JOB REVIEW: Thoughts on Being a Professional Musician...

Back in the year 1989, I decided that I had enough of my initial career path of working on cars as an auto mechanic.

It's not that I didn't enjoy working on cars, I still do. It's just that I'd realized that I enjoyed working on my own cars a lot more than working on a half-dozen other people's cars five days a week, from 8:00 AM till 5:00 PM.

So, in 1989 I sent away for the course catalogs from a number of different music schools with a plan to educate myself in music and switch careers. It was a pretty big career move, (auto mechanic to guitar player), but I knew that I just wasn't going to be happy working on vehicles day in day out. And, chasing my first love of music just seemed to make a lot more sense.

In 1991, I sold everything (except my guitar) and moved to Los Angeles to start the Professional Guitar Players Program at the Musicians Institute in downtown Hollywood. This was a huge deal for me and I made the most of my time there, practicing like a madman for countless hours each day.

Back then, I only had two goals. #1 was to become the best guitar player I could be. And, #2 was to never work in another line of work that didn't involve holding a guitar in my hands. So, in twenty-four years, I'm proud to say that goal #2 has been up held. However, with respect to goal #1, well I'm still practicing to become the best guitar player I can be, (24 years ago I was naive and didn't fully understand that this guitar player thing was a life-long project).

I'll often get asked what some of the most noticeable changes are that I've seen in the music business over the last two decades. And, how I've coped with those changes. There's no question about it, I've sure seen a lot of changes.

Back when I first started I didn't have a clue what gigs paid, how I'd earn my rent money, or what kinds of jobs the average working musician did that could perform well enough financially to support myself as a working musician.

As a way to help new musicians become more aware of how to cope with the changes musicians experience, I've divided this week's blog into two parts. Playing the club scene. And, finding work from other sources. 

While I do realize that there are other forms of income, the following areas are generally what I would consider as the most typical, long-term stable and most common forms of earning a living as a musician.

Over the last 20 years, the club scene has gone from nothing but bands and singer songwriters to a whole lot of DJ's. If you don't know by now, DJ's are those folks who play MP3's on a laptop while holding one headphone ear piece to (generally) their right ear. If you would have told me that this was coming, I would never have believed it. 

From a clubs' perspective, it is a lot cheaper to use a DJ rather than hiring a full band. Plus, one bar-tab is always easier to compliment for a club owner than four, or five, hungry, sweaty, thirsty musicians. So, I can see that side of it. But, somehow I still find the idea of getting your name on a club's billing roster from just playing MP3's is still a bit of a reach for me to fully understand. 

Unfortunately, for the working musician, DJ's have expropriated a lot of work from the average weekend musician /band.

However, the biggest draw-down I have witnessed is not the increase in club DJ's, (and subsequent decrease in bar band jobs). It is actually the complete lack of any increase in pay from performing in the club circuit over the last 20+ years. Yes, that is correct. Generally, across North America there has been literally zero increase in pay to musicians performing live events in over twenty years!!

What I mean specifically is this... When I first started playing gigs, getting paid $100 or $150 was considered pretty good pay for a show. Most musicians would probably even do a gig for $60.00. But, fast-forward now to 20+ years into the future, and nothing has changed. A good gig is still only $100 or $150. And, plenty of gigs still exist that pay $60 or less.

The Musicians Union has done nothing. No lobbyist groups for better "Musicians wages," has bothered to step forward. And, no government politician has made a single pledge to help the starving musician earn a better wage. Why? I have no idea... Perhaps, because society doesn't really view being a "Musician" as a "Real" job. Or, perhaps the general public is so out of touch with what it means to be a musician that they just figure we're all rich, (yes, I'm serious)! 

Regardless, the reality is that the average working musician has been left to struggle, and continues to struggle, when it comes to earning a decent wage from playing in clubs, (or from doing any type of live gig in general). We have no health care plan, no retirement plan and absolutely no benefits package of any kind. If we're sick we make no money. And, there is no organization in existence that will step up and help in any way, shape or form.

One solution, for many musicians, has been to leave the club scene behind all together. A new frontier is taking hold; the "all original band" musical path and indie bands who simply host their own shows. Lucky for us, there have been many small venues pop up over the last ten years and they are doing a great job catering to original bands.  Plus, the internet makes gig promotion a snap!

Most of these venues can be booked-out for a couple of hundred dollars. The venue will generally have a full plan in place for promo and for where the bands can set up merchandise tables, sell CD's, T-shirts. The end result ends up turning a pretty decent profit at the end of the evening. Plus, musicians can stick to playing their own original music.

So, although the club and top-40 scene may have taken a kick to the curb, there are other options on the table for the working player looking to maintain their stage presence.

While being on a stage may be the most 'fun thing' that a musician gets to do, it unfortunately produces a fairly dismal monetary gain for the typical player. 

For example, (if within a good month of gigs), you played every Friday and Saturday, making $300 each weekend. And, you were lucky enough to pick up one more gig through the week for $100. That would only generate approx. $1600 for the entire month. And, that is assuming that you can actually get that much work playing out! 

Most musicians, in reality, will struggle to fill every weekend booking across every month of the year. When you consider that the average rent is almost $1,000 for a decent apartment. Then factor in food, entertainment, plus utilities, this will easily eat up that remaining $600. After all is said and done, it doesn't leave a lot left over at the end of the month for the; car loan, home and property insurance, fuel, music supplies, etc.

This means that the average working musician needs to have what we will generally call a, "Musicians Multiple Steam of Income." Or, M.M.S.I. for short.

The overall ability for a professional musician to "earn a living" will rest upon the individual musicians skill for generating more than one source of revenue. This means that several other income avenues need to be explored in order to be able to pay all of the bills each month. In addition to having "just enough" money to pay the bills, it would be nice if there's money left over to live a comfortable lifestyle, (beyond bill payments).

For a lot of players, hooking up with a couple of producers is a typical way to earn more income. The producers work closely with local up and coming singer songwriters and soloists. Normally, these performers don't have a band or 'studio level players' to work with. So, a professional studio player is required. That's where the pro-musician comes in. Playing these sessions can earn some pretty decent income. And, the sessions are typically off hours from your other musical endeavors. Add to that, the singer /songwriter will often hire you after the recording session ends to play some live shows. After all, you already know the material.

Another excellent income stream that most musicians will pursue is teaching a group of students. Once a musician starts teaching, (and if they're good at it), it won't take long via word of mouth before they have 10 or more students each week. 

Since good teachers charge anywhere from $30 to $40 per session, it won't take more than a few nights each week to generate a nice cash flow from teaching, (thus more cash for covering a few more household bills, or for banking a little extra in that long-term savings account).

Once the decision has been made to become a professional musician, the next step is becoming as educated as one can possibly become. 

The education process allows for everything else to accelerate. Still, the reality is, it all boils down to; hard work, dedication, as well as, luck. These are the key ingredients to eventual long-term success. 

Without these, the chances of earning a successful living as a musician are next to impossible. So, if being a professional musician is of interest to you, then realize that the road to success doesn't come easy. You'll have work ahead of you. 

But, if you're like me, and this just feels like the 'only job' in the world for you... then chances are you'll figure out a way to make it work. Just as I have.

Happy New Year and all the best in 2015!

- Andrew Wasson