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It’s easy to find article after article about the death of the music industry, but if you dig a little deeper you can also find more than a few glimmers of hope. There are absolutely freelance musician jobs to be had if you have the right skills and find the right niches. It’s also common for a freelance musician to draw an income from a wide variety of sources.
The list is almost endless—there’s cover bands, teaching lessons, busking, children’s concerts at schools, birthday parties, and libraries, and then there’s the more traditional and glorified route of actually landing a recording contract, touring, and selling merchandise.
Let’s take a look at a few of the ways that freelance musicians are landing gigs and making money, as well as some advice on how you can improve your music career.
Anthony Rubbo: Versatile Guitarist Who Does it All
New York-based guitarist Anthony Rubbo is a prime example of a successful freelance musician—he has been a sub in the Broadway orchestras of shows like School of Rock, Mamma Mia, Cabaret, and Trip of Love. He went on tour with Interscope Records artist Ryn Weaver, playing around the world at places like Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Coachella, and on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. He also teaches guitar lessons, picks up gigs in cover bands around NYC, and is generally open to any solid gig that might come his way—and that’s probably why he has carved out a place for himself as a professional musician.
Here’s Rubbo on guitar at Lollapalooza:
His main piece of advice for freelance musicians is to focus on time management.
“It’s the most important thing for being a freelancer, next to networking. I keep a thorough calendar and stick to it,” said Rubbo. “For years in the beginning of my career, there were times I was working 7 days a week, doing multiple activities per day. Teach a lesson/lessons, learn new material, 3 hour rehearsal, gig at night. I still have days like those and it’s the ability to multitask and stick to a schedule that has kept me getting hired.”
Startup Musician offers similar advice, but notes also that, while you do need to develop multiple streams of income, you should also develop of a few niches. Instead of learning how to play seventeen different instruments in one hundred different styles, develop mastery of one instrument in your own unique style—and play the gigs that fit you. That’s exactly what Rubbo does—he has the skill to jump into a Broadway orchestra, while also the ability to quickly learn and perfect any artist’s material, as well as the temperament to sit down and teach lessons to his students.
That being said, he warned against becoming too comfortable:
“There’s always more to learn and just playing your instrument isn’t enough. Again, seeking out new experiences and looking for new ways to be involved are the best ways to earn an income being a performer. Don’t become complacent.”
Every freelance musician job that you might land is a new experience, and that experience might lead to unforeseen opportunities. A gig leads to a new student. A bit of recording leads to a new gig. A gig leads to a series of gigs.
You never know until you jump in and give it a try—but, you also can’t be taken advantage of. There are legions of promoters who will offer bands or musicians “exposure” in pay-to-play schemes. So, while you should absolutely be willing to consider any gig—you have to be honest with yourself about the value of a job. Freelance musicians have limited time, so if you are shelling out $100 to play to a crowd of ten people for “exposure,” it might not be the best use of your time. Even spending that time practicing would be much more valuable.
There are some instances, especially when you are starting out, though, that playing for free does make sense. You do need to have some experience, or some demos, or a video or two of you performing to eventually land paying musician gigs.
“Be willing to play/perform for no money, to no people, at first,” said Rubbo. “Eventually though, know your limits and your worth. If you never ask, you’ll never receive.”
So while you might play some free gigs at first—you should only be doing so for a limited time. You do eventually have to start asking for money, or finding ways to generate an income.
When you do land paid gigs, though, what tends to be just as important as your musical skill is how well you work with others. This is true for all freelance jobs—club owners don’t want to deal with difficult musicians just like editors don’t want to work with writers who can’t take feedback.
“The best thing for marketing yourself in music in terms of being a side man/performer is being on time, being nice, being open to new experiences, and putting the time in to know the material inside and out. Your reputation will be what carries you into new experiences and projects,” said Rubbo.
You can have all the skill in the world, but if you’re miserable to work with, you will have a really tough time landing freelance music jobs.
How to Plan Your Freelance Music Career
The number of ways to make a living as a freelance musician are as varied as the number of musicians in the world. One musician plays 300+ concerts per year at preschools and camps, while another makes all of her living singing backing vocals on recordings. Yet another hosts well-attended open mics every night around their city, bringing in a modest-but-comfortable living.
When you look at your own freelance music career, whether it is just beginning or whether you want to step it up to the next level, consider the following:
- What are your skills? Do they need further development? If so, what are you doing to develop them?
- What are some of the best freelance music gigs you have landed? How can you land more of them? If you never have landed a paid gig, what are you doing to find one?
- Are you easy to work with? Friendly? Do people enjoy working with you?
- Do you have a website, business cards, social media accounts, and email list? How are you making sure that people can find you if they want to book you?
- Once you are generating an income, are you spending too much time on administrative tasks? Can you outsource those tasks and focus instead on landing more gigs, perfecting your skills, or landing better gigs?
- When you do start landing music gigs, what other similar opportunities are there in your region? Or, how can you use the internet to boost your career?
When you start to answer some of these types of questions, and you are honest with yourself about the answers, you will begin to see a path to a freelance music career—all you have to do is take the necessary steps, set the right goals, and follow through on them to start to see your music career blossom.