Surviving As A Freelance Musician

The hard truth about peddling your craft. Tips on getting hired, staying hired, and making your clients happy.

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One of the biggest dreams that young shredders have is being able to earn a living by playing their instrument. Well, folks, I'm here to tell you: it's possible! And, furthermore, I'm here to tell you: its hard! Really hard! But, thankfully, there are things you can do to help your chances, and keep you on the stage, instead of in the want ads. Just a note: this article is designed for freelance musicians, that is, musicians that are not affiliated with any band or other group. However, a lot of these trips will work for your band, so please read on. 1. At least in the beginning, you will need a day job: This is the part that nobody likes, so I'm gonna get it out of the way first. At least when you're first starting out, you just will not be able to support yourself by playing music. And its got nothing to do with your abilities as a musician. The thing about the music business is that it really is all about who you know. Its such a tight-knit, close community, and a lot of your credibility will come from people you know and reccomendations from your peers and other clients. So, when you're first starting out, you have none of that credit, and therefore, you are not going to be called about very many gigs. You will have to solicit yourself to play for things, not the other way around. Until you catch a couple breaks, the money is just not going to be around for you to make a full-time living doing this. But, fear not, eventually, you might be able to do pretty well. 2. Make yourself marketable: As odd as it sounds, you are a product that your clients have to buy. Just like an advertising campaign makes a certain product stick in the minds of consumers, so too do you have to work to stick in the minds of your potential clients. And the best way to do that is not through crazy costumes and ridiculous stage antics. Make business cards (you can do this at home with Microsoft Office and other programs) and hand them out any time you get a gig. That way, your name will always be available when people ask for a guitarist. Make sure people know that you're available and ready and willing to play gigs. Be polite, be reliable, and work hard. And for more about that... 3. Professionalism, professionalism, professionalism!: This may be the most important aspect that will help your career. Just like with any other job, you will not be hired again if you make the experience an unpleasant one for your employer, nor will you be recommended for any other job. But, make it a happy, comfortable experience, and you have a shot at more gigs. Always be on time, be early if you can help it. Always have everything you'll need for that day of playing. Always have your parts learned. If, for some reason, there is a part you can't play at the first rehearsal, make sure that it's flawless by the next rehearsal. This is the "job" part of being a musician. You have to have your parts down, or what's the point of hiring you? Take criticism, don't ever lose your temper, and always be the kind of person that people want to work with. Is it a pain in the butt? You betcha, but, it's really not that much of a change to keep getting checks, is it? Another thing you want to think of is how you visually present yourself. Sadly, performing musicians, guitarists especially, have sort of a bad reputation. And showing up looking dirty, with a bunch of piercings and oddly colored hair isn't going to do much to change that reputation. I'm not trying to make you sell out or be somebody you don't want to be, I just want to make sure you're aware that looks do matter, and first impressions are everything. I personally reccomend that you show up looking clean and conservatively dressed. It just makes things easier. 4. Never, ever complain about the check: This isn't the marketplace. You don't get to haggle. What you get paid is what you get paid. If you don't think it's fair, then just don't take gigs from that person anymore. But, making a scene burns a bridge, and someday, you might need that bridge to get jobs. Now, if somebody says they're going to pay you x amount, and then the check comes and you get shorted or not payed at all, then you have every right to (politely) discuss the discrepency. But, remember, never, ever lose your temper. People are always watching... 5. Be versatile: You might love to play metal, but, if you can play rock, country, and jazz, too, you've got a much better shot at getting gigs. Drummers, you should really consider learning some non drumset percussion, such as snare drum, keyboard percussion, timpani, world percussion, etc. The more things you can do, the more jobs you're going to get. And never turn down a gig ecause it isn't your kind of style. When you're making the big bucks, you can be as picky as you want. I don't know about you, but three or four hundred dollars is an awful lot to turn down because you don't like reggae. 