The Best Local Eats for Touring Musicians

Finding good food is one of the most frustrating challenges that bands face while on the road. Indie bands My Brightest Diamond and Clare and the Reasons are currently on a three month national tour (following their recent European tour) and write to us with a list of healthy restaurants that they have found along the way.

Happy Thanksgiving!

We are a van of six lovers of the healthiest food available. After two months of culinary glory in Europe we came to the states with gastronomical trepidation. With our mighty van internet and a lovely network of like-minded food-lovin’ friends and a healthy portion of each morning dedicated to research, we found and would like to share our little wealth of health and tastiness.

City Local Eats Description
Kansas City, MO
List of Local Venues
Vietnam Cafe This is a small family-owned place with very little atmosphere but the best egg rolls this side of the Pacific and extra close to US70. The ice coffee is delicious too.
Grand Rapids, MI
List of Local Venues
Restaurant Bloom This extraordinary place is totally unexpected in a little strip of decent-enough looking eateries. The menu is mouth-watering and every dish delivers. As New York based foodies we would like to say that with such spectacular ingredients and overall sophistication this place could easily hold it’s own in the Village. Good brews too.
Portland, ME
List of Local Venues
The Green Elephant Super clean, modern, friendly veggie joint sporting bold flavors and fresh ingredients. Our resident meat-loving Frenchman totally approved.
St.Louis, MO
List of Local Venues
Local Harvest Local laptoppers gather in small numbers in this sunny, friendly sandwich and more mecca. They have kombucha tea and eggs all day.
Madison, WI
List of Local Venues
Chautaura This jewel in the crown of the mid-west’s reigning hipster heaven calms the spirits and satisfies the senses. Himalayan cuisine prepared beautifully and a chia tea not to miss.
Minneapolis, MN
List of Local Venues
French Meadows Bakery Fresh, organic, locally grown and tons of options in this beyond-a-bakery owned by MBD candyman, Zac Rae’s uncle. Makin’ the family proud.
Denver, CO
List of Local Venues
Parsley A friendly earth-counscious ex-corporate dude runs this small bright and stunningly delicious little shop. The smoothies will blow your mind. Seriously.
Salt Lake City, UT
List of Local Venues
Raw Bean Perfectly roasted beans with no trace of burning and completely lacking any trace of bitterness. An overall perfect shot of espresso.

And now, just a few words about some non-restaurant situations….

The promoter at the Royal Theater (Danvile, IN) has an apartment for the bands that is marvelous! The apartment is gorgeous and stocked with lovely local edibles that kept us happy for several meals.

The tiny town of Paonia, CO was a wonderland of healthy eating. Our fantastically delicious dinner was made by the woman who had grown the ingredients. The local greens were tear-renderingly flavorful and the local wine was so good we sang it’s praises from the stage. After the show the town was so revved up that “Linda’s”, which only opens on the whim of it’s owner, threw open its doors and we experienced what felt like a happy-go-lucky brothel/speakeasy. There were drinks, girls dressing up in lingerie and antique Betty Boop dolls in every corner. It felt like a dream and very well may have been. On our way out of town we stopped at the Homestead Market which is a part of Big B’s Apple Orchard. Local produce, wine, cheese, meats, pottery and the best cider we’ve ever had got us up early on a long drive day and it was worth every minute. None of us had heard of Paonia and now we will certainly never forget it.

Do you have a favorite place to eat on the road?  Join the discussion in our forums.  Click here for the thread.

Responsibilities On a Ship Gig

A few things to remember when looking at becoming a cruise ship musician are the personal responsibilities you face each and every day of your contract pertaining to the drug and alcohol policies, extra duties and emergencies. Although I personally have no problem with this lifestyle I have started to see other crew members (musicians and others) become increasingly lax in their approach and attitude to living on a ship and pitching in when need be.

I am writing this after a very stressful and potentially life threatening situation aboard my current ship. We were docked in a popular Mexican port and the musicians had a very busy day (2 rehearsals, 3 shows) so we had limited time to get off the ship. Others, however, managed to hit up some popular crew bars and took advantage of their hours off. About 5.30pm the musicians had an hour before sail away and we decided to go out and get some dinner. Walking down the pier we ran into one of our friends – covered in blood and barely able to stand due to too much booze. She was being helped by a man who we can only guess was a passenger. Apparently she had fallen over entering the pier through security and had banged her head. We took over and let the man return to the ship and we tried to clean her up. For a whole hour we were on the pier with varying levels of success trying to get her to walk forward towards the ship! At the time we didn’t know, but a guest had called the Hotel Director and she was waiting for us outside the ship. Luckily a guest had distracted her as we walked passed and we got through to the mid-ship passenger area and again our friend kicked off a scene. Eventually we managed to get her to bed. Later that evening, during our next break where we intended to try and eat for the second time that evening we had a crew announcement – ‘Bravo, Bravo, Bravo – Portside boiler room’. Basically one of the engines was on fire and this was not a drill! Needless to say we didn’t get to eat as we started the emergency plan. Luckily the fire was resolved with no evacuation muster taking place, but what came as a big wake up call to many people on the ship was the fact that drunky did not hear the alarm at all and had the situation been more serious she would have not been able to perform her evacuation duties, or even manage to get off the ship herself.

From the above situation we have all come to realize first hand why ships have these rules. Living on a ship is a 24/7 commitment whether you are working 2 or 22 hrs a day. This also pertains to extra duties when a ship has an outbreak of any sort. The past 2 months this particular ship has seen its fair share with a case of German Measles resulting in Canadian and US Authorities not allowing crew off in some ports and directly after that was a outbreak of GI amongst the passengers. The latter meant that all crew, regardless of position, had to pitch in and help clean the ship each day.

So basically, if you’re thinking of becoming a musician on a ship remember it’s not the same as being a musician on land. You can’t show up to shows drunk or high, you can’t drink on stage and when need be, you have to be able and willing to perform ANY duties the higher ups throw at you. You can get angry, you can threaten to quit, you can skip out on duties, but all of the above will probably result in you being on the next flight home if you persist. If you are prepared and willing to accept the lifestyle you just have to grin and bear it. Ship life isn’t always glamorous and a ship musician sometimes has to work a lot more than people realize. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you can’t let your guard down for the whole 6 months. You are responsible for your own work, safety and the passenger’s safety. In saying this, I do sincerely love this job and already have my next 2 contracts lined up. Being a cruiseship musician is not just a job, it’s a lifestyle.

Unemployment Benefits for Musicians

Nationwide unemployment insurance first began in 1935 in response to the Great Depression.  At that time 25% or more of the United State’s workforce was unemployed. The unemployment insurance program is jointly administered by the federal and state governments and funded by state and federal payroll taxes that are paid by most employers.

The eligibility requirements, benefit amount and benefit duration are determined by each individual state. Generally, the eligibility for unemployment insurance is determined by the length and compensation for your employment prior to filing for the claim.

You may be ineligible for unemployment insurance if you are self-employed. According to the 2005 census, 43% of all professional musicians are self-employed, including freelancers, independent contractors and, generally, anyone that receives a 1099 tax form at the end of the year and not a W-2. If this is you, check with your unemployment office to confirm whether or not you are eligible for unemployment benefits in your state.

For the other 57% of musicians – some 96,000 musicians according to the census numbers – you may be eligible for unemployment insurance if you are subject to seasonal unemployment or general lay-offs from your gig. This includes musicians on payrolls to both for-profit and not-for-profit organizations. According to the National Endowment for the Arts, only 30% of professional musicians are employed year-round, so it is very likely that some or all of us will run into unemployment sometime during our careers.

Some situations in which you might not consider unemployment benefits are: unemployment of symphony orchestras during summer months, unemployment following/between cruise ship jobs, weeks of layoff during national tours (Broadway or other corporate-backed tours), seasonal unemployment for theme park musicians, etc.  If you are hired as an employee for a limited amount of time, you may be eligible for unemployment insurance at the conclusion of your contract (depending on the length of the contract and amount of compensation earned).

The amount of money that you will recieve in unemployment insurance is determined by state and is almost always proportional to the amount of money you made at your job.  Each state caps the maximum weekly benefit at a different amount.  New York state, for instance, caps it’s weekly benefits at $405.  Other maximum weekly benefit amounts: Tennessee and Florida at $275, Illinois at $417, Missouri at $270, Nevada at $362, and California at $450.

