When you think “musician” there’s probably a certain image that immediately comes to mind.
But the truth of the matter is that there are many types of musicians. And some musicians even belong to multiple categories.
There are many types of careers one can pursue in music, and the industry keeps splitting up responsibilities to hand them off to niche specialists (e.g., songwriters, session musicians, producer-composers, etc.). In a way, though, that also means there’s more opportunity than ever.
In this guide, we look at the 12 types of musicians. Which are you?
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The hobbyist just wants to enjoy music. They will write, record, and/or perform for the sheer joy of it.
Hobbyists can become skilled musicians over time. It’s just that they have no career ambitions, so it’s not about booking gigs or selling albums. It’s about enjoying the craft of music itself.
Sometimes, hobbyists will come to embrace the career aspects of music and look for ways to turn a dollar from their passion.
And to be fair, some hobbyists are just in denial about wanting to build a music career because they got burned once, or because they’re indecisive about their chosen direction in life.
We cast no judgment on hobbyists whatsoever. There’s nothing wrong with playing music for the fun of it.
But if you ever come to a crossroads and end up wanting to take your career further, be sure to acknowledge this desire and begin working towards a career you can be proud of.
Examples of Hobbyists: You can find plenty of hobbyist musicians on YouTube.
The Independent Artist
The independent artist refers to anyone who is pursuing a music career independently. It doesn’t matter how big or small, if you aren’t signed to a label, and you’re building a career in music, you are an independent artist.
That said, there are many types of artists that fall under this umbrella, like:
- DIY artists
- DIY artists with a team
- Unsigned artists (with or without a team)
- Artists who’ve turned down label offers (with or without a team)
We see no need for deeper categorization, though, because that just makes things more confusing. An independent artist is just that – an independent artist.
And this doesn’t mean that they must be doing everything themselves. There’s always the opportunity to tap into your network for help, and if you’ve got a big enough following, agencies, publicists, and others might want to work with you too.
Independent artists all tend to be at different points of their career. Some are amazing. Some are still developing. Some have a big following. Others have a small following. And so on.
Examples of independent artists: Most of our readers fall under this category, and Music Industry How To is home to a huge archive of articles that can help you grow your music career.
The Independent Label Artist
An independent label artist is someone who’s laid the groundwork of building a profitable music career on the back of an engaged fan base, small or large.
But just because an artist is signed to an independent label doesn’t mean they aren’t just as well-known, if not more well-known, than major label artists.
Why is that? Well, these days major labels own many of the independent record labels you’ve come to know and love.
An argument could be made that artists signed to independent labels aren’t as mainstream or don’t have as much of a marketable image as major label artists, but for the most part, there isn’t much of a difference.
It should also be said that there are still independent independent labels too, that aren’t owned by major labels. But it doesn’t matter which an artist is signed to for them to be considered an independent label artist.
Examples of independent label artists: Bon Iver, Jack White, Neutral Milk Hotel, Mudhoney, LCD Soundsystem, My Bloody Valentine, and many others.
The Major Label Artist
By default, most major label acts are the superstars of the world.
That isn’t to say some major label artists never get off the ground. Some who sign a major label contract are never given the attention they deserve, and some acts are even let go of because they fail to meet sales expectations.
But for the most part, we feel differentiating between superstars, rock stars, and major label acts is redundant. We think you’ll agree when you see some of the major label acts we’ve highlighted below.
Many independent artists aspire to become a major label artist one day. These types of opportunities are few and far between these days because most major label artists were either groomed for the role or came from feeder programs like The Mickey Mouse Club.
Still, there are always opportunities to create your own label or sign with an independent one.
Examples of major label artists: Kanye West, Taylor Swift, Maroon 5, Lady Gaga, Shakira, Britney Spears, Coldplay, Madonna, Katy Perry, Ed Sheeran, Bruce Springsteen, and many others.
The Post-Label Musician
Some artists fulfill on their major label contract and don’t renew, quit, or end up going completely independent (sometimes after lengthy legal proceedings).
In the industry, these types of artists are sometimes called “direct to fan” artists. What’s funny about this term is that it makes these acts look like Mickey Mouse operations compared to major labels when that simply isn’t the case.
There are plenty of post-label musicians that keep and even grow their following and earn more because there isn’t anyone taking a cut of everything they earn. Truth be told, some artists can even lose their identity while working on a label and prefer returning to their independent roots.
Whether you’re someone who quit their label to start their own, or someone who became a direct to fan artist, you would be considered a post-label musician.
Examples of post-label musicians: Cake, Prince, Wilco, OK Go, Gretchen Wilson, Demi Lovato, Nick Jonas, and others.
Not all artists write their own music. And these days, the industry is built around acts who sing and dance, but rarely write their own material.
Songwriters can work from anywhere, oftentimes in private. They write lyrics and music, and sometimes record demos too. Some songwriters are even producer-composers (more on this later).
Some songwriters record and perform their own material, but many others do not.
The songwriter is often in pursuit of that elusive hit. They will earn royalties on any song they write, but the big payday is usually on the back of a big hit.
For the last two to three decades, the top 40 has mostly been dominated by two songwriters(!).
Oh, and by the way, some famous artists do write their own songs and write for others too.