6. Be musically educated: Because some of your clients will be. And when they tell you to lay down a I-IV-V-I progression in F major, you better know what they're talking about. You must, must, MUST be able to read music, and not just lead sheet, but full musical manuscript. Remember, Every Good Boy Does Fine. 7. Be proactive: If you hear about a gig, pursue it. It is perfectly acceptable to call somebody and say "Hey, I heard you might need a guitar player on such and such a date. Well, my name is such and such, I'm very capable, and if you need somebody, here's my number." It can't hurt, as long as you're polite and professional. 8. Understand the environment: Freelancing is as much about your people skills as your guitar skills. Understand and feed into the chemistry of the group you are performing with. If everybody is loose and having a good time, then of course you can have a good time as well. Tell a few jokes, have some fun. But, if the group is very professional and doesn't fool around, then you shouldn't either. And, nothing you do should ever affect your playing abilities. 9. Plan your time: This sort of goes along with being professional, but don't ever let yourself forget a gig or rehearsal. Get a planner, and make sure you don't doublebook yourself. I had a friend that doublebooked himself once, and now, he can't buy a job within 30 miles of where he blew somebody off. You need to stay on top of the game. 10. Don't give up: Even if you can't make a full-time job out of being a musician, continue to take gigs and put yourself out there. You never know which gig could be the break you've been looking for. These ten tips are for the most part very simple. However, if you follow them, you'll be well on your way to being a successful freelance musician. Go get yourself some gigs! -John

28 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    August_Burns
    jamsea wrote: Professionalism, professionalism, professionalism I wish more local bands would follow this. I promote concerts and I'm friends with the other promoters in my city. We all talk to each other. I can't tell you how many times I've avoided booking an unprofessional local band after I was told stories by another promoter. I'll book the more dependable professional band who are worse musicians over the less professional but more musically proficient band any day.
    This makes you a douchebag. I 100% agree with the article, but musical talent wins out over everything. The fact that you would take a better looking band over a better sounding one. Is a testament to the fact that you're a tool. You represent everything the entire last 30 years of rock hates. Great article, but I do not believe you should ever change how you are to get music deals. Professionalism is great, but this is textbook selling out, I would rather know I got a deal because they heard my music and didn't care what I look like.
    Stuntaxe
    #4: Never, ever complain about the check. WHat the whole paragraph says is so horribly horribly wrong. You should get a law suit about misleading people. Getting paid is the most important part of being a musician, because it is the most important part to any business, what music need not apply? Get stiffed is OK? Nah man, you are misguided here and telling people it's ok if a check slips is complete BS. Sure not getting paid is going to go with the territory and sometimes a musician will have no choice but to accept a short check. However having business done before hand is the key and solidifying people that like your music is the way to insure getting paid.
    jslick07
    Stuntaxe wrote: #4: Never, ever complain about the check. WHat the whole paragraph says is so horribly horribly wrong. You should get a law suit about misleading people. Getting paid is the most important part of being a musician, because it is the most important part to any business, what music need not apply? Get stiffed is OK? Nah man, you are misguided here and telling people it's ok if a check slips is complete BS. Sure not getting paid is going to go with the territory and sometimes a musician will have no choice but to accept a short check. However having business done before hand is the key and solidifying people that like your music is the way to insure getting paid.
    You're confused as to what I mean, and perhaps that's my fault for not stating it clearly. If you've been told that you are going to be paid for a service, and you don't get paid, then you have every right to dispute that with your hirer. However, I'd urge you not to do so in a polite, professional manner. If someone says to you "I'm going to pay you this amount." and then the check comes and its not that amount, then you have every right to (politely) dispute that. But, if you've just been told that its a paying gig, the check comes, and its less than what you've been hoping for, just swallow it and move on. Does it suck? Yes. But, you have no leg to stand on: nobody ever made an agreement with you as to the price of your service, and arguing will (probably) not get you anywhere. If anything, it'll probably not get you hired there again. This is (as all of my articles are) just speaking from my own personal experience. Sorry if it somehow offended you.
    affinity_strat
    This isn't about how to stay true to your rock&roll spirit. Its about in the music world, a horrible world to make money in. Its not about selling out your music dream, more like trying to have a "day job" that has to do with music.
