What It Really Means To Be A Working Musician

This post is by Jason Parker of One Working Musician.

image from oneworkingmusician.com As the title of my blog suggests, I pride myself on being a working musician. This year marks my 10th anniversary of making a living through my music and I couldn’t be happier with how my life has turned out. When I quit my day job in 2001 I had no idea what my life would end up looking like, but I knew that whatever the outcome I’d be happier if I at least tried to build my life around my passion for playing music. From where I sit now, I can’t imagine it turning out any other way!

One thing I’ve realized over the years is that most people have no idea what it really means to be a working musician. Even musicians and music industry “experts” seem to have no real grasp on the day-to-day lives of what I like to call the “musical middle-class”.

In the last few days there has been renewed discussion of this topic because of an article NPR wrote about the band Cake, and their dubious distinction of having the lowest-selling #1 record in the 20-year history of calculating record sales (it sold 44,000 copies in one week, FYI, which still seems a staggering number to me!). In reading the responses to this, and writing a few of my own on various blogs, I’ve formulated a few ideas I’d like to share with you about what it really means to be a working musician.

I Have A Job – Just Like You

Artists often like to talk about the time we quit our “day job”.

I even did it 2 paragraphs above. It’s a nice way of delineating our pre-artist life from our post-artist life. But in reality it’s a misnomer. I still have a day job. It may not look like yours or the doctor or salesman or barista or truck driver, but it’s a job nonetheless. My job is playing weddings. That’s what I do to make a living.

And just like the doctor and salesman and barista and truck driver, I work hard at my job so that I can make money. I do it so that I can use that money to live the kind of lifestyle I want. And like anyone else, much of my time and energy is devoted to this pursuit. In a comment I left on a blog post over at Hypebot I mention that I make 75% of my money on 10% of the days of the year.

In reality, that was me stretching the truth a bit to make a point. While it’s true that I average about 35 weddings (and corporate events) a year, which translates to 35 workdays, or 10% of the year, the fact is that I work a least 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year, hustling to find, market to and land those gigs.

That is my day job.

In that same Hypebot post I linked to above, Suzanne Lainson of Brands Plus Music laid out her ideas about how “most non-famous full-time musicians make a living”. Here’s her list:

  1. Playing in multiple bands so that they gig as much as five times a week.
  2. Playing at weddings and other gigs that come with a guaranteed $1000 – $3000 per gig.
  3. Teaching music, as much as 20 -40 kids a week.
  4. Church music director.
  5. Being in a cover band.
  6. Playing on cruises or in dinner theaters.
  7. Playing in a house band or being the solo piano player at a bar.

While there are certainly other ways musicians make money (composing, arranging, copying, licensing, etc), her list is pretty sound. I’ve done all but # 4 & 6. And while I agree with Suzanne’s facts, I do not agree with her conclusions.

She goes on to say that:

The problem with all of the above is that the musicians who do it tend not to get a lot of respect, either from the music reviewers or from other musicians. Being a wedding musician tends not to be something musicians proudly announce. It’s not considered very prestigious. The non-famous musicians I know who are making the most money are viewed rather condescendingly by local music critics and by up-and-coming musicians who think that kind of thing is akin to selling your music soul to make a buck.

But playing original music that the bloggers love tends to be the least lucrative kind of music you can do.

The advantage of having a [non-musical] day job that pays the bills is that you can do the music you love without regard to whether it pays the bills. That can be very creative.

The problem with Suzanne’s conclusions are that they are about respect, prestige and what other musicians and bloggers think of all this.

Frankly, I couldn’t care less what anybody thinks of the way I make my living except for me and my family. Granted, I’m a little older than your average wanna-be rockstar, and I’m a jazz musician, but I am wholly unconcerned with what anybody thinks about my chosen day job. Just like the musician Susan refers to who supports their music through a non-musical day job, I’m doing what I can to survive. Unlike those folks, my day job allows me to play music much of the time.

And while most musicians with non-musical day jobs are busy complaining about all that entails, I’m building my chops, practicing and playing with musicians I love and respect.

Now, just because I don’t care what people think about my day job, that doesn’t mean I don’t care what people think of me as an artist. Which leads me to my next point…

Art Vs. Commerce

Artists are always talking about this perceived dichotomy. It is a constant source of frustration and anger with many artists I know. I choose to look at it a bit differently. While I do see a distinction (i.e. playing a wedding = commerce, writing music for my quartet = art), I don’t see it as black and white polar opposites. In my world, commerce serves my art, and art serves my commerce.

