When you go to see a show, all you see is musicians doing what they love to do: play their music for you. What you don’t see is all the work required to get there.
Most musicians must work hard at cultivating a set of skills and qualities that allow them to succeed and thrive as a professional musician.
You need a strong work ethic, persistence, optimism, organization, mental health and a love of the craft.
Chasing a career in music can be demoralizing at the best of times. Staying focused on what matters and developing good habits will go a long way towards keeping you sane and achieving success.
Here are eight qualities that define many of the professional musicians I know.
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Discipline & Work Ethic
Nothing can replace the power of a strong work ethic. Talent can get you to a certain level, but your work ethic will be the deciding factor.
Working on music every day is the best way to get better at it. Writing music every day will make your writing better. Making beats every day will make your beats better. Playing bass every day will make you a better bass player.
Most of the other qualities that make a great professional musician can be boiled down to work ethic. If you want to show up to a rehearsal prepared, you must learn and practice the songs well in advance.
If you want to feel more confident in front of your peers and audience, practice will get you there. If you are lacking the courage to continue down this path, discipline will help you push passed these negative feelings.
Here are several ways you can develop your work ethic:
Set Your Standard For Excellence
What is “excellence” to you? Who in your life models the level of professionalism and musicality that you aspire to? You need to set your own standards for excellence, so that you can live up to them.
I have a close friend, John, who is a professional bass player. To me, he set the standard for excellence as a side musician.
He memorizes every part, shows up knowing the songs as well as the writer, learns all the harmonies and is always on time.
My friend Roman sets the standard for excellence in artistry. He creates prolifically, is patient with his creations and is disciplined in his process.
From this, I have created my own version of a strong work ethic that I strive for every day.
Take Care Of Yourself
A healthy body and mind will help you work better. It’s hard to be disciplined if you’re in pain, have low energy or poor nutrition.
A good work ethic starts with your health. Make a commitment to exercising at least three times per week, and eating at least one meal that you’ve made for yourself, every day.
Work On What You Love, Every Single Day
If you’re not consistently working on your craft, it’s easy to feel like you’re falling behind. It's impossible to feel this way if you are working every day.
To build career in music, you need to be able to push passed the negative thoughts. The best way to push passed these thoughts is not through more thoughts – it is through action.
Take action. Do something musical every day. Whatever it is that matters most to you, do it every day.
Professional Musicians Have A Deep Love Of Music
Having a deep love for music makes the journey pleasurable. Staying curious about music, writing and practice will make all of these things more fun.
Here’s the thing – you can probably be a professional without a deep loving attitude towards music. But if this is you, why not just get a different job?
Cultivating a love and respect for music helps you develop your work ethic. It’s a lot easier to work every day at something you love.
The professional musicians that people want to hire and work with are people who love what they do. If you’ve been feeling down or frustrated by your music career, here are some ways you can rekindle your love of music.
When you sit down to work on your music today, take a minute to be grateful that you have music. Some people don’t get to play music – can you imagine? Imagine never knowing the joy of singing or playing!
We are so lucky to have this in our lives. Play music for love. Play it for something greater than yourself.
Engage In Fun Side Projects
When you start getting busier as a professional musician, you may find yourself playing a lot of music that doesn’t do anything for you. That’s a bummer, I get it.
But you still have lots of time you could be spending on a project that brings you joy. Whether it's a creative project, a research project, learning your favorite songs – whatever.
Doing it for fun is a 100% valid reason to do it.
Go To Live Shows & Get Inspired
I know it can be hard to get out to shows when you are constantly playing, but you should do it anyway.
Going to live shows can inspire you to write. Seeing one of your favorite musicians play can inspire you to practice.
Enjoy music. That’s what it's there for.
Professional Musicians Are Organized
Okay, not every professional musician I know is well-organized. Sometimes, when you’re dedicating a ton of time to your craft, administrative stuff falls to the wayside.
If you’re going to focus on one thing, I would recommend being prepared for performances. If you have a show coming up in a month, what can you do to make it stress-free?
Here are a few ways you can remain more organized.
Take Control Of Your Schedule
I schedule rehearsals with my band a month in advance, and I stick to the schedule. I give everyone the information and tools to stay organized. I get lots of comments on how well I run my band, but it's only from years of having to organize myself!
