Surviving As A Musician ... with Shari Ulrich

She first made a name in Vancouver's funky acoustic ensemble Pied Pumkin, galvanized audiences singing Fear of Flying with Valdy's Hometown Band and then chose the life of a soloist who works with a fiddle of ensembles from her base on a rustic island off the coast of Vancouver. What follows is Shari's story, as written by Shari Ulrich shortly before the pandemic hobbled her ability to tour. She remains resolute in her determination not to fret and continue in music which is her everything besides her daughter.

With a career in music that began in 1973 with the legendary Pied Pumkin, my path has run the full gamut of DIY (pre-selling LPS for $5 each until we had enough orders to pay for the recording) to a full-on industry team driving machine (worldwide deals with A&M and MCA) - and all points in between (currently on Canada’s Borealis Records).

I wandered into music at 21 and quickly realized I had a talent for it and off I went. It’s the only ‘job’ I’ve ever had (if I don’t count bussing tables in the cafeteria in college), and I have always been independently self-supporting. Partnered, married or single, it never occurred to me to do it any other way. 

It is certainly the nature of the beast as a musician and artist to walk the tightrope of chronic worry if we’ll be able to meet next month’s living expenses while enjoying the freedom of self-sufficiency that those tied to “regular” jobs envy. Artists are forced to make friends with the constant insecurity of a profession with no guarantees in return for enjoying the great rewards of making their living doing what they truly love and are passionate about - all with the perennial carrot of infinite possibility.

To me, it’s well worth the trade-off. Folks often comment that the lack of ‘job security’ that is a feature of ‘real’ jobs must be wearing. In fact, I have always felt a sense of security knowing that I can never be ‘let go’! But it’s also not a 9-5 job. It is usually 18 hours a day, 7 days a week job. It can be both relentless and exhausting, and exhilarating and rewarding. And those rewards, though not necessarily always financial, are deep and meaningful. I don’t regret a moment of it. Well, that’s not really true – I’d be happy to never again have to unload a van of instruments and gear in -30º weather. However – I’ve never had an existential crisis pondering my purpose in the wee hours of the night.

Though there are the rare few who, either by undeniable talent, dumb luck, massive financial backing or some other twist of fate end up rising to massive success, most of us work non-stop to land performance opportunities, beg for the relatively few festival spots against great odds, and are forced to constantly feed the social media machine. But learning early on that rejection and ticket prices were invariably dictated by budget and all manner of considerations completely unrelated to my value as an artist, has helped me enjoy the journey immensely. And yes, I have adjusted my definitions of success from my early expectations.

Now they include having raised a healthy, happy daughter with a thriving career as a recording engineer & producer, a network of friends I treasure and give me great joy, and a deep connection with my audience and the presenters with whom I invariably develop a long-standing friendship. I am too aware of the trade-off for large-scale success – a loss of the privacy and anonymity that allows one to be an observer and have authentic relationships, and a deeply confused sense of self.  Consequently, I’ve escaped the common pitfalls of alcoholism, drug addiction and various train wrecks of life management that befall those who can’t reconcile the image and fame with the real self (I call it the Kurt Cobain syndrome). So though I will always feel like I should have a much larger audience, and still foolishly think I’m going to get that major “break” at some point, in the meantime, I’m pretty darn happy!

No doubt, it is sobering to realize I could be an accident away from having very little income. And musicians and artists do not enjoy the employment benefits of the rest of the North American working world in health and dental care. Fortunately, I was coached mid-career that the Musician’s Union of which I have been a member since I first began, has one of the best pensions going. So I started diligently filing contracts for shows and recording sessions. And that can make a big difference in one’s ’50s and ’60s. (That age that no young musician ever imagines they will be!)  Being a musician shouldn't mean being financially irresponsible.

Get advice and plan for the future.

You are going to get older, trust me (if you’re lucky)! I’ve never focused much on money unless I’ve run out! But I respect the need to be smart with it so that hasn’t happened for many decades.   

As I said, my perception of success has evolved over time.

