I’ve long felt that the term “professional musician” has a lot of pressure and expectation tied up in it.
Many young musicians put a lot of pressure on themselves to be professional musicians who make all of their money playing music.
This is one interpretation of being a professional musician (and it’s a nice place to be), but it’s not the only way to have a career in music.
Rather than playing music as your sole profession, I would focus on being a truly “Professional Musician”, which would involve thinking about what qualities separate the amateurs from the pros.
For the past four years, I’ve been a professional musician, playing music as my primary source of income. It’s been a fantastic learning experience, and frankly I feel that I am only now developing a mature sense of what it means to be a professional.
Being a professional is less about income and more about attitude. It’s about taking what you’re doing seriously in every way.
In this guide, I want to share with you some things I’ve learned about what it means to be a professional. In the latter half of the guide, I will share some things that helped me achieve some measure of financial comfort as a musician.
What Does It Mean To Be A Professional?
Being a professional comes down to attitude. Consider the “working professionals” that you may know and see around.
Despite the fact that they are not artists, I admire many of the working professionals I know.
In particular, I admire the passion with which they pursue their vocation, the seriousness with which they take their work, and the grit and drive that gets them to work every morning.
The trick with music is to take what you are doing seriously without becoming a square.
Nobody wants to play with a buzzkill that doesn’t foster a comfortable musical environment. At the same time, nothing make a group of players more uncomfortable that one person not knowing their stuff.
Walking that line is a challenge, and it’s a matter of trial and error at times.
Here are some things I’ve learned about being a professional.
1. Learn The Set List Well
For many years, I was playing professionally, but I never felt like a professional. I was perpetually under-prepared and nervous. I didn’t make many mistakes, but I also wasn’t delivering the songs very well.
Eventually, I got tired of feeling under-prepared. I made an effort to start preparing for gigs weeks in advance, learning the songs slowly, finding the perfect tones, and having the entire set memorized before I even got to rehearsal.
Let me tell you, it feels amazing.
For the last year, I’ve been getting way more repeat calls, and people are always grateful to work with someone that knows the song as well as they do.
Here is my usual routine for learning songs now:
- Start way ahead. Give yourself enough time to memorize the song.
- Don’t get lazy with sounds. If the keyboard patch isn’t right, or the guitar tone is wrong, you’re not actually playing the part. Get it right.
- Don’t make a chart. Play the songs until they’re memorized. If you have to make a chart, that’s okay, but try your best to play without them.
- Listen to the songs in your spare time. This puts them in your brain and is a valuable form of practice.
The difference when you take these steps is that you can really play the songs. You can get creative with the parts if the artist asks you to. You can engage with the audience, because your head won’t be stuck in a chart.
It’s all about making the person you are playing for feel comfortable.
2. Take Criticism Well
There is nothing more frustrating than a player who gets defensive about their playing. It’s your playing, you must own it.
If an artist wants something played differently, you must oblige them without feeling defensive. If an artist wants you to tune your snare differently, you must do so.
Being open to these sorts of changes will totally change your experience. Again, it’s about making the artist feel comfortable.
If you struggle with this, think of it like this: You are a part of someone’s creative process. It is not personal. Even if it is personal, it’s not useful to think of it like that.
You are playing an instrument that is making someone’s art a reality. Being a part of their creative process should be exciting, so just be open and honest.
3. Play Professional Looking & Sounding Gear
You’re a creative person and a musician. You don’t have lots of money, I get it. Neither do I!
But I have nice gear and I take care of it.
If there is one thing you need to spend your money on, it’s nice looking and sounding gear. You don’t need to go crazy, but you can’t bring your Westbury practice kit to a gig, okay?
Every artist wants their stage to represent the quality of music the audience is about to hear. Otherwise, people get the wrong impression. Your gear should add to the look of a stage, not take away from it.
Your gear also needs to sound appropriate for whatever you’re playing.
If that means you rent a piece of gear for a show, so be it. Depending on the circumstances, you can ask the artist if they will cover the rental fee. It’s almost always worth just having the right gear.
4. Dress The Part
I’ve recently come around to the idea that musicians should look the part. You don’t need a suit or anything, but you need to look like you belong.
Here’s my advice. Don’t buy a bunch of crappy but kind of nice looking clothes.
Invest in a nice pair of Levi’s or better yet, raw denim jeans. They will last you for years!
Invest in a nice pair of boots. A good pair of well-maintained boots will last you four to five years at least.
Go thrifting for some cheap, cool looking denim, leather, or otherwise interesting jackets.
If you’re like me and don’t even know where to start with shirts, just go and buy those 3 packs of single color crew neck tees. They look great and layer easily.
