On Being a “Lifer”

Chad Staehly (Hard Working Americans, The High Hawks) talks the mental toll of dedicating your life to a career in music.

Somewhere in the middle of your childhood, your parents, or maybe your school, requires you to learn how to play a musical instrument. For most, that requirement is met with resistance, and it’s a daily struggle to practice your instrument and show up for weekly lessons. My parents used to say to me, “Someday you’ll thank us for making you stick with it.” At some point they were right, and years later, something clicked and it became my first love. It was always an emotional outlet — if I had a bad day, or somebody upset me, or my friends ditched me, the next move was to sit at the piano and play it out. That progressed to playing open mics at bars while in high school, playing at school talent shows, playing with my garage band at school dances, and playing pipe organ in church. In college, I found myself playing with bands in bars for $5 cover charges. It was helping pay the bills and I loved doing it.

Fast forward 20 years later and I’m still playing music, having made it far enough along at points to be on a tour bus in various bands, to be able to afford a crew sometimes, make decent money to come home with instead of barely breaking even or maybe even being in debt. A lot of my musician friends have made it a lot further in their careers. At some point though, even at fairly high levels of success, there’s still not a lot of security and that constant stress bears down on you. Whether or not there will be another tour, how successful the next album will be, how many tickets will sell at the next show, and the list goes on. Some get far enough along that there’s maybe even the opportunity to put everyone on salary, but even at that point you end up with the same set of concerns, and you usually have a lot more expenses too. There are some who get far enough along to have some kind of savings or 401k, but most of us don’t even know what a 401k is, and most don’t have a savings account. Somewhere along the way you realize you’re a “lifer.” 

It takes an incredible amount of stubbornness, passion, and obsession to decide that you’re going to pursue a career in playing music and try to make a living. You certainly have to focus the majority of your time and energy on the craft and then figure out how to build a business around that. Sure, there are overnight stars, but most have to grind it out for years and years to earn enough recognition and to be able to sell enough tickets and albums to keep going. At some point, you may find yourself middle-aged and still going at it, tour by tour and album by album. 

A couple of years ago, two days before I was supposed to leave on a tour with a new band and project, I received a late-night call from our tour manager in tears on the other end. Our friend, brother, and guitar player had taken his life. We were all stunned. He was at the top of his game and rapidly becoming one of the most well-known contemporary guitar players at age 50. Two months prior, another ace musician, friend, brother, and someone I had worked with for several years had chosen a similar path; He was 46 years old. They were both “lifers.”

It shook our musical community to its core. Not a whole lot of discussion had ever occurred about mental health in our line of work. When something like that happens, it makes you take stock. You want to try to understand it and why it happened. I think once you realize you’ve made that decision to be a “lifer” and you get along far enough in years you can start to feel slightly trapped. You’ve dedicated so much of your life to this one pursuit, and that’s what it takes to have any level of success. What do you do if it’s not as successful as you need it to be, and you’ve gotten 25 years into it? When do you give up? Can you give up? The next album could be the one that changes everything. At the very least, you have to believe that. You just gave all your money to the house, and you want to roll the dice one more time and see if you can win it all back. What else are you going to do? You’ve dedicated everything you could to pursuing this career, and maybe don’t have the education or skill set or experience or desire to work in another field. Some are able to pivot, but most don’t want to give up, and most have no idea what else they would do, especially as you get further on in years.

This isn’t to say this line of work is more difficult than other careers, and this isn’t to say there aren’t moments of absolute bliss and reward. There are those couple of hours getting to play on stage with your band and a live audience or getting into the studio and being creative where you take another swing at finding success. I find myself at this crossroads again, releasing a debut album from a new band that we have started, all of us “lifers.” The amazing journey is hopefully worth it, but there are the struggles always staring you down and sometimes that can be too much. People from the outside looking in see those couple of hours on stage and think most of these people are living “the life.” They don’t see all the rejection, the millions of miles traveled, the void between soundcheck and the show usually sitting in a burnt-out green room at the back of the club that doesn’t have a working toilet, and you don’t feel comfortable sitting on the furniture. Something keeps burning inside you to pack up your bag and hit the road, but for some, that becomes too much, and the catch-22 is that we don’t usually have health insurance or know where to start to get help. Maybe we are too embarrassed to admit we’re struggling, whether it be with drugs and alcohol, or a heap of despair because the last tour or album didn’t sell as well as it should have. I’d just like to take a moment to tell any of my fellow “lifers” that there’s always a way to get back up. 

(Photo Credit: Jake Cudek)

Chad Staehly is a member of the bands Hard Working Americans and The High Hawks. The latter’s self-titled debut is out now via LoHi Records.

(Photo Credit: Jake Cudek)