Creating a Structured Practice Routine

Like many of you, I teach private lessons to supplement my musician income. In every lesson, regardless of the student’s skill level, I spend a lot of time teaching one thing: How To Practice Guitar. After all, the real progress does not come from the hour the student and I spend together, it comes from the hours they spend with their instrument in the six days of the week between lessons.

This goes for all of us. Our progress as musicians relies on how effectively we spend our practice time. The New Year is always a great time to establish (or re-establish) better habits. Even if you’re reading this in June, today is the first day of a new year. Decide today how you will approach your practice tomorrow.

What To Practice

A good practice routine should accomplish three things:

  1. Maintenance
  2. Improvement
  3. Expansion

Maintain your current skills and repertoire.

Freshman year of college, one of my instructors told a roomful of incoming guitarists, “There will be no other time in your life where you will be able to learn as much as you’ll learn in the next four years. After college, you’ll mostly try to maintain what you’ve developed here.”

That is scary, and largely true. Real life is not friendly to your practice routine. Maintenance is important, but also relative. Will you always need to be able to shred Giant Steps? Probably not. But intonation, technique, sight reading, a good ear, and a standard repertoire for whatever scene you’re in must all be maintained to continue performing at a high level.

Improve your technique.

As good as you may be, there is always room for improvement. Take any skill you’re maintaining and push yourself a little further–speed up the metronome, change keys or modes, apply it in a new way.

For years I practiced four note 7th arpeggios up and down within a scale. I could comfortably do this pretty fast and in any key. One day I decided to add a fifth note at the bottom, simply starting on the 7th. The five note pattern completely threw me off at first, but it brought my awareness back into this little element of my routine. It also turned an exercise into a cool new lick!

Music is essentially a variety of patterns, some are very complex, but they all break down to the same basic problems. If good technique allows you to play a scale with ease, excellent technique will prepare you to play whatever piece of music lands in front of you on a gig.

Expand your repertoire.

Growing up I had a neighbor that played viola in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. When I was about 14 or 15 I told my parents that I wanted to be a musician. None of us had any idea how you do that, so my dad took me up to that neighbor’s house for a chat. I brought my guitar. The first thing he asked me to do was play a song. I couldn’t play a whole song by myself! I was embarrassed, but the lesson stuck with me:

If you’re going to be a musician, you better be able to perform a complete piece of music, by yourself, on command. Everything else we practice is in vain if we can’t play a tune. Always, always be learning new music.

Time Management

None of my students are professional musicians. They all have jobs or school or hobbies outside of music (why, I will never understand). We spend some time talking about how to schedule their practice time. If they can practice for one hour a day, here’s how I might ask them to spend that time:

  • 20 Minutes – Warmup / Scales / Arpeggios
  • 10 Minutes – Getting to know the fretboard; learning every place to play a note, chord, etc.
  • 30 Minutes – Work on repertoire

If they have two hours to practice, I might recommend the second hour look like this:

  • 15 Minutes – Free Improvisation or Composing
  • 15 Minutes – Working on roadblocks, such as difficult chord changes
  • 30 Minutes – Work on repertoire

Scheduling your practice time into hour blocks with a few different chunks of time can be very helpful. Set a stop watch or timer so you can keep track of how long you’re working on something. If it helps, write down how long you spent working on something, just like you’d track your exercise at the gym. Perhaps you’ll come up with a few different “workout” variations for each block of time, and you can vary which workouts you do each day.

Repetition. Rest. Repeat.

Just as repetition and rest builds muscular strength, the act of repeating a skill over and over creates stronger connections between neurons in our brain. However, those connections won’t be immediately apparent. Rest plays an important role in allowing our brain to process what it has just learned.

Once I was on the road, sleeping on the couch in a friend’s apartment. He was trying to learn a melody on a glockenspiel, but since he didn’t play any instruments, he was having a hard time getting it right. Before he went to bed, I told him to play it ten times, focusing on playing the correct notes and not worrying about speed or rhythm. The next morning I woke up while he was on his way out the door. I stopped him and asked him to play the part on the glockenspiel. Running late for work, he hesitated for a moment, but then picked up the mallets and to his surprise, nailed it.

