Arts and Music Diversity Career Stories

Singer-songwriter Mike Droho – I couldn’t imagine doing anything else, don’t know anything else.


Coral: Hi everyone.  We are talking to Mike Droho today.  Thank you, Mike, for taking the time to talk to us.

Mike: Yeah, it’s no problem.

Coral: What is your job title and what industry do you work in?

Mike: I am a singer/songwriter, and I work in the music business.

Coral: And how many years of experience do you have in this industry?

Mike: I have been doing this for 11 years.

Coral: How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?

Mike: Resilient, stupid, awesome.

Coral: Good ones!  Alright, what is your ethnicity and gender?

Mike: I am white and I’m a guy.

Coral: Has it helped or hurt you at all in your industry?

Mike: Yes and no, I would say in a lot of ways it doesn’t actually play much of a role.  But certain types of music that we venture into sometimes have, or are predominately known to be connotated towards one ethnic group.  Hip hop music is traditionally driven by African Americans so when I venture into hip hop, I feel a little bit like I’m venturing into a ground that, traditionally, I’m not used to.

So I’ve played shows out East with tough crowds and whatnot and being heckled early on in the set and then maybe winning them over by the end of the set.  So I think maybe sometimes when we venture into those fields, we don’t get taken seriously, but, as a whole, I would say not really.  It’s more about your talent and where you come from, I think.

Coral: You kind of answered this a little bit already, but if you have experienced discrimination, how have you responded to it, and what has worked best?

Mike: I guess just have confidence in who you are, and let that override the stigma, or let that override the stereotype.

Coral: Okay, how would you describe what you do, and what does your work entail?

Mike: I write songs and make albums, and then I market and sell them to as many people as I possibly can. There’s a lot going on, and I try to prioritize at least a few hours every morning to work on music, which pretty much entails me sitting at a desk where I have stations set up.  There’s a vocal microphone set up, another microphone for a guitar and a couple keyboards that connect into my computer through a converter, and, it depends on the kind of music I am working on.

I work on all different type of music for all different types of regions, slotted for fun and for my personal growth and gain, and some of it is for commercial purposes, for licensing of commercials, for licensing on websites.  It entails spending some time everyday working on music, and then there’s a lot of time I spend booking shows.  That’s really where I make a lot of my money, is through the guarantees or from the money I procure from ticket sales, or from concerts.

And then, you kind of want to stay current in your field, so as much as I can, as much time as I can spend absorbing new music, staying on top of trends, staying relevant.  I’m always thinking about, trying to add new things to my repertoire in terms of production, getting new equipment in the studio so I can do more things with it, or becoming better at a certain instrument so I can add that to my repertoire.  It’s pretty much as long as I want to go all day long.

It’s tough because it’s kind of a sales job in that the more you do, the more you get out of it, and so I never turn it off.  I pretty much work the whole day on business stuff, working on merchandise design stuff.  It’s a lot of things.  You think that it’s just sitting around and playing a guitar and going to a show, and even though I have help from a manager and an agent, I have a lot to do, a lot of hats to wear doing it as independently as I am.

Coral: Are there any common misunderstandings that you want to correct about what you do?

Mike: I mean, I love what I do, but I think everyone comes to a show and they don’t see all the work that goes on behind it.  It’s not all fun and games.  People think I have a dream job and in many ways I do, but there are definitely ups and downs to it, and there are parts of it that equate themselves to work, just like anyone else’s job. Not to be negative, I’m just saying it’s not all bells and whistles all the time.

Coral: Sure, okay.  If this job moves your heart, how so?  And do you feel like this is your calling in life?

Mike: I think being an artist is definitely my calling.  I couldn’t imagine doing anything else, I don’t know anything else.  At certain times, I feel like I’m really great at it, and then that kind of reaffirms the fact that I should be doing it, or the idea that I should be doing it.  It is my calling; I think I am doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

Coral: Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?

Mike: Everyone has their path when it comes to their career.  Maybe this isn’t unique, but it could be encouraging to other people that it definitely takes a long time to, I don’t want to say make it, but establish yourself.  In my case, it has taken many years before I could really take a breath and not worry so much about paying my bills or this and that.  So, there’s definitely been times that I wanted to quit, and I’m like, ‘why don’t I just get a normal job?’ and take the stress out of making money.  But, I’m glad I stuck it out.  I am proud of myself for going into a field that a lot of people fail at.

Coral: Well, you kind of hinted at this a little bit in the last one, but how did you get started in this line of work? And, if you could go back and do it differently, what would you change, if anything?

