Before quitting her full-time job, Laura Tsaggaris was living the American Dream.
With a finance degree from William and Mary, a home in New York City and a full-time job at IBM, Tsaggaris seemed to have her life fully mapped out. But with all of these accomplishments aside, there was still a lingering feeling of discontentment that loomed over her. In the fall of 2000, she made the tough decision to leave her comfortable life in New York and moved to D.C., without a definitive plan of what would come next.
“I was happy there, y’know. It was a really good social environment and I really liked D.C. I felt really comfortable there,” says Tsaggaris. “I got a job at a law firm as a legal assistant, since I thought that I might want to go to law school. But then I started songwriting at that time. I had a lot of stage fright, so I challenged myself to go out to some open-mics here.”
Tsaggaris eventually became more confident in her songwriting ability and started to perform in bigger venues across the D.C. area. Tsaggaris worked at the law firm for six years before making the crucial decision to leave. When she was considering whether to leave her well-paying job, Tsaggaris decided that she needed to play it smart in the beginning. “I’ve always had a long view of where I want my career to go,” she says.
However, D.C. hip hop virtuoso Flex Mathews was in a very different position. Ever since hearing Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Mathews had dreamt of a successful music career. Still, he had to work.
“I had a longstanding job at Walter Reed Hospital, and I was actually planning my great escape to do music full-time,” he laughs.
Instead, he was fired in 2009. “I was really depressed, because I was planning on quitting the job. But, I just kind of manned up. This voice inside of me said ‘Quit bitching. Make music, you wanted all this time to make music—you got it!’”
After being fired, Mathews went right into the studio. “While working, music was little more than a hobby. I was doing shows, touring and doing guest appearances. I realized I just kind of had to make that move.”
For many full-time musicians, the biggest challenge is not quitting their steady jobs, but staying consistent with their goals. Just ask Justin Trawick, who has been living in D.C. as a full-time musician since 2008. After he graduated from college in 2004, Trawick had several jobs while also playing shows and building a steady career locally. Those early years of working and performing were a struggle, according to Trawick.
“I would work from nine-to-five, get in my car, drive to Philly, get off a gig at midnight and get home at two or three o’clock in the morning-and then, be back at work at nine o’clock the next day. That was like my daily schedule,” says Trawick.
The main source of income for people like Tsaggaris, Mathews and Trawick comes from playing live gigs.
“I tell people that the nice thing about living in D.C. is since the government’s here, a lot of people have steady jobs. D.C. is not hurting financially and [in the job market] as much as the rest of the country is. There’s a lot more money to be spent on entertainment here.”
Comparing the experience here with a larger city like New York, Trawick says that there are a lot of opportunities for musicians to get paid while playing.
“If you’re a musician in New York City, most of the gigs you are playing are for free or for tips. And if you refuse to play those gigs, that’s never going to change because there are a thousand other people who are going to take that gig,” he adds.
Despite the high cost of living in D.C., Tsaggaris says that living in the area has actually helped her career. After quitting her job, she was able to find steady gigs in the area, and D.C.’s accessible location to bigger cities like New York and Philadelphia made touring more feasible.
“I personally love [D.C.] for being a musician. It’s a different environment,” says Tsaggaris. “There are all these different types of venues; you’ve got restaurants you could play for a couple hours, you’ve got venues where you can open up for bigger acts who come into town and you’ve also got smaller venues.”
However, finding success as a full-time musician isn’t solely dependent on securing steady gigs. For Mathews, it’s also about expanding your network. Along with performing regularly in the area, he also does custom songs and tracks for websites, and volunteers and teaches young kids how to rap.
“[Being in five bands] is my job, in the sense that no band tours all the time and no band does shows all the time,” Mathews says. Finding that balance between working with so many people and projects is crucial, as is being aggressive in your releases and self-promotion. “It’s like an interview—no one’s going to bring you a job application; you have to go out there and find those jobs.”
Trawick is also involved in several projects outside of his solo work. He’s the mastermind behind the 9 Songwriter Series, the podcast The Circus Life and a new YouTube series called “Unrehearsed DC,” which shoots bands in unusual places playing music unrehearsed.
“It’s like any business; you have to build up a client base. You have to find the fans that will help support you and the venues that [show they] really like you by paying you,” Trawick says. “The only way I was comfortable with leaving the [day] job was the fact that I was doing music long enough and built up a networking base with all the venues I knew. I did that for four or five years, so when I left the job I knew ‘Alright, I have ten gigs this month; I know this is going to be enough money for me to pay my car insurance and my rent.’”
Andy Zipf, who performs under the name The Cowards Choir, has also found success as a full-time musician through this same mindset. “The only way I’ve been able to do this is by diversifying,” he says. Like many others, Zipf has looked for streams of income other than just playing music. Along with The Cowards Choir, he has a second project called The Parlor Session and has scored a documentary, along with licensing his music. Zipf also says that his wife’s support really allows him to take more risks.
“I want to play music and provide [for a family],” Zipf says. “It’s tough. But, I’m willing to put in the hard work. Today, I can say I’m a full-time musician and I want to say that a year from now too.”
While the initial plunge of doing music full-time is frightening, Tsaggaris, Mathews, Trawick and Zipf believe that the rewards outweigh the risks.
“For me, this is the time, over any other time in history, to be a DIY musician,” says Trawick. “Musicians have a medium like the Internet to get their music out there, create their own sites, be their own label of sorts and sell CDs at their shows. Now is the time.”