leaving it for financial instability. Oh, and I ave wonderful wife, a 10 month old son, and a mortgage. Taking any sort of plunge seems ridiculous…but I am still so drawn.

    So, I ask you, or any of your readers, am I crazy to want to do this, and what is the first step? I have thought that I could maybe slowly transition, but with a full time job and a kid, I don’t have the time to ramp things up, practice, promote, etc.

    Kind of the domestic version of your midlife crisis…

    Oh, by the way, I grew up just outside of St. Louis, in Waterloo, IL.

    1. Ryan Spearman Post author

      Hey Matt,
      Thanks for sharing your personal scenario. I’d like to give my answers to your questions here and then see if anybody else has any thoughts or ideas of their own to add.

      Are you crazy to want to do this? Absolutely not!

      For about the first fifteen years of going after a music career, I had that voice popping up in my head all the time questioning my decision to pursue music as a means of income. That doubting voice is drilled into us via cultural conditioning.

      We’re told that artists can’t have financial stability and that only a gifted few can have the luxury of doing what they love for a living…that’s a bunch of B.S. Today especially, there are an endless array of options for generating income with your music. The “gifted few” are the ones with the perseverance and the dedication to start pursuing the career…and then to keep at it.

      The fact that you have a wonderful job that is not contributing to your overall happiness is sign enough that you should be exploring other options!

      Considering that you have a mortgage, a lovely wife, and a new child I would certainly recommend an incremental transition. I understand the urge to make a massive and instant change but the music biz is generally a slow game. It takes time to build up income streams and to develop new ideas into income.

      It seems prudent to develop your solo/educational show and to test it out in some appropriate markets before ditching your 9 to 5 completely. It’s a big challenge to find the time to dedicate to this “side business” development while working and maintaining a family life, etc. but it’s a challenge worth taking on…in my humble opinion, that is.

      What’s the first step? I’d say work out your educational/performance set to completion and then start pitching it to appropriate venues in your region (schools, libraries, colleges, green organizations). This will give you a feel for the market response and the possibility of your services’ scalability into a full time income.

      By the way, the sustainability and educational aspect of your idea makes it a VERY viable option. I know because my wife and I founded the Green Strum Project (an organization that combines music, sustainability, and education) and it has been in high demand from schools, green organizations, libraries, festivals, the media, etc.

      Well, that’s all I got for now…anybody else have any thoughts on this matter?

      1. Banjo Matt

        Thanks Ryan!

        Do you, or anybody else out there have suggestions as to how you get your name out there in Libraries or Schools to do a music program/demonstration/performance? Also, how much would you think I should charge? Or just go after grants?


        1. Ryan Spearman Post author

          Hey Matt,
          One way is through a regional or a state arts commission. Your state’s art commission probably has an application process that will put you on a roster of some kind. In Missouri it’s called the “Missouri Touring Performer’s Roster” or something like that and it lives on the Missouri Arts Commission’s website. Fill out the application and, if you qualify, you’ll be added to this list. That’s one way to add credibility to your project or service and to potentially land some gigs. Funded and/or grant-seeking organizations (like schools, non-profits, and art centers) can access this list when seeking a certain kind of entertainment or service.

          After you do the above (or the equivalent option in your state) it’d probably be a good idea to gather a list of schools and libraries in your potential market and then just start contacting them. Do some research online before you email or call. If you can’t figure out who the appropriate person to contact within the organization is…just email (or call) and say, “Could you please direct me to the person or department in charge of hiring educational entertainment for your organization?”…this will get you the email or voicemail box of the person you need to connect with or, the very least, it’ll start a conversation that’ll allow you to explain the details of the program you’re offering.

          There are also conferences that are sometimes held in which artists get a quick chance (usually 8-10 minutes) to perform a snippet of their program to library and/or school talent buyers…I’ve never attended any of these but that could be an option. I imagine a good google search or a call to your arts commission would probably give you some info on whether there’s a similar opportunity available for you in your area. *note: This “conference showcase” option will probably have an audition/screening process and probably an entry fee as well.

          As far as going after grants, I would recommend you don’t put much hope in acquiring significant grant funding as an individual performance artists. Grant funding for individual artists is available here and there but it’s scarce and not something I would build into my business model as a steady, reliable stream of income. That being said, your platform of sustainability mixed with education has a couple very “grant fundable” qualities so I would certainly look into the opportunities and actively apply for grants that fit your offering…just don’t build your business model on top of an income source that could dry up at any moment. I’ve found that, more often than not, I tend to get hired by organizations who are actually seeking the grants themselves and writing my services or programming into their grant proposals…so I end up making a fair amount of revenue from grant money but nothing from “individual artist” type funding. Hope that makes sense.

          If you want to learn more about the possibilities of grant funding and the “how to” of individual artist grants…I recommend Gigi Rosenberg’s book, An artist’s guide to grant funding (or something like that!)…great read and very educational as far as the process of grant-sourcing goes.

          As far as what you should charge, I recommend you read my ebook if you haven’t already…there’s a little bit of info in there about how I derive my fees for most of my performances or presentations…there are also a couple of worksheets to help you get a handle on this art. Knowing what to charge is an art…not a science but it helps to have some scientific processes in place when you go about the task. There are a lot of factors to consider but with a little guidance and a little practice I think you’ll get the feel for what you need to charge.

  2. Eric

    Good stuff here. Certainly is inspiring for someone like me who has had the pleasure of seeing you do the impossible.

  3. Kris Schmolze

    I’m sitting’ at those cross rhoads now. It’s time to take a turn for the better. Dead ends, old and new friends. A mentor, someone who has been throughout their own personal reflection process, is a great mind to bounce ideas of off.

    “Define your prize, keep your eye on that prize, and move steadily toward it.”

    In the past I’ve done really well with the second and third parts even with things I wasn’t so passionate about. The challenge for me is number one, defining my prize. Finding reliable folks to play with is difficult, even myself at times.

    I’m open to a deeper discussion, breaking things down in order to build it up.

    Thank you for you perspective.


  4. Ryan Spearman Post author

    Hey Kris,
    Thanks for joining the conversation and for sharing some or your own experiences. I, too have had the most trouble with the first part of the equations: Defining the Prize

    For some reason I find it quite difficult to move from a vague idea of what i want to a specific and clear idea of EXACTLY what i want.

    It takes some practice and perseverance but it gets a little easier every time you try it!

    The practice is well worth the effort, I think.

  5. Jake

    Hey Ryan, I love that you are putting this out there, it IS very helpful,as you know, I started playing outlaw country,just to make people spill beer,& make side $$$$$, problem was, the next morning/day, I’d spend most of what I made on takeout food cause I was to hungover to wanna do anything, after a few years of this,& going thru musicians, “quitting/rehab/jail/ect. we did it all, wound-up w/ some really good pickers,but we were still not playing to our potential. I am now also getting ready to loose my longtime,14 yrs factory life sucking job, & want/think more than anything to take my screwing around w/ music, & start really moving toward maximizing my talent, folk’s say I am a great frontman, even w/ cover song’s, & all I can say is I feel it, everysong I play, I try w/ same emotion as if it were mine, from the time I wake till sleep, my head is a wandering jukebox, so to say I am serious about making the change, to give my music a chance to shine,is an under statement, I have spoke to you already,& look forward to working w/ ya in the future, ya been a real help, friend,& brother, thanks Ryan.


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