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Life as a Working Bassist: Where Does the Money Come From?

Busking bass player

Q: What is the reality of how guys like you earn a living? I don’t mean to imply that you are “rolling in it,” but how do bassists who focus on freelance work actually make ends meet?

A: Great question! Although I’ve talked about the various ways to make things happen in a career or in a scene, I don’t think I’ve ever really covered the financial side of it.

As with most questions I answer here, the answer will be slightly – or greatly – different for everyone, depending on skill sets, geography and loads of other factors.

I am primarily just a working bassist. Most articles which cover the best way to make money in the music industry out there will likely focus on what I call “mailbox money” – i.e., royalties or merchandise – and possibly investing for those who have started to make enough to think about that.

Personally, while I write music, it’s something I do to challenge myself, and I don’t have the skill set to write a couple of hits for an artist, or to sell for use in a movie.

I am a performer on the stage and in the studio first and foremost, because that it is what I’m best at (and that is what I get called to do). I am also an educator. Most of the money I might make in a year is a direct result of one of those two things.

Using my banking program, I pulled up a little percentage of the money I’ve made over the past 12 months and broke it down by category. Here is the list, and I’ll elaborate on each category, one by one.

  1. Gigs: 58%
  2. Teaching: 19%
  3. Merchandise: 10%
  4. Session Work: 5%
  5. Articles: 3%
  6. Gear sold: 2%
  7. Rehearsals: 1%
  8. Royalties: 1%
  9. Clinics: 1%

I won’t say exactly how much I make in a year (it always changes anyway) but I will say that – in Portland – I have a decent house (pay a mortgage), and my wife and I have two cars and have been working to pay down our mortgage faster. We have a nice life, but we don’t have a retirement account or savings. I live comfortably, but don’t have much of a cushion. If I lived in NYC or LA, we’d be renting for sure. We aren’t rich, but we are comfortable and can afford to treat ourselves once in a while, maybe even use some of my frequent flyer miles to take a vacation once in a while.

So, financially speaking, we’re comfortable but vulnerable. With a few of the right calls though, that could change. The musician’s financial life is a never ending series of ups and downs.

Now for the details on those categories I mentioned…

Gigs

I play an average of 200+ gigs a year, with up to 20 different groups. Some gigs are a one-time deal, and I might never see them again. Some gigs turn into steady work. Some gigs are weekly restaurant gigs for $100 a night, and some are for thousands of people in a nice hall or out at a festival for $1,000 a night. Most pay closer to the $100 range. I might play a huge gig for an international artist one night and then fly home and run straight to the dive bar to play with a funk band the next. It’s all over the map, literally and figuratively.

The thing that I’ve seen drive many a musician back to school for a quick career change is the schedule. Especially when you are traveling, you just may not have time to sleep as much as you should and yet, those are the gigs for which you need to be playing at the highest level.

There is a perception of glamour for the traveling musician. Hey, you’re in Buenos Aires, playing with well known musicians for great money! What’s not to love, right? Well, the reality is this:

  1. You played in Chile the night before
  2. You got three hours of sleep before lobby call
  3. You flew all afternoon, dealing with customs and everything that comes with air travel
  4. You have one hour at the hotel to shower and get a little downtime before heading out for the night
  5. You participate in soundcheck for a few hours, and there’s almost always some issue that will delay things
  6. An artist liaison accompanies you out to dinner – if there’s time to eat. Otherwise, you are gorging on lunch meats and fruit in the green room
  7. You run back to the venue and play your show
  8. It takes a few hours to get out of there
  9. You get to the hotel late at night and are told that in order to safely get to the airport, you should probably be on the road by 6am. So lobby call is 5:45am
  10. 10. You’re wound up after the show and can’t fall asleep until about 2 or 3am, if you’re not also dealing with a time change, in which case you might not sleep at all.
  11. Rinse, repeat for a few weeks with the occasional day off. Unfortunately, that day off is often in the least interesting spot you’ll see all tour, so you basically just catch up on your emails and sleep.

That is a more realistic picture of the life of touring. Of course, there are those fantastic moments where you get a day off in Barcelona or Tokyo and get to run around and take pictures, or a famous, iconic musician comes to the show and hangs out with you. That stuff is priceless and wonderful, but the rest can be complete brutality and requires a certain attitude from people.

I tend to be thankful and up for the adventure, so I actually love it. Most do not love it once they get the full picture.

By the way, it may take you a week to really recover from that trip but lo and behold, you’ve got your schedule loaded to the gills with bar gigs, Skype lessons and private students as soon as you get home. So you’ll just have to get over that jet lag during your power naps before the gig.

Teaching

I never considered myself a teacher until I found myself getting asked to do it regularly and finally realized that I might have something to say to students. Then I lucked out and got offered an adjunct position at Portland State University, where I continue to teach private lessons in between tours to this day.

Teaching is different for everyone. Some come to it naturally and others do not. I live somewhere in between. I don’t actually enjoy teaching per se, but I do love helping people grow and have found it to be a very rewarding experience. The best thing about teaching is that you can’t help but learn yourself. I’ve learned more from teaching than I ever did studying. It’s a fantastic way to grow as a player and as a person, and it also serves to supplement the income a little bit.

