7 Ways Most Non-Famous Musicians Make a Living

image from worldwideperformers.com When we think about what it means to make a living as a musician many people still conjure up ideas of selling plastic discs and endlessly touring the country.

Well, that's perhaps how things work at the top, but what about near the middle? Suzanne Lainson of BrandsPlusMusic has written a short overview of the more traditional ways that musicians make money and the paradox of taking such sources of income.

Lainson writes:

"Here are the ways most non-famous full-time musicians make a living:

1. Playing in multiple bands so that they gig as much as five times a week. And playing those gigs in bands where they are paid at least $75-$100 per gig rather than having to split beer money five ways.

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.  There are many opportunities to give beginner lessons on takelessons.com.

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. However, these gigs are much harder to come by than in the past.

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 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."

What other ways do non-famous musicians make a living?

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  1. Library or production music is another. Musicians with home studios working alone or in small partnerships. At the top end the names may be well-known but otherwise they are unknown, except to their film, TV, or advertising agents and their libraries and publishers.

  2. Don’t most non-famous musicians just have usual 9-5 jobs? Waiters and waitresses come to mind..
    Also some musicians end up working in studios doing jobs like mastering.

  3. Not sure this counts as “making a living” but street performances can bring in a little cash. There’s nothing like walking around Nashville and seeing Mario and Luigi belt out country-punk versions of Top 40 songs.
    Working at venues, running a cash register, booking, running sound, or even mopping floors, helps artists make valuable contacts while earning some money.

  4. I think the whole point here is that is not the case. I know a lot of musicians and quite a few who do it full time but I don’t know any famous musicians at all. Unless you mean that ironically… in which case point taken.

  5. The artist I’ve worked with who was grossing around $150,000 a year as a full-time DIY artist started out bartending in one of Colorado’s most famous music venues. Early on in her career she was able to open for a soon-to-be famous artist when the opener at the venue didn’t show and she got the slot. So that was one perk.
    She was immersed in the music business as a bartender at the venue because she was surrounded by musicians and music every night, and it helped her in making contacts with other local musicians. On the other hand, I don’t think it actually helped her at a higher level — getting taken seriously as a musician by music business insiders. They still saw her more as a bartender than a working musician. It was only after working at the bar for 10 years, quitting, and then doing music full-time (gigging 200 shows a year, putting out a CD every year), that she was able to get to the next level. However, since she was going to need a day job while building her career, that bartending job at a music venue was definitely more useful to her than other sorts of day jobs she could have had.
    So my point is that there are music-related day jobs you can get, and they will help your career, though not necessarily in a direct or immediate way. As long as you realize that they may be more helpful as a source of income and a learning experience than as a way to open doors, you can probably use those jobs to your advantage.

  6. These are the jobs that a “non famous” musician are most likely to do in a world where the only way to really “make it” is to be “discovered” by someone with “connections” inside the industry…
    Thank God this is not the case anymore.

  7. I get a bit angry when I see musicians looking down on other musicians for trying to actually make money in this business. It’s rather silly.
    I wonder if it’s more along the lines of jealousy that someone was able to quit their dayjob by occasionally working a cover band gig.
    On the other hand, I don’t see why a musician would advertise they play weddings at the same time as promoting their uber-heavy metal band Blood Bath Shenanigans. That’s simply bad PR. Cultivate the image carefully.

  8. I wish i would have started giving lessons a long time ago. Being a Rock musician and not reading music has always made me feel like i couldn’t do it, but I can. This article kinda got me thinking I could do it again. Being a pro at the Akai 2000 drum machine, i’ve been able to sell beats to local hip hop artists for about 100 to 200 dollars.