When I’m being hired for something, I take some time to look at all the material. How long will this realistically take me to figure out? And then, I schedule it in.
The beautiful thing about being a musician is that you can change your schedule if you need to. If a dream gig pops up, you want to be in a position to take it! So, avoid over-scheduling and be flexible when you need to be!
Establish A Routine
One of the hardest parts about being a musician is how random life can be. One day you’re slammed, the next day your sitting on your hands.
Wherever you can, try to establish a routine. I try to get a bunch of stuff done in the morning. I like to be alone for around four to five hours to do what I need to do.
Recently, I discovered that even meeting a friend for coffee in the morning throws off my mental state for the day. I need that time to myself, so I schedule it in and maintain consistency.
Lives Within Your Means If You Want To Be A Pro Musician
Unless you have a salaried gig, you’re basically a self-employed entrepreneur/contractor. This has the same pros and cons as a self-employed person in any field. When the work is good and consistent, the flexibility is amazing. When the work dries up, life sucks.
You need to be able to plan for this. That means budgeting. That means living modestly. It means making sacrifices.
Just because you don’t have a stable (or large) income does not mean you must live in a state of constant fear and anxiety. Here are a few ways you can manage your finances.
Build A Consistent Revenue Source
Earning a consistent income will make your life better. There is no shame in working a real job for a few days a week. If it gives you the peace of mind that allows you to create, it's worth it.
I love having income unrelated to gigs and music sales. All of my gigs from March 15th to May 30th got cancelled due to COVID-19, so my mixing and writing work are picking up the slack.
Create An Emergency Fund
At some point, you will come into a little bit of extra cash. Maybe a gig pays a little extra, maybe you get a nice tax return.
Do not spend this money on gear if you do not have an emergency fund. Start putting money into a separate account. You goal should be a month’s worth of expenses – rent, food, utilities, and bills.
This takes the pressure off. Trust me.
Cut Down On Discretionary Spending
I have discovered the secret to saving money. It’s cooking at home. Surprise!
It’s hard not to eat out when you’re gigging, but if office workers can do it, so can you. Plan ahead, cook, and try to eat at home whenever you can.
Communication & People Skills
People will hire someone they love to be around before they hire some musical genius almost 100% of the time. Being a good hang is critical, and it’s something you can personally develop.
This applies to rehearsals, gigs and even off time. Here are a few ways you can work on being a positive presence on and off the stage.
If you have a question about something, you should ask. If you notice something does not sound right, don’t be afraid to call it out and work on it. If you need something from somebody, ask for it.
Develop A Thick Skin
Receiving criticism is hard, but it is so important to receive it with grace and humility. Otherwise, you will miss out on a valuable learning opportunity.
The goal is always to make good music. Don’t let your ego get in the way of the larger vision – whether that is your vision or someone else’s.
Showing up prepared and on time makes you a good hang. It’s probably the most attractive thing about a side musician.
Respecting other people’s ears means playing at a volume that is agreeable to everyone. Listen to yourself and listen to others. Play nice!
A “Rising Tide” Mentality
A rising tide lifts all ships. As you go through your musical life, you will build relationships with team members, band members, supporters in the industry, fans and more. You'll meet artists and musicians of all types.
It’s easy to get competitive with fellow artists. It’s easy to be self-centered in your business decisions. But if you plan to be in it for the long haul, making shortsighted decisions is unwise.
Having a rising tide mentality will help you get through those feelings of jealousy or inadequacy. Instead, you can let yourself be encouraged by others and make a conscious choice to be encouraging to others as well.
When you’re assembling team members and working with them, keep in mind that what is good for you, will be good for them, and vice versa. Pursue opportunities that will elevate everybody, and reap the rewards.
Willingness To Learn & Pay It Forward
The musical tradition has been passed down from person to person over millennia, and today it is no different. While it's possible to learn by yourself and study the various material that are available, nothing replaces the presence of a mentor.
Seek out someone who has achieved the things you want to achieve – whether musically, career-wise, or personally. Lean on these people and take their advice.
It's crucial to have someone to lean on, to ask for advice, to vent to. These people can also help connect you to others and guide you through some of the hardest parts of your career.
Eventually, you will have the opportunity to mentor someone younger. My grandfather had mentors throughout his career, and now, in retirement he still meets with a younger man who is in the same position and mentors him.
Music gives. Be willing to give back.