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These days, it’s easier than ever to make a living as a professional musician. From Patreon to YouTube, technology has opened up new avenues of access to fans and income for performing artists of all kinds. Yet it takes a truly committed, passionate musician to carve out a successful path in the field. The life of a professional musician still carries significant downsides, and the financial risk shouldn’t be overlooked.
Advantage: Freedom to Chart Your Own Career Path
It’s never been easier to make a living as a professional musician than it is right now. Technology has lowered the barriers to finding an enthusiastic audience. Sites such as Patreon help you connect directly with your fans and bypass the bureaucracy of the music industry and all its gatekeepers. You can focus on your music while your fans support your work directly. Video-hosting sites such as YouTube and Vimeo and the popularity of social media also help you create and build an audience. You can engage with your fans and potential clients directly and increase their awareness of new work, availability for gigs and future appearances.
The benefit of all this for a musician who’s ready and willing to handle the business side of being a musician is the freedom to create your own career path. You won’t find that in the traditional music industry model, where managers and record labels control every aspect of your appearance, work, projects and more.
Disadvantage: Financial Risks
If you have dreams of striking it rich as a musician, you might want to take a moment’s pause and acquaint yourself with the reality. Sure, some musicians do reach a high level of success and enjoy the financial rewards, but that’s a small percentage of the total. It takes more than skill and passion to get there too, since luck still plays a big part in the path to the top of the charts. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, professional musicians and singers earned a mean hourly wage of $35.86 in 2017. This is certainly a decent hourly rate, but very few musicians will ever reach the equivalent of a full-time wage. In addition, with no employer, the musician must bear the cost of benefits such as insurance and disability care, as well as income tax.
Advantage: Pursuing Your Passion
While there’s certainly nothing wrong with working a job that you don’t like in order to pay the bills, professional musicians know that there’s nothing so sweet as making a living doing what you love. Being a professional musician requires discipline, focus and long-term commitment. That kind of dedication is fed by your love for what you do. Knowing that the thing you’re so passionate about is the basis of how you make your living can make all the disadvantages worthwhile.
Disadvantage: “Feast or Famine” Lifestyle
The nature of performing arts means that professional musicians often find themselves in a “feast or famine” cycle. Weeks of steady gigs and high income can be followed by months of downtime and increasing cash flow problems. Beyond the obvious financial hardships, this kind of hot-and-cold pattern can also contribute to frustration, anxiety and depression. Many people prefer a certain steadiness in income and lifestyle. If you need that kind of regularity in your financial life, you might want to consider traditional employment alternatives.
Being a professional artist gives you a significant degree of flexibility. You can take the gigs you want, turn down the ones you don’t want and work with the people you prefer. This isn’t an unbounded flexibility, of course. If you choose not to take a particular gig, there’s a specific loss of income there that you’ll have to either make up somewhere else or absorb. However, many musicians are more than willing to make this trade-off. There’s a certain feeling of confidence and pride that comes with making these kinds of decisions.
Disadvantage: Life on the Road
While many musicians in larger cities can carve out a local-only career, many musicians, especially in modern genres like rock, hip-hop and country, will find they need to go on tour at some point in their careers. Even if you never tour, you may still have to travel frequently for individual gigs. It’s a challenge to find enough venues and gigs in a single city to support yourself on a full-time basis. For many people, travel and touring may be a draw. However, many musicians find it grows old and wearying eventually.
Advantage: Variety and Excitement
There’s no denying it: Being a professional musician is one of the most exciting ways to make a living around, outside of “professional Arctic explorer” or “astronaut.” An impressive variety of gigs is a fact of life for most professional musicians. A performer can play a local club on Friday night, a wedding reception Saturday afternoon, and a garden party on Sunday afternoon. You’ll meet a lot of different kinds of people at these various gigs, as well. An outgoing personality or at the very least a willingness to engage socially with new people can help you make the most out of the networking potential in these situations that, in turn, lead to new gigs.
Disadvantage: The Responsibility of Being the Boss
A professional musician wears a number of different hats. You’re HR, accounts receivable, bookkeeping and more, in addition to being a musician. Everything is on you when you’re the boss. There’s no one else to turn to, or blame when things go wrong. You won’t have another person there to take care of a seemingly infinite number of mundane tasks and things to manage. It’s all on you because you’re the boss. Additionally, taxes are more challenging when you’re self-employed as an independent contractor. You’ll also have to select, obtain and manage insurance for equipment and professional liability events.
Annie Sisk is a freelance writer who lives in upstate New York and is originally from North Carolina. She has written for multiple online websites and media outlets, including recapping hit TV show "This Is Us" for the Baltimore Sun website.