Weddings may be mostly a source of income for me, but I can say with absolute certainty that I have learned something about music and art at almost every wedding I’ve ever played. That’s because I approach weddings like I would any other gig. I hire the best musicians I can find (usually my working band), I try to play as musically as I can, and I try to have fun. Similarly, I know that when I’m composing a new piece of music, that music has the potential to end up on a CD which I will sell and therefore make me money. It’s all a means to an end, really, and that end is the lifestyle I’ve chosen.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I realize that there are people out there who do art for art’s sake. I have nothing but respect and admiration for those people. The world needs artists who are not concerned with anything but their art. However, I would say that those people make up a tiny fraction of the artists in the world, and those people probably won’t call themselves “working artists”. Just artists.

But remember, even Mozart made money writing and performing music for the royals who hired him. And Michelangelo totally resented the commission he got to paint the Sistine Chapel. But they did it anyway, because they were working artists, and great art was created in the process.

David Hahn over at Musician Wages wrote a great article recently about working as a musician. It’s a good read, especially for the last part, where he spells out one way you can make $50,000 a year:

How to Really Make $50,000 a Year

1. Get a church job (3 services a week @ $100/service) = $15,600
2. Start a teaching studio (12 students @ $50/lesson) = $31,200
3. Play background music once a month (@ $250/gig) = $3,000
4. Play in a band twice a month (@ $50/gig) = $1,200

That’s $51k a year. That’s how it’s really done.

That’s just one reality for you. There are many other scenarios that can add up to 50k a year. The important thing is that it’s based in reality. Which leads me to my next point…

There Was No Golden Age

Many folks who decry the state of the music industry these days point to some mythical “golden age” when they think it was easier for a working musician to make a living. I don’t believe such an age ever existed. All working artists have had to struggle, hustle, be creative, roll with the punches and piece together a living doing multiple jobs. It’s never been any different and it won’t ever be. That’s the plain and simple fact. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Rather, all evidence supports the fact that it is entirely possible.

The good news is that today, we have tools at our disposal that make it exponentially easier to be an independent working artist. Which leads me to my next point…

Technology Is Your Friend

For the history of recorded music and the “music industry” (which is all parts of the music world that don’t relate directly to making music), there have been gatekeepers between the artist and the potential fan. Mostly, the record labels. This is because they controlled the distribution. If you wanted to get your music heard outside of your town, you had to have a label help you get it recorded, released, promoted, played on the radio, placed in record stores, etc. There was almost no way of doing this yourself. That all started to change when Derek Sivers created CD Baby. This was the first major avenue of distribution that was open to every musician, with or without a label. What Derek did was to remove the middle-man. This has led to a total shift in how independent musicians can reach their fans directly.

Since then, literally thousands of other tools, companies, websites, etc. have sprung up to help us indie’s get our music out to the world. Nowadays, we can record, distribute, promote and sell our music without ever leaving the house! It has never been easier to find your potential audience, connect with them, and get your music in their ears. With a little research, hard work and ingenuity, you can be a fully self-contained and self-sustainable music business yourself. But you have to think of yourself as a business, and use both the time-tested best business practices and the new emerging technologies to help you succeed. If you don’t want to do that, that’s cool, but that probably means you’re going to have a tough time being a working musician. Which leads me to my next point…

Working Means…Working!

I once took a trumpet lesson from the great Brian Lynch, and he said something to me that I’ll never forget. He said that practicing is the job, and that if you don’t truly enjoy practicing then you may as well find another job that you do enjoy, because life’s too short. I really took that to heart and it changed the way I feel about practicing. These days, however, I realize that there are other parts of what I do that are “the job”, from blogging to tweeting to hustling gigs, etc. And I’ve found a way to enjoy all these things. That’s the only way I can be happy at what I do.

If you want to be a working musician (or artist or doctor or plumber), you have to work at it! That’s a simple concept that’s not so simple to execute. But like all things that are worthwhile, it takes effort, commitment, drive, enthusiasm and a positive attitude to achieve. As I mentioned above, the internet is a great too to help you achieve your dreams. But it’s also a place where lots of people will tell you its not possible and give you many reasons why. Don’t listen to them. Instead, search out the people who are actually doing it and listen to them! We are out here and we are willing to help.

