Quitting My Dream Job to Chase My Dream Job: Why I’m Leaving the Music Industry

Quitting My Dream Job to Chase My Dream Job: Why I’m Leaving the Music Industry

What is the definition of a dream job? Is it financially rewarding? Morally rewarding? Somewhere in between? It’s a question we’re asked from the time we’re old enough to make sense of things: what do you want to be when you grow up?

Back in the summer of 2006, I decided to pack up my things and chase down my dream job. Armed with little more than an Associate’s Degree in music and recording technology, a reliable vehicle, and an open mind, I drove the nine-or-so hours south from Madison, Wisconsin to Music City, USA. My goal was to land a gig, really any gig, as an audio engineer. Ultimately, I wanted to be a mastering engineer—that was the dream. I learned about mastering in school. I interned at a mastering studio in Milwaukee. I knew mastering music, above all else, was what I wanted to do with my life—my 10-year plan.

It was the best decision I ever made.

Two months after relocating to Nashville, I, with a bit of luck and a lot of timeliness, got hired fulltime to be an assistant at a top-notch mastering studio for one of the best mastering engineers in the country.

The gig was everything I dreamed of. I won’t go into the nerdy details of the gear and such that most of my engineer friends melt over. But I don’t mind bragging a bit. My office was this glorious room focused around a sound system that’s worth somewhere north of $80,000. The room itself is a complicated marriage of art and science. The listening environment is simply incredible. Imagine being able to listen to your favorite records in a room designed to eliminate the imperfections normal rooms have that color the sound. Great sounding records sounded GREAT.

Mayfield Mastering Studio A; photo by John Albani
Mayfield Mastering Studio A; photo by John Albani

My day-to-day job wasn’t always glamorous. It was, however, an audiophile and music-lover’s paradise. I got paid to listen to music. I got paid to make this record sound as good as, or better than, that record. It was perfect. I had control of my schedule. Minimal stress. No awkward Monday morning meetings or TPS reports. Instead of a briefcase, I carried a small book of CDs—records I loved, records that sound great. I even had health insurance provided by my employer. I couldn’t have been happier.

In short, I landed my dream job. And I was good at it. I built a small client list. I worked with some artists that you’ve maybe even heard of. I developed a good set of ears and an even better set of personal and business relationships. I remember waking up one morning, driving to the studio (folks in the industry never refer to it as “going to work”) and feeling an incredible sense of happiness and accomplishment. If you know anything about the business of music, then you know how hard it is to find a steady gig. So there I was, just a few years removed from school, with a fulltime gig in an industry that chews up noobs and spits them back into the world of waiting tables. But not me. Dream job: check.

Then, as the years passed, the dream slowly changed. I slowly changed. I struggled with this. “Shouldn’t I be crazy happy?” I thought. “This is a great gig that any student or any freelance engineer or really anyone that’s ever tried to work in this industry would love. So I should love it too, right?”

Something was missing. The passion began to fade. Don’t get me wrong. I treated every project like I was working for the President. But I noticed that I had to try. Before, there was no trying. It was just a natural buzz provided by music. I couldn’t wait to get in front of those speakers and geek out to my heart’s content.

But after a while, the buzz disappeared. Apathy crept in. I ended up going to work every day and not to the studio.

As I’d drive in the mornings, often sitting in heavy traffic with thousands of other Nashville commuters, I’d people watch. Here’s the sad thing rush hour: you can see it on their faces. They’re in their cars, stuck in traffic, grinding out their lives. It’s work. It’s a job. You can see it on their faces. That look of being trapped by bills and responsibilities and the routine of being a worker. I rarely caught a driver smiling.

The morning commute always made me appreciate the music industry. I still felt incredibly fortunate to be in a field that I chose, rather than just a job I need. And I liked it a lot, sometimes loved it. A lot of folks hate their jobs. I never hated mine. Even when I’d get tangled up with bouts of misplaced motivation or dread, I always figured that it wasn’t a career change I needed; rather, an attitude change.

But, here I am, nearly nine-and-a-half years into my 10-year plan, and I just turned in my resignation. The dream has changed. It’s hard, because I’m not just leaving a job that pays the bills and fills the occupancy of work; I’m leaving a career that I was pretty sure, just a few years ago, was my calling in life.

And I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up.

The Dangers of Occupational Prestige

There aren’t many feelings worse than waking up and realizing you don’t like your dream job. It comes with guilt. Like you’re giving up on something and letting people down. Imagine spending 10 years writing a novel and then just throwing into a fire. Or spending $100,000 on your dream car and crashing it on purpose. It’s why so many people get trapped in their careers. Usually they’re too afraid to leave. We are slaves to comfort and routine.

But I’ve learned how dangerous that can be. How hating your day gig can seep into your personal life. In a way, this notion of growing up to “be something” is a horrible burden to place on the up and coming generations. Yes, have dreams. Chase them until you can’t. Believe in yourself and want, with all of your passion, to be something. But it’s okay if you change your mind. It’s okay if the work you do serves as nothing more than a window to the other things you’d rather be doing. It’s okay if people aren’t impressed with your career choice.

Being happy is the most important thing. If you’re not happy, those morning commutes will seem a lot longer. The food won’t taste as good. The parties won’t be as fun. Even if you hate your job, as long as you love your life, then you’re doing it right.

