So, You Want To Become a Full Time Professional Musician?

Well good luck with that.

Just kidding. I never wanted to be one of those “PREWS” I met when I was an up and comer that constantly told up and comers to do something else, the music business has changed, can’t make a living, etc.I didn’t listen to them (as most young folks don’t) and if you are young you might not take any of this to heed but maybe you will or at least it might give you more confidence in your path.

First off some background:

If it hasn’t come up in previous posts, I am a lifetime musician. Meaning, I have been doing nothing but music for a living my entire adult life. I am not famous or ‘world class’ (w/e the eff that means) I do have the skills that are surprisingly lacking in many who call themselves ‘musicians’. I can read music, play popular styles as well as classical and jazz. Getting here I have played just about every style of music. I’d also like to think I have done all those styles ‘legitimately’ and not my own way… At any given time I might be playing solo jazz, pop or classical guitar, Bodhran and mandolin in a Celtic setting, drumset in a jazz band or rock gig. In the studio even more may get asked of me. Country twang, shuffle funks, hip hop ‘beats’ etc. soloing over changes, etc.

OK enough of that

So option 1 : be a member of a famous band

Problems
Better off buying lottery tickets. Being  ‘good’ means as much as being bad. Groups get picked up & dropped by the 1,000’s and they are still just the tip of the ‘we’ll do anything to make it in this biz’ iceberg.

Bands cost money and rarely make money. Bands ‘go on tour’ and lose money. Bands break up. It’s what they do. A typical cycle is

  • Start or join band
  • write/rehearse songs in your rental jam space.
  • get tired of ____ or ____gets tired of the band
  • audition new ____
  • rehearse new _____
  • ______can’t do it anymore because work is a bear/girlfriend is pregnant
  • Audition new____
  • Rehearse new ___
  • Spend own money on recording
  • Band goes nowhere and breaks up
  • go back to top
This is particularly something to avoid if you are a supportive player (drums/bass) or are not critical to the band’s sound (don’t write the songs or sing the lead)
As I tell everyone who doesn’t ‘know’… bands are for kids and part-timers.
So unless you sing like a bird, are young and beautiful, are willing to do anything, are extremely lucky and write sure fire hits, then you need to find ways to make a full time living in music without relying on others.
So you want to be just a player, a hired gun and side man? Cool! On the surface it can be a great thing. Instead of being in one band that never gets off the ground you can be in 5.

Just kidding. You have just increased your gigs from 1 band once or twice a month to multiple bands and maybe every weekend.

There are problems. One most co-op bands are cool with Joe not making a gig because he is on the night shift but are so not cool with you not making it because of another gig. Most co-op bands rehearse more than they play and they do not want to hear that you can learn the material in a week that they took a year to learn. Most co-op bands are willing to play for chump change or even ‘exposure’ and do not want to hear how you want at least $50. They are never cool about paying more to the guy who jumped in and learned their stuff overnight and played it better than them. And since these things break up all the time you constantly have to be on the hunt for new bands that need someone.
 I have done this in the past and here are some helpful tips.
  1. Have a minimum amount you will play for. $25 for a set $50 for a backlined gig, $75 for a gig you have to play all night AND bring the gear.
  2. 1st come first serve. Band “A” books a gig and calls you then write the gig in pen and say no to everything else on that night.
  3. Don’t bail on a gig. Really just number 2 rewritten. If you book a gig for $75 don’t bail for the $80 (or even $100) gig. Players that do that get a rep and stay home more often.
  4. Really live up to your billing. Learn the material better than them

What if you want to work all the time and make enough and all your money from playing?

First thing is you have to be really good. I don’t mean pretty good I mean top of the food chain in a city of 5 million good and you need to live in a city of 5 million. I am here in Winnipeg (650,000) the average public gig pays $50-$100. Even if you could work every night (which you can’t here) your max income is $36,000 before taxes. Food rent/mortgage sticks strings reeds all come from this. Vacations, night off? Not you because you have a gig every night.
So you need to do private functions. They pay more and more often than not are on week nights so you could do the public ones on the weekends (where they most likely and plentiful).
You need to be versatile style wise and be able to read charts of varying quality. You need to have real suits. shirts and ties and possibly a tux.

If you are on your game getting the private stuff you can raise that to $50,000 maybe you can deal with that.

There is the dream/option of being the studio player during the day but you need to have those top of the food chain skills, exceptional reading skills,on the spot transposition skills, stylistically versatile, take direction, be able to interpret non musical directions “I need that to be more bouncy” (actually told that once) and you need to have multiple studio owners want you.