Many musician’s jobs are mobile, so a problem for musicians can be finding out exactly which state to claim unemployment insurance benefits in.  Each state deals with this issue differently.  Generally speaking, it is best to begin researching your unemployment eligibility in the state that you currently, legally, reside in.  If you have worked in more than one state in the past year, you will most likely need to call or go in to talk to someone at the unemployment office in your area.  It’s usually not possible to file unemployment claims over pre-recorded phone systems or on the internet for those workers that have worked in multiple states.

If you have any questions at all regarding your eligibility for unemployment insurance, it’s very important that you ask the people at your unemployment office prior to filing an unemployment claim.  Unemployment insurance fraud is a felony.

Once your unemployment insurance filing has been accepted by your state, you will need to file weekly claims to receive your benefits.  Most states allow you to do this over the phone or on the internet by filling out a form or going through a pre-recorded phone menu.  It’s very important to truthfully fill out your weekly claims for unemployment.  For musicians, that often means claiming any freelance wages you received during your unemployment – income such as weekend gigs and cash jobs.

Your first week of benefits, called the “waiting week,” will not be paid, and you will not receive your second week benefits until after the second week is over.  After this initial lag, you can continue filing weekly claims for unemployment benefits until one of two things happens – you either get a job, or run out of benefit weeks.  The standard maximum number of weeks that you can claim unemployment insurance is 26 weeks (6 months).  There are provisions written into the Social Security act that allow benefits to extend past 26 weeks during times of high unemployment.

Update: On November 21st, 2008, President George Bush signed a extension of unemployment insurance.  This extension provides another 7 weeks of benefits for unemployed workers with an additional 13 weeks for workers that live in states with an unemployment rate over 6%. A list of state unemployment rates is available from the Department of Labor website.

Here are some important links:

Musicians for Inaugural Balls

This article was posted several days ago at and mirrored at

Barack Obama's Illinois inaugural ball

Actually, I don't really like the way they boo-hoo the idea that regular working musicians are going to be playing the inaugural ball.  Or that they should have celebrities playing the gig instead. The headline at HuffPost was, “Obama's Illinois Inaugural Ball Short On Big Name Talent.”  I like the HuffingtonPost with they stick to politics, but anytime they venture off into the world of music they consistently say asinine things.

The point is that if anyone has connections in DC, I recommend you try landing a gig for an inaugural ball.  I've heard that the mayor of DC is expecting perhaps 5 million people to descend on DC for the inauguration and all those people are going to be looking for a party afterwards.  I expect there would be a lot of gigs in that town on Jan 19-20.

Bassist Doug Ross: The Path Less Taken

How do you make a career out of playing music?  This is one of the most common questions I get from the young, aspiring professional musicians I teach at L.A. Music Academy.  It’s a difficult question to answer, because every pro musician has a unique story and occupies a unique niche in the business.  Let’s face it: there really is no civilized job placement system for musicians!  But that is not cause for despair.  It only means that, like any other entrepreneur, you will need to be creative, flexible and open to whatever opportunities arise as you build your career.

And I do mean build.  A career in music is an ever changing, growing, evolving thing. It sometimes seems to take on a life of its own, quite apart from your original intentions.  I can’t tell you how your own story will play out, but the one thing I can assure you of is that it will not go exactly as you had envisioned!  Mine certainly hasn’t.  As an example of just how magically, alarmingly, unpredictably a career can develop, I offer my own humble story.

Like most of us, I was raised on rock ‘n’ roll and probably had stars in my eyes for the first few years when I picked up the bass.  Being from a very pragmatic family, I pretty quickly realized that rock stardom was a long shot at best, so I resolved to get some formal training and shoot for a career as a “session musician” (whatever that meant).

The decision to seek out mentors proved to be a wise one, although fate began taking over my course almost immediately.  I enrolled in a music theory class in high school, and when the teacher found out that I played bass, I was immediately drafted into ALL of the school bands.  It didn’t matter that I could barely decipher written music.  There were no other bass players around, so within weeks I found myself performing with the jazz band, show choir, orchestra, etc.  I didn’t have a particular interest in any of that music at the time, but it was sink or swim!  I managed to swim.

I continued to study privately and enrolled in a full time music program for a year following high school.  My teachers and peers challenged and exposed me to lots of different musical styles and techniques, as is typical at this age.  By the time I graduated from school, I was fairly well trained to cope with a variety of music, but had no professional connections.  I distinctly recall this as the scariest time of my career.  Where should I start?

I bought some time by enrolling in the local community college (to the relief of my parents), while simultaneously seeking gigs via bulletin boards, classified ads, and friends in the college music department.  Gradually, bandleaders started to call.  I picked up a few private students.  Most of the gigs I was being offered were frankly gigs that no one else wanted: low money, corny music, flaky bandleaders.  It wasn’t much, but on every new gig, I met some more pro musicians and handed out some business cards.  By the time I finished my degree, I was already making a living in the Washington, D.C. area.

One of the lowest paying gigs I was ever offered was playing in the pit band for a local musical theater production.  I can’t remember exactly how much it paid, but I’m sure it was well under $50 per show.  I almost turned it down, but I was having a slow summer that year, so I swallowed my pride and took the gig.  It turned out to be a very hip show with a great band, and we all became good friends.

A year later, the bandleader of that show called me from the West Coast.  He had been hired as musical director for a large, modern circus production in Japan and wanted me to play bass.  The money was double what I had ever earned before, and the gig lasted for two years.  Now, if someone had told me when I was starting out that I would wind up living in Japan and performing in a circus, I’m not sure how I would have reacted, but I certainly couldn’t have predicted it.  And I never would have guessed that one of my lowest paid gigs would lead directly to one of my best paid gigs, but that’s exactly what happened.

The move to Japan changed my life forever.  I wound up making more musical connections over there, and opted to stay after the circus gig ended.  I immersed myself in the language, traveled around and contacted as many musicians as I could find.  Eventually, I landed a job heading the bass department at one of Japan’s largest music schools.  I stayed for a total of seven years.

Through the job a Fukuoka School of Music, I got well connected within the music education community.  Though I had never really set out to be a music teacher, I discovered that I enjoyed teaching, and I also liked the relatively steady nature of the work.  I kept gigging weekly with local Japanese bands, too.

Eventually, I decided that I wanted to get back into performing more and be challenged at a higher level, so I left Japan and moved to Los Angeles with a completely empty date book.  In some respects, this was a conscious choice to put myself back at square one.  The move certainly wasn’t dictated by some tempting opportunity, as the move to Japan had been.  But, by this point, I had established hundreds of connections with music business and music education professionals worldwide, so I took a leap of faith that I could make something happen.  I wasn’t even going to try to make any more predictions about what exactly would happen, but I figured I’d survive.

I’ve been surviving in L.A. for 6 years now, and in retrospect, I have very few regrets.  My life has been nothing if not interesting, and every unexpected opportunity has taught me something new and made me a stronger musician.  I’m finally feeling experienced and confident enough to indulge in defining my own musical challenges and projects more proactively, such as my original CD project.  I still work mostly on a freelance basis, but even if I could have lived out my original rock star dream from the beginning, I don’t think I could have produced very substantive work without these 20 years of experience and perspective.  May your own journey be interesting, enriching and unpredictable.  It’s good for you!

Recommended Packing List for Cruise Ship Musicians

You probably have a good idea about what you’ll want to bring. Remember that living on a cruise ship is different than taking a vacation on a cruise ship, so take into account the fact that you’ll be there so long. You’ll need your passport and bring copies of all the paperwork you were sent by the cruise line or talent agency. Bring phone numbers of all of your contacts – including country code numbers if your are going overseas so that you know how to get a hold of the talent agency if you are stuck in Berlin/Hong Kong/[insert-faraway-place-here] on your way to the ship. Bring – and I know this sounds silly – bring writing utensils. It took me 3 days to find a pen the first time I went on a ship (weird, right?).

The following is a list of specific items you should bring with.

See also the Detailed Packing Lists for 2 examples of item-by-item packing lists – one from a keyboardist and one from a trombonist.


If you’re in the show band, chances are good you’ll have to play with a click track as some point, if not all the time. It sucks. Totally. But somewhere along the line the mucky-mucks at the top decided that they would rather pre-record music and hire only enough musicians to give the illusion of live music, and to make those musicians play along to a click, i.e. robots. Don’t get me started.