Office Space is such a perfect analogy for this. Peter Gibbons had a cushy job at an office that probably paid well. But he hated it. He hated it so much that he’d rather work a construction job. He hated it so much he turned to a life a crime. He hated it so much he ruined his relationship with Jennifer Aniston. So he changed. And maybe he ends up liking that construction job so much that he couldn’t imagine doing anything else. Either way, he didn’t let his status determine his happiness.

At an early age, we’re engrained with this thought process that we need to grow up and become something that will make others proud. Go to college so you can get a good job and make good money. We’re shown examples of career choices. It’s like education is just one long job fair.

This isn’t all bad and I’m not saying it should be done away with. But I think we’re asking the wrong question. Instead of “what do you want to be when you grow up”, we should ask our children, the teenagers, the college students, the midlife crisis guy, “what do you want to do when you grow up?” After all, what good is a job that prevents you from doing the things that make you happy?

Occupational prestige is too often the motivating factor in many people’s career paths. You can trace it all the way back to elementary school. I’m sure we all a had a classmate on career day whose dad had a cool job. The whole class would be at full attention when he’d speak. Yeah man; I want a cool job like that.

Society has a status problem that bleeds over from the workforce. This flipping burgers sentimentality needs to go. Those guys that show up on Thursday mornings to haul off your garbage? We need them. We need the people checking out your groceries. Life without UPS drivers is life without Amazon Prime. We need cooks to flip our burgers. We need to encourage these career fields just as we do with doctors and sports figures.

You know who has a cool job? My dad. He barely has a high school education and was hired by a company that employs welders and assembly and general labor. He goes to work at a massive shop every day with fellow laborers using machines and tools and sweats and bleeds and supports his family. That’s his office. And he’s worked his way up to being one of the most highly qualified in his field.

My dad builds firetrucks for a living. Firetrucks. Trucks that put out fires and save lives. Some of which are used by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. He literally makes the world a better and safer place.

How prestigious is that?

The Next Episode

I don’t know exactly what I want to do with my life but I do know what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to sit in traffic. I don’t want to be saddled by a corporate schedule. I want flexibility and to be able to work from anywhere in the world. Yeah, I’m a Millennial. I’d rather work from my bedroom and have our main form of communication be text, than commute to an office and wait for the microwave to free up so I can heat up lunch.

I’d rather have that flexibility than a prestigious career with major financial potential. That’s my dream job.

As such, following the path of word processing makes the most sense. Those that know me know I’ve long had a major passion for football. So much that I spent every free minute I had to write about it and learn about it. I was fortunate enough to land a paid gig with Footballguys.com a couple of years ago, and I’m forever thankful to be so lucky, but even if I hadn’t landed that gig, I’d still be slugging out blogs and spreadsheets.

In fact, allow me a moment to brag on the fantasy sports industry. I can’t tell you how much these people inspire me. Most of the articles you read across the web are contributed by folks that are writing and analyzing and watching games and rewatching games and rewriting and reanalyzing in their spare time. Some get paid. Most do not. Most have fulltime day or night jobs. They have families and kids and commitments and all of the things the rest of us deal with every single day. Yet, they carve out time to research players, games, matchups and everything in between, all so you can win your fantasy league. That’s passion, my friends. And it’s why we get rather upset when some jackass respected analyst writes something like “Not to stoop to giving fantasy advice, but the third-year pro and first-time starter would not be a reach late in the first-round of your 12-team draft” in a popular tabloid. (That was really horrible advice, too. If I’m this person, I might go ahead and rewatch the Fight Club clip above.)

The same is true for many of the people I had the pleasure of working with in the music industry. Writing and recording songs is incredibly hard. Developing an audience for those songs is even harder. It takes a nearly superhero amount of commitment and passion to make that equation work.

That’s why I have to step away from it. Because I can’t reciprocate that passion the way I once could.

But I leave it with a full heart and satisfied soul. Will I regret it? Maybe. I do regret that I couldn’t fix the problems in the industry (not that the labels did much to help themselves by suing their customers during the Napster era. I mean, they decided to push back against the market rather than listening to it and ultimately chased it away into the arms of a tech company (Apple). But go ahead and blame Spotify if you want. Great job guys. Oh, and let’s not forget that the labels got paid plenty from Spotify but, of course, none of that money trickled down). So yeah, there will be regrets.

But I can’t wait for the next challenge. I was lucky enough to be offered a gig (SAC) that allows me to be creative and to write and to creatively write from anywhere. And it just so happens to be a family business and not a major corporation. And that family just so happens to be the one I was lucky enough to marry in to.

It should be noted that my chances of getting this gig would be zero had I not pursued my passion of football. And my chances of marrying my wife would also be zero had I not pursued my passion of music (we met at the studio through her uncle who is a veteran audio engineer). Hard work pays off in one way or another.

So the original 10-year plan has been scrapped and there’s not a new one in place. For now, I look forward to working for a company with family roots that’s making the world a better and safer place. And I get to do it without losing an average of a work week stuck in traffic each year.

Even if it’s not what I had in mind, I landed my dream job.

Published by Justin Bonnema

My name is Justin. I write for a living and sometimes for free. I enjoy cats, sports, cocktails, food, TV, movies, and technology. Most agree that I'm a margarita expert.