Having Kids and Touring: Pro vs. Amateur Musicians

Me and my daughter Fiona at our recent CD release party

Stevie and I were talking the other day about the fact that all of his professional musician friends are childless. As a member of GoGirls, I have also gotten to know many female musicians online. I’ve noticed that in general, the women I have met online who are working musicians (those who make a living working full-time as musicians – no day job) don’t seem to have any children. My local female musician friends are the same way – regardless of age, they have no children.

It got me thinking – why is it that being a professional musician and having children seem to be incompatible, especially for women? I’ve also been thinking a lot lately about touring – is it a necessary part of a band’s evolution?

I have decided that it may well be true that these are two very important things that separate a professional musician from an amateur: having children and touring. Of course, these two things are related. This is one of the reasons that choosing to be a professional musician is perceived (perhaps logically) as a young, childless person’s game. Touring and putting off having children are both things that younger musicians do, but find increasingly difficult to juggle as they get older.

(Note an important caveat: the story may be different for professional studio musicians or those who write and record music primarily to license it for film and TV. This post is meant for indie musicians who are performing artists with their own original music groups).

Having Children

Let’s face it, male musicians can and do have children, but only if they find a partner willing to stay home and take care of their kids for them while they are out on the road making a living. In some ways, that’s even harder, because they then have to make enough money to support not only the band, but their families back home. If you read Peter Townsend’s recent autobiography, Who I Am, he talks about the pressures he felt to continue touring to support his wife and children. This was true even mid-career, when people would have assumed The Who were so successful that Townsend could have slacked off or retired.

For female musicians it’s a lot less acceptable to have kids. It may be a provocative thing to say, but I think society frowns more on the absentee musician mother than the absentee musician father. Other (childless) musicians look at you sideways when you have to leave rehearsal suddenly because of a sick child (been there, done that).

Here are a few of the other reasons I think many musicians – men, too, but especially women – have to choose (or feel they have to choose) between a professional music career and having a family:

  • Being a professional musician means not having a regular income. Many pro musicians I know live essentially hand-to-mouth, often on a cash business basis, and find it difficult to afford a mortgage or a retirement plan. It’s irresponsible to have children not knowing if you can support yourself, to say nothing of paying for the costs of a child, from birth through college, and perhaps supporting a spouse.
  • Being a professional musician means more than likely not having health Stevie and Christopherinsurance (at least in the US), unless you are married to or otherwise a dependent of someone who has health insurance – with a plan that you can get onto. Having a pregnancy and giving birth are expensive without health insurance, to say nothing of the risk of dealing with birth complications or a sick infant.
  • Like most self-employed folks, musicians do not get paid maternity or paternity leave.
  • Being a professional musician means traveling/touring. For any career, constant traveling is not compatible with a stable family life and makes child care difficult. Dive bars are not compatible with young children. “Bring Your Son or Daughter To Work Day” doesn’t generally happen for musicians on tour. Drugs and alcohol are not compatible with children. Sure, Elvis Costello and Diana Krall have made it work, but you better believe it’s tough, and I bet they have lots of support on the road. Plus they both made their careers before they had kids. (Of course, Elvis has been married three times).
  • Having children is physically exhausting and emotionally engaging. So is making music. It’s hard to find the energy and inspiration to create and perform when running on two hours of sleep. Even though music is a consuming passion, being a parent is pretty fulfilling, too. You might find that much of the angst that drove you to create music is magically soothed by having children. Or at least, subsumed temporarily.
  • Unless your significant other is a musician, it’s unlikely they will find the idea of you being a pro musician charming after a while. Having ardent fans of the opposite sex regularly trying to get close to you can be a problem. Being a starving artist makes paying for dates, living arrangements, and, generally, having relationships complex. On the flip side, being a successful artist also makes having relationships complex. Again, I would reference the Townsend memoir. Or pretty much any VH1 Behind The Music episode. The stories of rock stars and their incendiary love lives are too numerous to list. Having a relationship with another musician is a whole other can of worms (see my blog post on the biography of Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart for a case study of that kind of messiness). Either way, it’s tough to maintain a relationship, which is a necessary part of having children. I wouldn’t even want to entertain the idea of being a single parent musician.

