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 Erskine? Send it to askdamian@notreble.com. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Leave a Reply to Bill Harrison Cancel reply

  1. This is priceless insight. Thanks!

  2. Great read! I’m fortunate to be following a similar lifestyle and loving it! I’m definitely not rich and NO WHERE near the skill level that you are at Damian, but I’m playing consistently to pay mortgage and feed the family and wouldn’t want it any other way. All the best.

  3. I knew you were something special years ago! Cool to see you making such awesome choices and doing well! Great article Damian!

  4. Damian, very nice article! Good work!

  5. This could be THE best article ever written on the subject of freelancing. A couple of nuts and bolts things I’d add (again, as someone who has done them wrong many times over the years):

    1) If you haven’t gleaned it from the article, the goal is to look at the BIG picture, not just how much individual gigs pay. I do a lot of theater work which doesn’t pay great per service, but I get a nice check for a 45 show run that doesn’t conflict with many other gigs. Even so, I’ve had to turn down 3 good paying gigs to do one mandatory service. Many musicians would think that’s crazy, but in the long run you will come out ahead. Even a steady $30 a week off night gig will pay your grocery bill for a month. Learn to think long term.

    2) Feast or famine is your life’s motto. Try to save money in the good times to last you through the dry spells, rather than running up debts and struggling to pay them off. Still working on this one myself.

    3) Credit is not your friend. See above. Try to live within your means and avoid long term payments as much as possible.

  6. Nice article. If you’re doing any session work, make sure you’re a Sound Exchange member. They collect internet/satellite radio royalties on the masters. Even non-featured performers get a piece of the cut. It’s not much, but if you’re on any hits, then it really adds up over time.

  7. Exactly what everyone else said, incredible article and your honesty about all the details really drives it home! Thanks man.

  8. I’m hovering between both paths. I’ve a 9 to 5 and I gig at the weekend. It can be tiring at times but I have the security there from the 9 to 5 for mortgage and the like. Full time musician does sound great but the in-security could be a bit much for me. Also, where I live (Midlands, Ireland) I don’t think there’s enough work to go full time! Thanks for another great article Damian.

  9. Another informative piece – thanks Damian. I address this subject in a short post on my blog here: http://jazzunderneath.blogspot.com/2007/09/making-living.html.

  10. Thanks for the information! I wish someone told me this years ago!

  11. Most Valuable Article I’ve Read in Years. “Thanks, Damian!” – Ernie Leblanc.

  12. Life of a Working Bassist: Reality Check

    Get in from the gig at 2 AM with $25 to show for it. Lug the 75 lbs of gear up to your apartment. Since you haven’t eaten since dinner you’ll probably want to grab something quickly and then get to sleep.

    Wake up 5 hours later to get ready for a menial job you fake your way through each day. Walk to the bus stop, wait for the bus, take it to the subway, ride the subway for 30 minutes and then walk the rest of the way to work.

    Spend the next 8 hours trying your hardest to do an adequate job at whatever it is that pays the bills, surrounded by people with totally different ambitions than you who consider anything outside the building to be strictly a hobby.

    If you’re lucky, you get to go home for a few hours after work, or even have a night off. Otherwise it’s straight to the practice space or studio for some variation of rehearsal/recording/drinking beers.

    You make it an early night, get in by 11 PM and try to catch up on sleep so that you can get ready for tomorrow, which is incredibly similar to yesterday.

    On the road the schedule is far more challenging.

    Spend your paid time off from work so you can play 7 shows in 7 days and be home for the start of the next working week. Cram yourself, 3-4 other guys, and your combined equipment into a rented van. Spend the next 6 hours driving to Collegetown, USA stopping occasionally for bathroom breaks or to stretch your legs.

    Get to the venue about 20 minutes prior to soundcheck, which is usually run by a white guy with dreads named Lance. Load in your gear, run through a song and ask for some small tweaks in your monitors- instructions which are promptly ignored.

    Cash in your meal ticket (or shell out the $8 thanks to the “band discount”) and eat dry and forgettable bar food.

    Spend the next 3 hours either drinking with a few friends in town, or more likely, playing on your phone.

    Play your 40 minute set to a crowd that ranges anywhere from 10 people to 200 people.

    Strike your gear off the stage and congregate with your bandmates for a quick round of compliments, and then it’s back to hanging out at the bar until it’s time to pack up. Congrats, you’re $20 richer.

    Then it’s off to your glamorous sleeping quarters: a friend’s couch, or floor. Oh, but the bathroom is actually in the bedroom where your friend’s girlfriend is sleeping, so if you wouldn’t mind peeing in the alley that’d be great (true story).

    If you know your friend well, maybe you get to sleep until 9 or 10. Otherwise you’ll have to leave when they go to work. Showers are a luxury you don’t currently have, so a freshly wrinkled shirt and a new coat of deoderant will have to do. Back in the van you go.

    Session Work/Recording

    If you’re lucky you’ve made some friends at local recording studios who throw you some work when it becomes available. This is usually the best paying gig, ranging from $100-300 a day. But sadly these gigs don’t come along as often as you’d hope.

    Then there’s the other type of projects: the investments. These are the groups you play and record with for free because you believe in the music. You end up striking out 99% of the time, but that information is only available in hindsight.

    This sounds a lot worse than it actually is. I happen to love every part of it, including the struggle, self-doubt, and the constant recycling of reasons to believe this will all change soon. But when you’re sleeping on a yoga mat in an unfamiliar city for the fifth night in a row, jet lag and seems like a fair trade for a taste of success.

  13. Pretty much nailed it, Damian. I’d underscore that in order to tolerate all the instability and uncertainty, one must really lust after the existential adventure that a music career brings. Beyond the euphoria of playing the music, there’s an experiential aspect to all the travel, meeting strangers, and finding oneself in surreal and unpredictable situations on the regular. That has to feel like a reward in itself. How many moments have you had and thought, Man, music brings me to some WEIRD places.

  14. Tom

    Great article Damian! Thank You!

  15. Peace all! This was very infotmative. Thank you so much! I have taken the plunge. Im looking for a mentor. Im really following my dream as a bassist. There are ups and downs. Busy times, and scary quiet times. Im not at comfortable yet but definitely motivated and in work mode. Is there a someone who can mentor me to move forward in this?

    Check out mt instagram: grown_woman_bassist

    Thanks and peace!