An Artist in Business, How-To, Resources

Making a Living in the Music Business

Many musicians want to make a living in the music business. You get an instrument and learn to play because it looks fun, exciting or cool. After awhile you’re jamming, and making a career with music sounds like a good move. At some point this “good move” can become a fruitful career… or a disaster.

This article is about the working musician. The working musician is a highly skilled craftsperson who gets paid for playing. Playing is your job, and the better you play, the better your chances of making a living. Most working musicians don’t have record deals, though many do. Many musicians strive for playing original music for a living, but many players can do well without being in that echelon of the business.

Being a working musician is an art and a business rolled into one, which is perhaps why so many people don’t understand musicians: there’s more to it than meets the eye. There are a lot of subtle details about the business that are outside the scope of this article, but here is the basic overview.


To be a working musician you have to develop the right frame of mind. You need to firmly establish priorities and be willing to do what’s needed without fussing or copping attitudes that could slow down your progress. You need to be self-motivating, develop confidence and be professional in all that you do. You need to contribute to the product that the client is looking for and go for making the gig a success. A professional does what he needs to do without letting his or her personal emotions interfere, and adopts viewpoints that promote the growth of a career— not the collapse of one.


Playing for a living demands versatility. A musician can focus on one style of playing or learn to do many. The narrower your playing style is, the better you have to be at it because your opportunities are more limited. The more versatile you are, the more opportunities you will have. The choice is yours.

I define a professional musician this way: a person who has the musical skills and abilities necessary to effectively play and/or sing the music at hand in an unbroken flow with the appropriate volume and needed tonal quality and has the necessary social skills and business sense to earn a living (and more) if desired and is prepared to do the gig at hand.

I’ve heard people say that if you get paid you’re a professional. Well, there’s some truth to that but….

Some people think your only options are to work clubs (which don’t pay enough) or that you have to have a record deal to make money. Not true on both accounts. Yes we work clubs, and yes having a record deal is fantastic—but clubs alone aren’t enough and you can’t guarantee a deal. To be really well-off you need to collect a lot of recording royalties—but the black and white of being rich or poor has a thousand shades of color between. A successful freelance musician plays many kinds of gigs.

The bottom line for being a versatile working musician is to be well-educated, and this is where a large portion of musicians fall off the boat. You have to understand music, not just riffs and signature licks. Music is a language, and you need to be able to speak it. Whether a multi-stylist or mainly play a specific styles you need to be beyond the mechanics of the instrument so you can fluidly play with emotion and feeling.

Ingredients for Success

To make a living as a freelance musician you need to:

1. Play well and be versatile. The better you play, the more you will be in demand. This entails not only playing the right notes but playing emotionally with feeling. Put life into what you play. Music is more than notes.

2. Read fluidly. For most high-paying work-a-day gigs this is a must unless you fall into, or create, the perfect situation where you are so good at what you do that you land accounts that keep you working without having to read. These situations are rare in the work-a-day world and more common in original-music venues.

3. Know a lot of tunes in the styles you play unless you’re exclusively doing reading gigs. (As in classical music, for example.)

4. Be able to play by ear. The better you can do this the more you’ll work. (And the more fun you’ll have!)

5. Sound good. Have your gear be able to produce the needed sounds at the appropriate volume according to the situation.

6. Show up on time and be dressed appropriately.

7. Have your manners, behavior, and social rapport be appropriate to the circumstances. The better you get along with people, the better your chances of repeat business are, and the easier it will be to make new contacts.

8. Know what the client, bandleader, contractor or musical director wants from you and provide it without giving him a hard time.

9. Be into what you’re doing. The more you like what you’re doing, the easier it will be to do. The more you like what you do—the more others will like what you do. Have fun!

10. Play for the group sound. Contribute to the communication and message of the music whether live or recorded.

11. Be a professional. Have an answering machine or service with an appropriate out-going announcement. Stay on top of things. Call when you say you will call and be on time for appointments. Pay attention to details and know how to play the game. Be responsible, reliable and business-like.

12. Create relationships. Create a network of people whom you like and who like you. Have your own identity and nurture your contacts. Be friends with musicians who play the same instrument as you.

When you can do the above twelve points you’ll work. You just have to decide how important it is to you to play music full time—then adjust your life to pull off what you want. It’s actually quite straight-ahead.

Those are the basics. The following articles will cover some specifics on finding work, basic pay ranges, and the general flow of exactly who books the gigs!

Marty Buttwinick
Musician ~ Teacher ~ Composer ~ Author

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