Touring

Touring is one of the other (and related) things that separate a professional from an amateur. Touring takes planning, funding, time and energy. Here’s why and how I think touring is an important factor that separates the professional musician from the amateur:

  • Touring is a critical step for a band. Touring is the only way to reliably extend your fan base, create press opportunities and build buzz beyond your own hometown – a critical factor in breaking out from being just a local band to becoming known nationally and internationally.
  • You need to have a website complete with an EPK (electronic press kit), bio, videos, etc. before you tour. Otherwise booking gigs will be much more difficult. This means you have to get serious and spend the money and time getting those marketing elements done.
  • You need a CD finished and pressed before you go on tour. Your CD is your calling card, your leave-behind, and an important revenue generator. This also takes time and money investment up front.
  • You have to give up your day job, at least temporarily, to go on the road.
  • Everyone in the band has to agree to go on tour. The bigger the band, the more expenses, the more potential for conflict, and the more day jobs to quit and relationships to leave behind.
  • As I said before – spouses, significant others, and children cannot go on tour with the band. Unless you are super-famous and making bank. This means having an understanding family (or not having a family) is a pre-requisite.
  • Touring is not cushy for indie musicians. It involves sleeping on couches and performing as many nights in a row as possible. Everyone in the band has to get along for an extended period of time under less-than-ideal physical conditions.
    You have to really like your band mates, really like performing and believe in your band.
  • Touring is at best, a break-even financial activity for new bands. You need to budget. Merchandise is critical, so you have to invest in creating merch up front. You also need money for gas, food, and other expenses. Most bands do not make money on tour – at least not on their first tour. Touring is an investment in building buzz and a fan base.
  • Setting up tour gigs ahead of time takes a lot of work and requires forethought to map it out. You need time and energy to pursue bookings, and a network of acquaintances to help with everything from gigs to accommodations.
  • Bands just starting out are likely to be touring by car, not airplane. You need a reliable vehicle. Many musicians I know can’t afford a car payment and might not have good credit to get one (again, because they don’t have a steady income or a reliable job).

It’s not surprising, when you lay it out, that having children seems difficult at best for pro musicians. And touring is a daunting, but necessary, part of creating a successful music career. But if you’re serious about being a musician, and you love it so much you can’t stay away, you’ll figure something out or you’ll just choose one way or the other, eventually, or perhaps take a sabbatical from full time music for a while to have a family.

It was a balancing act between road and family, and some of my more passionate songs were inspired by this particular agony. I should point out that one bright light in all of this was that I eventually found a voice as a songwriter which has become the most profound joy of my musical life. – Rory Block

I do personally know at least one professional and incredibly talented female musician who has managed, despite heartaches and tragedies, to have children and tour often: Rory Block. She and I talked at length about this very subject one time when she stayed at my home in Chicago in the 1990s while on tour. If you’ve never heard her amazing slide blues guitar and vocals, check her out. You can also read Rory’s life story on her website, including her struggles with being a being a musician and a mother and her frustrations with being a woman in the music business.

I’ll save my tips on having children for another day. For the record, I have three of my own, but I wasn’t trying to make a career in music when I had them.

So if you’re a committed musician, ready and eager to take that next step and tour with your band (or by yourself), here are some great resources I’ve found from around the web:

What about you? Do you have stories or helpful hints to share about having children and/or touring? Did you ever feel you had to make a choice? What do you think about these two factors as ones that separate amateur musicians from those serious about pursuing music as a career? Please share!

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24 comments

  1. This is a rich post.

    My initial thought, which will be not the least bit helpful for most musicians, is that buying into the nuclear family has cost parents their freedom.

    It also leads to a mindset of putting all one’s energy into one’s immediate family, since they may otherwise suffer, and letting the rest of the world go to hell.

    Back to music – though I think livestreaming can help this situation somewhat, going out to see live music can never be replaced by more stuff on a screen.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment, Clyde. I agree that livestreaming is a promising new technology and a great way to perform – although I agree also that it’s not a replacement for live performances.

