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Making a Living as a Musician

Turning music into a sustaining career has always been seen as a challenge. From the stereotype of the “starving artist,” to the stigma of arts not being considered a “real job,” quite a bit of negative opinion exists with regards to the field. But that’s not to say it’s true! In fact, some artists and musicians make very lucrative careers out of their passion. Musicians like Elton John, Michael Jackson, and the Beatles were enormously successful throughout their careers. But it takes time and work to get there! So how do we keep paying the rent while doing what we love? Here are a couple ideas.

1. Land a Steady Job

Easier said than done, I know. But it goes without saying that a constant source of income is your most desirable goal when considering how to make a living as a musician. And the best sources for stable income are stable jobs. If you’re not one of the lucky few that shares the limelight with the likes of Bruno Mars or Drake then you’re going to need something that has consistency, and that usually comes in the form of orchestras. Groups like the Philharmonic Orchestras or some traveling Symphony Orchestras are considered some of the most stable performances opportunities one can have. But the unfortunate part for someone striving to get into one of these is that, often times, musicians don’t retire as early as others traditionally do. If you love music, you’re more than happy to keep playing for as long as possible, which results in very few and very rare vacancies within these orchestras. However, there are plenty of alternatives to this.

If you live in a big city, it’s possible that you could get a lot of work as a studio musician. In our local area (Los Angeles), the music studio scene is booming! Hollywood productions companies, including titans like Disney, Pixar, and Warner Bros use LA studio musicians to record the scores for their movies, which results in constant and engaging work. Like the orchestras, musicians tend to hold onto these gigs until very late in their lives, but there is so much work and so many of these musicians travel with other bands that it’s an easier scene to break into. Places like Disney hire bands all the time for live performances as well as creating their own bands for parades, stage shows, and more, and with Disney being a worldwide entity, the possibilities are pretty incredible. I’ve personally known musicians who have lived in China for months because they were hired to play at Disney Hong Kong and they had a wonderful experience doing so. So just because your regional Philharmonic Orchestra doesn’t have any vacancies right now doesn’t mean you’ll never find something steady!

2. Freelance Local Jobs

Let’s be realistic for just a moment, though. Just because those steady jobs are out there doesn’t always mean they’re easy to get. In fact, some musicians see them as mythical because of how difficult they are to find, especially depending on where you live. After all, if you live in the state of Maine, how are you going to be a studio musician for Hollywood in California? But many musicians combat this difficulty by focusing heavily on more local performance opportunities. Many cities have opportunities for live music. Some clubs hire cover bands, restaurants might hire a string quartet or a small jazz combo, and other places might even have dedicated nights for live music. I personally used to play for the Aquarium of the Pacific with a small jazz combo I was part of and, though it wasn’t the most conventional gig I’ve ever had, it was a great experience. There are many job opportunities for musicians out in your city or town, but you’ll have to do some legwork and some digging to find the ones that you enjoy the most!

2A. Finding Local Gigs

There are many Facebook groups for people finding gigs in their local area, but the best way is to network. Yes, that word is daunting and business-y, but for a musician, it really consists of getting out to events, jam sessions, and concerts. Go to jam sessions and play with other musicians: if you vibe well, they'll eventually be calling you to play paid gigs together. If you have a chance, talk to musicians at concerts you watch.

You can also reach out to restaurants that you know have live performances and ask how you can get in on that.

Another option is looking at smaller theaters who need musicians for pit orchestras or accompanists. See if they are holding auditions for any positions, or reach out to the musical director and let them know about yourself!

3. “Sideman”

I’m letting my jazz education shine through for a moment by using this term. “Sideman” is a term of affection in the jazz world for the musicians who play in the band of a featured artist. For example, when Miles Davis released his famous album “Kind of Blue,” John Coltrane was a “sideman” on the album. Coltrane amassed his own extraordinary collection of albums and compositions, but because Miles Davis was the featured artist and band leader for this album, Coltrane was considered backup, although he was featured several times. Why does this matter to us? Well, you might consider establishing yourself as a musician who can not only survive but thrive in any band with any musicians. That way, if a band needs a substitute player last minute or are just looking for solid, reliable musicians to cover parts, your name is at the top of their list. Playing in other’s bands is a great way to gain a good reputation as a musician, especially if you add something new and effective to the group as a whole. In this way, you’re not only landing steady jobs, but also getting your name out to those around the area who might want to hire you again in the future. Being a sideman is all about establishing yourself and getting yourself on the map as a successful musician.

4. Supplement with Other Jobs in Music

For many aspiring performers, the idea of teaching for a living doesn’t really appeal to them, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pass along your musical knowledge from time to time! Many musicians teach on the side - a few private lessons a week. In fact, many studio musicians in Los Angeles also teach young students weekly or biweekly to add some extra income in case the jobs slow down for a while. Some musicians who teach at public schools offer private lessons on the weekends as well. And if you find that this is something you love to do, the reward can go beyond just money! Read how to become a music teacher here.

There are also countless other jobs within the field of music beyond performance (like music production, marketing, law - just to name a few!) which we wrote about in this article. If playing is your passion but gigs are scarce or hard to come by, you might consider doing something different with your musical knowledge to make ends meet and performing on the side as often as you can. There are more possibilities in the world of music that offer a stable living than just performing, but if performing is what you want to do, there should be a way for you to make it happen! But if you need something in the interim, there is no shortage of work that uses a knowledge of music as its base. Perhaps it’s not what you want to do long term, but if you combine several of these methods, you might find yourself landing studio gigs or other performance opportunities before you know it!

Of course, none of these tips work if you don't practiceBetter Practice provides all the tools to be efficient and stay motivated.