Going Full Time: Making Music Your Day Job

Busker Bassist

Q: I recently moved to a new city, and I am starting to meet new musicians rather quickly (or at least, faster than I expected). I put an ad on Craigslist to meet and jam with bands – blues, rock, funk, jazz stuff. I received a reply from a band that needs a full time dedicated bass player. I like their sound and they even have charts written out so learning their stuff isn’t a problem. I am a music educator, I have been teaching music in public schools for 7 years. With more opportunities in this new city, it may be possible to play more, teach less and still make rent. Any advice for transitioning from a “day job” to full time musician? Should I explore some more around the new area, or go for it?

A: Good for you!

My advice is simply this: Follow the gigs.

Pursue every opportunity that comes your way, piques your interest or at least provides some sense of satisfaction or income.

Then worry about potential conflicts with other projects which may or may not come your way when the time comes.

It’ll likely take quite some time before you can leave your day job altogether, without living in complete poverty.

My advice for transitioning from a day job to full-time musician is two-fold.

1. Take everything that comes your way until you can afford to be more deliberate in your choices.

2. At some point, once you are relatively busy or at least gigging enough not to lose the roof over your head, you will have to take the full plunge and quit the job. Thus begins your career and the moment when you are truly working for yourself.

The timing will rarely be ideal but for most, it must come. There is no greater motivation than that of necessity.
The thing that tends to separate those who can make it happen and those who can’t is work ethic. If you quit your day job and truly begin to work for yourself, this means that you put as much (or more) energy into your abilities (and thus, you’re employability) in addition to your outreach and pursuit of more work.

This often means that you are not taking the lack of a day job and schedule as an excuse to drink all night and sleep all day. This means that you still work for the majority of your day. With the massive exception of for whom you are working.

My advice then is to take the gig, work hard, make an impression and continue to reach further and further until you feel like it may be time. Then, dive in head first and swim hard!

One day, you very well may realize that you have money in the bank, gigs on the calendar and a smile on your face.

Readers, what’s your take? Tell us your stories in the comments.

Photo by keith ellwood

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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  1. I think the operative term is “taking the plunge”. you’ll be forced to dig deep and make the necessary investments in your career(practice, listening, money, socializing etc.) but that’s not to say that a music career can’t be paired with some other career or job.

  2. I’ve spent most of my adult life as a full timer or almost full timer. Some advice (mostly from stuff I’ve done wrong myself over the years):
    1) Don’t depend on the one “full time” gig. The band could break up or your work could dry up tomorrow, and you’d be SOL. Cultivate a healthy freelance network, and book other gigs around the main band so you always have something going on. Also look at private teaching, recording, guitar repair, etc – side businesses where you can set your own schedule and don’t have to get up before noon.
    2) Learn how to book gigs yourself. Yes, it’s tedious, humbling, at times embarrassing, and can be torture if you’re an introvert, but it’s the best way to stay employed. Plus you can set your own schedule.
    3) Get used to playing music you hate. A lot. The sooner you make your peace with it, the better.
    4) Being a professional musician isn’t about who can play “Teen Town” the fastest; No one in the audience cares about your mastery of diminished scales or double thumping. It’s about entertaining people and making the band/groove/pit gig/event/club’s bottom line/recording session/church gig easier and better for everyone else than it was before you got there. The sooner you get over yourself, the more successful you will be. Repeat this to yourself as a mantra – “It’s not about me…”.

  3. It’s very tough to take the plunge. I work a 40hour/week job and gig most weekends. The security of the day job is what is keeping me there, a bank would love to see a musician coming looking for a mortgage! :-D At the same time working and gigging puts a strain on other aspects of life and you need to keep them all balanced.
    I defintely agree with John M Shaughnessy II’s point about looking into other avenue’s such as recording, teaching, etc. I’ve researched taking the plunge and at least a second avenue is needed to live comfortably.

  4. First, thanks Damian for responding to my question…I have much to think about and work to do. And to the other “full timers” thanks for the encouraging comments:) Keep It Low!

  5. This article couldn’t have come at a better time for me. I am about to leave the city I have made a name for myself on and “take the plunge” in the nigger, more diverse location. Thank you for all your insights.

  6. I did the same thing, switching from a full time engineer to a full time musician. Teaching during the day and playing at night. 2 years already of big smiles on my face and still paying the bills. I’ve read a lot of books about this, like the Artist way by Julia Cameron and many others that inspired me to make the move. It’s a long story, by I just imagine myself at the last 20 sec of my life having to answer whether I fulfilled my childhood dream or not. I just want to have a good answer to that question!