How to make a career in music: 6 Tips for Freelance Musicians

Freelancing—or having a career independent of one company—can seem daunting at first. However, it’s practically inevitable if you’re seeking out a music career, so here are some tips to get you started. This advice will come from a classical music perspective, but these tips are applicable to any music career.

1. Brainstorm Your Options
There are a number of ways to earn income through your musical skills, so you want to start by putting all your ideas on the table so you feel like you have options. Here are some to get you started:

  • Performing: In a classical setting, this means concerts. Do you want to play in orchestras or smaller ensembles? Do the groups you’re interested in have a formal audition process or is it word-of-mouth recommendation? Do you have an ensemble you formed or a solo project that you want plan concerts for?
  • Teaching: What age level(s) are you comfortable with, and in what kind of setting? Private lessons are the easiest way to earn money, but you’ll want to be sure to have some experience before charging a high rate. Do you like kids or prefer adult amateurs? You may be surprised at the things you learn from teaching different levels, so I wouldn’t box yourself in before you try. If you have trouble finding students, look to community music schools who are hiring, or online resources designed to help students and teachers find each other (getlessonsnow.com or takelessons.com).
  • Gigs: Weddings, parties, and cocktail hours often like to hire live musicians. These are often quick and easy ways to make money, but don’t offer much artistic satisfaction. Consider putting a group together with fellow musicians to take gigs like this, or reach out to people and organizations who might have a need for live music for an event. There are also some online resources for gigs like this (gigmasters.com).
  • Studio work: Many singer/songwriters and even video games like to hire live musicians to play on their soundtracks or albums. After a gig or two like this, you’ll likely be recommended to other artists in that particular field looking for your instrument.

2. Decide if you want to be the boss
Who do you want to work for: a person, an organization, or yourself? Most freelance careers are a combination of all three, but it’s important to figure out which one is preferable for you. Working for others means most of the logistical work is taken care of, so it’s ultimately less work for you, but you also have less say on the final product. When you work for yourself you’re in charge of scheduling, personnel, and all other details, so that means a heavier workload for you. If you have trouble multitasking and staying organized, I recommend you work for others a bit first before taking on too many projects yourself!

3. Manage Your Time
A freelance career is diverse and busy. It’s essential to manage your time so you’re able to maximize your productivity and minimize your stress. I am very diligent about my calendar which I have synced on my computer, phone, and Gmail account. I use different categories for different facets of my life—concerts, rehearsals, teaching, and personal. (I should really have a category for YouTube, too… I think I’ll add that right now…) I’m also reliant on my daily to-do lists, which ensure I know when I have time to take care of everything. On any given day I could be juggling 3-5 different projects, so it’s important that I know when I’ll be dealing with each thing. It’s also helpful to plan ahead when I need to leave my house to teach or rehearse, since living in the city makes for a commute almost anywhere I go.

4. Manage Your Money
Money fluctuates drastically as a freelancer. Some months will be filled with gigs (or one high-paying gig), while others will be a serious lull (all your students are on vacation). I like to estimate how much money I expect to make each month based on what I have in my calendar, and then budget my living expenses accordingly. If one student decides to take a few weeks off, I’ll know my income is down, so I have to be more careful of how many times I go out to eat. If I get an unexpected gig, I’ll know I have some extra money to pay on my student loans (or buy a new dress…). In the same vein, it’s also useful to pay attention to when you have extra expenses like new strings or an instrument repair, and be sure you’re saving ahead of time for that or that you pick up some extra work to pay for it. And save receipts for everything, since all work-related expenses are tax deductible! (More on taxes another time.)

5. Remember Your Artistic Goals
In the midst of trying to pay rent, it’s easy to let our artistic goals fall to the back burner. While our biggest dreams may not seem to bring in money right away, it’s critical to make time for them. If we neglect what’s truly important to us as artists, it’s easy to become jaded, cynical, and generally dissatisfied with our careers. This happens way too often to classical musicians! Whether it’s recording a solo album, putting together an ensemble, or starting a music school, you should always have some time devoted to your ultimate goal. Low times where you know your work will be slow are a great time to invest in these projects, just be sure you have some money saved to get you through. If your ultimate goal is getting certain kinds of gigs or playing with certain groups, you can make time for that by networking or preparing audition repertoire.

6. Quit Your Day Job
Or don’t. “Day jobs”—or non-music jobs—come down to personal preference. Many people strive to make their living only through music, and it’s a great goal to have. If you’re creative with how you can use your skills, it’s also a very attainable goal. However, not everyone has an entrepreneurial spirit, and some would prefer to have stability and benefits with a desk job, or by working in food service or retail. For me personally, I had a very hard time working a non-music job. Despite the jobs being interesting, challenging, and decent-paying, I constantly found myself frustrated that I had all this education and artistry that wasn’t being used. I’m much happier working only in music. For others, they like to have a non-music job that breaks up their routine and offers them a different circle and different set of challenges. To me the only real danger in a non-music job is one that drastically demands your time and makes you unavailable for projects, or one that drains and exhausts you from having energy for your music career.

I hope these tips were helpful! For more thoughts on classical music, be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel, and don’t hesitate to leave questions or your own tips here on the blog or on the video.

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3 responses to “How to make a career in music: 6 Tips for Freelance Musicians

  1. Emily, I think you made some great points. Though I am a beginning cellist, I have performed on guitar for many years. I think one thing that new pro cellists might consider is to not narrow which jobs they’ll take early in their careers. Gigs (=money!) is often by word of mouth and if one will take almost any and every cello gig, even if it’s a bit outside their comfort zone, at least initially, they’ll make more money, more contacts and also keep it interesting. They may also make a name for themselves as a session cellist or make that one solid contact/connection that really opens the door for them. I really like your work, your devotion to the music of early cello and your videos! Keep ’em coming!

      • This is such a great article! I think tip 5 is absolutely essential for musicians. We have to constantly tap into our creativity, and doing so can help us find inspiration in other areas of our life.

        I also love that you encourage making a living with your music! You listed several great options for artists, including gigs like parties and weddings. I work for GigSalad, which is another online resource for performers to connect with people looking for live entertainment. It’s surprising how much these nontraditional gigs can increase your income! And that money can be used to support your original music, market yourself, or record an album.

        Anyway, thank you for the great tips!

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