Voila! You’ve achieved a very professional look, and you don’t need that many pieces of clothing.
5. When It’s Time To Gig, It’s Time To Work
When you get to the venue and start loading in, it’s time to work.
Set up quickly and professionally. Don’t screw around in sound check, get exactly what you need in your monitors, and warm up (vocally and instrumentally) afterwards.
Then, it’s a matter of being with your band and ensuring that everyone has what they need and feels comfortable.
This often means relaxing over a drink and some food before a gig. It can mean talking through the set list. It can mean doing vocal warmups together.
The pre-show ritual is very important, so take it seriously. It makes everyone feel comfortable and happy.
Before the show, in the van, etc., goof off. Have fun. Hang out! It’s a great time, and hopefully you love the people you’re working with.
If you do these things, you will be perceived as a professional. It’s a matter of attitude and it’s a matter of hard work and grit.
How To Make A Living Playing Music
Playing music for a living is often portrayed as unrealistic by people who don’t know any better.
As soon as you move to a bigger city and start meeting people in the scene, you’ll realize that there are many, many people who make their living playing music.
It’s not easy, but it is 100% possible.
Here is my advice for making it work as a musician:
1. Don’t Be Afraid Of The Day Job
As I said in the intro, I think a lot of young musicians put pressure on themselves to become completely financially independent on music alone. This is unnecessary. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a day job.
In fact, I think that having a day job can be beneficial creatively. If you are writing music, having to learn a bunch of music and practice all the time can take your energy away from creating.
If you’re trying to make it as a side-musician, and having a day job means you can actually save a bit of money, then do it.
Just make sure you get yourself a day job that benefits you.
Your day job needs to be:
- Flexible and easy to leave. If you get a good musical opportunity, you shouldn’t feel any hesitation in quitting the job.
- Not too draining. I find serving jobs perfect, because after serving, I just want to hole up and make music by myself.
- Makes more than minimum wage. Minimum wage is okay, but your time is worth more than that. Get a serving job or some job that pays over minimum.
- If the job can keep you active, that’s a bonus. Sitting jobs are tough, because in your spare time, you’re going to sit some more. Staying active makes a big difference.
- Finally, you want the job to be just annoying enough that it makes you even more driven to make your music career happen.
2. Live Within Your Means
You need to be financially savvy as a musician. Otherwise, you’ll end up very broke.
Eating out all the time is not going to end well. Spending all your money on cigarettes and alcohol isn’t a good idea either.
Cook your own food or eat for free at venues. Don’t spend on frivolous things. Most of your buys should be to further your career at this point.
At the same time, live in such a way that you are comfortable. If you get too uncomfortable with your living situation, you may just quit music under the pressure.
Again, this is why having a day job may be beneficial. It can make your life far more comfortable.
3. Be Prepared For The Bad Months
Living within you means requires you to put some money away for the harder months.
There will be months that are very slow. My fall this year was unbelievably slow, and it was a little scary. I have savings, so it was okay, but I literally had one gig. That means not much money coming in.
You will have incredibly busy months and very slow ones as well.
When you have a good month, take care of your future self and put away some money. You’ll thank yourself later.
It’s also important to take advantage of the slow months. Take the time to shed things that you wouldn’t normally have time for. Chase down that creative project. Make yourself that website you’ve always wanted.
Stay productive and stay financially stable!
4. Get Creative
Every professional musician has some great stories about creative ways they’ve gone about making money.
For me, it was writing these articles.
For two of the guys in my band, it was a Buddy Holly Tribute Act.
Whatever you find bearable that keeps the bills paid, do it. If it’s music related, that’s awesome.
Most musicians have played weird Christmas parties, most of them play in cover bands, most of them play solo gigs at restaurants sometimes, and some of them even busk!
A lot of musicians do a bit of studio work. Recording, editing, mixing production, etc. Many musicians have side-gigs as live sound techs.
If you’re an artist, you can get creative with merch, exclusive content, and pre-order campaigns. Whatever keeps you afloat creatively!
You’re not always going to be able to play the gigs you want to, so have fun with it and get creative!
5. Be Smart With Your Taxes
As a musician, you have a ton of write offs. Get a good accountant and keep every receipt. There is no way you should be paying much by way of taxes.
Get paid and pay for things in cash when you can, and otherwise just get smart to how taxes work for freelancers.
Being a professional is all about taking your musical life seriously and being smart about your money.
It’s not always about where your money comes from. It’s about approaching every gig with vigor and professionalism. It’s about being positive and open.
It’s about playing music well, so just do that!