HOW-TO How to Make a Good Living as a Musician


May 15, 2018
If you’re a musician like me, chances are you’ve had to deal with parents who disapprove of your chosen career. I mean, parents love the idea of their kids learning the piano or guitar. In my case, they even let me use the garage as a practice space for my prog-metal band. But by the time I reached adulthood, my parents were hoping I’d pursue a more stable career like accountancy or something.

My parents are super-awesome, and they were just concerned that their kid would end up a starving artist. I haven’t made it big, but that isn’t really what I was aiming for. Still, having a stable income is important, even for us creative types. I’ve found a bunch of ways to make a living as a musician without having to get a nine-to-five.

I’ve listed them below, and hopefully, you can use them to build a fulfilling musical career.

1. Find alternate revenue streams

Once upon a time, musicians hoping to be discovered submitted demos to record label executives. While record labels are still an important part of the industry, the streaming services and social media has given us so many new ways to make a living off our music.

You can try monetizing your songs by uploading them to YouTube (as music videos) and Spotify (as audio files). Also, you should use Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. While not money-making sites per se, these three sites give your career a wider reach, which in turn could increase your YouTube and Spotify payouts.

2. Hit the road!

As prevalent as online streaming is, touring will always be the best way for people to experience your music. There’s just no replacement for entering a crowded, sweaty club, and hearing a band perform live.

When I say touring, I don’t mean multi-country tours (although you should look into that, if you have an international following). Simply performing in clubs around your city is already touring. Start small, build your fanbase, and move your way up to bigger venues. Be wary of “pay to play” clubs. The point of touring is to make some money, not lose money.

The best musicians have honed their chops by playing live. If you’re serious about making a career out of music you need to play live, and play often.

3. Sell merch

Selling official shirts and caps is a great way to diversify your earning potential. People may not buy your record, but they might buy your band’s shirt. And that’s still pretty cool. It’s like free advertising… but they pay you for it!

Make sure you invest in good designs that people would actually want to wear. Hire a professional designer and get some merch made from reputable suppliers.

4. Become a session player

If spending weeks away from home isn’t your cup of tea, don’t worry. You can be a session musician and play on other people’s records. I do need to emphasize, that expectations are high on session musicians. You need to be able to play a wide variety of genres. I’m a metalhead myself, but most of my studio gigs have been for jazz ensembles. That’s cool; I think it makes me a better player overall. Be prepared to work outside your comfort zone.

Session players are usually paid flat fees, but there were times I was offered a small upfront fee, but earned points (royalties) for every streaming play. Usually, I prefer points when the artist has a big enough following, and can more or less guarantee substantial plays. For small bands, I prefer to get paid upfront.

5. Write for other people

Here’s a little factoid for you: most of the hit songs you hear weren’t written by the people performing them! For every successful singer or band, there’s usually a team of producers and songwriters working behind the scene.

Writing for people can be an extension of being a session player. Actually, I can’t think of a time I wasn’t also asked to contribute some writing. There’s some overlap here, so exploit that.

Getting a writing credit will earn you more points than being a session player, so look into this.

6. Take other music-related jobs

You don’t have to be just a musician or songwriter to earn money off music. You can work as a roadie for other bands, music teacher, studio engineer, or record producer. It all depends on your technical skills and inclinations.

There are a lot of opportunities out there, and it pays to have your eyes open and your ear on the ground.

The Verdict

I’ve tried out all these items, and I can vouch that they are a legit way for musicians to make a living. Maybe I’ll hit big, or maybe not. It doesn’t matter; I’m pretty secure financially (thanks to the items I’ve listed), and having lots of fun!

Your Turn

So these are my experiences. How about you? How do you balance your music career with making a living?

Let’s hear your stories!

Clark signing out!