Mike: I got started just as a kid, pretty much like anyone else when you find yourself in high school and you are starting to identify with certain things, and music was definitely one thing from an early age through that point that I really identified with, and I always admired actors and musicians and people in the art field.  It never occurred to me that I could actually do that until a little bit later on.

I think I had a girlfriend that dumped me, it was like my first serious love, so serious seeing as I was, like, 17 or whatever.  So we broke up and it was like a desperate attempt to get her back.  I wrote this really awful song using two chords I had learned from a buddy the previous summer.  I think I started out of desperation to reach somebody.  And then I realized I kind of kept with it, I was 17 or so, and some of these bad songs I started putting together, they got a little bit better, a little more polished, and I had a friend’s band that was doing really well.

They were a group of four going around and I was traveling with them to help out, not performing or even thinking of performing, but seeing them do it really inspired me.  So it was at probably 18 or 19 that I got my first show together and then realized you can make a living at this if you were good at it and you worked hard at it.  So many things you learn – I made so many mistakes I wish I could do over.  I put so much, all my eggs into one basket early on, into one band, which is probably why I was successful.

Us four guys were really working hard at one common goal, which was brilliant, it was a great situation and we had a lot of success, we shot up really quickly.  We were touring the country before we knew it and had sold-out shows and selling lots of records.  I just wish I had put a little more of something else on the side and not put all my eggs in that one basket because when that came crashing down, I had nothing to fall back on.  It took me a very long time to get myself re-established, and I lost a lot of time in a very crucial period.  I wish I could have done that differently, but there are all kinds of mistakes you make.

When the economy shifts and trends happen and change, you hope you can be at the front of it, the trend, and not at the back of it.  I don’t know how many times we have gone out on tours that were maybe just a little too ambitious.  I mean, without risks there would be no reward, I would say, but you have to find that fine line between a safe growth, a little bit of risk, and too much risk.  But I’m kind of proud of myself.

Sometimes people are afraid to go after things because of the risk, and I’ve definitely taken a whole bunch of risks.  I think I’ve failed five times profoundly, with different projects.  So my persistence is one thing I am proud of.  Maybe if I had to do it all over again I would be a little more calculated, maybe seek a little bit of help.  You know, it never hurts to have someone else helping out.

Coral: What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?

Mike: People are so receptive to being treated well, and it feels so good to treat people well.  When you take the time, the respect comes back to you, and it comes back in positive ways for your business, for yourself emotionally, for you as a whole.  What I’ve learned outside of school is just that you should just treat people the way they want to be treated and it really comes back to you and, for that reason, I’ve built a lot of bridges and not burned so many.

I’ve worked with other artists in the past and friends that have burnt a lot of bridges and now they’re kind of in a corner, whereas I feel like I can go back to any person I’ve ever crossed and be able to call on them for a favor or work with them.  The quality of your relationships is maybe one of the most important things.

Coral: What is the strangest thing that ever happened to you in this job?

Mike: I think a really profound thing that happened to me is when I was touring, and I had a truck with all my gear and all my guitars and my amps and my hard drive and my truck was stolen, so literally everything, like my toothbrush and my clothes and my CD player.  I was traveling and I had everything I owned, pretty much, and literally everything was stolen, even my car.

It was the most humbling moment I can remember in my life.  It was surreal for the first couple of days.  I went through this stage of life where it wasn’t going to keep me down, but eventually it got me down.  But, overall, that was a great experience.  I feel like it made me a much stronger person, and smarter person maybe.

Coral: Why do you get up and go to work each day?  Can you give an example of something that really made you feel good or proud?

Mike: Yeah, I mean, there is this palpable feeling you get when you’re on stage and it’s a great show and you’re connected with someone; it’s the highest feeling you can have.  I feel like I’m kind of chasing that every day.  I don’t get that every day; I might get a taste of it through doing some recording and constructing a chord in the song that when I play it back it just seems to slam really great and connect with me.

I get little bits of it, but I am really, really into the performance and the entertainment of people and the connection you can create when you make great artwork and get people in front of you.  I can’t really think of anything else I could do that I find as gratifying as performing for people.  I guess every day is in pursuit of making it better.

Coral: What kind of challenges do you face, and what makes you want to just quit?

Mike: Well, the economy is tough right now, it’s hard to tour: so costly for gasoline, the clubs seem to be giving out less and less guarantees, there’s less opportunity.  It seems to be a world flooded with imposters and people that are trying to make it or are trying to do something with their career, which is great, but there’s just so many people out there fighting for so few spots.