  2. I have to say, that while everything that is in this article is worth considering…it ALSO doesn’t contain everything to take into consideration. Having spent 7 years on the road playing 150+ shows a year on average (Yes…150+ shows a year…the lightest of those years being 108 shows)…and being about to go back on the road again next year…there are certainly some positives to “the life” when it comes to having a family. In the band that I most recedntly toured with, all but one of us had some degree of family, ranging from live-in long-term girlfriends with children we considered our own, to 2 of the guys having 3 daughters each. What I learned immediately was that, playing 150 shows a year is a lot of time away…but the average 9-5’er works 250 days a year…and while they are at home every night to have dinner with their family and never have to say goodnight through tears on both ends of the line while sitting on the bus en route to somewhere even further from home than the night before…it is REALLY nice to have an extra 100 days a year off that most people don’t have. While there is still a lot of work to be done while not on the road…rehearsals, writing, bookings, promo, merch design, etc., we all still generally fit that into 8 hours a day or less…and often our “work day” while at home was while the kids were at school…so that when the kids were home…it was family time…and I mean A LOT of family time that most families never get. It is a trade off. While I’d give nearly anything to have never missed a birthday, a school program, a cheer competition, etc., I certainly have and will always struggle to feel I could “fit” the typical 9-5 life, knowing that means 100 or so less days a year…plus the hours between school ending and getting home from the office on all of the non-weekend days. “The life” is certainly not for everyone. It puts a lot of weight on your wife or husband’s shoulders, and causes your children to grow up with a different kind of strength of heart and character…BUT…I’ve found that if managed with the same kind of passion with which you manage your career…these can be good things. You can take more weight off of your significant other than most partners can in the time you are home…and you can get involved with activities, trips, and even just days of play with the kids that a lot of parents never really have time for unless they are a stay-at-home parent. If you manage your career well, it is just like any business venture. You don’t open the doors and the money just rolls in. It takes work. It takes patience. It takes an investment in things that sometimes break even…sometimes lose money…until you figure out HOW to make things make money. My last band managed to find a lot of success and we all made an acceptable living…and that was with everyone but the lead singer being a hired gun, often making as little as 10% of the gross for a show and merch sales. My new project is more of a traditional partnership between 4 guys. We’ll still be hiring out crew and such…but the thought of making double what I was before as a hired gun is a very exciting prospect…and I am greatly looking forward to continuing the life of my dreams when it comes to my family…OH…and getting to go play Rock Star 150 days a year as well!!!

    1. Hey Rob – Thank you SO much for your comments. I really appreciate your perspective and all the excellent points you make here. It’s nice to hear about musicians making it work and still being able to have a successful family life – glad you are defying the stereotype!

    2. Awesome reply Rob. Great, and also inspiring responses. I’m glad to hear that you’re totally making it work for you. You’re obviously putting the time in, which is great, and also reaping the rewards for yourself, which is even better. Well done! Also, thanks for sharing :)
      Bic

    3. Thank you for sharing the most hopeful words I have ever read on this subject. I really needed this perspective and pep talk right now.

  3. My experience has been much like Rob’s over my 20+ year career. I got married the year after my band, The Gourds formed in Austin and we released our first record the year after that. Early on we toured hard when no one had kids. I was the first to have kids in 1998. It was not practical to continue the life style that the other fellows carried on with. So, we all made a decision to tour less so that we would have a life at home. Over the years we have perfected a way of touring that involves vans, rental cars, flights and the occasional inconveniences mentioned in your article. Generally we don’t tour more than a couple of weeks at a time. It makes for some big drives out and back. But, time at home is very valuable. One must be willing to sacrifice on both ends to make it work. I think we might have been more successful if we had been able to sustain tours longer and more often. But that was a sacrifice we were not willing to make. My wife works and carries insurance. When I’m gone she is a single parent. So, a spouse must be very strong and willing to support a touring musician. It takes great communication to navigate the complexities of family responsibilities. I am certainly fortunate in that regard. We have 3 kids who I believe are happy, healthy, secure and loved. Love is the most important element when it comes right down to it. Make sure they know they are loved and cared for. And that goes for any parent, anywhere. If you truly love your family then everything will work out all right. And the rough times can be weathered more easily. Be thankful for what you’ve got. and don’t get bogged down in trying to achieve some idealized life style. There are those who would have us believe they have it all. And I hope they do. But, in the end, love is all there is.

    1. Kevin – I just love your comments about not trying to achieve some idealized lifestyle, I think that’s true for everyone no matter what your career. I totally agree that love is so important, and so is flexibility and an understanding partner. It sounds like you are indeed a lucky man, and someone who has the right perspective on life!

  4. I think its strange that while the comments go on about life on the road, the female perspective on this isn’t mentioned — and yes, it’s interesting that no women have made any comments on this topic, so here goes.