  9. The key phrase in this whole debate is…
    “However, these gigs are much harder to come by than in the past.”
    That says it all.
    No Bar Bands like in the days of BTO and Springsteen, let alone The Beatles in Hamburg. No bars like when Billy Joel was trying to make a living AFTER putting out his first LP. Shania Twain playing Country bars in Canada a couple o times a week.
    When a DJ in Baltimore played the B-side (Be Bop A Lula) of a new artist called Gene Vincent.
    Or when a few DJ’;s decided to play the B-side to Elton John’s new single Take Me To The Pilot (it was called Your Song).
    Good LUCK!

  10. In my experience, is it totally still the case.
    This ex-full-time musician now has a corporate day job with a lot of great music on the side… some paid, some not. I miss the full-time music life and the opportunity to earn the $$ I used to, but the bills have to be paid on a regular basis regardless of how much or how little income there is each month.
    Now, getting back ‘into’ music FT is proving to be extremely difficult, but I’d love to do it again.

  11. Of the musicians I know that are working full time as musicians, it’s definitely a combo platter of gigs with different bands.
    From my experience, the “respect” for working musicians who turn to doing cover bands is changing. The band I play covers with is busy and paid and in demand, AND we see many of our colleagues who stick to their original projects showing up at our regular “house shows” requesting to do cameos with us, etc. I don’t think we’re disrespected by those who’ve seen us, on the contrary – some of the best up and coming talent in our community regularly shows up.
    An agent who handles some really good original bands (some with national exposure and small label deals) complained to me a month ago that his top act has asked him to start booking cover shows for them (and he claims he has no clue about that side of the booking biz.) Why? They’re tired of being broke and in debt, they see that cover shows can supplement their income more consistently than exclusively doing one-set-original gigs.
    “Respect” doesn’t directly translate to dollars. If you have so-called “respect” but can’t fund your music projects, can’t do the things necessary to stay in front of audiences, your “respect” lives in anonymity.

  12. I play drums 3/5 nights a week and also teach privately in my home. I couldn’t be happier. I also know for a fact that I earn more money than many of my colleagues that are touring with nationally known groups.
    It’s nice be able to do what you love, and be around for your family. Sleeping in your own bed every night is important too! (ok ok……sure….it IS with the same girl. But she’s great and I love her!)

  13. “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.” –
    So it appears that we are doing it to ourselves. It seems to me that we have been a bit brainwashed about who deserves “respect.” Anyone who chooses to focus their energy on music or art deserves respect in my book. We all find ourselves on spectrums of ability and commerciality and opinions, even if validated by cohorts, are not much more than microbial mats in a hot pool.

  14. The problem with this is not the list itself, which is incomplete but mostly true. The problem is in the conclusions Suzanne draws from it. Her point seems to be that one would be better served with a non-music day job than one of those on her list because other musicians and bloggers don’t respect those jobs or find them “prestigious”.
    To that, I say who gives a damn??? I am concerned with making a living playing music, not what other musicians and bloggers think of my choices. I can’t imagine why it is more valid, or more creative, as Suzanne seems to intimate in her last paragraph, to work at a bar or as a truck driver or barista.
    I play music for a living. I love what I do. I work on my craft every day. I live the lifestyle I want to live. And I provide for my family.
    Everything else is unimportant to me.
    I wrote more about this on my blog today: http://oneworkingmusician.com/what-it-really-means-to-be-a-working-musician

  15. The trouble with doing the dayjob, is that along with a family and kids etc, you’re left with very little time to be creative. I gig a few times a week, which still leaves enough time to be creative at home. Could always use more cash of course!

  16. I am so glad that I am not married with kids right now because I’m just not sure I could do it all. I work full time as a restaurant manager. (I took the job to help me develop my business management skills and sharpen my abilities to think on my feet and handle harsh criticism.) I also work full time on my music. I definitely feel the creative drain quite often. As it is, I don’t ever go out and see friends, I don’t date, I pretty much work and sleep.
    All this hard work is gonna be worth it though.

