Real Talk: Jeff Derringer
Can you be a real artist without focusing on your craft full time?
Real Talk: Jeff Derringer
Can you be a real artist without focusing on your craft full time?
Do you wish to become a full-time musician? Like many of you, Jeff Derringer did too, and it was all very promising until January 2004—when he was diagnosed with cancer, jeopardising his hopes of a life in music. “I needed the healthcare and security,” he reflects more recently, saddened at the latest setback: a second diagnosis that ended all faint hopes that remained. These are tremendously unfortunate circumstances for an artist with considerable promise.
But it doesn’t end there. While Derringer, a Chicago-based techno DJ-producer, will forever be tied to a day job, this does not forego him a career in music at all. In fact, he’s become a longtime resident of Smartbar, one of America’s most infamous and revered dance clubs, where he has been curating his Oktave events there for over eight years. His productions have been released on esteemed labels all over the world, including Soma, Electric Deluxe, Perc Trax and many more—all the while maintaining a nine-to-five position like so many out there. Reflecting on his experiences, Derringer looks back to discuss whether it’s possible to reach your maximum potential as an artist without ever quitting your day job.
A few years ago, a respected and long-tenured artist in the house and techno underground made some controversial statements on social media about the difference between a full-time and a part-time artist. He argued that if you aren’t performing and/or producing full time, then you fall short of the bar that defines what an artist is. In other words, part-time artists are actually hobbyists, and their music does not command the same respect as someone who works on it as a profession. The belief is that only the completely immersed artist is wholly true to their art. The part-timer doesn’t have it all out on the line, and therefore can’t make true art, because their life and their livelihood don’t depend on it.
This statement was met with the predictable backlash, as artists and fans alike came out in protest. There were plenty of folks who thought that art was art, no matter who makes it or what else they do with their time. The argument was made that DJs play great tracks regardless of who made them, so why should it matter? This was followed by the standard back and forth in the comments section, and then eventually the thread died down.
It is an interesting question, however, and lately, I’ve had cause to think about it quite a bit. Can you be a real artist without focusing on your craft full time? Does having a “straight” job disqualify you from being eligible for greatness? Or can you still find that greatness even if you’re pursuing your art as a part-time endeavour?
I’ve been a cancer survivor since January of 2004. Back then, I was a drummer in an indie rock band in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and I was optimistic about the situation I was in. We were doing well on the NYC scene and we had “interest” from a number of labels. We rehearsed next door to Interpol and down the hall from TV On the Radio, so it didn’t seem like that far of a stretch to imagine that we would soon enjoy similar success. It wouldn’t be long before we quit our jobs and went on tour in support of our first album. The script wrote itself—or so I thought.
All that changed when I found a lump below my left ear, which was soon diagnosed as a malignant squamous cell carcinoma. It started in my tonsil and spread to the lymph nodes in my left neck. After a week of intense panic consulting with doctors, family and friends, I had 10 hours of surgery, followed by seven weeks of radiation and chemotherapy. Total shit storm.
“A young-ish guy like me with a stage four throat cancer in his medical history is more often than not going to be tied to some kind of day job—and the insurance it provides.”
One of the most difficult parts of the recovery process in 2004 was realizing that my dream of leaving the day-job life and joining the musician’s circus was in serious jeopardy. In America especially, the healthcare system is difficult for people who have pre-existing conditions. A young-ish guy like me with a stage four throat cancer in his medical history is more often than not going to be tied to some kind of day job—and the insurance it provides. I need the best healthcare I can get, as well as guaranteed monthly income in case of emergency, both of which are significantly harder to come by in the full-time creative life.
A lot has changed for me since then, and most of that should be saved for a different article. I’m not drumming anymore, obviously, and over the last 14 years, I’ve become immersed in the worldwide techno scene. I moved back to my hometown, Chicago, in 2010, where I continued the Oktave nights I started in New York. I was lucky enough to get hired teaching music production at Columbia College. I also found work teaching at Apple, who is the provider of my healthcare. Speaking of lucky, I started performing at Smartbar soon after returning to Chicago, and a couple years later they made me a resident. Score! These jobs combined to build a modest living. They also allowed me the stability and flexibility to stay focused on my music career, such as it is, and the latitude to travel for gigs and release records.
Things moved along nicely until summer 2017, when I had a setback. I was diagnosed with a second throat cancer, similar to my first but more intense, as the primary tumor was on my tongue. The timing was far from ideal: Oktave was soon celebrating its eighth anniversary, and I was finally starting an Oktave record label, something I’d wanted to do for a long time. Life has a way of laughing at you when you try to make a plan, right?