    Like society, this business of music is a boys club. Men are accommodated in ways that women are not. Women aren’t expected to be viable musicians and when they are, quite often they must choose between music and family/children, because the guy who will take the unconventional position of Mr. Mom is virtually nonexistent. Yeah – its unconventional for us. Because men have been going on the road and leaving the children with the wife since, like, forever — and for a myriad of work-related reasons. So its really not that deep when they have to leave for awhile to bring home the bacon. Women? Not so much.

    Nevermind giving birth to a kid and how that can physically wipe you out for years on end. Nevermind how hard it is to be on the road and how you have to make it work and the benefits of being home 100 days out of the year. Nevermind the fact that not having children is a bigger sacrifice for female musicians because after a certain age, its not an option. Nevermind all that. The bottom line is, someone has to raise the kids and run the house. And at the end of the day, who’s the guy that’s going to do that?

    It’s difficult enough to find a guy who’ll date you when he figures out what you really do for a living. Its difficult to find a guy that’s comfortable long term with you making more money than he does or that’s comfortable with whatever success you have.

    To the men who’ve commented here: how many female musicians have you met on the road that had kids that were being raised by their husbands/partners? I can’t think of any female musicians with kids that aren’t famous — with enough money to hire the help they need, whether they have a husband (Diana Krall with twins and married to Elvis Costello) or not (Sheryl Crow) — who are pulling this off.

    I can’t easily think of too many women in history who pulled this off.

    Ok, that’s my two cents. And for the record, I’m a touring musician, I’m married and I have no children.

    1. Queen Esther –

      Thank you for your rant (and yes, I love a good rant!) I agree with all of what you are saying here. Looking back, I feel fortunate to have had a corproate career outside of music durign my childbearing years. I was lucky to have had an exmployer who gave me paid health insurance and maternity leave, and spouses (2, consecutively) who were also working (not in the music industry). Together we could afford childcare to cover the hours we both worked. Neither was willing to stay home with the kids, but they contributed time and income. Childcare is expensive, and I don’t know many musicians who could afford it – even two-income families.

      The only female musicians I know of who have children took a “break” for a decade or more to do so (Rory Block and Alice Stewart). Even the female music industry professionals (publicists, A&R, managers) I know dropped out of the workforce for a few years in order to have their kids. The ones who get into real positions of power in the music industry, like Julie Greenwald (President Atlantic Records) are probably well compensated.

      I think the bottom line is that being a musician is a career one must feel called, perhaps even compelled, to follow despite its many downsides. Besides being hard on musician mothers, it’s also hard on older folks – no 401Ks, and little income left over to save. It’s just doesn’t seem to be a career that our society values enough to pay a steady living wage. I think the other constributing factor is simply that music doesn’t have a middle class anymore, if it ever did. Everyone in music is either poor or rich – there is no middle income on which one can raise a family. Just about every male AND female musician I know has a spouse or partner who makes more and essentially supports their lifestyle.

      Like some other careers (teacher, graphic artist, photographer, priest) it is a labor of love, not profit.

      1. Great post, great reply. Agree to both of you. Very hard these days as a male, and I must imagine exceptionally hard as a female, unless one has a very understanding spouse with a flexible/probably work-from-home job!

  5. Your article is incredibly down-to-earth and touches on all of the practical matters that need to be recognized when mixing family and touring. My husband is a professional musician, traveling over 250 days a year and we have a kid. It’s possible. It’s tough and creates an incredible dynamic that takes constant, intentional work at relationships. In fact, the artist he tours with has 4 other guys in the band and crew that have families as well. You can tour and have a family, my advice is to communicate to your family well about expectations, financially plan and find a balance.

    1. Thank you, Megan! That’s a tough one – having two musicians in the family, but it sounds like you and your husband are both supportive of each others’ careers. I totally agree that communication is key. True for any marriage, eh? I am heartened to hear the stories of musicians in these comments, and to know that, while it is a challenge, it can be done. Every career choice has its challenges, and being a musician has unique ones. I am always especially grateful to hear from female musicians who are making it work – so thank you for your comment!

  6. Interesting post! I enjoyed reading all the comments too. I have another perspective to share, so here goes:

    Not a musician exactly, my husband and I are pro musical storytellers. We have one income, one job and one child. We have toured and not toured, have always had health insurance (self pay), and pulled off this career for 21 years. Our son is almost cooked now, so we are kicking up the touring a bit more (just back from Jamaica, heading south and west early 2015, etc).