As much as it sucks, you’ll have to do it. Its not that hard, really, you just have to get used to it. And it’ll help to have good headphones – and not just any good headphones – good headphones with an OPEN-EAR design. This means that the headphone cups are not a closed or noise-cancelling design. See, if you have a closed-cup or noise-cancelling design, you’ll have to play with one cup on to hear the click, and one cup off to hear the band. You can get used to this, but an open-ear design allows outside sound to penetration the headphone cups, so that you can hear the band and hear the click with both headphones on. It is a big convenience.

These headphones are open-cup, as well as collapsible (good for travel!), and are also sennheiser, who makes respectable products. I would keep these as your stage pair, and have something else (buds, etc.) to use for personal use. You don’t want to crush your good pair on a camel ride in Morocco and be out-of-luck at the show that night.

Sidenote: you are not required to bring your own headphones on the gig, you would be provided some, but who knows what kind and what quality. I recommend bringing your own.


Don’t bring a full-size hiking pack as your main luggage. I did that the first time and it ended up being really dumb. Your luggage will go into storage either in a storage room or, more likely, under your bunk in your cabin. Rectangular suitcases fit well in the rectangular spaces under beds, but hiking packs don’t as much. You can also fit more into a suitcase than a pack. Hiking packs are great for backpacking Europe or the rockies – times when you have to carry things long distances – but when you work on a ship there are only two times you’ll even see your luggage: your flight there and your flight back. (Also, backpacks are terrible on planes.) Believe me, get a suitcase.

I actually own 2 of nearly this same suitcase. I think having 2 of them is perfect. Perhaps you want to bring a big one and a little one, but I recommend just getting to medium sized ones like this 25″. After you live on the road for awhile, you grow tired of wearing the same 3 shirts and you want to expand a bit.

That said, if you can fit everything into one suitcase, all the better. There’s usually only enough room to fit two suitcases in the storage under the bottom bunk of a crew room (one for you, one for your roommate).

A nice, wheeled duffel bad might be cool, too.

Luggage Cart

Remember I said I brough 2 of the above 25″ suitcases? It’s manageable and convenient, but the wheels on most 25″ suitcases aren’t engineered to holding up two 25″ suitcases (usually I like to piggy-back my suitcases on top of each other on travel days, so as to roll them both along at once with one hand).

The wheels, as I found out, bow under the pressure of two suitcases. Yet, instead of changing the suitcase set-up, I suggest you bring a luggage cart. This one is great because it folds up nice and flat for storage in your room.

Once you get on the ship, you can also use this for rolling packages back home (I promise you’ll have to ship something at least once during your contract), and many other uses.

Day Pack

You’ll need a very good daypack. Spend some money on this – you’ll use it WAY more than your actual luggage. Every time you leave the ship you’ll want to bring with you beach stuff, or an extra coat, or a guide book, or something.

In general, you’ll want something that isnt too big – I’d say 30-40 liter capacity (2300 cubic inches). Waterproof would be a nice bonus, and a subtle internal frame wouldn’t hurt. If this all sounds a bit much – believe me – it won’t after you carry this thing all over 5 continents.

I recommend the Kelty Redwing Backpack. I own an older version of this Kelty backpack and it’s worked great for me and held up very well over time. In fact, my father liked my pack so much that he bought one himself. The main compartment is big enough for a beach towel, snorkel and mark, or maybe some extra layers if you plan on being off the ship after dark. The newer Redwings have a great organization system of zipped up pockets smaller compartments. The long side pockets are perfect for a bottle of sunscreen.

Hydration packs look really dorky, but you might find, as I did, that they are really nice to have when hiking in the 90 degree heat of Greece.

Personally, I use my Timbuk2 Messenger Bag, which is waterproof and cavernous and slick and it’s perfect. This should bag distribute the weight of your stuff in a way I find much more comfortable than regular backpacks. The weight rests much more on your frame than it does on the soft tissues of your upper back, and I find that I can carry my Timbuk2 much longer without fatigue. There is a detachable stabalizing strap that holds the bag to your body if you are bending over (a common problem with shoulder bags is that they fall in your face when you bend over). The Timbuk2 is a great bag.

Clock with Alarm

This little electronic is so valuable on a ship, not just for convenience, but for safety. This is a flashlight, thermometer and alarm clock combination. I have bought this e-x-a-c-t clock THREE times. I would not travel without it. As I write this I can actually look across the room to see it. I found this clock at TJ Maxx each time I bought it, and I’m really glad to see it available on Amazon. Buy it! For real!

You’ll need a clock next to your bed, of course. None will be provided, and you’ll need to keep to a strict schedule on a ship. For that matter, you should really bring a watch. A clock radio doesn’t make any sense, though, as your cabin will likely be below decks with no reception. Also, a small clock like this one will fit in your small, cramped cabin.

Furthermore, you should always have a flashlight near your bunk for emergencies. More than likely, if there is an emergency on a ship, it’ll be at night. Maybe the ship will lose power, and how will you find your way out? The handy flashlight right next to your bed may help lead you and others to safety in a dangerous situation

And as if that wasn’t enough, the themometer on this clock is a nice feature. It’s nice to know the temperature in your cabin. (You’ll be surprised how cold it often is!)


I would recommend buying a laptop before you go. You can’t find computers with English keyboards and MS Word in English overseas, so don’t buy them there. (Although I’ve heard electronics are cheap in the Caribbean?)

Do you need a computer? No. Is it a nice luxury? Yes. And without rent or groceries or gas or car insurance to pay for, you’ll have the thing paid off in a month, so why not?

If you have a laptop you can access the internet wireless – that means you don’t have to hang out in the computer lab waiting for one to open up. That also mean you can write your emails (or blog posts?) offline and upload everything later, saving you tons of money on internet fees. (Yes, you have to pay for the internet on ships – typically $.10/minute for crew.)

I recommend getting one. Buy I don’t (DON’T) recommend buying one (or ANYTHING) and having it sent to the ship. I made that mistake once, and I lost my computer entirely.

If you get a mac, buy a USB to PC game pad controller and download the Snes9x emulator and some of the hundreds of games before you go. Better yet, buy two controllers and make friends when you get on the ship.


A camera is essential. I bought a 3 mega-pixel camera within the first week I was on a ship and used it daily. I recommend something small and travel-ready, like this Coolpix. Buy it before you go on the ship, because sales tax overseas is considerably higher than it is stateside (I bought mine in Helsinki and paid 24% sales tax!). You can get the sales tax back, but there’s a whole bunch of paperwork involved. Get it before you go so you can start taking pictures right away!

Check out the pictures I took while working on a cruise ship. They were all taken with a 3 mega-pixel Coolpix I bought in 2004 and still use.


This may be taking the packing list too far, but those of you who read my blog know that I have a folding bike and I use it constantly. There is no better way to see a new place than to see it on a bike, and a folding bike fits perfectly in a cruise ship lifestyle. Space is tight on a ship, and having a real bike is out of the question. But without any mode of personal transportation, you’ll have to get a taxi or shuttle to get around. That will either be really expensive, or limit you to seeing only where the shuttle takes you.

Get a folding bike! It’ll be worth the expense, and it’s more than likely you can sell it after your contract if you don’t want to keep it. Look for one that is $400 or more, because folding bikes cheaper than that end up falling apart. I would recommend you buy one when you get to your ship, even those you can get them to fit in a suitcase.

I WISH that I’d been so lucky as to have a folding bike when I worked on a ship in Europe. I could have biked around Rome! Croatia! Athens! What an experience that would have been!

Beach Wear

Dude, you basically live on the beach. Get some sandals. Shoes are worthless in the Bahamas.

I own a pair of these sandals in brown and they are supremely comfortable. They are comparable to Reefs, but I think they look better. Highly recommended!

Laundry Gear

You’ll want to do your own laundry on the ship. There is laundry service, but its expensive and I think all ships provide laundry machines for crew. If I remember correctly, the crew facilities are free.

Get a collapsible mesh laundry back like this before you go. Put this in the bottom of your closet, and go to the laundry when its full. At the end of your contract throw it out all together if you want.

Suntan Lotion

Dude, you basically live on the beach. Put some SPF on that.