“Can I still fulfill my potential as an artist without pursuing it full time?”
If I wasn’t tied to the day job market before my second diagnosis, I certainly am now. The life of a full-time touring artist is simply no longer available to me. Two instances of throat cancer will do that to a person. And lately, my mind has been wandering back to the same questions I found myself asking in 2004 when the shock of my first diagnosis was still fresh. Can I still fulfil my potential as an artist without pursuing it full time?
I certainly understand the value of full-time immersion. The life of a successful artist relies heavily on repetition. It’s like any other skill: you have to show up every day to see results, and it takes practice to develop the skills to make consistently strong records. Having an abundance of time to focus on that alone is a big advantage when you’re trying to build up a body of respectable production work. Even if you’re not writing, it takes time to think and prepare and immerse yourself in the sounds you want to create.
The full-time artist can also be more focused on their career as a whole, which is another big benefit of not working a day job. Outside of production (and let’s not forget that there are very successful full-time DJs who don’t produce at all), the full-timer can rehearse their live performance more regularly—practice time is gold. They can also collaborate with other artists more often; they can focus more energy on promoting themselves with all the various online tools we now have at our disposal. Importantly, they can go out to clubs and events more than someone who reports to a job in the morning. So much of the business of music is done at night, in the venues where the music is performed. Having the freedom to be in that environment week after week without an early morning responsibility is huge.
In addition to this, the full-time artist has the time to pursue other avenues for their music—avenues like licensing and commercial work. Advertising and video game scores, licensing deals and the lot pay well, and with the continued onslaught of content on all platforms, there are more opportunities to land your music in projects that pay. The resourceful, motivated artist can find many different avenues to generate cash from their work.
Finally, there’s the reputation factor. In my experience, I’ve found that industry professionals—booking agents, press agents, managers—are more likely to take you seriously if you’re not working amongst the proletariat. There’s always a chance that the industry will embrace you while you’re working nine-five, especially if you capture the cultural zeitgeist of the moment in some way. But in a lot of cases, the people who work behind the scenes want to see that you’ve reached a level of bona fide popularity before they sign you, and that usually means you’re generating enough income to be free of a job.
These are just some of the advantages that the full-time creative life affords the artist, and I certainly haven’t listed them all. But being an artist full time isn’t easy, either; despite the considerable advantages, there are also significant risks. An artist must determine their appetite for a lifestyle that, for most, essentially boils down to full-time freelancing. While there are some artists who live very comfortable and even glamorous lives DJing at the best clubs and parties around the world, the great majority of us have to make compromises, regardless of how much time we spend producing and performing. There are sacrifices that freelancers make to maintain their relative freedom.
“Trying to find a balance between commerce and creativity, with basic survival the priority, is not easy.”
For example, here are a few of the questions you should ask yourself before jumping into the full-time pursuit of the creative life: Are you comfortable not knowing how much money you’re going to bring home every month? How important is healthcare to you—are you ok having less-than-adequate coverage, or no coverage at all? How far can your dollar stretch from week to week—without a guaranteed income, what kind of budget are you comfortable living on? Can you be productive working at home? Are you OK living with roommates, or renting and sharing studio space? Do you embrace travel? Do you like spending your evenings in music venues, and can you handle the temptations and pitfalls this entails? Trying to find a balance between commerce and creativity, with basic survival the priority, is not easy.
Of course, one of the primary reasons artists want to go all in—to go full time—is to expand the amount of time they have to develop their work and their skills. To improve. However, it’s a misconception that there is a direct correlation between time spent and artistic development. Ask any producer: how much of your extra time do you actually invest into production (and not, say, playing video games)? Another big question is how much of your raw production output is actually worthwhile material? How much of your extra work would you want to release anyway?
I am of the opinion that most artists working in the underground dance community have between three and six great tracks in them per year. Many producers, even the legends, fall into the trap of over-saturating the market with material. For years I’ve seen artists water down their catalogs with mediocre tracks, as a simple response to the pressure of remaining visible and bookable. The prevalent thinking is that quantity beats quality, leading to extra stress on the artist to produce.
“It’s possible that a part-time approach to the studio, utilizing fewer hours but more focus, can get the same results as a full-time artist who spends every day writing tracks.”
For me, this is the wrong way to go. Being a tough editor and a hard critic of your own work are some of the most important skills you’ll use as a producer. I stress these principles to my students every semester. Working the writing muscle is incredibly important, but if you’re not critical of the tracks you release, you can firebomb that full-time career of yours in a hurry. Being objective about your productions is one of the hardest parts of being successful, and that skill is crucial no matter if you have a day job or not. A discerning producer will hopefully release only their best tracks, regardless of how many records it nets them in a year. It’s possible that a part-time approach to the studio, utilizing fewer hours but more focus, can get the same results as a full-time artist who spends every day writing tracks.
