To make money as a professional musician you need to work out what your skills are and how you can leverage them to make money in different ways. Then you need to figure out how much money you need to live on, calculating your rent, all bills and outgoings. From there, you do what you have to do to earn; sometimes saying yes to gigs that in the future you might turn down.
You need to constantly learn your craft whilst adapting to the professional environment. I made loads of mistakes when I was younger but have since found out that being able to play well is a given. You need to be punctual, have great gear, be easy going, a team player, organised and reliable. You don’t even need to be the best to make a good living as a musician. That said, you should strive to be the best musician you possibly can and that journey is one that takes a lifetime.
In my first year as a professional musician at age 22, I made a loss and received an £800 rebate from HMRC. I didn’t really have much of a plan at all back then in terms of getting work or career progression and that money came from making a loss. I was just about to move out of the family home so needed to bring some money in.
There’s a great book by David Schwartz called The Magic Of Thinking Big. It challenges you to make goals way above your current level of self-belief. Aim for the stars and you’ll reach the moon. It’s a great idea but there is also value in doing the opposite, especially if you are just starting out in what can be a perilous living, financially-speaking.
I had a goal in mind of making £16000 in one year just from music – I got that figure from a chat with a friend in a similar position and I’ve no idea why we settled on that amount. Even back then this was well under the national average earnings but that small goal was achievable enough that I just set about getting the work without being too freaked out. Sure enough, I soon reached that figure which rose year on year.
Working back from £16,000, I could calculate roughly how many gigs and teaching days I needed to reach the goal. That was mainly the work I found myself doing when I started – teaching and gigs of any and every kind but mainly wedding type functions (known as society gigs in the US). Even though the financial goal was relatively small, it represented a big deal to me but was also easy enough to avoid overwhelm.
Remember, I had no real plan at that time and no foothold in the industry so knockbacks were very regular at the beginning of my career. So much so that I considered seriously quitting on two occasions and using my biology degree to get a ‘proper’ job. A couple of steady teaching gigs and joining a couple of busy bands enabled me to gain enough traction.
Say yes at the beginning to everything; even low paid gigs. It is about expanding your network, acquiring more skills and becoming more and more employable.
- read well
- run a band
- play multiple styles
- musical direct
- offer another instrument
- write library music
- set up a website
All of these are learnable skills that can make you money. Find the few areas that you enjoy and excel in and then be prepared to steadily build your career over years. It takes time but with persistence and constant improvement you can earn a living doing the thing you love and have a talent for.