No More Nine-to-Five: How to Modulate From a Day Gig to Full Time Music Work
For young aspiring musicians, one the most common remarks they hear from people who are not in performing arts careers is “Get a REAL job!”. Unfortunately, the reality in the United States is that someone wishing to pursue a career in the world of music (or any artistic endeavor) has a very hard row to hoe. Unless they have a college degree in Music Education, the prospect for finding any kind of reliable income from music is very unpredictable. Even if they are loaded with talent and experience, most musicians tend to rely on teaching, either privately or within an educational institution to generate an income.
Revenue from this work is usually sporadic, as some students will lose interest and drop out. Colleges and universities won’t offer tenure or a high-income position in their faculty unless the musician has a Masters or PhD, and has a long and remarkable history with their organization. The result is that most musicians starting their careers must relegate music to a secondary income, and find something else in the world of employment to bring home the bacon.
Sometimes they may have a life partner living with them who can help ease the financial strain of survival and this will enable them to devote more time and effort to their music, but for a single musician, it takes a lot of perseverance and devotion to acquiring more skills in music to allow them to begin to make the transition from dependence on a non-music day gig to full-time work in music.
There are many things that a musician can do to start to build their income in the area of music, but it must be a continuous dedicated effort to gain any ground. First and foremost, they must have proficiency of performance on some instrument that they continually improve and develop to the level of virtuosity. If they are not a performer, they are severely limited to the opportunities they can create for themselves.
Secondly, do not assume that you can wait for opportunities to arise. You must always think creatively as to what you can bring to the marketplace. This means you can’t rely on classified ads in periodicals (newspapers, trade magazines, etc.) and online sources for work.
Even thought these sources are helpful and should be utilized, you must be proactive and create opportunities for yourself that will elevate the awareness of others to your skills and talents. A lot of musicians form ensembles or groups of other musicians to perform with at various venues, but again, the reliability and revenue from this work is often low and precarious. Night clubs and hotel lounges can change their entertainment policies with every new season according to their whim, so be forewarned. Non-performing musicians can write or arrange music for existing ensembles, or engage in the process of becoming a booking agent or promoter to locate and negotiate jobs for ensembles.
Thirdly, you must constantly expand your skills in music to areas where you are not yet proficient; become more versatile. If you have had traditional conservatory training, or are someone who has experience with Chamber and Symphonic music, start to learn all you can about other genres of music. In addition to making you a more marketable commodity, it will enhance your comprehension of music. Learn how to transcribe and notate; pick a second instrument to add to your performance skills.
Would you trade your 9 to 5 job for a musician's lifestyle?
Music copyists are a relatively small subset of the music population and can become very valuable to composers, arrangers and ensembles who don’t have the time, skill or patience to do the work themselves. This also will elevate your understanding and facility in music. Find out about all the local performance venues that are part of the non-profit community and see what you can learn about grant writing to get your own music projects funded, or to assist the non-profits with their fund raising. See if you can enhance your computer skills in desktop publishing so you can design and print promotional materials for artists who need business cards, flyers, mailing lists, etc.
Fourth, you must be engaged in the music community; NETWORK! Go out and see performances that interest you and greet and meet everyone you can who is involved, from the musicians themselves to the promoters, artistic directors, managers and owners of the venues. Do not be shy about your interest in their work; be enthusiastic and optimistic about the possibilities of collaboration with these people.
Keep a contacts list, subscribe to mailing lists for performers, venues and arts organizations and keep yourself in circulation so people will not forget you exist. Word of mouth is one of the most sure-fire ways to get work to land in your lap when you least expect it. It is also the most reliable way to lose future work if you do not always maintain a high level of quality in your work and in the interpersonal relationships that you have developed. The old expression that “Good news travels fast, but bad news travel faster” is very much the case within the performing arts community, so you must always deliver quality equal to or above what is expected and be personable and gracious with your professional colleagues.
All of the examples above take a lot of concentration and effort, and above all, perseverance, and the slow rate of change in their fortunes can be very disheartening to a musician with ambitious goals in music. You cannot expect things to go as planned or hoped for; there will be delays, setbacks, missed opportunities, and other disappointments along the way.
Some will eventually lose confidence and resign themselves to a day job that takes care of their financial needs, but there will always be a part of that person which yearns for the music. Perhaps the most crucial part of the whole process of endeavoring to begin a career in the performing arts is to ask themselves a simple question: Can I be happy without it? There is sometimes a trade-off in the quality of life when you dedicate yourself to a particular course of action. Those who have the creative impulse for the arts choose the more secure employment of a nine-to-five job, and lose their spiritual joy for life in the bargain.
Those who choose the difficult and unpredictable career in the arts find spiritual joy in their work, but live with the frustration of the struggle for financial security. It is only a small percentage of anyone involved in the performing arts (whether teaching or performing) that maintain a substantial income though years of efforts on their part. Even then, it can change in the blink of an eye, without adequate time to prepare for Plan B.
So then another question arises, “Can I be happy with it?”. This is the issue that needs to be resolved. Typically, choosing a career in the performing arts dictates that personal sacrifices will always be made in this journey of the career.
The histories of notable musicians throughout time reveal some bleak details about their personal journeys; financial despair, painful romantic relationships, endless traveling, etc., but even these setbacks and traumas faded when the Muse called these artists into action and they created works of inspiration and spiritual joy for themselves and future generations. If this art is truly in your blood, then perhaps the Muse has already made the decision for you.