I don’t mean to get all cosmetic on you guys, but you might find, like I have, that this is the best sunblock that you can find. As a cancer survivor, I’m a big proponent of wearing sunblock. Remember that cruise ships don’t go where it’s rainy. If they did, they wouldn’t get any guests. Cruise ships go where it’s sunny, and you should wear sunblock every time you go in the sun. Even if you want to get a tan.

This stuff does what it says. It block a wide spectrum, not just UVA, but also UVB rays. It rubs in quickly and has a nice, sheer, dry feel to it. Most sun blocks end up oily, even if they say they don’t and even if they are rubbed in. At the beach that can mean that all the sand will stick to you in that really uncomfortable way that sand is known to do. This stuff is much better and I use it all the time now.

Most likely, you’ll be alone on this gig. If you want to get sunscreen on your back and don’t have anyone to do it, get a can of spray sunscreen for the hard to reach places.

Job Profile: Music Career Specialist Heather McDonald

A few weeks ago, I had coffee with a friend of mine. She’s younger than me – she’ll be graduating from college in May and she’s wondering what to do with her life. She went on and on about this job or that job, dismissing most possibilities as not lucrative enough, wondering if she should go to law school because that’s what everyone else seems to be doing, and balking at my suggestion that because she has NEVER had a job before, like it or not, she’s probably going to be looking at a low paid, entry level position. (OK, “friend” is a strong word.) Then, she took a sip of her drink, put it down, looked me square in the eye and said, “do you think you’ll ever get a real job?”

She’s not the first to ask (honestly, is my mom in on this?). But these kinds of questions make me more pensive these days, because you see, my main job in the music industry right now is to talk to you about your job in the music industry. I spend a lot of time telling people that they should treat their musical ambitions, whatever they may be, as a job and work hard at them as such. Then I also warn them that they should get used to working long, hard, thankless days and that most people will think that they don’t work at all. Hey, it’s not pretty, but it’s honest. It’s one of those music industry conundrums.

But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself a little bit, because I haven’t actually told you what I do. I am the guide for music careers, which is a fancy way of saying that when you visit the Music Careers website, those are my words you see. In a nutshell, my job is to explain the ins and outs of the music industry to people. Both musicians and people trying to work on the business side of the industry read my site, and so I write about everything from picking songs for your demo to things you should consider before starting a record label. I also do label profiles, event profiles, and interviews with people in the industry. I try to make a point of interviewing people who have built something in music from the ground up and whose stories are accessible to people reading my site. I want the people who read my site to come away with the impression that taking a chance on their musical ambitions can work for them, and I hope that my site gives them some helpful information about some things they might not yet understand so they’re more confident about taking the leap. (My music industry career can all be traced back to a bake sale, so I’m a big believer in just going for it. But more on that later.)

Another thing I spend a lot of time doing through the Music Careers website is answering questions that users email to me. It sometimes takes me weeks and weeks to do it, but I try to answer every question I get, and if I can’t answer it, I try to find someone who can. It’s one of my favorite parts of the job, but it can also be really depressing. The internet has been great for indie musicians in particular, but if my inbox is anything to go by, it’s also been great for scam artists. I get an incredible amount of email from people who want to know if I think a particular deal or proposal is fair or not, and sure, I’m not a lawyer, but I know a rip off when I see one. Inevitably, the people who are seeking my advice have been “discovered” on the internet by someone clever enough to know that people have their dreams all tied up in their music careers and that makes them pretty easy to exploit. If I can stop one person from paying thousands of dollars to get their track on some comp no one is ever going to listen to or paying thousands of dollars to some sleazy music industry “consultant” who offers them earth shattering advice like to set up a MySpace page,  then I will have done my job. (I’m Heather McDonald, and I approve this message.)

Of course, I’m a big believer in independent music, and moreover, I’m a big believer in the fact that the musicians come first. Yes, I do know what it’s like to, say, deal with a musician who flew to another country for a tour and forgot to bring his instruments or a middle of the night phone call from a band who is on tour far, far away, in a place you’ve never been, who want to know if you know how to get back to their hotel from the falafel stand. True stories. But really, without the musicians, what would we all be doing? My ideas about this get me in trouble sometimes on my site, because when I write about deals, I write about deals that are fair for everyone, especially the musicians. Not all deals are like that in the real world, of course, and so sometimes I get outraged emails from people who yell and stomp their feet and tell me that I don’t know what I’m talking about (and one threat to “take me down.”). Hey, whatever. Fun music industry fact: there are approximately 900 million ka-billion ways to get things done, and there’s no reason for anyone to sign an unfair deal. Especially musicians. Especially in this climate.

So, there you have it. That’s my job. It’s to help you understand the music industry, to help you avoid getting hustled as you try to get your music career off the ground and to offer advice on ways you can blaze your own trail in the music biz. I love it, but it’s not the only music related work I do, and my other jobs kind of give me the material for that job. And plus, didn’t I promise you a story about a bake sale?

Right then. In addition to the Music Careers website, I do freelance music PR, press release writing, the occasional tour booking – a hodge podge of music related activities. The reason I can do any of this is because I had a bake sale. Well, several of them, actually. I used to work at an independent record store in North Carolina, and I read a story about a band I liked, Looper, doing a small UK tour of book shops and record shops. I wanted them to come and play at our store, so I dropped them a line using this new fangled thing we had just gotten in the store – email. They wrote me back and said they would love to, if I would just get them some plane tickets.

And so the bake sales began. I would stay up all night on Friday nights, baking cookies, cupcakes and the like, often with the help of some friends, and then on Saturdays, I would set up a table outside of the store and start selling. My lovely and supportive co-workers would also cook food and do shifts hawking baked goods. The idea took off. Word spread and people started coming out to the store specifically to support the cause. Some people contributed food, some people paid $20 or more for a cupcake. One local artist donated a painting for us to raffle off. A local cable access show did a profile of the sales. CMJ interviewed me.

I raised enough money to buy the plane tickets. In the end, their label decided to book them a US tour themselves. They never made it to the store – although SubPop did fly me and a friend to Chicago to see them play. We had a big customer appreciation party with the money raised to say thanks to everyone for their help, but there was a hurricane that night, which kind of put a damper on the things. I bet you didn’t expect that story to end with a hurricane, but it does.

During that time, I made a decision to move to Glasgow, Scotland (where Looper was from). I wanted to get out from behind the record store counter and work in the music industry, and hey, I loved tons of Glasgow bands. Why not go there? I mean, sure, I didn’t know anyone in Scotland and had never been there, but still. I flew to Scotland and emailed Looper to say, “hey, guess what, I moved to Glasgow!” Although likely slightly afraid, Stuart David of Looper put me in touch with Francis Macdonald of Shoeshine Records, and said, “I don’t know, maybe he needs an employee.”

Francis had never really thought of having an employee at Shoeshine, but agreed to give me some work experience, which turned into a job. My planned six month stay in Glasgow turned in nearly seven years. All because of a chocolate chip cookie.

If you really, really want to know the music industry, get yourself a job at an indie label. I’m hugely biased because I love indie labels like some girls love diamonds, but when you work at an indie, you have to do just about every job there is in the music industry. There’s not enough money floating around usually to hire a specific person to look after each aspect of the business or to outsource a lot of work, so in a given day, you may deal with a distributor, look for new licensing partners, make some calls to promote your latest release, book a show and listen to demos. You get a bird’s eye view of how each part of the industry works and how they relate to each other. As an added bonus, because indies don’t have the money that the big guys do, most people you deal with are in it for the love of the music. You can’t work for an indie label (at least, not for long), if you don’t really believe in what you’re doing, and that creates a different working environment. It also creates 12, 14, 16 hour days and the aforementioned inability to describe your job to anyone outside the music industry, but it’s incredibly rewarding all the same.

Coming back to the present, in addition to the Music Careers website and my assorted freelance music writing and PR work, my other job at the moment is putting together a new label for Caribbean musicians called Link Up. To the shock, bewilderment, and yes, amusement of many, I’ve been a huge dancehall fan since I was a teenager, and the basic idea behind Link Up is something that’s been kicking around in my head for some time. My friend, Ed Pybus from Edinburgh’s SL Records, and I have been working on getting the label together for awhile now, and more recently, we’ve been helped out by Denzil Coleman, who oddly enough I discovered through my devotion to the Ron Mexico City blog.