I’m Always Working ;)

If you’d like to help me continue to be a working musician, I invite you to check out the single from my upcoming CD, Five Leaves Left: A Tribute To Nick Drake. If you like what you hear, you can pre-order the music on a Pay-What-You-Want” basis:

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  1. It depends what you want, if you want to be a writer/performer/artist signed to a label you work an oddjob on the side.
    Artists tweaking their music because they want to make sure the fans buy it (cos they rely on it as their main source of income) aren’t going to get far. It’s this creative restraint that hinders freshness and originality. Which is what labels look for.
    I think anyway.

  2. @behyped – thanks for your replies! My first question is why couldn’t/shouldn’t someone wanting to get signed try to work in music as much as possible? Is there something about a non-music day job you think is more suited to that? I’m not sure I follow.
    Second, I’m not suggesting anyone change their music to sell it.
    Third, do you really think labels are looking for freshness and originality? IMHO, especially these days, the major labels are playing it safer than ever and only signing bands that sound like other successful bands.

  3. The problem with Suzanne’s conclusions are that they are about respect, prestige and what other musicians and bloggers think of all this.
    Frankly, I couldn’t care less what anybody thinks of the way I make my living except for me and my family.

    The musicians I know do care, though. They want to be on those “best of” lists. I’ve run in to far too many music critics, music industry people, and musicians who think if you haven’t been signed, you must not have been good enough. Luckily that has changed significantly lately, so it is easier to argue that running your own show can be a personal choice and not a lack of talent issue.
    SXSW season is upon us again and the hype will be in full flow. Sadly, even as the major label system is collapsing, the hype machine continues on, perhaps more than ever. Blogs want to write about the “next big thing.” Festivals want to feature buzz bands.
    I think conversations like ours, where we talk about how many musicians are actually making a living in this business, are a good thing. They help to inject some reality into the discussions.

  4. Thanks Jason. Thought about writing this article and then read yours. Hopefully your article will reach the ears of some folks who will take it to heart and realize they CAN devote their lives to music and pay the bills. Who could ask for anything more?

  5. really great post. i really admire your take on the topic and dedication to your craft. i have been dreaming of quitting my day job in the hopes of pursuing music full-time, and shed a lot of light.
    also, i am loving this track.

  6. To clarify, when I say “how many musicians are actually making a living,” in this instance I mean “in what ways are many musicians making a living.” There are other times I talk about “how many” in terms of numbers of musicians, but not for this particular discussion.

  7. It seems this is a hot topic for some reason when it should ring true. ANYTHING you do that is independent takes time, money and determination. If you want to open your own ANYTHING (pizza joint, strip club, band) you gotta work hard at it and go 110%!
    Andre from Idlewood

  8. Amen, Suzanne! These discussions can only help. I think each of us needs to clarify our goals and then find the best way to reach those goals. There’s many different paths to the finish line…and many different finish lines!

  9. Awesome post. Thanks for taking your time to write this, certainly a rare perspective among today’s doomsday dialogue.

  10. Thanks for your comments folks!
    And let me state that in NO WAY was I trying to disparage musicians with non-music day jobs. We all have to figure out what works for us. I know many incredible musicians with non-music day jobs who play their butts off and are professionals.
    I was just trying to point out that if you DO want to be a working musician, there are many ways to make it happen. And the musicians who look down on those of us that work at “day job” type music things (weddings, cover bands, what have you) should really look inside to find the root of their resentment.
    Thanks to all for contributing to the discussion!

  11. thanks for the great article Jason.
    i’d like to contest the comment about “the golden age of music.” For us younger musicians, people starting out in the last 15 years or so, its probably most positive to think that there was/is no Golden Age, however more than one musician I’ve talked to ages 60+ recount in the 1960’s and 70’s when they made the same amounts that they make now on a gig. So, its not a true Golden Age, but if you make the same dollar amounts in the next 30-50 years, the lack of wage change vs inflation creates a similated dark age, which in turn makes the previous age seemingly golden
    @Suzanne $1000 wedding gigs, I’ve obviously been playing the wrong weddings…lol!

