Photo by Patrick Wright
I get a lot of questions from aspiring musicians on how to make a career in music. There isn’t one answer to this, and everyone’s circumstances are different. However, below are some of my more general suggestions for those considering a life in music.
I’m usually talking to upright bassists, so I generally suggest they become the “go to” person for a specific genre. Become the best you can possibly be in a specific style. This will go a long way to making you the “first call” for certain types of gigs. The market is always changing, but jazz, classical, tango and rockabilly (and more) are all money-making possibilities for freelance upright players at the moment. Learn the style, the tunes and the history. Become an expert.
But also double, or triple…
This is especially valuable for those just starting to form a career. Be competent in a variety of styles and play both upright and electric. If you can play both electric and upright you will have more gigging possibilities. If you stick with it long enough, at some point you will likely find your career leaning one way or the other. Even so, doubling can serve you well your entire career.
I began my bass playing life as an electric player, but my career has been almost entirely upright for the past 15 years. However, as recently as a few months ago, I showed up for an out-of-town symphonic gig that, unbeknownst to the contractor (and me), required a doubler. It was important for the show and, if I had been unable, they would have needed to replace me. Instead, the director found an electric bass for me, and off we went. They got the show they wanted, and I got a check. Win-win.
Also, for many styles, singing will be a plus, or even required. At the very least I suggest being able to sing some backup harmonies.
Be able to read, and play by ear.
Both skills are valuable, but many people can do only one. If you can do both, you’ll get more work.
We all have genres of music that are close to our heart, but limiting ourselves musically can mean the difference between working or not. If someone calls, and it is at all possible, say yes. Unfamiliar territory may require extra study before the gig, but it’s better than not working. Besides, you never know where it might lead, maybe somewhere great. Alfred “Pee Wee” Ellis was embarking on a jazz career when he took the job in James Brown’s band. I’d say it worked out rather well for him.
If you aren’t getting enough calls, get to know more musicians. Even better, form your own group and start booking you own gigs. Don’t sit around and wait, get out and do.
There are, of course, some things you shouldn’t scrimp on. Certain aspects of professional musician’s life require quality. We need a good instrument, dependable equipment, reliable transportation, decent gig clothes, excellent education, etc. (I include education in this list, as we will be relying on that our entire lives. There are, of course, many ways to get a quality education.)
Even so, there are places a musician can keep monthly outgo down. Maybe your television isn’t the newest, you don’t have cable, your cellphone plan minimal, social expenses cautious, your car used, and your housing costs are efficient. It costs money to live, but the lower your financial obligations, the easier it will be to let music pay for everything. However….
Pay your bills however you must.
Some young musicians see taking on non-musical work as a failure. I disagree. Making a living with music may be a worthy goal, but that can take time. In the meantime, we may need to take other work to support our musical goals.
Even for a mature artist, it is sometimes non-musical work that enables them to be creative. It can pay for better equipment, or enable them to be more artistically selective. Additionally, when we look back on music history we will find that it is full of successful artists who had non-musical careers.
As one example of many: one of my favorite composers, Charles Ives, had a full career in the insurance industry. If the point is to be artistic, creative and have a life in music, then, in my view, he was a success. As long as you keep playing and being creative you can be successful, however you pay your bills.
Do you make your living in music? I’d love to hear from you. Please share your story and what you’ve learned in the comments section below.