I call Link Up a label for lack of a better word, but it’s really a little different from a traditional label. The business is a social enterprise co-op – in other words, any money we make gets invested into a social cause, and as you might guess, our cause is helping to develop the music industry infrastructure in the Caribbean. There is so much great music in the Caribbean, and we’d like to help these musicians bring their music to a wider audience and to do so on terms that are fair to them. For musicians that Link Up works with as a label, we can help them get their music into North American and European markets, but we’d also like to help all musicians in the Caribbean figure out how they can do things like use the internet to promote themselves effectively, approach people in other markets to work with, seek funding and to understand what is a fair deal and what isn’t. The musicians from the Caribbean who have gotten deals haven’t always been treated very well in the past, and a lot of times the profits have ended up outside of the region. We’d like to be a little different. And of course, we’d just love to get more of the brilliant music of all genres out of the Caribbean and to more listeners. I’m pretty excited about it, so a big part of my job right now is getting it ready to go.

What is my point in telling you all of this? (And here you thought I didn’t have one…) My point is – go for it. There are lots of different ways you can work in the music industry, and sometimes if you don’t see an opportunity for you, you have to create your own. It’s not always a matter of saying, “I want to be a (fill in the blank).” Your job in music may be to have lots of different jobs in music. Mind you, it’s never easy. Despite what some people may think, working in music is, well, really hard work. Everything you try may not be a rip roaring success. That’s OK – as long as you have the drive to stick with it and keep going, you’ll find your way. Make the leap. And I promise you, whatever you’re doing in music, it’s a “real job.”

The Next Level – Getting Started As a Musician, Part 2

You’re out of the gate with your music career and now you are trying to get to “The Next Level”.  You’ve established yourself in one circle or another and you’ve come to realize that you deserve more money, recognition, and better gigs than you are getting now.

For starters, let’s refer back to my first article on “Getting Started”.  The first 3 issues need to be revisited: Honest Assessment, Gather Information, and Set Reasonable Goals.  Whether you are a part time musician looking to become a full time musician or you are a full time musician seeking to increase your gig schedule, we need to establish what constitutes “The Next Level” since it’s quite different for all of us.  Steps for getting to the next level are not a secret but they are uncomfortable and difficult to implement. There is no substitute for hard work and perseverance.  Very similar to getting started in the music business, there is also no single answer for getting to the next level.  Are you ready for “The Next Level?”  Assess your situation, gather some information, set a few goals and read on!

Practice More.  Is it time to update your playing?  Are you getting the same gigs with the same people because you are playing the same notes and licks over and over again?  Is it time to get back to some private study or find a new private teacher?  Try to cut down on the wasted time that occupies a larger than normal portion of your day and use it to get back into the practice room.  Talk to some accomplished professionals and ask what books or techniques they are working on at the moment.  Ask them what’s in their iPod and what they are listening to right now for motivation.

Increase your Versatility.  Are you playing the same job or same types of jobs because it’s all you can do?  Are you in fact limited to one style of music or one situation?  Maybe it’s time to explore some other possibilities. This is difficult because increasing your versatility may mean exploring some kinds of music or situations you are not familiar with and fall outside of your comfort zone.  For example, if you are world’s most undiscovered burning guitar player but you have one gig between now and Easter, what can you do?  How about get a lap steel or a pedal steel and learn a few country tunes?  How about making yourself available for solo acoustic gigs?  My point is that change is always fine, as long as it’s happening to someone else, right?  Time to look inward.

Learn to Read Music.  It’s 2008, it’s expected.  Formal training or no formal training, learn to read music.  It saves everyone time and money especially if you plan to do any studio work.  Reading music increases your value as a musician.  The more you read music the easier it becomes, don’t keep putting it off because it’s difficult at first.  Riding a bike was difficult and we all fell the first few times.  Get up, get back in the saddle, and figure it out.

Always be Prepared.  Are you ready for the “next level”? Whatever it may be? What happens if you get the call to audition for the gig of a lifetime?  Are you prepared?  I cannot stress the importance of doing your homework.  This can take on a bunch of different forms and it’s applicable to a lot of different situations, but it usually always comes down to learning the music.  Whether you are learning 3 or 4 tunes for an audition, or whether you just got a gig and you have to learn 3 decades worth of music, learn it.  Learn all of it, inside and out.  Don’t just be able to “get through it”, that’s not good enough.  Learn to “play it”.

Positive Attitude.  The music business is difficult, and it has politics like any other profession.  Sometimes the best players get the best gigs, sometimes they don’t.  An early mentor of mine always told me to worry about the gigs I did get and not to worry about the gigs I didn’t get.  The message is quite simple, but putting into play is a little more difficult.  Nobody wants to hire someone who is dark, miserable and has a poor attitude even if their playing is stellar.  Keeping a positive attitude and surrounding yourself with people who are successful, innovative and positive will increase your chances far beyond sitting in a coffee shop or bar complaining about the politics, unfairness and inequality in the music industry.

CD/DVD’s.  Do you have CD/DVD’s for sale?  Are you on anyone else’s CD/DVD’s?  Hopefully the answer is yes to both, if it’s not, get busy!  Are you promoting them or are they collecting dust in a closet somewhere?  Are you for sale on iTunes?  Nowadays there are many, many outlets for promoting music online.  Websites like CD Baby and Music Submit are filled with valuable information that is updated daily with information you need to get your product out there.

Increase your Exposure Online.  Sure we all have a website, a Myspace Page, a Facebook page, but is that enough?  What happens when you go to Google yourself in quotes?  If 1 or 2 websites come up, it’s not enough.  There are hundreds of websites, web rings, and link exchanges to join.  Increasing traffic to your website is only a start, especially if you have a CD to promote.  Reviews on other websites about you or your CD are also particularly helpful because they give you legitimacy.  Are you exposed in any other languages?  Do you have video’s on You Tube?  How is the quality?  What kind of comments are you getting?  I know I enjoy watching someone play in addition to listening to them play whenever possible.  Most of the time, video is a more accurate and complete representation of someone’s performance than audio by itself.

Increase your Exposure in Person.  How often are you actually out playing?  How often are you playing shows the public can come see?  How often do you go out to see others play?  Do you see what I’m getting at?

Web exposure is fine and extremely beneficial, but how often does someone get hired purely because of what’s on their website?  If you’re lucky, a website is where people go after they’ve seen you perform to find out more about you.  Make sure you are playing an ample amount of shows that showcase your playing in public.  Hang around afterwards instead of heading home.  On that same note, be sure to check out as much live music as possible.  You can greatly increase your chance of “being in the right place at the right time” if you increase the amount of places you visit.

Seek the advice of professionals.  Ask someone who is doing what you want to do how they got where they are!  It’s okay to pick someone’s brain a little, and even okay to steal and incorporate.  You can steal and incorporate a lot of things.  You can steal and incorporate music, marketing, and networking ideas in general.

Seek out Endorsements.  This is more difficult now than ever, but not impossible.  Endorsements in 2008 are more about marketability than playing.  It’s more about relationships with the companies and what you can do for them.  I have several friends that are not “big names” that do clinics for reputable companies.  They have good endorsements and their names get spread as a result.  They are all competent players and have excellent business skills.  Talk to reps at the NAMM show or visit some of your favorite companies online and try to gather some of the endorsement application requirements.  Don’t ever be afraid to approach a company’s artist relations representative to talk about your situation and your interests in promoting their product.

My last suggestion is a bonus suggestion and needs to be prefaced by a story because it comes from personal experience.  I was 22 or 23 years old and wrapping up my last year at the University of North Texas when I got wind that my absolute favorite local band was auditioning drummers.  I had been listening to this band for a year before I got to North Texas and all 5 years I was there.  I was very familiar with every single one of their tunes and I was ripe for the gig.  I practiced their music for the audition, but the truth is I knew most of it already since I had been listening and playing along to it in addition to attending their concerts for nearly 6 years.

I did more than the necessary homework because I had recently run into a string of bad auditions.  I had been denied a few gigs prior to this audition because I was young, ambitious, I hit hard, I overplayed, and I generally played too loud.  These are all very normal things for a young drummer mind you, but I was very conscious that this was obviously not working and not what people were looking for.  I went in to this audition very conscious of what was not working and decided to go ahead and use plastics instead of full on drumsticks for fear of being too loud.  During the first song, I really held back on the fills because I was very conscious not to overplay.  During the next 2 songs I was very cautious not to hit too hard because I was told many times prior that I was quite heavy handed.  After the final song I was careful not to let on how ambitious I was and how badly I wanted the gig.

