Can You Be a Successful Working Musician?

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Getting paid to play music

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Some people might tell you that a “successful working musician” is a mythical being. But those of us who are successful working musicians know that it is possible with hard work and determination. Those jobs, whether they are wedding gigs or an orchestra chair, don’t just fall into your lap. You have to pursue them with a focused strategy.It takes some business savvy to set up and maintain a teaching studio, or to book concerts for your group. Music schools are getting better at teaching students about the music business and how to be business-like in their approach. And there are great books like Donald Passman’s All You Need to Know About the Music Business written to help musicians with the non-music details of being a working musician. But no matter what kind of music you play, or what kind of music business you want to have, there is one important ingredient that many musicians still overlook.

When my students start playing for pay, they are usually unsure how to value themselves and price their services. They know they are students and they need to represent themselves honestly. But at the same time, they often undervalue their work, and fail to set up a solid business approach.

But you can better represent yourself as a teacher or performer in any musical genre, even at your current experience level, by doing one easy thing. You need to see yourself through your client’s eyes.

When you look at your music business, whether you have a flourishing business already or are just starting one, through the eyes of your potential client, you can begin to understand what you need to do and how to present yourself. This is what makes the difference between being considered for the job and actually getting the job. There are three main things you need to know about your client:

1. Who your client is;
2. What your client needs and wants; and
3. What your client’s concerns are.

Who is your client? Are you looking for brides-to-be? Parents of potential students? Concert presenters? Usually it isn’t difficult to pinpoint the person who would hire you, but this is an essential step. Once you know who your client is, create a mental image of that person, perhaps based on actual clients that have employed you. In fact, imagine a couple of sample clients, and write down a brief description of each. Your description could include your client’s approximate age, personal style or taste, job, or anything else that you can identify. Once you have a fairly clear picture of who your client is, you can begin to address the next two items.

What does your client need from a musician like you? A reliable teacher for his child? An elegant performer for her wedding? A professional addition to the faculty of her music school? A performer his audience will relate to? And what attributes will that client look for to demonstrate how well you fit his needs? A reliable teacher will be organized, have studio policies and a curriculum. A wedding harpist will dress well and be familiar with standard wedding procedures and repertoire. A performer will have a basic online presence with photos and audio samples. Pretend you are your client. Would you hire you?  And if not, read on…

What are your client’s concerns? If you are disorganized, their child may not have regular lessons or you may be late for their wedding. If you are not prepared with the basics that a client requires, you are not likely to get the job. If you imagine what might concern a client, you can address those concerns ahead of time by making sure that your first contact with your client presents you in the best light possible.

Two words of caution: first, your representations must be honest and not inflated or false. Don’t creatively “pad” your resume. Truth has a way of catching up with us.

Second, you should still be “you.” Don’t create an alter ego in order to get a job. You and your music are unique, and that is what will make you stand out from everyone else. And that is why you became a musician in the first place.

Additional Resources:

Guerilla Music Marketing Handbook by Bob Baker

This Business of Music by Krasilovsky/Shemel

Setting Up a Music Teaching Studio by Mike Sorrentino

Get a Gig by Heather MacDonald

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  • robert stone

    I have been working as a musician since 1976 from the age of 23 but I haven’t been able to exclusively work ONLY as a musician although that’s what I would have preferred.

    I think the ultimate career in music might be performer or a composer or a combination of the two, composer/performer, but it really depends on the individual. Some people don’t like the travelling that would be required of a performing musician. Some musicians like having students in addition to performing. It’s really an individual choice.

    What ever your choice, you will be confronted with making a living at some point in your adult life. You’ll need to find housing, feed yourself, buy a car, pay insurance, have health care insurance. Do you want to live like a student your whole life or do you want to have a nice home, nice clothes, money to eat out, go on a vacation, money in the bank?

    Of course, you can be creative here too- early on in your career, you can have roomates, have a part time job that has health benefits, shop at thrift stores(some here on the Main Line have really nice things!)

