Categories AdvocacyHow to composeIssuesProfessional DevelopmentTools for Composers

How do musicians make a living?

There are many musicians who are living the dream–doing exactly what they want artistically, making enough money to survive, and with nothing else in the way (except maybe tax season).  Whether it is playing their favorite gigs all the time, writing the best music they want with complete artistic control, teaching students and not having administrative hurdles, or otherwise doing whatever they want musically while being out of harm’s way financially, these are the lucky few.

The rest of us?  Well, we typically fall into one of two “camps”.  Some of us prefer to be in one of these two camps, instead of the lifestyle in the above paragraph.  Many more musicians would prefer to “live the dream” instead of being in one of these camps, but they are content with living life in one or another group.

Regardless of where you stand, the two groups can be summed up as follows:

  1. Patching together a musical career in which one makes a living off of music, but doesn’t get to satisfy one’s complete artistic desires.
  2. Having a day job to support oneself, but not being able to make music as often as item 1.  However, these musicians retain full artistic control due to their financial backing.

So, how do musicians make a living?

1. Musicians make a living by patching together a career

Many musicians prefer this lifestyle because one is constantly musical, both out of desire and necessity.  Yes, they do want to make music nonstop, but they also need to take (nearly) every gig they can get to pay their bills.

These gigs can include:

  1. Teaching privately
  2. Teaching at a public or private school
  3. Singing in church choirs
  4. Playing in a band
  5. Playing in an orchestra
  6. Conducting
  7. Part-time music administration
  8. Accompanying dance classes
  9. Composing
  10. Arranging
  11. Orchestrating
  12. Scoring for film or video
  13. Publishing music
  14. Engraving music
  15. Personal-assisting other musicians

Musicians in this model tend to lose complete artistic control while gaining a lot of time spent making music (that still has at least some artistic control), instead of losing the time to a day job.

2. Musicians make a living by having a day job and making music a “side gig”

These musicians spend the bulk of their lives in a “day job” and squeeze music in on the nights and weekends.  These day jobs, however, can include administration of music full-time, or other duty that is not directly making music but helps a support structure for musicians.  It should be noted, however, that these day jobs do not satisfy oneself artistically nor do they help patch together a career–they are the career.

Musicians in this model gain complete artistic control while losing time to their day job, time that would otherwise be spent on music.

3. Hybrids/exceptions

Having two careers is possible, i.e. a patchwork career and a day job.  It is very exhausting, though.  I know those who do it, for example maintaining facilities while gigging, or directing a music school while teaching.  I used to do it, and I burned out after 3 years.  However, these hybrids are rare.  Even the great Charles Ives was more of a day-job person; he was a industrious insurance salesman while being an American maverick composer unlike any other, but his day job forced his music to the side and the attempt at doing a dual-career hybrid led him into bad health.

Which lifestyle is right for you?

The lifestyle you choose as a musician is important, as it must reflect who you are, what you value, and how you want to spend your time.

For example, do you prefer to live gig-to-gig, and have dynamic musical experiences supplemented by teaching income?  Do you love to conduct, but love working with youth musicians as well?  Are you an adept copyist who plays trombone like a boss?  Would you rather shred all day and work in a box office when you’re not gigging?  Is adjudicating, teaching, and playing in musical pit bands your choice of lifestyle?

Or, do you want to support your music addiction through a career you are passionate about (but one that is not related to music)?  Are you a computer engineer who loves to write piano sonatas?  Are you a personal trainer who loves Pavarotti?  Do you value woodworking and writing music like Wuorinen?

In truth, most of us automatically fall into one of the two camps based on the lives we happen to live.  But, it is good to think about this even if you just happen into it.  Some key questions to ask yourself are:

  1. What time of day or night do I prefer to work?
  2. Do I want a regular schedule, or a more flexible one?
  3. Do I want to drive all around the place, or have one steady commute?
  4. Do I have multiple passions (including multiple passions within music)?
  5. What are my thoughts on teaching?
  6. What are my thoughts on gigging?
  7. How is my family life set up?
  8. Where do I want to live (this impacts your ability to live one lifestyle or the other)?
  9. What are my expenses like?
  10. What is my healthcare situation in life?
  11. How long do I see myself doing this, being in this place, or otherwise “putting down roots”?
  12. Am I in a strong musical “climate”/geographical area?
  13. What is my debt burden?
  14. What are my musical strengths?
  15. What are my non-musical strengths?
  16. What is the economy like today, and how do I foresee myself in it going forward, especially if it changes?

In all, make an educated decision that is well-thought and factors in your strengths, weaknesses, hopes, desires, needs, finances, and current situation.  Whether you elect to patch together a living, or have a day job that supports your music “habit”, you may find that you need to switch to the other way–and back and forth again!  There is no strict rule; you can change paths and you can change where you stand on each path–there is no “track” like a corporate ladder when we talk about making a living as a musician.

No matter how much you plan and think you know what is right, there is always an element of chance, surprise, and being plain wrong that may force you to change your plans.  And that is perfectly fine.  The goal is to live a fulfilling life, not to worry about meeting a standard or becoming a billionaire.

Live life, make music, and be happy,


More on how to compose music here.