Merchandise

The albums I’ve recorded were as much for the challenge of doing it as anything else. I have also been lucky enough to collaborate with other companies (like my Signature bass with Skjold Designs or my Duo-Strap Signature with GruvGear), and was allowed to dip my toes in the expanded world of merchandise. Once you’ve recorded an album and begin to receive money every month in a slow but steady trickle, it does become enticing to try and foster that ability to have the “mailbox money” or passive income. I make a little bit every month from sales of straps, basses, CDs, books and royalties from the few songs out there on which I share a writing credit, as well as occasional use of my own music. It all adds up.

I tell people this: 20 years ago, everyone was focused on trying to make a million bucks doing that one thing. Now the reality of the system is such that for most of us, we need to try and make a buck doing a million different things.

Look at many of the players you admire out there: subscription lessons online, signature basses, CDs, books, stickers, t-shirts, selling charts on their website… Nobody is planning on getting rich on any one thing (well, except maybe some of those subscription sites. Some of them are doing very well). But it is all a means to an end. And that end is generating passive income so the artist doesn’t have to kill themselves trying to do it all via the gigs.

The other thing about merchandising is that it is also branding. The more of “you” out there, the more you pop into people’s minds. If you have a finger in every pie, whenever anybody reaches for a pie, there you are. It goes a long way to enhancing your cachet, and that can help lead to bigger and better things.

Session Work

Now, I could be doing more session work if I lived in a session-heavy area, but I’ve made that compromise because I enjoy my lifestyle in Portland, Oregon. I’ve decided I’d rather love my day-to-day existence than put myself in LA or NYC permanently. Don’t get me wrong, I love NYC (I grew up in NJ) and LA can be a wonderful place, but Portland feels the way I want home to feel, and it is much cheaper to live here. My mortgage payment turns into a rent payment pretty quickly in most other cities. I’d rather have my two story house with a garage and a yard and fewer sessions than record 50 albums a year but always go home to my small apartment with no parking.

That said, I record maybe a half dozen albums a year in Portland, usually fly to LA a few times a year to record with people out there and also record quite a few albums from home. Remote recording truly is the best thing since sliced bread, especially if they are bringing your track back to a real studio and not just doing the whole thing from their home.

Someone can send me an MP3 with no bass and a chart and I can drop it into ProTools, take as many passes as I need and then send a few takes (low-res MP3 files) back and forth via email until the artist has what they want.

Then I send them a hi-res WAV file via a file sharing service after they’ve paid me my fee via PayPal or wire transfer and BAM… tracks and albums recorded from home in your PJ’s with a an endless supply of coffee and back yard breaks when you feel like it.

I will admit, I much prefer being in a studio and playing with the band – or at least part of the band – and I especially prefer having the songwriter or artist there with me when I have a question about approach or intention with the music. But, it can be pretty satisfying to record an entire album for a band in Europe over the course of a few off days from home and still gig at night, teach and so on.

But, yes, given my druthers, I’d rather fly to LA and play the music with the band in a real studio.

Magazine Articles

This is pretty self-explanatory. I get compensated to contribute to various publications. It’s an honor for me and a have a blast doing it – very satisfying work. But it is work I don’t have much advice for in terms of how to go about getting it or fostering it. You need to have a reputation and some “status” first. One can certainly write articles and approach publications on their own and if they are good, they will likely be accepted. If you think you might be good at it and have something to say, go for it.

Gear Sales

Not much to write about here… I’m listing every category, and this was one of them over the past year. I’m pretty good these days with the gear I have, but there is always something that I might need and I try not to horde crap. If I have something that I’m not attached to and can’t remember the last time I used, it’ll likely go. Unless it’s an instrument that could be useful or valuable now or in the future, it doesn’t need to take up space. Every year I tend to unload things.

Rehearsals

What can I say here? I love a paid rehearsal! It adds up over time and every little bit helps!

Royalites and Clinic Fees

I don’t get a ton of royalties or do a ton of clinics, but every year the number gets just a little bit bigger. Take every little avenue and foster them. Fertilize it and watch the seeds grow slowly, over time, but steadily.

My wife and I always joke that our mortgage is paid $100 at a time, and that’s really the truth of it. Even when I have gigs that are paying $500 a night on the road, I know that when the tour is over, the tour is over. That means the money I’m making is temporary and I need to keep all of my fires burning so that I’m not completely in the dark when my big bright torch goes out. And they always go out.

Being a freelance musician is much like being one of those plate spinners at the circus. It can be exhausting at times. But for me, I couldn’t imagine enjoying any other path as much. Life really is an adventure and sometimes you fall on your face. But many other times, you make it to that summit and feel like the king of the world before starting down the next path. It’s got some of the deepest valleys and also some of the highest peaks. If you can hang with the roller coaster ride, it can be quite a fulfilling ride.

Those who do the best out there tend to be very well balanced and thoughtful in their careers. They practice hard, they take chances and they always strive for excellence and never settle for the status quo. Keep pushing and work with intention. Make a game plan and go for it. There are no guarantees but if you are on this path, it is because you have no other choice. It is who you are. Embrace it and enjoy the ride!

Readers, how about you? Do you make your living through music? Tell us how it breaks down in the comments.

Photo by William Ward.

Have a question for Damian? Submit it to askdamian@notreble.com. We can’t promise every question will be answered, but we will read them all.

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