When people think of a “professional musician”, two images come to mind: celebrities and starving artists. There is no in between. When I introduce myself to people and the inevitable conversation ensues about what we do for work, I always get a surprised reaction;”Oh, that’s interesting”, with the slightest hint of pity. I’m not Lady Gaga, so I must be the latter, right? Wrong. Even at my shows, one of my FAQs is “Do you actually do this full time?”, or my personal favorite: “Are you one of those people that is, like, a computer engineer by day and do music by night?”No. And quite frankly, I didn’t know that population was large enough to justify its own category.
I know a lot of great musicians. Some are more experienced than me. Some are more talented than me. Some are better looking than me. But few musicians, especially at my age, can say they support themselves 100% through music…and live pretty comfortably while doing so. Here’s how I make it work.
I have about 25 private piano and voice students that I work with every week. It is fulfilling to see them grow as musicians, but it also keeps me on my toes. I didn’t have perfect pitch until I started teaching and my sight-reading has drastically improved. Working with younger students has also forced me to learn songs that I would’ve NEVER learned on my own (but do get requested at my shows: Top 40 pop hits, TV/movie themes, Disney.) Plus, I know I can depend on those 25 students as a source of income–even during the slow months or when I’m transitioning from one gig to another.
2. Don’t be a one-trick pony.
A lot of musicians are really really good at one type of music. While I appreciate that dedication, it’s not marketable. Successful musicians are able to seamlessly transition from one gig to the next, not only with their repertoire, but with their stage presence and personality. Currently, I perform in the lobby of a luxurious hotel, a family-friendly Italian restaurant and a loud beer hall with sing-along piano bar —all in the same week. I play different songs. My energy is different. My voice is different. What I say on the microphone is different. Even what I wear is different. I could entertain you and your bridesmaids at your rowdy bachelorette party and then elegantly serenade you as you walk down the aisle. Don’t let my soulful rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” detract from my ability to get on the mic and spit some Snoop Dogg (Lion? have we figured that one out yet?)
3. Look like a professional.
I get it. You’re really edgy and cool. You’re just expressing yourself, man. That great and all, but if you want to be treated like a professional, you better look like one—especially when you’re first starting off and trying to get your name out there. Iron your shirt. Wear a belt. Comb your hair. Unless you are Weezer or 5 years old, don’t you dare wear Vans with that suit. You are the entertainment. Even if you look better than every other person in the room, there is no such thing as being overdressed.
4. Play cover music.
I love when I meet other musicians and they pretty much scoff at me when I tell them I play cover tunes. Your band only plays original material? Good for you. I like having more than $4 in my bank account, thank you very much. I don’t care how good your original songs are; people want to listen to songs they recognize. You need to know at least 50+ cover songs to get the gigs and perform in front of new audiences. Can you toss an original song into the set here and there? Absolutely! Can you promote your CD/Facebook/iTunes/whatever over the mic? Of course. That is how I’ve generated about 17,000 followers on social media and most of iTunes sales. However, I would’ve never been exposed to those audiences if I only played my own material on gigs. Here’s another hint: if your audience REALLY likes you, THEY will ask you to perform one of your own songs.
I do a lot of volunteer work in my community. First and foremost, I feel incredibly lucky for the opportunities I’ve had through music and feel a sense of obligation to give back. Second? It is a gold mine for networking. If a cause or charity that you align with is hosting a fundraiser, volunteer to perform. They will likely list you or your band in the program book and a little extra exposure/practicing never hurt anyone. Do you know who attends charity events? People that throw holiday parties, or birthday parties, or work for companies that throw holiday parties that need entertainment. Remember to bring your business cards. Or even better—ask for their business card and send an introductory email the next day.
6. Own Your Own Equipment
If you’re depending on the venue to supply the PA system, or microphones, or keyboard or stands or whatever, you’re going to be turning down gigs. Why? Not all venues with live entertainment come with a complete backline and renting equipment gets expensive. Additionally, when you use your own equipment, you are going to start to learn how it works and what settings make you sound the best rather than just pressing a bunch of random buttons on the house mixer and hoping for the best. It doesn’t matter if you and your music are phenomenal. If your sound quality is poor, if your cables are broken, or even if you’re just a tad too loud, you will not be invited back.