    If your love is music and you’re dedicated to continuing to study, you’ll eventually find work. Networking is important. Make friends, not only in the arts but all fields. Let people know what you do and that you’re looking for good playing opportunites. Place free ads where you can, contact restaurants, hotels, corporate offices, anywhere you can think that a harp would go over well. Of course friends and family. Contact other harpists and let them know you’re willing to sub for them. Let them know what kind of repertoire you have, if you are prepared to do weddings, restaurants, concerts, shows, etc. Maybe even organize a solo concert at an art center with or without other musicians, rent a hall,sell tickets, etc. Make your own CD/sell it at your perfomances. Don’t leave out other musicians who play different instruments-they might be a good source for work too, as duos, or they can also recommend you, etc. Let your teacher know you’re looking for work, they can help you prepare and maybe even recommend you if they think you’re ready.

    Be reliable, return phone calls and e-mails promptly. Be on time, try to be there a little early so people don’t worry that you’re not going to make it. Leave time when travelling to a job for traffic jams, parking, etc. Dress well, look well groomed. Be polite, sometimes you have to bite your tongue. Don’t always say what you really feel, be diplomatic, you don’t want to “burn any bridges” for the future. Make sure your instrument is in good playing condition, have spares on hand. If you get offered a job and it pays well and you have no transportation, consider renting a van, sometimes you can get “cartage” and the party who hires you will pay for your transportation. Don’t be afraid to ask for things like, does the engagement include a meal, how many minutes do I play, how long are the breaks, are you paying me in cash, are you going to send me a check, can I get a deposit? You might even draw up a simple contract so there’s no misunderstanding.

    Being a success in any field requires hard work, consistency, not giving up and music is no different. Be serious about becoming the best musician, continue to study and organize your time, but don’t ignore the business side of your career or how you live. It might seem inconvenient when you’re young but remember you’re doing this for the rest of your life and eventually you’re going to be confronted with the reality of dealing with it! Condition yourself to the realities of life while you’re young and you’ll be in a great position to deal with life’s complexities as your career progresses.


    • Anne Post author

      Your comments are right on, as always, Rob. They also point out an interesting dilemma for anyone interested in making music their livelihood – the choices between making money making music, making music the way we would ideally want, and making a living. The point of intersection of those three things is where we find the most happiness…


      • Robert Stone

        Hi Anne:

        I think we all would like to make music, composing, arranging, performing for the sake of art, not because we need money,etc. What a great world it would be if that were possible but inevitably we have bills, we have deadlines, we are performing on a stage in front of an audience who are paying to see you. Such is life and unless you’ve inherited a nice sum from your parents or are given a large prize from a foundation, it’s going to be tricky at some point balancing the two needs. It seems that since the year 2000, which coincides with many upheavals in our society, such as war and the ever present “economy”, musicians have had to be ever more creative finding sources of income and opportunities to earn a living. Many have become college professors, private teachers, or gone back to school for music ed. degrees, even while some public schools have cut back on music programs.

        My main point is that no matter what you have to do to keep your “dreams” alive, it will require perservance, study, staying healthy-don’t expect the world to come knocking at your door. Publicists aren’t cheap! You have to make things happen, more so now than in the past, but we also have new tools like the computer and internet that help. Networking is more accessible than ever.

        And one final thought, all that effort will build “character”, and hopefully all that experience, effort, humility, will come through in every performance you give! After all, if everything was given to us, what would we have to work for? It means a lot more when we’ve earned it by ourselves and quality has a way of being noticed.


        • Candace Lark-Masucci

          I could not agree more with Robert. I have many hats and have to be quite creative, and organized. Its tough indeed but I would not give it up for the world. So I guess the question also is, Do you WANT to be a succesful musician?


          • robert stone

            Young people should realize that the years living at home and at college are some of the best years to study unhindered by making a living and take full advantage of this time in their life- many will find that this period is the “springboard” to start their career. Looking back on all I’ve said in this blog and reflecting on my own life, I don’t want to sound, especially to a younger person, just starting out, that all they have to look forward to is hard work and challenges. There is also much satisfaction, personal fulfillment, enjoyment, fun, meeting interesting, kind, people, seeing interesting places, having great experiences, etc. I am an adult student on the harp and am limited to the amount of practice every day by having to work in a non- music field-so when I do practice it’s very special, because my time is limited. To be able to one day, play pieces of music that I love listening to, like from Anne Sullivan’s CD “Romantische”, will be my reward, which in my estimation will be priceless and worth any sacrifice.

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