Making a Living in Music

Bassist in the light

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.

Say yes.

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.

Be proactive

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.

Be economical

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.

Dr. Donovan Stokes is on the faculty of Shenandoah University-Conservatory. Visit him online at and check out the Bass Coalition at

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Share your thoughts

  1. I find kind of a controversy in what is said above: be specialized AND be a doubler and flexible in the genres… Wow, quiet a job! ;-)
    But let me tell you: it’s possible and easier than you maybe think! Because fun & passion is the key! As long as you enjoy what you’re doing and are passionate about it, things will be alright and start to come your way. Be the best possible player you can be and do it the best way you can, but do it with passion and fun!

  2. Some very good points, Donovan.Also important to be able to make money in some other form.The reality is , not everyone is going make enough money playing an instrument to pay the bills. It is extremely important to have a way to persue your passion and still be a healthy functioning member of the real world.A small percentage of really good musicians are making a living doing what we all love to do.There is a larger group of us that have had great opportunities in the business,but still need to supplement our income in some other form to make it all work .
    Bass on!

  3. Mikeq

    I feel as though I have the best of both worlds right now. I have a day job that I like. It pays me well, provides 5 weeks vacation time, holidays off, great medical and dental benefits and many other perks. Musically I work as a sub, filling in when other players can’t make it. I get to gig around with a lot of different musicians, I can say yes or no as my time or desire dictates, I make some extra cash and I can still do all my own extra learning, writing, recording and creating at my leisure. Eventually (in retirement) I’d like to transition to a more full time musical career, maybe wedding/corporate band player, but for now this is the “cat birds seat”.

  4. I also suggest learning to transcribe and arrange. These two skills have helped me not only form groups, but have come in handy when other groups need arrangements. It’s a bit of an undertaking, but the old saying was that if you could write a big band chart, you could write for orchestra. Not that you would need to write for so many instruments, but specialties usually come with great benefits.

  5. rmw3

    No mention is made of navigating local politics or simply gaining acceptance (or exclusion) in the local scene. In every local scene, established musicians can and do control who gets in and who’s kept out. As a multi-degreed, proficient, professional, dependable, sober nice-guy, I’ll advise others to prepare to meet resistance at the local level. Qualities like the ones just listed aren’t always what a band leader is looking for. Don’t ask me what that missing quality is, I could never figure it out. Best wishes in reaching your goals.

  6. Daniel Morriss

    Sound advice and a great article! I’ve found that the more rounded as a musician I am, the easier it’s been to earn a living from playing.
    – Improving your music theory helps with a teaching income.
    – Reading will help with theatre productions.
    – Ear training helps in jam situations and getting into bands.
    … The list is probably endless.