When I decided to be a musician, I would almost be offended when someone said musicians didn’t make money. It was a defense mechanism because I knew I would need to make money as an adult, but I also needed to play music. There are definitely ways to make a living doing what you love, but you must have the desire and drive to work at them because it may not be quite as easy as getting a full time job somewhere and receiving a steady pay check.
A lot of musicians strive to perform. It’s a difficult dream to have because there are only so many performers in both popular and classical music today. Even though there aren’t many successful touring performers, that doesn’t mean you can’t perform for a living.
If you play an orchestra instrument, there are still plenty of local orchestras that hire musicians. Pay can be as much as $150,000+/year for major orchestra like the LA Phil, to less than $50,000/year for less prominent ones. These jobs often come with great benefits as well. These benefits include health, dental, and often even fantastic pensions.
If it’s your dream, then chase it. But realize that the road to becoming a performing musician in a classical orchestra is a competitive one. Often musicians play in orchestras until they retire, and there are limited positions. When the time comes for an opening in an orchestra, you can bet that there will be many people, all of whom have the same dream as you, vying for that one position. You need to be open to moving around the world to find a job. Staying local may be out of the question. There may be no local orchestra in your area, or even if there is, it’s possible there won’t be an opening for you instrument for literally decades.
Once you get the job you’re all set right? Well, yes and no. The job of playing in an orchestra is very demanding. Tours and traveling are the name of the game. Expect to enjoy a lot of time sleeping in hotels throughout the year. Even when you are not working, you must practice, often a lot. A good orchestra job should pay your bills though. It’s a stable job that allows you to do what you love.
Even if the orchestra you end up playing for doesn’t pay as well as you would hope, just by virtue of having the job you gain instant credibility. Often you’ll see that musicians in local orchestras also teach at colleges and universities. They can also find private students much easier and charge a higher rate for their lessons. It’s a difficult job, and you won’t be rich, but if you love performing, it won’t feel like work. That’s all you can hope for right?
Professional choirs typically don’t pay as well as orchestra positions. The average salary for a choir member is $36,000 a year as of 2013. But just like orchestra members, if you’re in a professional choir you gain credibility instantly. You’ll find many opportunities to pay your bills from teaching privately and at the university level.
Most churches need an organist, or pianist, for their Sunday services. Rarely do you find a church gig that will pay all of your bills. Typically a church job will have the Sunday service, and depending on the church, a rehearsal or two a week.
Pay for a church job varies so much it’s difficult to put any concrete number down. The hourly rate will usually sound pretty high though. In my area it can be $80+/hour. Remember that performing is an extremely skilled job, so the pay is generally pretty good by the hour. The problem is, though, even at a high hourly rate, a church gig will likely not give you more than a few hours of work a week. $1000 a month may be nice, but it’s not going to pay all of your bills.
When you start taking part-time performance gigs, you know you’ll have to take a lot of different jobs in order to succeed. There’s nothing wrong with that though. Just expect it.
Another avenue to make money is performing in concerts. If you’re a pianist, this may be solo recitals. If you play an orchestra instrument, perhaps you put together a chamber group that you try to take on tour.
Solo Concert Musician
Getting paid to play solo recitals is the dream of many musicians. To be honest, the path is pretty difficult. You need impeccable technique and amazing artistry. Practice is paramount. Just because you’re an incredible musician doesn’t mean you’ll be able to make it either. There are plenty of musicians that are immensely talented that never make much as far as a concert career. You need a lot of good contacts, and a lot of luck. Don’t take my word for it. Hear it from an actual concert pianist. A run of the mill solo musician will make enough to get by, but unless your at the top of the ladder, it’s unlike you’ll be rich.
It can also be more difficult, or even unavailable, depending on your instrument. There may not be as many concerts available to a solo trombonist for example, as there are for a pianist or violinist.
If you can’t do, teach! You may have heard this before, but it’s not necessarily the case for music teachers. Some of the best musicians in the world teach on a regular basis. Most do it because they love it, but it’s also one of the most dependable ways to make money as a musician.
Many professional musicians will find that they need to be a private teacher for most of their lives. Being a private teacher is great, but you have to realize that your job is not just teaching an instrument, it’s also being a business person.
Build a Business
To find students you’ll have to learn to market yourself. Being in business for yourself includes learning how to write ads, learning about marketing channels, being a good salesman, keeping track of income and expenses, understanding and adhering to local business and tax law, bill collecting, and much more. If all of that sounds like something you would not enjoy, then you need to take a step back and decide if private teaching is right for you. I’ve personally been a private teacher for pretty much all of my adult life. I’ve found the business side of things to be surprisingly enjoyable. I never thought I would ever own a business growing up, but doing so has brought me a lot of fulfillment and joy. Even if you don’t think you would like it, I say give it a try. You might be surprised.
Elementary through High School Teaching
Teaching doesn’t have to be one on one. If you are more fond of getting a steady paycheck, perhaps teaching in a public school is the way to go. Most often you’ll need just a bachelor’s degree and a teaching credential. This can be a great career that will pay your bills with a steady paycheck without needing to supplement with other gigs and one on one teaching. Like any other teacher, you’re not going to be rich, but school jobs can be incredibly fulfilling, and you can support your family with your income.
Teaching at the college level is attractive for many musicians because there are students are typically at a higher musical level.
Full Time vs Adjunct
At most colleges and universities there are just a few full-time positions for music teachers. Often there will only be one full-time faculty position that you could reasonably fill with your education. Because of this, quite a few teachers teach at multiple colleges part-time as adjunct faculty. Adjunct music teachers typically fill most of their time time teaching private one on one lessons to students at the school. Even these jobs, are getting hard to come by though. You will also often need a Doctorate degree to apply even for adjunct positions. At some schools, however, a masters degree is sufficient.
If you do end up being an adjunct teacher, your hours will likely be limited quite a bit to keep you part-time, and no, you don’t get any benefits most of the time. After going to all of that extra school, it’s very possible that you end up getting paid less, with fewer benefits than if you had just taught in an elementary, junior high, or high school.
There are many more ways to make money as a musician that I didn’t list above. Some of these include, playing at events like weddings, composing music for commercials and video games, and specialized jobs like music therapy.
No, you’re not going to likely make lawyer or doctor money, being a musician, but you already knew that. What you should really take away from all of this, is if you want to be a musician for the rest of your life, you can do it. It’s a rewarding and fun experience. It’s also very difficult, but the best things in life usually are.
It’s not very likely that you’ll be making a 6 figure salary, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pay your bills, and not have to worry constantly about money.
If you’ve made a living by being a musician, what has your experience been like? Let us know in the comments. Who knows? You might inspire a young musician to follow your lead.