Making a Living as a Musician

Earning a living as a musician is not an easy thing to do at this point. Most local musicians who hope to earn enough to live on do so by a mix of revenue sources, usually through combining gigging with teaching lessons and often working in a music store. Frequently it’s a mix of the three. Some earn their living primarily from one of the three areas and often they end up with a day job that is entirely unrelated to music in order to have something remotely close to a “normal” existence.

I’ve lived in many different parts of the country and in most places the average gig payment, if there even is one, is the same as what it was thirty of forty years ago. Most bar bands are making about $60-100 per person, if they are even making that. The International Federation of Musicians used to have an impact on this, but at this point they are all but inactive, only raising their collective heads when you’re dealing with high end venues that involve long term shows staffed by musicians such as musical theater productions, orchestral work, and the like. If you can get this type of work, then the pay will often be substantially better. There are so many folks who are willing to play for nothing that many venues don’t even consider paying the musicians. This in itself has had a major impact on the availability of paying gigs.

With gigs, if you’re paid you’re looking at several options. Sometimes the band/performers will be paid a guaranteed wage which is worked out prior to the gig. Sometimes there will be a small guarantee plus money that is collected at the door. Sometimes it is just the door, and if it’s a split bill, then the take from the door is divided between the bands on the bill, sometimes divided by time, sometimes divided by head counts, or some other variation. This type of situation is the lowest risk for the venue because they are only out the expense of having someone at the door, which they often do anyway to check IDs.

What you draw, in terms of a crowd, often determines whether you will be able to play at the venue again. That, and of course, how good your band is, how well they do their job, and how few problems they cause at the venue. Sometimes if the band is good, the venue will overlook a minimal draw and still have the band come back to play again. Sometimes the venue will attempt to dock the pay of the band if they don’t figure they can cover a so-called guarantee from the proceeds of the night.

Teaching lessons is also a source of income and can be a quite lucrative one if you have the skills to be a good music instructor. There are different ways people do this. Some teach out of a music store, out of their home, out of their own rental space, and some actually go to their students’ homes and teach them there. Each location has its own benefits and potential drawbacks. Each also involves the teacher essentially being a self-employed contractor. Don’t expect the music store to take care of your tax withholdings; you’re on your own for that! Anyway you look at it there are going to be expenses incurred that you’ll have to figure into your income, whether it’s payment for the room at the music store, rent for a private space, gas money, or whatever.

Working in a music store is another way that musicians put their skills to work. It can be either a good experience, or a bad one, like any other, and if you are prone to lust over gear it also can lead to potentially working to pay off gear that you have fallen in love with and decided you have to have, again and again. If you have poor impulse control this might be a bad place for you to work due to this. But there are often concrete perks. For instance discounts for the stuff that you regularly need, like guitar or bass strings. If you have good impulse control and don’t think that you need every cool guitar you come across this can be a good place to work. It also is a place where you can make contacts with other musicians, which can lead to further playing opportunities.

Any way you look at it, trying to make a living as a musician, particularly in a localized sense, is a challenge and it doesn’t look like the challenge is going to get any easier in the future. Some musicians do get the opportunity to make their living through schools, for instance elementary, high schools and colleges. Those jobs are available on a limited basis, if you have the right qualifications and educational background, and if you do have these you’ll probably end up having to relocate if you land one. It is also true that many public schools cut music programs first, so if you think there is going to be more security taking that route be aware that there are no guarantees in this world. Yes, it is time to get busy!

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One thought on “Making a Living as a Musician

  1. Your posts are so insightful. Thanks for creating this blog. As a small addition – I work with nursing homes in NY and another paying performance avenue that I’ve seen musicians take is to perform for residents. The repertoire is usually based on the decades that the majority of the residents at the facility remember most fondly and the ethnic breakdown of the residents (lots of Russian/Hungarian folk stuff, Italian music and good old-fashioned rock-n-roll). I generally see pianists and guitarists, along with vocalists and bassists. Sometimes, the odd ukulele player or drummer joins in. Some facilities have a piano onsite, in the day room, other times, the pianist/keyboard brings a keyboard. There are many facilities here that are part of a group – say an owner/company owns 12 nursing homes. Some musicians will play at all of them, maybe at one per day, but more often at multiple, since their sets tend to last about an hour. I’m sure other settings can work like this as well, in place of standard venues.

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