There are challenges: a lot of competition and costs.  Costs can be a huge deterrent, too.  Making an album is a really costly endeavor, or it can be, and finding funding for those things is just not really available either.  It’s tough; it’s a tough time to make money.  Luckily, that’s not really what drives us completely.  Luckily, we can find a way to make some quality art, and to make a living doing that is pretty great.

Coral: Well then, this one goes right along with that, but how stressful is your job?  Are you able to maintain a healthy work-life balance?

Mike: Yeah, you know, it goes up and down but for the most part, I think, not dreading to go to work, I know what that feeling is.  I remember the last time I had a normal job.  It was really tough, the anxiety that kind of crawls up on you before you have to go and then while you’re there, you’re looking at the clock.  That sucks.

I don’t want to do that, and I don’t have that feeling ever with music.  Sometimes I get anxious or nervous for performances, and those things can be frustrating, but it doesn’t at all deter me from getting up and doing it the next day.  I feel like I can always grow with my job.  I like my job, and I definitely have a healthy relationship with it.

Coral: So this one may be a little difficult to answer because I feel like it varies, but what is a rough salary range for the position you hold, and do you feel you are paid enough?

Mike: The band probably grosses between $60,000 and $80,000 a year, but so much of that is eaten up with tour costs to reestablish or to develop new markets.  And I take about as little as I can to pay my bills and to have a lifestyle that I can live with and am comfortable with.  It is not, by any means, extravagant.  I don’t know if I get paid enough.  Some negotiations I have to battle with people to get money that I know I am worth.  And sometimes, I probably get overpaid, but that definitely doesn’t happen as much.

I would say I’m maybe a little underpaid, but you basically make what you need to make, I think.  I think it’s fine, I think it’s a fair playing field.  I have a lot of advantages, and there are a lot of disadvantages to what I am doing, but I have faith that my effort will be returned.  It’s just like I said, it’s been 10 years and I’m still developing markets and as we’re developing, we’re spending lots of money.  But we’re also making more money by establishing ourselves.  So, in time, those numbers will shift in terms of our costs and expenditures.

Coral: How much vacation do you take?

Mike: Not a lot.  It’s something I am going to take, planning some vacations this year.  But, the one thing I’ll say is that I will definitely take time every day to give myself what I need to feel relaxed or at ease or like I’ve been on vacation.  And that’s one great benefit of my job.  Some people, if they’re stressed at their job, can’t necessarily leave work, whereas if I’m not feeling the song, I can just turn my computer off and go read a book on the porch or just go for a run or go outside and chill out.

But, I do believe it is important to have some vacation time.  You’ve got to get away from it and let it go, especially artistically with me; I can’t just demand creativity of myself all the time and expect it to always be there.  Sometimes I have to cultivate it, and that means relaxing or getting healthy and taking a break every once in a while.  But not as much vacation as I’d like.

Coral: What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?

Mike: None, none at all.  No, I think you need to be able to make music or art in some fashion that is good enough that people will buy.  That’s a pretty wide range.  People buy all kinds of stuff in the music world.  I don’t know how you can really quantify skill level now.  I would imagine the more education you have, if you know more about the music world and music business, the better off you’ll be.

But, I think the beautiful thing is you don’t have to have the knowledge at first, you just have to have the inspiration and the ability to play an instrument and the ability to get across to people.  It’s one of those qualities that people have, artists, I guess.  You either have it or you cultivate it through education.  I kind of educated myself through learning other people’s songs, through reading books.

So there is a minimal amount of education I would imagine.  You need to be competent with an instrument, competent in the craft of songs, and then you need to, either yourself or find people to help you, market it and get it out to the world.  To answer your question, I guess, little to none to a lot.

Coral: What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?

Mike: That if it was easy everyone would do it, but the challenge is what makes it so gratifying.

Coral: Okay, last one.  If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?

Mike: I would like to have a more established, more idealistic musical act touring around the county.  We could sell 100,000 records a year and be able to have a great presence throughout the country without having to be under the strong arm of the label and be able to call your own shots.  I would like to be able to be a diversified artist in terms of me having an interest in film and I have an interest in other forms of art that I would like to explore more.

Maybe someday find myself in a position to run a label and help cultivate younger artists and help reaffirm the quality of music into the world, quality art into the world versus the commercial portion of it that seems so disheartening that we’re all subject to and seems to be what drives the industry.  I think I’d like to be someone at the front of that, helping reestablish independent music and independent art.

Coral: Great, well those are all the questions that I have for you, thank you so much!