People who don’t work in the music industry (or who look toward a career in it as a distant and hazy possibility) often think of it in extremes: either you’re a superstar touring the world in embarrassingly lavish cars, or you’re starving for your art, performing open mic nights at your minimum wage coffee house job to scrape by. In reality, there’s a vast middle class of working musicians, cobbling gigs together as best they can, balancing their various music jobs, pounding the pavement to get their music out there, and doing musical work that many wouldn’t describe as highly artistic or glamorous.
It Means Being an Entrepreneur
Being a working musician these days is largely about being an entrepreneur. Unless you get really lucky, it’s unlikely you’re going to get snatched up by a major record label that propels you to overnight stardom (and even if you do get a major record deal, chances are you were laboring in obscurity for a while before that, and chances are you’ll be laboring in obscurity again). You’re also probably not going to look on craigslist and find a full-time job for a working musician that will pay all your bills. I know it may not sound like it, but this is good news for you if you’re interested in being a musician. It means that you don’t have to get really lucky. If you’re a good musician and a self-starter, you’ll most likely be able to make a living at it if you want to.
It Means Wearing Many Hats
Being a working musician is about cobbling together music jobs: playing local gigs, recording and producing other musicians if you have that skillset, singing backup, playing weddings, teaching music in school or privately, touring, playing church or synagogue gigs, and much more. It’s about setting up your own social media channels to try to grow your following, juggling a teaching schedule, either by working through a music school or advertising for your own clients, contacting local venues with samples of your music to ask if they’d be interested in booking you, and raising money to go on tour, where you’ll hopefully make money back through ticket sales and merch.
Being a Good Musician is the Tip of the Iceberg
Great music skills may be where the journey begins, but it’s nowhere near where it ends. If you sit at home playing your guitar waiting to be discovered, you’ll be sitting for a while. Other important skills to acquire are social media, networking, writing coherent emails, setting up and tearing down your gear, working sound, putting yourself together well, and many others.
Show up, and be on time. This may surprise you, given the stereotype of the artist who lives by the wind and can’t be bothered with mundane concerns like clocks, but successful working musicians tend to be extremely reliable. Like most jobs, it’s all about relationships and people who count on you, and between the good musician who shows up and the great musician who doesn’t, most people would hire the one who shows up any day of the week.
You don’t need to wait for your “big break” or for fans to scream as you walk down the street for you to be a working musician. A working musician is someone who, well, works as a musician. It can be one aspect of the music business or a wide variety, but if you’re out there using your music skills to help pay the bills, then you can and should be proud that you’re in that coveted category of people.