What Does it Take to Become a Professional Musician?

Q: What is really required of one who wants to become a professional musician (IE: no day job!)?

A: Wowee… This could easily be a book (actually, I think it probably is…). To start with, there are many kinds of professional musicians. Here are some basic sub-catagories off the top of my head:

  1. One who starts playing, joins a band and WHAMM-O. The gods favor you and you make it big right out of the gate. You make a boat load of money and never work another day in your life.
  2. One who starts playing with a band and that band is committed to making a go of it and spends year after year in the tour van reinvesting every dollar back into the band. With a small apartment (or NO apartment) and nothing to really show for it but a ton of good stories and personal freedom. No day job, but no money either.
  3. One who sheds a lot and really invests in their instrument and music and devotes all of their time to a select few bands with hopes that one will take off. Getting by will be tough. Live frugally but live your passion!
  4. One who studies their instrument, studies music, learns to read WELL, with the intent of being capable enough to take any and every gig that comes their way. Invests time in networking, schmoozing and making connections in an attempt to work full time, but work playing music! Always with the hope that they will either join a successful touring band, become an in demand studio ace or get plucked up by one of their heroes..
  5. One can actually tap on the ceiling of the middle class this way and, occasionally, break through and make a very good living this way.
  6. One who studies every facet of music and the industry, works busily as a sideman but works even harder to tour their own music and make their own place in the industry. This is the mark for most of the guys you know about. This is the place I strive to get to (I’m still more in category 4, but aspire to a category 5).

There are, of course, an infinite number of paths to becoming a successful artist (and the definition of success in itself is entirely different for every person). These are blanketed stereo-typed generic scenarios, but most of us who work as full-time musicians have spent time in one or all of those places.

For the sake of this short article, I’ll assume that you are inquiring about being a free-lance musician who can jump from Salsa gigs to Klezmer to Funk to an acoustic songwriter without missing a beat (pun intended) or sounding as if you’re outside of your element and therefore, drop the day job and make a living playing music.

In a word, the key is diversification.

  • Diversification of style
  • Diversification of approach
  • Diversification of income sources
  • Diversification of everything.

I always joke that my mortgage and every other expense is paid $100 at a time (but it’s TRUE!). I’ve been learning myself that gigs alone won’t cover a lower-middle class – middle class existence (and the older you get, the more poverty sucks… it’s only fun for a short while, trust me). Unless, of course, you land some stellar and CONSISTENT gigs, but all things must end and in music, they usually end sooner than you’d like them to. I get emails from friends that play with true Pop icons and have been touring with them for decades, asking if I know of anyone that could use them when their bread and butter gig decides to take a break, or go in a new style with a new band for an album/tour, etc.. The truth is, with exception of the top 5% of musicians, none of us will earn what we think our time is worth and far fewer of us will earn enough to save for old age, sickness, etc.. (Hence my mortgage… owning a house or property of some kind is just about the only retirement plan a musician will ever have!).

Thankfully, the stuff that will help make you more money is the same stuff that will help make you a better musician!

Gig constantly

I’d rather take a $20 gig than have a night off. If I’m forgetting my dogs name or what my wife looks like, I’ll take a night or two off but I TAKE THE WORK when it’s there. It’ll be slow next winter, anyway… ;) – Accept gigs that are at the ends of your abilities and work your ass off to ace them – Teach! (I don’t enjoy teaching, honestly… but I always learn something doing it!) – Blog, write and interact with people online about music. You will learn just from the process of doing such. You will also make a TON of friends, connections and get your name out there. – Learn and read about the BUSINESS of music and the arts.. Educate yourself in every way you can.

I have written previous posts about being professional, so I won’t be too redundant but, when it comes to getting called back, making an impression on the gig and just trying to be THE guy for everyone in general… It really comes down to professionalism, reliability and your ability to really play.

A few more quick tips:

Learn to read!!!!