    Creative-Noise
    Maybe times have changed but it used to be: every good boy deserves favor.
    Or Every Good Boy Deserves Fun/Fudge, or Elvis' Guitar Broke Down (on) Friday... Or a million others I'm sure.
    Creative-Noise
    I'm kinda glad to see so many negative comments about this article: each one means less competition for all the real musicians out there. Great article. Believe every word if you're serious about a music career. Except it's sometimes ok to ask for a bit more money if you've done good work for the same group for a long time. Just do it really politely and if they refuse don't make a fuss.
    abbydaddy03
    Maybe times have changed but it used to be: every good boy deserves favor. Like the Moody Blues Album. I know a (supposed) bass player that asked me "which place (fret) on this string (?) do I put my finger? Good luck buddy. Good article anyway.
    Ibanezbelyeu
    I think most of you guys are looking at this in the non-professional sense. Fuck what genre it is, when it comes down to eating or not eating I'm sure you will take almost any job. and to add to that i have to urge one more thing. don't tie yourselves down to one style, because that only ties you down as a musician. Learn the beauty of MUSIC. This coming from a "metalhead" that is studying jazz performance
    Ibanezbelyeu
    Cerelil wrote: Look at Guthrie Govan, one of the best guitarists to have ever lived, amazing versatility, can play pretty much any style and genre, and he earns 300,000 a year. He is only endorsed by small companies, and doesn't really play guitar for anyone big except a short stint in Asia and occasionally playing with Dizzee Rascal. Most of what he does is session work and teaching.
    Dude he is endorsed by suhr guitars...that = guitar perfection
    minnigh
    I would really like to read this article but because of that stupid legion ad i cant =(. Because of this advertisement im never gonna watch legion.
    zimzaderk
    k people stop combing through this too find problems with it. its all legit advice hes not saying this is the way to do it and thats athat hes saying if you want your job to be music as in musician heres some advice. this isnt for the fastest to the top its not for single minded guitarists this is for people who want to make music there way of surviving. i personely have been doing all right with being a stand alone guitarist and the way i pulled it off was i played in front of local stores and one day i started handing out fliers for one of my first shows at an actual place of music enough knew who i was as that guitarist who plays around town that i got a good number of people too show up too my show wich i paid for my spot but since then bout once a month i get called up by that same guy who booked me and i go play a show wich he now pays me and hes not the only one. so my addition to this advice page is stand out the right way i may have hair 2 feet long a beard 5 inches long and thick enough to cover my face but after a while i grew on people cause i would interact with people with my songs street performings awsome try it some time more people notice and REMEMBER then u think
    Randomrings
    Stuntaxe wrote: #4: Never, ever complain about the check. WHat the whole paragraph says is so horribly horribly wrong. You should get a law suit about misleading people. Getting paid is the most important part of being a musician, because it is the most important part to any business, what music need not apply? Get stiffed is OK? Nah man, you are misguided here and telling people it's ok if a check slips is complete BS. Sure not getting paid is going to go with the territory and sometimes a musician will have no choice but to accept a short check. However having business done before hand is the key and solidifying people that like your music is the way to insure getting paid.
    I've been filling in as bassist for a grunge band since around september, and the total profit I have made is $5 over the course of 4 shows. We have 2 more shows coming up, and will we get paid for those either? probably not. it's about being heard for some people. I'm one of those people
    Stuntaxe
    As a second note I play every weekend or every other weekend, I do not read sheet music, nor do I know the entire fret board by heart. I am sure I am not the only one in the world that plays blues/rock and metal yet unable to read sheet. Just sayin.
    Robert I.
    Good article, especially liked the fact that it pointed out how crucial theory knowledge is. Reading nothing but tabs will most likely get you nowhere.