Examples of songwriters: Dan Wilson, Dr. Luke, Max Martin, Benny Blanco, and others.
The Session Musician
Session musicians are like hired guns. Sometimes, they’re asked to lay down a part in the studio. Sometimes, they are asked to go out on tour with a major artist.
Session musicians are generally experienced, skilled, and adept on their instruments. They can usually sing backup if needed, and some are even virtuosos.
The supergroup Toto was basically a band comprised of session musicians. They’ve played on more records than you can shake a stick at. Guitarist Steve Lukather alone has played on multiple America, Larry Carlton, Cher, Alice Cooper, Neil Diamond, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, and Lionel Richie records. And I’m just getting started.
Like Lukather, some session musicians end up starting a band or engaging in solo work. Some work a little more behind the scenes but still appear on the stages of the world.
Examples of session musicians: Steve Lukather, Phil Spector, Carol Kaye, Ry Cooder, Dennis Coffey, Ricky Skaggs, and others.
Producer-composers tend to work behind the scenes in isolation, though some of them do end up rising to prominence.
Their work often involves making music for media, including radio, TV, commercials, films, video games, and more. Of course, the hip-hop producer-composer has also emerged as an archetype in the last couple of decades.
Sometimes, producer-composers will also be involved in sound design, and this can be quite meticulous work, as it involves timing realistic sound effects with TV shows and films.
Now, as with any other type of musician, it’s important to know that producer-composers are sometimes singers, songwriters, and instrumentalists. They might even have a solo career or play in a band.
Examples of producer-composers: Max Martin, Dr. Dre, Rick Rubin, Nile Rodgers, Sylvia Massy, Imogen Heap, and others.
The Orchestral Musician
This should be relatively self-explanatory. Orchestral musicians play in orchestras and usually hold down a steady orchestra chair. In many ways, they are like a session or gigging musician.
A professional orchestral musician usually spends most of their time playing with one orchestra.
Orchestras are often known to perform classical music, but at times might be called upon to perform film and video game music as well.
Orchestral musicians are generally knowledgeable, well-educated, and highly practiced. The only way to keep up with the likes of Bach, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and others is to be a skilled musician yourself!
Examples of orchestral musicians: Philip Glass, Simon Rattle, Maxim Vengerov, John Adams, and others.
Music instruction is a popular profession. It tends to offer steady pay, gives you an opportunity to share your knowledge with the up-and-coming generation, and allows you get paid for your passion. Further, teaching music tends to offer some flexibility, since most lessons take place after school hours.
Guitar, piano, and vocals tend to be the most popular instruments, but of course there is some demand for everything from drums and banjo to bass and ukulele.
Music teachers get to spend plenty of time learning, preparing for lessons, and they can even create customized curriculums for their students based on how they’re progressing.
For some musicians, teaching is simply how they earn their pay, and they spend the rest of their time writing their own material, playing in bands, or even composing.
Examples of teachers: Roberta Flack, Art Garfunkel, Peaches, Joe Satriani, and many others. Some classical composers like Bach were also teachers!
The Retired Artist
It seems like most musicians keep playing until the day they die, and in that sense, the retired artist is a rare breed.
For all intents and purposes, we’ll include legacy artists, comeback tours, reunions, and the like under this category.
Older artists with extensive catalogs tend to do well, especially if they were influential in their heyday – though technically not retired, just think how well the surviving Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr must do.
Examples of retired artists: Jay-Z, Barbra Streisand, Garth Brooks, Lauryn Hill, LL Cool J, Lily Allen, Ozzy Osbourne, Cher, Tina Turner, and so on (most if not all these artists retired and then made a comeback).
The Entrepreneurial Artist
The entrepreneurial artist generally has a firm grasp on just how challenging it can be to profit from music alone. They know that branching out into other niches, industries, and endeavors can boost their income and allow them to take advantage of opportunities other artists tend to miss.
You do not need to be at the level of Jay-Z to be an entrepreneurial artist. Truly, any artist can be one, though it may require a bit of a paradigm shift.
Gene Simmons is probably my favorite example of an entrepreneurial artist. You could say that the man just doesn’t know when to stop, but you’ve also got to admire his work ethic and the many business deals he cuts.
Those who start their own clothing and fragrance lines aren’t of as much interest to me, but to be fair, I’m not saying they’re any less smart. It’s just that it’s become a bit of a cliché, and there are other opportunities worth looking into.
Examples of entrepreneurial artists: Gene Simmons, Jay-Z, Gwen Stefani, Sammy Hagar, Jimmy Buffett, Billy Joel, Neil Young, Dexter Holland, Justin Timberlake, Diddy, Dr. Dre, Billy Corgan, and others.
Different Types Of Musician, Final Thoughts
There isn’t just one way to achieve the success you desire in music. There are many paths that can lead to the same destination.
If you like the idea of writing your own music, and working hard to grow your own fan base, then being an independent musician will be a point of pride.
But if you want to find other angles into the industry, it can be worth looking into the possibility of becoming a songwriter, session musician, producer-compose, and so on.
Just be clear on what you want to become, because those who get the job are those who are clear and specific about what they want. It’s the way Nashville works, and we all know how much influence Music City has over the industry.
We hope you now have a better sense of how you fit into the bigger picture, and how you’re going to leave your own mark!