So what if you are not in a real big city, or are not top of the food chain good or “GADS” both?
Well you need to get a real job. Now one of my pet peeves is Facebook, twitter etc. profiles that someone lists them selves as a professional musician when they can’t read music, can only play certain type(s) of music and spend 40 hours a week crunching numbers, writing code or w/e. So if you have the real job and do a few gigs are you a professional musician?? I will answer with this, Mike Farquharson  one of my former teachers, who has many writing credits, is a juno nominee, has a masters in music and is a teacher at Berkeley, listed himself as a part time musician during a time when his piloting career took more time than his music career. This guy is a monster player and has forgotten more about music than most of us will ever know.

Now with that off my chest…if you like the stability of a day job then cool, the trade off is you are not a full time musician you are w/e you do 40 hours a week and you play music on the side.

You could work in a music retail place but they are busiest at night and quite bluntly I don’t see the difference between that and working at Starbucks…you aren’t playing or holding an instrument.

But if you want to make 100% of your money as a musician then you might have to do something else other than hustling gigs or (worse) waiting for the phone to ring.
So basically you have to teach.
Now if you are top of the food chain and live in a big city there might be a few post secondary schools (and even a few private schools) that need private lesson instructors. But to teach at the post secondary level you have to be ‘play any style including the hard ones like you were born to it’ good and great. Some (not all) of these students are future top of the food chain types so if they want you to show them how to do a chord melody on bass for Polka Dots and Moonbeams in 11/8 then that had better be something you can do already.
The day time teaching gig is sweet perfection, you have a job that is music, you get challenged yourself, and you are free to do the evening gigs. Be warned, these can be 16 hour days.
Teaching privately is also a good option.
You still have to be good because your students could (and should) be anyone from a 5 year to a person preparing for a university audition (a future top of the food chainer). Your students will be in the afternoon and evenings (after school and work) so those dinner hour gigs are off the list as you need to be available till 8-9 o’clock. You need to have teaching skills, patience with slower learners and low practicers, you need to have rapport with people (kids in particular) you need to be presentable to parents, you need to be versatile, you need to be able to read music.
You need a lot more than the skills of the average musician (plays blues, rock, metal, can’t read, knows only a handful of chords, etc. common among guitarists, bassists and drummers) but not as much as the top of the city of 5 million food chain.
So it is available to more of us.
At our Music School In Winnipeg we get plenty of ‘musicians’ calling or writing us looking for a teaching position. Most do not have an education, most are lacking in basic musicianship skills and most make contact in January (1/2 way through the teaching year).
If I had a nickle for every guitarist that can teach blues and rock looking for a teaching job after Christmas…d00d everyone can teach rock and blues and we had all our teachers lined up last summer.
Being in a band is not a credential or a moniker of musical acumen.
Once again the band is for kids and part timers.
So to make all your money as a musician you need multiple revenue streams. Playing and teaching are 2 basic and accessible ones studio playing is another, but much harder, avenue.
Other things that help.
Play or be able teach more than one instrument. I have been through enough clarinetists that can’t double on flute or sax. Our Voice/Piano Violin/Piano or me the Guitar/Drums/Bass/Piano/Ukulele/Mandolin/Bodhran teacher have very full teaching schedules.
Get a musical education. Yes it matters… college diploma, degree in music therapy, education degree with a music focus..these are the types of music teachers that get and keep students and teaching positions.
Get versatile. One of the best rules I ever made for myself was to never make fun of a style of music unless I could play it. If you go to the trouble of learning to play a style you think is ‘lame’ or easy you will find it is neither. Even my die hard metal students get a kick out of my bluegrass chops.

Have standards. Too many rookie teachers are afraid to not please the kid and will forego standardized teaching materials (fear of losing the student to the cost of a $9 book) or methods. That is why many guitar and bass teachers will pander to student. So if the 9 year old wants to start with Metallica then they make the 9 year old in charge.

You need to use the standardized materials to be fair to the student and to yourself. If the student goes with a different teacher then that new teacher can pick up where you left off. It also frees you of having to create all the lessons yourself.
You need to use the standardized methods to be fair to the student and yourself. I have seen 80% of students who are pandered to quit because no matter the passion a 9 year (or any beginner) can’t start with the music they want. At the same time students using standardized methods last much longer and actually learn to play music.

So while my life plan may not be for you here is a look at an average month for me.

Teaching 5 days a week, a jam session, recording session, lounge gig(s) wedding or corporate function. All of it using my music skills. None of it feeling like work.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *