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Can You Make A Living As A Musician?

Updated: Sep 15, 2020

If a person is destined to become a professional musician there isn't much anyone can do to change their direction or alter the process. What begins as a casual day dream slowly morphs into an intriguing possibility and from there, settles in like a tick that never leaves. At some point there's no more choice in the matter. You can't fight the pull of music anymore than you can stop your nails from growing or your lungs from drawing air. It's as if music chooses you, rather than the other way around. The problem with being "chosen", however, is that the music business is overcrowded and competitive, the odds are stacked against success, and there's no job security, benefits, or retirement. These facts weed out many would-be professionals, but not everyone is so easily dissuaded. Not everyone sees the same reality. Despite the many reasons against pursuing music, and against the tally of the numbers, and over the objections of loved ones… musicians will become musicians, just as cats will chase mice and birds will fly South for the winter.

Non players see a life of guaranteed chaos and uncertainty, and can't imagine why anyone would commit to such a path. Often times what appears to a musician as a Tolkien adventure looks more Dumbo than Bilbo to the outside observer. What non musicians fail to realize is that the potential hardships they see so clearly don't actually register in the minds of their musical brethren. Although they may be acknowledged by a musician, the potential struggles are never actually considered or feared. And that's where the magic begins. It starts with the fact that every would-be player, as if part of a master musical plan, is hard wired with the same gift of blind confidence that has motivated great music since before the time of Beethoven.

I started drumming at an early age and decided I would do music for a living well before I understood what that meant. Like many young players I discovered rock stars and I soon pictured my future life as a blur of mass adulation, pool time, and autograph signing - with full production concerts at night. I had supportive parents and some natural talent, and the idea of knocking out a successful career in the music biz seemed like a perfectly obvious calling.

Occasionally my lofty aspirations were challenged by a skeptical (rational) adult but no advice or admonition would reach me. I couldn't imagine a result from music other than rock and roll pay dirt. When I was 15 an emotional boss welled up while firing me from a job as a custodian at a women's clothing store. (Sandy was right. I was a bad custodian.) I thought she might cry so I told her it was okay if she fired me. I told her I was going to be a rock star. She gasped and shook her head with concern. She said she pitied me. I suppose with better sense I might have been shaken by such candor. Instead I found the exchange more endearing than offensive. She'd said she pitied me and without a flinch I felt a wave of compassion for her! I was so sure she was wrong I actually pitied her back.

It's natural for aspiring musicians to dream of creating amazing music with great players in state of the art recording studios and luxurious live venues, and those situations do exist. As it turns out, however, there are many levels and possibilities within the realm of professional music. Long careers usually move up and down the pay scale and Cred-ometer, and musicians tend to plug into the system right where their ability, diligence, and luck dictates. Some players get big breaks. Some have set backs, and yet everything seems to work out exactly as it should. The great news is, even if you don't make a killing in the biz it is still possible to support yourself as a musician if you work hard enough.

If the high risk/high reward nature of professional music doesn't bother you it is likely you're already "in the tiger's mouth", in which case you might as well just surrender and enjoy the ride. If not, be advised that the transformation from pensive doubt to cock-eyed optimism can take hold after the next song or video or conversation. Or after the next show you see, gig you play, book you read, etc. The decision to be a musician tends to sneak in like a thief in the night. You realize you've been hit when you find your passion unlocked and all your other interests missing.

Somewhere a player is warming up in a football locker room before an arena show. Elsewhere a musician is rehearsing with a Circus. Someone is accompanying a Bellydance class in a church basement while another player is recording at a castle in Europe. Is it possible to make a living as a musician? Yes. How do I know? Because people just like you are doing it.

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27 oct 2021

I think this is awesome, Steve. Thank you! I took the teacher path because of my own fears (and my parents) of not supporting myself solely on music. I never wanted to teach it either - I felt that was black and white and soulless. I teach English instead, which lyrically makes a lot of sense. I'm in my late 30s, have recorded music in a beautiful studio and at least have it up on iTunes to show for it. I still feel like my songs could easily be on the radio and have been told as much by numerous people but the industry just feels hollow. We hit out at a bad time and I was also the only…

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