Being a musician is truly a unique job. Generally speaking, you can't go to a company and apply to be a full-time musician. There aren’t any job listings for musicians on LinkedIn, or Monster, or Indeed, or even EntertainmentCareers.net. Even if you were lucky enough to find one, the chances that the role involves writing any original music of your own artistic expression is slim to… well it’s basically zero. This begs the obvious question:
How does a musician make a living?
And perhaps a more important question:
Is it even realistic to think I can make a living as a musician?
In this article, I am going to answer these questions, and provide you with a roadmap that can help guide you from strumming your guitar in your mom’s basement, to being able to afford your own house, car, food, cell phone, insurance, and all the other bullshit life throws your way. To get there, we’ll cover these 8 steps.
What I’m not going to do in this article is spoon feed you meaningless garbage advice like, “work hard and never give up!” accompanied with a disingenuous smile and pat on the head… It’s condescending at best and anyone that’s ever touted that crap deserves to be punched in the groin. Keep reading if you want advice you can actually use right now.
Also, be sure to download the Music Career Worksheet I made for you to help get things on track.
What Does It REALLY mean to make a living as a musician?
Before we talk about the how of how to make a living as a musician, we need to talk about the what. What does it really mean to make a living as a musician?
1. You earn enough money to pay for life
Of course, “enough” is a subjective term. You need enough money to survive, sure, but if you want a sustainable career as a musician, you need to make enough money to live a lifestyle you’ll be content with. You should know specifically what this number is!
2. You treat your music like a business
While music can survive on love and passion alone, a business cannot. If you truly want to do music for a living, you have to treat it like a business. This means…
You spend time and effort writing and recording music
You spend time and effort on marketing your music
You spend time and effort on selling your music
You spend time and effort managing your music finances
3. You act like the boss AND the employee of your business
This means that you give yourself tasks with deadlines, and you hold yourself accountable for meeting those deadlines.
Some musicians have “made it” without doing all these things… those people were extremely lucky. So, you can leave it up to luck, or you can continue reading this article and take control of turning your dream into reality.
Step 1: Psychological Preparation
I think people underestimate this aspect of the process. This is the part where you say to yourself “I’m going to start taking my music career seriously, now,” and you actually believe that you will. You cultivate a mindset where you know without any doubt that you can do it, and that you are going to do it. If you don’t get this part down, I am convinced you will be doomed to the point where even luck has little chance of saving you from music career failure.
“I suddenly realized then, that year, that life was already happening. I think it’s because my mother was so obsessed with education and the idea that childhood and adolescence - well, everything - was about preparing for a life that was going to start later. And I suddenly realized that life wasn’t going to start later… and that at any point you can grasp the reigns and start guiding your own destiny.”
– Roger Waters
Step 2: Develop Your Skillset
You’re a musician. So you’ll need to know how to play music, and knowing a thing two about songwriting probably won’t hurt either. But you might also be a video producer, or a photographer, or a podcaster. You’re an artist. Whatever you plan to make, you’ll need to be at a level in your creative and technical abilities that makes you worth paying attention to. You need to be at a level that makes you worth paying for.
Step 3: Research and Development
Since you are going to be running the business of your music, you might as well learn a few things about business. The fact that you’ve made it this far into this article is honestly a very good sign. Keep reading and researching. Then you’ll need to take the knowledge you've acquired and apply it to you own development. This is where you write out your business plan - what you’re going to make, how you’re going to make it, how you're going to market it, how you're going to sell it, and how you're going to grow. Here is a short list of things you can probably start researching and developing for yourself right now:
Social Media Management
Subscription Models and Platforms
Monetizing Your Music - Try to think of all the different products and services you as a musician can offer your fans and beyond. Then identify all the different ways you can collect money on those products and services. Here is a short list, but I encourage you to think creatively and to add to this.
Digital downloads of your music
CDs, cassettes, and vinyls (depending on your fan base, there might actually still be a market for these things)
Merchandise - T-shirts, posters, stickers, pins, guitar picks, phone backgrounds, etc.
Streaming live performances
Subscriptions to exclusive content
Step 4: Production
There is a balance between putting out your best work, and not putting out any work at all. As artists, there is a certain point where we all need to say to ourselves, “this is as good as I am today,” and be OK with that. So yes put your best work out, I mean duh.. But don’t get caught in the trap of never completing or releasing anything because you don’t think your work is perfect. We are all subject to suffering from this blunder. What is important is that you release material on a regular basis to keep your fanbase engaged and growing.
Step 5: Marketing
Interestingly enough, bands and artists have the same basic problem that any business has: Getting people to know, like, and trust you. Obviously people can’t buy from you if they don't know who you are. And once they know who you are, they still need to decide they like you before they’ll be willing to spend any money. And finally, they have to trust that what they'll get for their money will be worth it. Marketing is building your fan base, but also taking it a step further and putting some practical thought into it to ensure people know you, like you, and trust you.
Step 6: Sales
Once people know, like, and trust you, you’ll have an opportunity to actually sell them something. In order to do this you’ll need a way to accept a payment. Maybe that means putting a web-store onto your website, or signing up with a distribution service. If you're creating exclusive content for subscribers, the payment process will probably be built into the platform you choose to use.
Step 7: Finances
If you’ve made some great music and marketed it properly, you’ve hopefully started to collect some income. Any successful business keeps a budget to properly track that income, and allocate it appropriately to further promote growth. This is crucial. If you don’t know how much money you are making from your music and content, it will be difficult to know whether you are making any real progress towards shifting your career from day job to full-time musician or not.
Step 8: Human Resources
Once you have committed to taking your music career seriously, built up your skillset, read 10,000 books and articles, written and recorded some music, marketed that music, and started earning and tracking your income and expenses, you’ll be fucking tired. Don’t forget to chill sometimes. Take care of your body, take care of your mind, take care of your soul, take care of your bandmates, and take care of your relationships. If you burn out, you're doomed. Putting some time and thought into how to handle and manage your human resources (you and your bands time, money, and emotional well being) will save you from this doom.
OK building a business sounds like a huge task. And it is. So I want to stress the point that this. takes. time. People tend to over-estimate their one-month potential and under-estimate their 10-year potential. Read that again.
People tend to over-estimate their one-month potential and under-estimate their 10-year potential.
You can’t allow short-term burnout to determine long-term success. Do some people blow up overnight? Sure it happens, but again, are you willing to rely on a stroke of luck?
For most of us, the transition from day-job to full-time musician is a slow one. Throughout the process there will be difficult periods of time. Remember, even though a business cannot survive on love and passion alone, your music can.
So, is it realistic to think you can make a living as a musician? As strange as it sounds, the answer to this question really comes down to your commitment.
The first and most important thing to do on the journey to making a living as a musician is to decide with full conviction that you can, and that you are going to. Once that mindset is in place, you’ll have to then build up your musical skills and abilities. You’re going to need to do some research and develop a plan for your business. Then, make some music, market it, sell it, and track your financial progress. If you're still standing after all that, take the band on vacation, you deserve it!
It is my goal to help you thrive as a musician. I hope you found this article helpful. If you have any questions or comments please drop me a line! I’m even happy to look at your music business plan and provide some feedback.
You can also download this Music Career Worksheet I made for you.