At the end of the audition the band told me that they really liked my playing but they were looking for someone who was a little more ambitious, hit harder, played more fills, and generally played a little louder.

Be Yourself.  There is no sense portraying a false image, ever.

Lyricist Yip Harburg and the Great Depression

There were two things in the news last month that really moved me.  First, the talk of a looming second Great Depression and second, the death of Studs Terkel.

It was about 3 months ago that I came across a tattered copy of Terkel’s book Hard Times – a collection of stories about the Great Depression – while stopped at a roadside book sale.  The book had sat on my shelf for a few months, but with the news this week I thought it was time to take it down and start reading.

I found a little section about the lyricist Yip Harburg that I wanted to share.  Harburg wrote the lyrics to Finian’s Rainbow, The Wizard of Oz and others.  In this excerpt Harburg is talking about how the Great Depression impacted his music career.

I never liked the idea of living on scallions in a left band garret.  I like writing in comfort.  So I went into business, a classmate and I.  I thought I’d retire in a year or two.  And a thing called Collapse, bango! socked everything out.  All I had left was a pencil.

Luckily, I had a friend named Ira Gershwin, and he said to me, “You’ve got your pencil.  Get your rhyming dictionary and go to work.” I did.  There was nothing else to do.  I was doing light verse at the time, writing a poem here and there for ten bucks a crack.  It was an era when kids at college were interested in light verse and ballads and sonnets.  This is the early Thirties.

I was relieved when the Crash came.  I was released.  Being in business was something I detested.  When I found that I could sell a song or a poem, I became me, I became alive.  Other people didn’t see it that way.  They were throwing themselves out of windows.

Someone who lost money found that his life was gone.  When I lost my possessions, I found my creativity.  I felt I was being born for the first time.  So for me the world became beautiful.

With the Crash, I realized that the greatest fantasy of all was business.  The only realistic way of making a living was versifying.  Living off your imagination.

E. Y. (Yip) Harburg from Hard Times by Studs Terkel

What is a Musician?

Musician: (noun) a composer, conductor, or performer of music. – Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Perhaps a thorough definition of musician should begin with a snapshot of how the profession is defined by arts organizations and labor statistics. In 2008 the National Endowment for the Arts released the Artists in the Workforce report that detailed the size and income of the artist population of the United States, as found in the 1990-2005 censuses.

According to the report, there were just under 170,000 working musicians in the United States in 2005. The largest populations of musicians were in Los Angeles and New York City, but the highest concentrations of musicians per capita were not in New York State or California – but in Tennessee and Hawaii.

41% of the country’s musicians worked for non-profit organizations like symphonies and operas, while another 44% labeled themselves as self-employed.  The remainder, some 15% of musicians, were employed either by private-for-profit corporations (theme-parks for example), or by the government (presumably military bands, such as the Airmen of Note and Pershing’s Own).

Continue reading What is a Musician?

Average Income of a Musician

There are a lot of different ways to make a living as a modern musician, and it’s fair to say that most professional musicians make their living from not just one job, but from many different jobs. Diversifying your income streams is important to a lot of different professions, and the musician business is definitely one of them.

In this article, I talk about the following types of musician jobs. Click a job to jump ahead.

See also, Top 10 Gigs You May Not Have Thought Of.

Teaching Private Music Lessons

Teaching income rates vary widely, from $18/hr at a local music shop, to $150/hr for the most highly trained and sought after teachers. Rumor has it that the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic charges $200+ an hour for lessons. When I was a kid, my teacher charged my parents $12 for a thirty minute piano lesson.

I knew a concert pianist in Chicago who charged $75/hr, and I recently heard from a composition teacher in Manhattan who charges $100 for 50 minutes. These rates and the rumored rates of the NY Phil concertmaster represent the upper tier of lesson rates, and these musicians can only sustain this income because of their level of training and success. The average musician, teaching beginner and intermediate students, can probably expect to make $30-60 an hour. It all depends on training, experience and your perceived value in the community you teach in.

A full-time teacher can have upwards of 50 students a week. I’ve never heard of someone having more than 60 students, but its possible, especially if the lessons are all 30-minute sessions.

Say you have 30 students, with 25 of them in 30-minute lessons and the rest in 60-minute lessons. Lets say you charge $20 for 30 minutes, which I would say is more than reasonable if you are experienced and educated.

((30 x $20) + (5 x $40)) x 52 weeks = $41,600 a year

That is roughly a gross income of $40,000 a year for 17.5 hours of teaching a week. Travel and prep time are not included in that figure and will vary depending on the job and location (in-home lessons, for instance, will naturally require a lot of travel time).  Nevertheless, the amount of time musicians spend teaching lessons is scalable (you don’t have to take 30 students, of course) so many musicians teach part time and spend the rest of their work week performing with other groups, practicing, recording, etc.

For valuable tips on starting your own teaching studio, read our article Start Your Teaching Business in 30 Days by Greg Arney.

Lets move onto the next category, which will take much more time to discuss: performing.

Performing and Recording

Let’s break this down into two categories: performing original music and performing someone else’s music.

Original Music

Performing your own music is, of course, a very personally rewarding thing to do, but making money at it can sometimes be challenging. You’ll need two things to make a living playing original music.

  1. You’ll need to be able to write music that people like to listen to so much that they would pay money to hear it over and over again. That ain’t easy.
  2. You’ll need to find some way to get lots and lots of people to hear your music. You could try to get it on the radio, or featured on a commercial (Apple commercials are especially popular for this recently), on a movie, etc. You could also try to land a gig as the opening act to a touring band. These days, its also possible to get exposure for your material entirely through the internet (See Jonathon Coulton, internet superstar).

Once you have these two things (good music and fans), there are two ways to make money off original music. First, by performing it. If you play it at a bar or club for a group of friends or fans, you can make anywhere between $5 and $800 a night. I would say that $100 per performer could be considered a good night for a live, original band. Remember, though, that this nightly take might be split between you and all of the people that made the night possible (a manager or talent agency that booked the show, the bar owner, the sound man, etc.).

For an interesting read on this subject, I recommend reading Cameron’s article, The Truth About Booking Shows for Musicians in New York City.

The other way to make money playing your own music is to sell recordings of it. Recordings are sold everywhere these days, not just as concerts and record shops, but in Wal-marts and Starbucks and all over the internet. The traditional 20th century record label business model has all but collapsed since the digitization of the record business, and this has made the distribution and sale of recordings available to anyone with an internet connection and a PayPal account.

If you have music that people want to buy, selling records is probably the easiest way to make money as an original musician, because it takes much less effort and expense than performing and touring. Sometimes it seems like musicians perform primarily to showcase their music to large crowds of people in the hopes that these people will like them enough to buy their recordings.

So let’s get down to real numbers. Say it costs $5,000 to record and press your album (assuming you press CDs and record in a studio). If you sell the album for $10, you have to sell 500 to break even. You should be able to do that, even if it takes a little while. After that its pretty easy. People can buy your album online without you even having to ship anything to them. People pay cash for it at your concerts. Say you sell 100 albums a month online or in stores and another 20 at shows.

((100 online x $10) + (20 live x $10)) x 12 months = $14,400 a year

Its not enough to live on, maybe, but after you’ve recorded it and broken even, it doesn’t take a lot of effort. And as you build a fan base, that number is bound to increase.

On a side note, if you get a record label involved with this process you are almost guaranteed to sell more recordings, but you are not guaranteed to make more money, as record labels often take a lion’s share of profits. There’s a great deal of literature written about that phenomenon. Look up Donald Passman’s books for more info on record labels.

Personally, I highly recommend researching if you are considering selling your music independently. They are a fine organization and have helped thousands and thousands of musicians sell their music with very little hassle and maximum profit.

For a thorough explanation of how to release your own music, read Cameron’s series A Musician’s Guide to the Self-Released Album.

Copyrighted Music

The second category of performance income is money made off of music other people wrote. This includes all kinds of performance jobs – not just cover bands, but lots of jazz gigs (playing standards), musical theatre jobs, cruise ship jobs, big bands, Vegas jobs, amusement parks, symphony orchestras – all kinds of work!