    Stuntaxe
    Read sheet music? LOL hardly any major bands know how to read sheet music. Most read tab and some "pro players" could not even tell you the Pentatonic scale, nor even heard of Lydian Mode. Theory and knowledge of the instrument is always good and should always be learned and refined as the player grows but it is not the underlaying foundation to success. I am going to go a step further and simply say the items you outlined are terrible, in this day and age there are so many ways to make money in music the simple items you listed hardly even address making money in the business. The first most important thing for any musician to do is have a product. What you have to say is nothing about the product. Product is everything or you are working with nothing.
    rickyj
    i disagree with some of this. first of all why would you want to be just some guy that hops between 100 bands every week filling in for some bassist that didnt want to show up to a gig? no, get in a band and start playing shows anywhere you can. play YOUR music, dont play shit that you dont want to play. if your a metalhead, dont play reggae or stop calling yourself a metalhead. this person said to show up well dressed, bullshit. show up however you want to, dont change your look just to get gigs or youll end up like poison, a band with terrible music trying to play what everyone wants them to.
    larryjohnson
    August_Burns wrote: jamsea wrote: Professionalism, professionalism, professionalism I wish more local bands would follow this. I promote concerts and I'm friends with the other promoters in my city. We all talk to each other. I can't tell you how many times I've avoided booking an unprofessional local band after I was told stories by another promoter. I'll book the more dependable professional band who are worse musicians over the less professional but more musically proficient band any day. This makes you a douchebag. I 100% agree with the article, but musical talent wins out over everything. The fact that you would take a better looking band over a better sounding one. Is a testament to the fact that you're a tool. You represent everything the entire last 30 years of rock hates. Great article, but I do not believe you should ever change how you are to get music deals. Professionalism is great, but this is textbook selling out, I would rather know I got a deal because they heard my music and didn't care what I look like.
    So you would book a band that sounded better, but had the potential to show up piss ass drunk and play like shite, or start a fight with a crowd or maybe even not show up at all. You may want to rethink your statement sir before you attack this man for doing his job well. Douche bag.
    zoomzoom
    Not every gig is a rock gig, and professionalism deals with a lot more than just looks. Get your head out of the gutter.
    soccerlegend
    Every good boy does fine? Wow i haven't heard the that in forever lol i'm just told treble.
    Cerelil
    Look at Guthrie Govan, one of the best guitarists to have ever lived, amazing versatility, can play pretty much any style and genre, and he earns 300,000 a year. He is only endorsed by small companies, and doesn't really play guitar for anyone big except a short stint in Asia and occasionally playing with Dizzee Rascal. Most of what he does is session work and teaching.
    malephik
    Although everything you say is true, it's also really obvious. I feel like I've heard "Be professional and marketable" a bazillion times.
    the more, the better, it needs to be beaten into our heads.
    One of the biggest dreams that young shredders have
    I'm not a shredder
    SLD.Potato
    Although everything you say is true, it's also really obvious. I feel like I've heard "Be professional and marketable" a bazillion times.
    baneofmorgoth
    Finally, someone acknowledges the importance of being versatile, knowledgeable and professional. I can't tell you how many times I have played with bands that have been the antithesis of all of these things, and it (at times0 makes me sad to be a musician.
    jamsea
    Professionalism, professionalism, professionalism
    I wish more local bands would follow this. I promote concerts and I'm friends with the other promoters in my city. We all talk to each other. I can't tell you how many times I've avoided booking an unprofessional local band after I was told stories by another promoter. I'll book the more dependable professional band who are worse musicians over the less professional but more musically proficient band any day.
    big_red
    Fantastic article! Point 6 makes me glad my major is music. It's not needed for success as a touring musician, but it adds a huge level of musical understanding and ability on a whim.
    Kireo-Umoshiae
    I believe in professionalism, but commom sense is much more important. It doesn't matter too much what you look like, just don't overdo it. And be sure you smell clean, of course. And as for that group of serious musicians, most of them are just nervous or antisocial or waiting for someone else to lighten the mood a bit. Once again, it's a matter of being yourself, but having tact.