I feel like this has been one of the advantages of staying in the everyday workforce. My studio time is certainly more limited than I’d like it to be, as I have to spend precious hours working on other things. However, the fact that my time is limited forces me to focus, so I can be as productive as possible when I get to be in front of my machines. The part-time musician must be extremely disciplined, and critical, to assure her time in the studio is not compromised. For me, this discipline is enhanced, rather than harmed, by having a full-time job. Because I have a job and a schedule, I am generally in my studio at the same time every day, with a premium on being productive. While this strategy doesn’t produce results for everyone, it has definitely been helpful for me.
That said, the major difficulty with having a regular job comes into play with touring; live dates are by far the most lucrative opportunities available to the modern DJ/producer. The amount of travel you can handle is a personal choice and one you can’t make lightly. Travel is a huge part of today’s creative career, and there is no argument on this point: the full-timer who isn’t beholden to an employer has more freedom to take gigs in the far-flung places that make up the club landscape.
One thing to think about in this regard, however, is the mental and physical toll that this level of travel entails. Even if you could tour every weekend, do you want to? Personally, I don’t think I’m cut out for a life spent waiting in airport lounges and sleeping in coach seats. I love to travel and without question, most of my best gigs have been in Europe. However, if I were obligated to go overseas three or four weekends a month to pay my mortgage and my health insurance bills, it would be a whole different ballgame. While some artists are successful enough to travel in style, fly business class and stay in five-star hotels, most have to rough it and work with a much smaller budget. I can’t imagine being constantly on the road like that; the stress would fry my circuitry.
I think the travel issue is one every artist has to consider for themselves. Personally, I’m happy finding a middle ground when it comes to my touring and gigging. Over the past few years, I’ve been going overseas two or three times a year and travelling within the States once a month or so. For me, this is an ideal amount of exposure, even if it’s not going to make me an underground superstar. It’s also not going to make me rich, which is ok as well. While I’m sometimes envious of friends who are touring a lot and doing things I can’t do, I generally know I’m doing what’s best for me—both for my physical and mental health.
That leaves the last point in this debate—the highly subjective question about commitment versus risk. The idea mentioned at the beginning of this piece is that artists who have jobs aren’t risking everything, and therefore can’t have the drama and intensity in their music that only full-time immersion can engender. The risk of making your living in music, it’s said, fuels the passion and the soul of the artist’s creations. Part-timers are tourists, right?
I’d like to refer you to a quote by Gary Numan I found in a great book by Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein called “Mad World—An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s.” Numan, as I’m sure you already know, wrote one of the most influential and transcendent songs in all of electronic music, called “Cars.” Here is his description of the writing process:
“Was Cars easy to write? Piece of piss, innit? I’d wanted to learn bass guitar better; I’d never written a song on the bass. So I went to Shaftesbury Avenue in London and bought myself a cheap bass called a Shergold Modulator. I’ve still got it—it hangs on a wall in my studio. I took it home, got it out of its case, and the very first thing I played was the first four notes of “Cars.” That was it. The first four notes I played on that guitar, and I thought, ‘That sounds all right.’
“Honest to God, Cars took me ten minutes—all the parts, all the arrangements. Another 20, and the lyrics were done. The whole thing took about half an hour, from opening the case to having the finished bass line, arrangement, lyrics, and vocal line sorted out. The keyboard line came a bit later when I got into the studio because I didn’t have a synth; I had to rent one. It was the most productive 30 minutes of my life.”
My opinion on this is that anyone, and I mean anyone, can write a great track. You can be a career producer with the best equipment money can buy; you can be a touring artist who plays three times a week, has a killer home studio and puts out records once a quarter; you can be an up-and-comer who spends all her time watching Youtube videos about production techniques while working as an art director for a magazine; you can also be one of my electronic music students at Columbia College who just got a laptop and a MIDI controller, and stumbles on a killer riff that quickly morphs into the track of the month that every DJ has in his set. There are literally no rules on this account.
Art, and music, are simply too ethereal, too intangible, and too mysterious to ascribe any particular lifestyle or workflow. I’ve been doing it too long to think any other way; I’ve seen talented people work their asses off for 20 years before they become known. I’ve seen less talented people get lucky, find their creative voice in a month and become massively popular overnight. I’ve seen a lot of shades in between. There is no formula, and there is definitely no prescribed amount of time you have to spend doing it to legitimize your work. A solid track is a solid track—only a fool wouldn’t play it out.
Profile photos: Shauna Regan