  17. I don’t understand why more musicians can’t figure out a way to make a living playing music, not teaching etc. when the answers are out there.
    We play farmers markets and house concerts coast to coast, with a national sponsor. Are you a band? Don’t like farmers? You can do the same for your own cause: animal shelters, AIDS, whatever. It’s simply niche marketing.
    If you’ve got kids and a mortgage, then okay, that is tougher. But if you are or can get debt free, the road is yours. Even with a family, you can do it regionally.
    Check out chapter 8 in How to be Your Own Booking Agent. It’s how we figured it out.
    -lafe (rhymes with “waif”)

  18. I have been a full-time musician for most of the past 4 decades. The list is true and incomplete, but the real issue here is if you really want to make a living from music, you will find a way to do it regardless of what other people think. You don’t need to be a rock god standing in front of screaming thousands to have a satisfying, joyous career.
    For me for the past 25 years I’ve made a great living in children’s and family music. You should see the light go out in people’s eyes when I tell them that! But I don’t care; I don’t do this for “status.” I love what I do, I’m doing good in the world by educating kids, and I pay all my bills on time.
    For help, check out my book “Gigging: A Practical Guide for Musicians” where I’ve poured decades of experience in the music biz. For great laughs check out my “Truly Rotten Gigs from Hell: The Funny, The Sad, The Unbelievably Bad True Tales from the Music Trenches”, both on Amazon.
    Best wishes to all,

  19. I’m in a rock band (influences Radiohead/JeffBuckley/Coldplay) http://www.thisflighttonight.com or like http://www.facebook.com/thisflighttonight
    I work a normal job that funds my music. Our band momentum is progressing, I tried music fulltime for 4months but that was hard, stressing about where to get your next dollar, not being able to eat properly.
    That did however launch me to where I am now (had the time to write some songs, promote, and got me my band). If anyone hasn’t tried fulltime muso and feels like they need to why not try it for a few months, see if that path is for you. Good luck, in the end, make music that your offspring will one day be proud of. Ralph.

  20. I never understood the criticism against musicians who played covers as well as originals. All my first bands in the 80s were mostly covers with the occasional original when we thought it was good enough to drop in the set. We used to rehearse endlessly too, which is something many musicians hate to do today. “Practice makes perfect” was always our motto. Almost every significant classic rock artist started out doing covers until they honed their writing skills to the point that it was a crowd pleasure. Musicians were happy to “serve” with joy playing other people’s songs. Better to be a great first mate before you try sitting in the captain’s chair. I suspect a lot of the modern day criticisms about bands not writing the same caliber music is directly related to this point. Too much pride and arrogance now. All captains and no cooks. And the first person to suffer with this attitude is the songwriter first, audience second. Love of great songs helps us all write great songs. The first step towards living again in a world where quality artistry can earn a living is for all the hacks and part time hobbyists to bow out gracefully. Just because the technology is more accessible to everyone today doesn’t mean that everyone is born with a mic and guitar in hand. Some people are more gifted than others and that will always be the case. Despite all the problems we know existed with the old vetting process, it did manage to weed out a lot of garbage that we now have to weed out for ourselves. Everyone’s a superstar now which makes everyone kind of anonymous at the same time. I think a lot of people, myself included, are more prone to just switch off, tune out and not pay attention. What’s left to shoot for when every organ grinder’s monkey and kareoke act has “made it?”

  21. What I do is work part time at a regular job and teach music lessons on the side and gig on the weekends. It is possible to earn a full time living as a musician but can also be very stressful and difficult to achieve. Like one person said not knowing where your next dollar is coming from is very true. There are all kinds of things that can affect your income with lessons and gigs such as weather, sports games on TV and the bar cancels the band, families going away on vacation, etc. Having a regular job helps to alleviate that stress, at least from my experience.

  22. “If anyone hasn’t tried fulltime muso and feels like they need to why not try it for a few months, see if that path is for you.”- bc not everyone lives in a country with a great social safety net, don’t take that for granted.

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