  12. While I have worked with and know many bands/artists who have either been signed to major labels, to major indie labels, or are touring nationally/internationally, I still try to stay in touch with many working musicians and weekend musicians because I believe that is the past, present, and future of music. Musicians who play at your local bars, who play at your weddings, and who play at your churches ARE live music for most people. When you look at the numbers, very few people attend “real” concerts. They generally don’t have the time and/or the money. So I like to elevate the status of local musicians whenever possible. I have heard many who are the equal or are even better than those are more widely known.

  13. You absolutely right about the wages staying the same for the last 40 years. I don’t know how we let that happen! But I still contend that it’s always been a struggle to be an independent artist and/or working musician, and probably always will be.
    Only the strong survive! 🙂

  14. Really enjoyed this article. Especially the part about our “day job”.
    I get asked all the time what I do all day. One girlfriend called it playing on the computer.
    Between alerting our friends and fans to where we are playing next and learning songs to keep our set list somewhat fresh…and learning songs for brides etc. I do spend a lot of time singing to, while sitting at the computer. Trying to book more corporate gigs and wedding gigs than bar gigs also can take time at the computer. But if we didn’t do this we couldn’t charge the big bucks for those events! But I love it. And when I hit the stage I really love it.

  15. Yes, I’ve talked to long time musicians who say they were making the same per gig in the 1970s that they are making now. Playing live is not more lucrative now than it was in the past for many bands. If anything, it is less lucrative because DJs and karaoke replaced live music in lots of local venues. And the venues that still book bands often try to book three or four bands playing 45-minutes each rather than one band for three hours. So the money is getting shared among a lot more musicians than in the past.
    And as I have mentioned before, when fans were still mostly buying CDs, an artist or band could record their own and sell them for $15 at shows. So once they paid off the recording expenses, they’d have a CD that cost them $1.50 to press and that they could sell for $15. Those were incredible margins. Even if you can sell a $5 t-shirt for $20, you’re not likely to sell as many t-shirts as you would have sold in CDs. Fans just don’t need every t-shirt you sell, while they might have bought every CD you sold.

  16. Great article! I’m a musical theater singer. I remember hitting New York years ago and being told that I had to get a day job in order to make a living. My answer? I have a job! A job that I’ve trained for. Would anyone tell a would-be dentist or a would-be paralegal that they need to get another job to earn a living? Many of us have years of study and diplomas, not to mention that most of us continue studying our whole lives long, constantly honing our craft. I love the fact that I earn my living through music. I too have done a lot of the things on those lists, to which I would add singing in children’s hospitals, prisons and retirement homes, studio back-up vocals, and shlepping myself out to Disney to sing with Minnie Mouse. And hard as it is sometimes to make ends meet, I wouldn’t have it any other way!

  17. Hey Jason,
    Really enjoyed your blog. I think it does come down to the fact that if you want it you should pay attention to the people that are doing it for affirmation and if you dont want it then use as many excuses as you want 🙂 You covered all the truths of the matter to reinforce whats needed from whatever angle ur coming at this from…but yeah work and persistance definatley seem to be key!

  18. nice one jason! very much enjoyed reading your article and loved your track! i admire your passion for what your doing and its been very inspiring to read about you! keep it up, chris!

  19. I wanna say that your salaries are wow! so high! – $250 for a gig – that’s not like that anymore, at least in the UK – I barely get £100 a gig – from the last 10 years!!!! – if I am lucky. Recession has hit us badly. I was having 5 residences a week – at 90£ per gig, to having absolutely nothing regular, just once a month for £90 and, if I am lucky, the occasional weekly gig for £65. HELLO!!!

  20. Just passing buy this blog and felt the need to add , I have , over the years , made some good money in the music industry as a sound engineer , playing gigs in my band , also working within a music supply chain , but all the work as been part time on top of my day job .
    But i found that running what might be called two jobs very stressfull but , its all work , the creative curve is boosted no matter what you do in this industry .

  21. I have played in MANY bands. Made good money…….But all this art talk and what I percieve as “high mindedness” by most responders (and writer of this)is really a pet peeve of mine. I LOVE music as much or more than anybody. But honestly, if I had to play “Moondance” more than once a year I’d know in my heart I’m just doing it for some strange ego stroke for myself. Glad I have a day job and play gigs sometimes for free or on good days for $150 (playing original music). Good for you if you think it’s art (whatever that really means), but come to my gig with that highmindness and I’ll laugh at you.

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