Certainly making a “decent” living (a highly subjective value) could be seen as the foundation, but it is a highly nuanced definition beyond that.  The last time I had management and an agent was 1982. Since then, despite constantly wishing I could spend less time with the myriad of tasks related to career maintenance and more time creating, I am too busy keeping all the balls in the air to reach out for that help. So I just keep at it - researching venues, booking shows, advancing tours, booking flights and rental cars, creating itineraries, keeping the books, and oh yes – performing concerts. And given the entire paradigm of recording music to sell has changed, the essence of my career is live performance. So I do what I can to make sure my audiences leave happy. I engage them; share stories; open my eyes; try to make them comfortable; make them laugh, and generally make sure it’s a better experience than staying home watching a video.

For me, diversifying has been key. Given I was a musician before I started writing songs, collaborating with other solo artists and supporting the music of someone whose work I love has greatly enhanced my live performance and recording opportunities: Ulrich Henderson Forbes, Bentall Taylor Ulrich, and soon “The Mavens” with Lynn Miles and Susan Crowe. So that’s an undeniable bonus. But note, you don’t have to be a dazzling hotshot player to accompany someone else’s music. I’m not. But almost thanks to my relatively limited skills, I have learned that the most important feature of being a side person is serving the song, not the ego. I’ve also had a philosophy of saying “yes” to most projects offered to me – particularly if they’re out of my realm of experience and therefore scare the hell out of me: musical theatre, TV hosting, teaching songwriting at UBC and Humber - all tangential to being a musician and writer.

None has backfired.

Being asked to share my experience here has me ruminating on how it used to be and how it is now. Ironically, when I had the success that came from an industry team driving my career which generated a lot of income, I was young and woefully ignorant of the fact that the income was pretty much solely going to management, agents, and the record label. But, there were SOCAN royalties that came from radio play that were significant. Well, you know where this is going. Unlike radio, the internet does not fairly compensate the people who create the content for their platform. For a long time, I just ignored the New Reality and kept my head down playing concerts and selling CDs at shows.

Now as more and more people say “I don’t have a CD player any longer”, it’s truly hitting home that artists are creating a ‘product’, investing $20K - $60K in recording an album of music which used to be sold to the consumer, but is now, despite being widely consumed, given away. The recording has no avenue for reimbursement other than those dwindling CD purchasers at concerts. The consumer is paying for a service to deliver that music but those funds are not being shared with the creators of the content in any way that can allow for the investment in creating the recording to be recouped, let alone provide a living for the artist. I’m not an economics wiz but that doesn’t sound sustainable to me.

Granted, (no pun intended), we in Canada are incredibly fortunate that we have FACTOR, Canada Council, and provincial granting bodies that can help offset such costs thanks to a government that understands the value of our art and culture.

No matter how much we like to complain, perspective is everything - we are the envy of American artists who have no such resources.

Though I have always supported myself with music, thanks to a small windfall that allowed me to buy my first home in the late ’80s, I have had the option for the past 6 or 7 years of augmenting my income with short term rentals while touring. The extra money has been very liberating and novel in my life as an artist.  If that doesn’t sound like a second job, trust me, it is. But it’s easy to manage around my music career.

So I, like many folks in all kinds of professions and jobs, find the new sharing economy a great social phenomenon and asset. (Visit Nashville and you’ll find half the Uber and Lyft drivers are musicians and songwriters. But you can bet they’re gathering a lot of fodder for songs from riders!)

The extra income also means I can more often afford to have more players with me which helps support other musicians and enhances my performances immeasurably.

What has carried me along for 47 years in music is that sense of knowing to my core that this is what my ‘job’ is in life. Taking full charge of it as an independent artist 10 years in, as challenging as it’s been, has ensured my longevity. And that also comes from the essential reason I do it – not to feed an insecure ego, a need to be exalted, or a drive to be a Big Star with fame and fortune – but because music is just so damn wonderful to play, and one of the best things humans do in this world. It’s the gift that keeps on giving and that gift spreads its seeds far and wide to listeners. Or maybe I’m just a hedonist and it feels irresistibly good to make it!  It is transformative to the listener, makes the world a much better place, and fills me with gratitude every day of my life!

Okay – I have to get back to work now!

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