LEARN TO READ REALLY WELL!!!! – NOW LEARN TO READ TREBLE CLEF – Meet every musician you can… Go to the “guys” in town gigs. Introduce yourself. Go to jam sessions. If they don’t know who you are or how you play, who’s going to call you for a gig?! – show up early – learn the material or make yourself some stellar and unambiguous charts of some kind – dress appropriately (unless it a hemp-fest gig, ditch the flip-flops and 2 day old t-shirt with that really funny character on it) – Be sober – Learn to listen to and play WITH the band. Watch your volume Watch the overplaying pay attention to your tone listen to the drummer support the singer (listen to the drummer for groove but don’t forget, it’s ALL about the singer)

Never stop trying

Never stop learning – Never say NO out of fear. Getting your musical butt kicked is one of the best ways to learn! – Never be afraid to ask questions.

“If you ask a question, you’ll sound dumb for 10 seconds. If you don’t ask the question, you’ll sound dumb for the rest of your life.” – (somebody said that) – Never turn away from an opportunity to learn – ALWAYS play like your heroes are in the audience (you never know… one of their agents, roadies, managers might be ;)

The industry has never been more competitive. The bar has never been set so high. The odds have never been quite so stacked against you.

But, if music truly is your passion, what choice do you have? I’d still rather be a poor musician than an adequately funded accountant or bar manager. That’s my reality, so I’ll never stop trying to do whatever it takes to be the best ME I can be, be the best musician I can be and I’ll never stop trying to do it in the smartest way I can muster. It’s all I can do because it’s all I want to do.

Don’t take anything for granted, work hard and success of some measure is inevitable… Just don’t expect to be driving that new Porsche any time soon, either.

Remain realistic, hard working and forward thinking.

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Share your thoughts

  1. m2bass

    HI Damian,
    I follow you on Twitter. Great article. Thanks! I can see that diversification really is the key. I also appreciated your comments about 'stretching oneself' and pulling it off stellarly! ha. I have taken a number of jobs that scared the hell of me but I worked my butt off and pulled them off. Phewww. definitely stressful but in each case I grew measurably! I do have a day job (reporter/writer-I've done numerous pieces for bass Player and bass Guitar mags) but I'd much rather be playing music. I need to start working on my treble clef reading! I'm going to check out your other articles!
    Have a fabulous day.

  2. mletalien

    I Like the article very much. Do you have children? The reason I ask is since I have become a father (I am 40 years old with a six year old daughter), it is much, much harder to avoid the day job and just gig and teach to make ends meet. Thoughts? ML
    PS: And yes, poverty sucks!

  3. this is an awesomely sweet post, you have dragged me into the site.

  4. Piggles

    I'd like to add my 2 cents to this article. I've been playing with bands for a long time, I've done some schooling and have a very good business sense. Very recently I had the chance to share the stage with some AMAZINGLY famous musicians that are house hold names. I learned a lot… I think I SAW what it was and what it meant to be a professional musician. I can go on about it but it's something you really have to FEEL. You have to go see your favorite artist and watch him and just compare yourself. Then you realize, Look how he did that, he was energetic, entertaining and never missed a note. His tone was great, he did all the right things at the right times. This is something I'd suggest for anyone to just go and watch.

  5. gigiherrera

    thanks Damian,very informative and helpful!!….i will a die a poor musician….hahaha.but a verry happy one!

  6. gigiherrera

    thanks Damian,very informative and helpful!!….i will a die a poor musician….hahaha.but a verry happy one!

  7. Brian V Bonini

    Just wanted to add – there are ways to supplement income outside of music that IMHO are pretty conducive to the musical-mind…. Again IMHO, you walk a fine line when your relying on your passion to make ends meet, for some this can turn things bitter and ugly.

    Anyway, just food for though but, the software development and (stock) day trader professions seem to be FULL of musicians (I personally think there’s something about the development of the musical mind that lends itself well to those professions) – the prior being very in demand, the later being very flexible. With the later, a few long term and a couple hours a day playing short hits can make a huge diff. (if your successful with it) in income and still leave plenty of time to build a music career.

    Just a thought…


  8. Phillip

    There is another route…

    I have two friends who married successful, upper middle class women who pay all their bills while they pursue music careers.


  9. Graeme

    @Philip – that’s the way to go!! LOL,all joking apart great article damian, so many avenues to make it as a musician these days. I’d add that the internet has been a godsend for guys to network and self-promote too…so use it wisely to get your name out there but don’t overdo the self promo as it could turn some people off. Keep the articles coming!

  10. Matthew

    Scales, Music Theory, Reading Music, 1-3 hours of constant practice for 15 years