Cover Bands

First, cover bands. These gigs can be a good source of income, and wedding bands are probably the best example of this. These bands often have hundreds and hundreds of songs memorized. If the bride requests a song, they better know it! Wedding bands are usually pop rock bands or big band swing jazz bands (the jazz bands have written music, they usually don’t have to memorize songs). Wedding bands can charge $1,000 – $10,000 on one wedding, depending on what’s needed. There are weddings every weekend of every year. Let’s say your band makes an average of $1,500 on a wedding and you work one wedding every other week (26 weeks a year).

$2,000/wedding x 26 weddings = $52,000 a year

Bear in mind, though, that that money is usually split between every one involved (musicians, booking company, etc.). If 8 people are involved in the band (6 musicians, 1 booking agent, 1 sound guy), an even split would be $6,500 each year.  Perhaps not a lot, but also consider that many cover bands work much more often than every other week, and $2,000 is on the low side of the potential wages.

For a real-world example of cover band rates, check out the website of DC-based band Oracle – specifically the How Much Does Oracle Cost? section.

Generally speaking, you’ll make a lot more money if you manage the band yourself and book the gig yourself. If you work for a booking agency as a hired “sideman” musician, you’ll probably make more like $100 – $300 a wedding. On the other hand, you’ll book more gigs through an agency.

If you are interested in being a professional sideman, don’t miss our series A Guide to Being a Successful Sideman, written by some of the best sidemen from NYC and LA.

Symphony Orchestra

There is a great range of salaries for orchestras around the world. Positions, at least in union orchestras, are typically full-time with benefits. The lowest paying orchestras start their members at around $22,000 a year, and the highest paid orchestras starting at $143,000 (The Los Angeles Philharmonic). A full list of orchestra salaries is posted at, but here are some examples of base salaries around the U.S. (all examples are from the 2011 season and available at

New York Philharmonic: $134,940
Kansas City Symphony: $45,822
Louisville Orchestra: $34,225
San Francisco Opera: $78,445

These wages don’t include pension, healthcare, extra services, or premiums for doubling and principles.  For example, pension contributions can be an additional 8-12% and the concertmaster of an orchestra traditionally earns twice the orchestra’s base salary.

Cruise Ship Musician

As in most traveling jobs, housing is provided on cruise ship jobs. Cruise jobs also provide excellent food and opportunity to travel to some of the most beautiful places in the world. They also pay you!

Hardly anything!

Just kidding. (Not really.) When I worked on a ship in 2004, I was paid $50/day to be the keyboardist in the show band. I understand that recently (2008) wages have been raised to $65/day.

Because of the other benefits to the job, it doesn’t really matter what they pay. People will always want the work.

Contracts are usually four to six months. If you work on ships year-round, the typical schedule is 6 months on, then 1 month off. For ease of example, let’s take a 12 month period where 10 months are spent working.

$65/day x 7 days x 40 weeks = $18,200 a year

This may not seem like much, but nevertheless, expenses are very low and it can be easy to save money while on a ship. Musicians often come off of ships having saved thousands of dollars.

For more information on this gig, see our comprehensive guide on this subject, Chronicles of a Cruise Ship Musician.

Musical Theatre

The income potential for theatre musicians can vary widely. To start, lets say you play with a regional theatre company that pays $75 a performance. They put up 5 shows a year, and have 60 performances of each show.

$75/performance x 60 performances x 5 times a year = $22,500 a year

The next level is touring musical theatre. This can be a hard life, but the money can sometimes make it worthwhile. Touring sidemen can make $500 – $1,000 a week on non-union tours. $600 a week plus a $300 a week per diem is a good wage for a touring non-union musical theatre sideman (this includes per diem and assumes hotels and transportation are paid for). Musical theatre tours typically work from fall to spring, mirroring the school year.

36 weeks x $900/wk = $32,400 a year

Music directors and conductors can expect to make 30% more than sidemen. This seems to be true across all musical theatre gigs.

See also How to Become a Musical Theatre Music Director.

The best musical theatre wages are found, of course, on Broadway in NYC, but also on union tours of Broadway shows (which can sometimes pay the same). Broadway scale is negotiated and protected by Local 802, the NYC chapter of the American Federation of musicians. A full list of 802’s wages can be found on the wage and contract info page of their website. But I will summarize (these wages are as of 2011):

The starting weekly wages for a musician on Broadway is $1,673.24 or roughly $209 for each performance. This is assuming the musician plays every show and only plays one acoustic instrument. However:

  • The union contract on Broadway allows musicians to “sub out” up to 50% of the shows in any 104-consecutive show period (about 2 months at 8 shows a week). In my experience, it’s uncommon for a Broadway musician to play every show in an 8-show week.

  • Many musicians on Broadway play more than one instrument, or play an electric instrument – and this earns them 1 (or several) “doubles”. “Doubles” increase the wages of that player (for example: 25% more for play a synthesizer instead of a piano, 12.5% for playing flute in addition to saxes, 30% to be Associate Conductor).

Doubles are not optional, I should add. The orchestration of a show is dictated by the composer, orchestrator and music director. Most reed books require musicians to play 3 or 4 reed/wind instruments. So, for example, a reed player on Broadway who plays flute, alto sax and clarinet would make 2 doubles, which is 31.25% above scale, or $2,185.88 per 8-show week (again, assuming the musician played all 8 shows).

The other mitigating factor of Broadway jobs is that shows are never guaranteed to run for any specified length of time. If a show opens and ticket sales are poor, it might close within a few weeks.

Let’s assume a show ran 36 weeks out of a year and you are the reed player above, making 18.75% above scale, or $247.60 per show. Let’s assume this musician played, on average, 7 shows a week.

36 weeks x 7 shows a week x $247.60 per show = $62,395.20 a year

If you’d like to know how I landed a gig on Broadway, read our series How I Became a Broadway Musician.

Freelance Musician

As I mentioned before, few musicians are able to devote all of their time to just one income stream.  Many work as self-employed freelancers in a variety of musician jobs.  In fact, according to a study done by the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Endowment for the Arts (available here), 44% of professional musicians in the U.S. are self-employed.

Regarding freelance income, geography has a big impact on one’s income potential (but also on one’s expenses). Living in a small town in Montana may not net you the volume of work that would be available in a large population area. That said, although one might associate music careers exclusively with only the highest population centers (New York, LA for example) it is still possible to make a living as a musician in a smaller population centers. I have met musicians living and working comfortably in cities like Phoenix, San Francisco, Orlando – even St. Paul, MN and Richmond, VA. I do not mean to suggest that one could make the same living freelancing in St. Paul as one could make in New York City, as that is not true. I only mean to suggest that towns like St. Paul may have enough volume of work for musicians to make a living.

In my experience, how well you can make a living in a given area seems to have at least a partial link to the population and median income of the area. This is just my own approximation, but I estimate that a working musician can make at least $30,000 a year living in a population of at least 400,000 with a median income around $55,000. Again, this is my own evaluation based on what I’ve seen in several different cities in recent years.

For help keeping track of freelance music income, see also Freelance Musician Excel Spreadsheet.

This entire website is devoted to the freelance musician career. We only allow working musicians to write for this site – everything here (over 500 articles) is written by people who know what they are talking about. So have a look around – click on the links in the sidebar, follow us on the social media of your choice and please tell your friends.


My point here is that it is possible to make a living playing music, and that its more possible than we’ve all been taught to believe. From these figures, its clear that you would not make a LOT of money. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that working as a musician would ever make someone a lot of money. Chances are good it never will. But if you had the choice between making enough doing something you loved, and making more than enough doing something you didn’t love…well, for me the choice is obvious, and I think its that way for a lot of working musicians.

Creating Income with Your Original Music

My mom had a cousin, Bob. On some holidays we’d go over to his house, where I spent a lot of time playing foosball with the other kids in the basement. One year I remember him saying something about “multiple streams of income” and for some reason that term stuck with me. Like any kid who sees his extended family only a couple times a year, and all at once to dilute the one on one time with any individual, I never really got to talk to him about what he meant. All I really knew was that he taught some college courses and directed plays at a community theater. But I also knew he was a pretty smart guy, and there was more to that statement. He knew something I felt like I needed to know.