    Touring with the kid has been fun and tricky – parenting is fully that, isn’t it – but we targeted our marketing to the radius of 2 hours from home, allowing us to maintain a ‘rooted’ family life and community, in addition to our communities ‘on the road.’

    All I can say is that it is possible to pull it off as long as everyone is down with it and compromise is an active philosophy and practice.

    1. Thanks for adding your perspective, Jeri! Great to hear all the diverse stories (pardon the pun) from various performers, including yours.

  7. To add a different perspective (although everybody who has posted seems to be different, whether it be vastly or modestly);
    I’ve been a ‘traveling’ musician for 9 years now – mainly cruise ships, and high-end hotel contracts around the world. Relationships have definitely taken a back seat, after trial and error with a handful, and the realisation that you really have to find someone “on the level” with a certain understanding and appreciation for what you do initially, otherwise you won’t get anywhere. Finding that someone seems to be the hard part for me, although, there may come a time where a balance has to be struck! I’m 31, and a lot of my friends are now settling down and starting families, of course. I don’t yet feel like I’m missing out, but I feel there may well come a time in the near future where I do, and maybe have to compromise some of my work ethics, to sustain more of a “conventional” family life.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Chris. It’s always tough, I think, to be passionate and dedicated to a creative career and find a partner who can tolerate the intensity. Sometimes the right person comes along, though, who really appreciates who you are. Thanks for your thoughtful comment and best of luck with both the music and the rest of it!

  8. Great thoughts shared here. I came to Canada to pursue a music career but stopped 5 years ago and started a family. I’m presently considering going back into the music scene one step at a time. I wish I could just quit my daytime job but can’t do so right now. Hopefuly in the near future.
    In the meantime thank you again for the highly informative discussion, it has enriched my decision making process.

    All the best to all of you!

  9. Great article. I myself am in a band with my partner and constantly fear for how on Earth we will manage to have one or any children with band commitments on top of full time jobs. Glad to see Queen Esther raising the point that none of this article was from the female perspective and barely any comments which is a shame as I was hoping to find that. Try and google parenting whilst in a band pretty sure there are only two articles.
    And that is exactly right it is a lot harder for women in the industry to raise children and work on top of judgement from the world. I am hoping one day we will figure out how to make it work but for now the touring life and being a parent seems to be an impossibility. Would love to read some stories on who has made it work before especially in the case of both parents. Seems everyone only makes it work with one parent home making the sacrifices. Sigh.

    1. Hi Jessica – Thanks for your comments. I think that the truth is that since the majority of child rearing falls on women in general, it just makes being a musical parent that much more of a balancing act for women. Zoe Keating was one successful female musician (who had a spouse willing to do a lot of parenting while she focused on her musical career). Sadly her husband recently passed away from cancer, leaving her a single parent (and still a musician). We will also see how Amanda Palmer copes now that she is pregnant. Other more visible female musician parents include of course Adele, who continues to make music as a mom. I think it’s hard to stay away from
      music for long when it’s a part of who you are. You just make it work – as all parents really have to with demanding careers (men and women both). Some sacrifice on the parental front, some on the career front, but they make it work somehow. Thanks again for the comments.

  10. Very interesting article and lovely comments. My wife and me play in a band together and we have a toddler and the next kid is on the way. It’s tough and far from simple. Without family and babysitters it’s impossible. Not to mention that I have another job bringing the income since touring and recording a cd doesn’t leave you with a big income.
    Our luck is we are in Germany and the health insurance and child care are not as expensive as the states.
    But I was looking for examples where both parents have kids and if they took their kids with them. So far it seems not common. I loved the comment saying that if you compared this to a 9-5 job then musician parents have actually more time with their kids when they don’t tour. I also think that limiting the tour to closer venues(smaller radius) and maybe shorter tours at a time is a good compromise between career and family. Any other partner musicians out there who can share their bringing up a family and touring together?

    1. Thank you for your comments, Yuval. I appreciate you sharing your experience as a musician with a family – it’s a challenge for sure, but thank you for adding your voice to those who are making it work. Things have gotten a little easier in the US as far as health insurance since Obamacare, so that is one good thing!

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