Bob died from cancer a few years ago. I never really got to talk to him about creating multiple streams of income, but overhearing those few words and the fact they stuck with me, makes me feel like I owe him some thanks. As I’ve thought about my future as a musician, I now understand that in order to be financially secure I need to embrace the idea of multiple revenue streams. This article is dedicated to Bob.

As this site will demonstrate, there are many ways a musician can make a living. Some of the more obvious options (at least, obvious to me) include teaching private lessons, teaching through a school, store, or program for children, corporate gigs, cruise ship gigs, musical theater gigs, playing in a wedding band or some other sort of cover band, and accompanist work at churches or simply being hired by successful musicians that need a back up band.

The biggest misconception is that you are supposed to do just one of these things to make all or most of your money. Perhaps this is ingrained in our minds because as a society we look at successful individuals and use labels to describe what they do professionally. “She’s a successful lawyer” or “He’s an eminent professor”. And of course we narrow this down with specialties, such as criminal law or American literature, so that we know these individuals dedicate themselves to specific topics within their field. So it makes perfect sense to get the impression that a successful musician must be really good at doing one, specific musical skill. In reality, success involves the complete opposite.

Doug Ross, on his blog Sound Music Sound Money wrote a great post about diversifying your income. He offers several ideas for creating multiple sources of revenue. Sometimes diversification might take the instrument out of your hands. That’s ok! As a musician, you have a varied skill set, and can probably use your highly trained ears in the studio behind a mixing board, or your notation chops to copy or arrange others’ music.

One way I create extra revenue is through production consulting. I learned a lot at my record label job, and you can take the guitarist out of the office but you can’t take the office out of the guitarist. Or something along those lines. The point is, just because it doesn’t involve playing music doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do it. I still get to work from home, and there’s usually a guitar in my lap. Think about your skill set and find ways to use that to your advantage.

Teaching private lessons is another easy way to make some money, if you’re a good teacher. I don’t have many students, but I don’t want many. If I can dedicate one afternoon a week to a few lessons, I can pay a few bills. The trick with teaching is getting your curriculum together. Some people just aren’t cut out to teach because they have trouble breaking down the complex ideas needed to learn an instrument. I had my first guitar student when I was 14, and over time figured out how to adapt my lesson plan to different types of students. I have no aspirations to be a teacher, but it’s a nice supplement to my income.

Now, let’s talk about one potential revenue stream that’s absent from my “obvious” list above.

Creating income with your original music

Ultimately, I think everyone gets into this music racket with some dream of performing in front of adoring fans, all singing along to the songs you wrote, and then going out to buy all of your albums. Well, even if you never get to crowd surf, you can still make some honest money with your own music. Despite the advice of a handful of vocal music industry pundits, the money is not in touring or gigs. Licensing for TV & film can generate some income, but it’s much easier said than done. Maybe you can make some money off merch, but let’s face it, we’re not making music to support a line of clothing. So how do you do it?

There are two keys to generating a steady flow of money from your original music:

1) Build your catalog. Major labels are surviving the massive decline in CD sales because of their huge catalogs, not their current roster. This is all part of the Long Tail theory of economics, which basically says the money is in selling less of more. In many ways, I’m like a very tiny label that owns my own catalog of assets. Thanks to the digital download scene, my inventory is limitless and I can continue to sell these assets with a very low overhead, plus my profit margins are relatively high.

To sideline for a moment, if you’re offended by the the idea of your opus being called an asset, take a deep breath and get over it. That’s exactly how anybody that would help your career would think about it, so if you want to do this on your own, you’ll be much more comfortable separating the two. While you’re writing, recording, and performing, music is your art. Once it’s packaged for consumption, it’s your ticket to one day waking up at noon every day and playing music in your flannel pants all afternoon before rehearsal or your gig. I speak from experience, and the water is oh so fine.

Back to your assets. Just like an investment portfolio, your catalog should be diverse and include several artist brands. Note that I use the term brand instead of band. A brand is an label to identify the sound of the music. A band is simply the entity that creates that music. You may be in several rock bands that have different members, but the music fits together. Put them all on a bill one night and it would make sense. All those bands are part of the same brand. However, if you have a jazz quartet, a folk duo, and an indie rock band, you want to distinguish them as separate brands.

I have a couple albums under my own name, and I’ll continue to write, perform, and record my original jazz/funk/whatever music under my own name as long as it fits the brand. However, most of the music I’ve recorded is sold under other brands. I have a covers album recorded with a vocalist friend, and a few other instrumental niche oriented albums recorded with some other musician buddies. Perhaps ironically, the music that creates the most revenue is not that sold under my name. Of course, I created these other brands to be more commercially viable and help support the Cameron Mizell brand.

There are many reasons for creating these other brands. For starters, it’s best to strengthen your original brand before you expand it. For example, John Mayer’s first few albums were pretty much straight ahead pop music. Guy with guitar sings songs. Then all of a sudden he records a blues album. Had he done this earlier in his career, I guarantee his label would have pulled the plug on that idea. Not only is blues far less marketable than his pop/rock music, it’s a different fan base. Since he released his blues album after building a huge following with a strong brand as a singer/songwriter, many of his fans actually gave it a shot, and embraced the album. It even created a stir about whether the same tall skinny white kid that released Room For Squares could play the blues authentically.

Most of us probably won’t be John Mayer, so that example could be easily dismissed. Lately, when I’m talking to somebody about the other music I make, I use this metaphor:

Large wineries always have a top shelf name brand. These are their higher priced wines, and what they usually build their reputations upon. However, they also sell wine under other other less expensive brand names. These other wines are made from the same crops of grapes, but perhaps the conditions for part of the crop wasn’t ideal. To maintain the quality of their name brand, the winery chooses to exclude those grapes from their signature product. But instead of just throwing the rest of the crop away, they sell it under a different label. Then people like me who are perfectly happy with a $10 bottle of wine can still give them money.

This isn’t to say that you should release all your crappy songs under a psuedonym. What it means is you should take stock of what you can do well as a musician, and use it all.

2) Give your music context. To sell anything now a days, people need to know why they’re buying it and how they’ll use it. Music is no different. The great thing about music is that people can consume enourmous amounts over and over again, which nearly eliminates competition.

To start giving your music context, I suggest comparing yourself to similar but better known artists. Even on the crazy chance that everybody tells you your music is completely unique, figure out a combination of artists that will help people that have never heard you triangulate some idea of sound in their head. “Bjork/Springsteen/Prince” or “Jessica Simpson with her hand caught in the garbage disposal meets Tchaikovsky”. Look, if you’re creative enough to make the music, you’re creative enough to do some marketing, just step away from the artist’s ego for a few minutes and invite people to try something new.

Next, I’d come up with a list of anything that goes well with your music–activities, food, seasons, jobs, whatever. Music, for most people most of the time, background noise. Ouch, I said it. That’s not to say they don’t love their music, it’s just that they don’t have the attention span to actually digest every note you play, every nuance in your vocal performance, and all the irony in your lyrics. They just dig the melodies and the beat and it keeps them going while they [insert activity here]. See what I mean? Tell them what to do when they listen to your music.

The most successful method of introducing your music to new listeners through context is with playlists, and the playlist most conducive to selling is the iMix. To read more about this, see my article, How To Effectively Promote and Sell Your Music on iTunes.

Over time, combining these two key elements will give your catalog a lasting value. I especially believe that creating niche oriented music might be the secret to long term success. Recorded music sales are on the decline. A dramatic decline. Independent artists can generally make more money off individual sales, so we don’t have to sell as much to see a decent income. Because of this, my sales have been holding pretty steady, if not steadily showing increases. But someday this stream of revenue might dry up–whether it’s because prices drop or people don’t have to buy it anymore, I’m counting on a change to take place.

A diverse catalog of original music will prepare you for that change because the diversity creates a wide net to catch future opportunities. What opportunities? I can’t say for sure. Licensing, as elusive as it is now, will likely always be a possibility. A large catalog also creates more composer/publishing opportunities (think about people covering your songs). There will undoubtably be new opportunities created 5 years from now that we can’t yet imagine, like the music your hologram TV will play when you get a space call from your buddy on Mars. How are we to know? We’re not technologists! But as independent artists, we are flexible and can take these changes in stride, adjust our revenue streams, and keep making music. Bring on the change!

How do you make money with your original music? Share your ideas in the forum.