Think about all the times you struggled to learn something one day only to find it made complete sense the next. Or think about all the times you pulled an all-nighter cramming for a test and barely retaining any of the information after it was over. Our brains need that rest to process information. There’s simply no way around it.


The absolute best way to improve yourself as a musician is to transcribe, transcribe, transcribe. What better way to master our craft than to emulate the masters?

Transcribing utilizes everything we would ever need to practice:

  • Aural skills – Your ears!
  • Musicality – Learn not only the notes, but the tone, inflection, and nuances of each note.
  • Technique – Master those difficult passages.
  • Scales, arpeggios, chords, rhythm – The building blocks of all music, directly applied in the piece of music you’re learning.
  • Composition, improvisation – These skills are two sides of the same coin. Learning somebody else’s composed melody or improvised solo requires the same skill and reaps the same benefits.
  • Notation – Memorize your transcription first, but then write it down. Not just for posterity, the act of writing down transcriptions will help you see the music, which will help you improve your reading.
  • Expand your repertoire – You’ve just learned a new piece of music or lick.

When in doubt, Beatles.

When all else fails, when I’m burnt out on my usual practice routine, when I can’t decide what to transcribe, when I start making excuses as to why I can’t practice right now, I learn a Beatles song. My default rule was to learn the second cut on every album, in chronological order. The fewer decisions I have to make before I start practicing, the more likely I am to simply practice.

The Beatles repertoire is my practice safety net. It could be Bach, or tone rows, or Miley Cyrus. Well, maybe not Miley–it helps to have a safety net with a deep catalog–so how about Rush? Whatever it is for you, choose something that will always give you something to practice when all else fails.

Take lessons.

All of us, regardless of our skill level, could benefit from private lessons every now and then. If you’ve tried to structure your practice time and still can’t decide what to work on, perhaps it’s a sign you need to take lessons. Many musicians, myself included, teach via Skype. No matter where you live, all you need is a good internet connection to take lessons.

Good luck on your practice routine, please share your progress in the comments below. Remember, decide today how you will approach your practice tomorrow!

Flying With Musical Instruments: Know Your Rights

If you’re like me and will be traveling with a musical instrument this holiday season, you’ll be happy to know that by law, you have the right to bring your instrument onto the plane as carry-on baggage so long as the instrument can be safely stowed. The clause is part of Public Law 112-95, which was signed by the President and went into effect on February 14, 2012. Below is the section dedicated to musical instruments, copied verbatim (emphasis mine) from pages 74 and 75 of the law, which can be found on the Federal Aviation Administration”s (FAA) website right here.

PUBLIC LAW 112–95—FEB. 14, 2012

41724. Musical instruments

‘‘(a) IN GENERAL.—

‘‘(1) SMALL INSTRUMENTS AS CARRY-ON BAGGAGE.—An air carrier providing air transportation shall permit a passenger to carry a violin, guitar, or other musical instrument in the aircraft cabin, without charging the passenger a fee in addition to any standard fee that carrier may require for comparable carry-on baggage, if—

‘‘(A) the instrument can be stowed safely in a suitable baggage compartment in the aircraft cabin or under a passenger seat, in accordance with the requirements for carriage of carry-on baggage or cargo established by the Administrator; and

‘‘(B) there is space for such stowage at the time the passenger boards the aircraft.

‘‘(2) LARGER INSTRUMENTS AS CARRY-ON BAGGAGE.—An air carrier providing air transportation shall permit a passenger to carry a musical instrument that is too large to meet the requirements of paragraph (1) in the aircraft cabin, without charging the passenger a fee in addition to the cost of the additional ticket described in subparagraph (E), if—

‘‘(A) the instrument is contained in a case or covered so as to avoid injury to other passengers;

‘‘(B) the weight of the instrument, including the case or covering, does not exceed 165 pounds or the applicable weight restrictions for the aircraft;

‘‘(C) the instrument can be stowed in accordance with the requirements for carriage of carry-on baggage or cargo established by the Administrator;

‘‘(D) neither the instrument nor the case contains any object not otherwise permitted to be carried in an aircraft cabin because of a law or regulation of the United States; and

‘‘(E) the passenger wishing to carry the instrument in the aircraft cabin has purchased an additional seat to accommodate the instrument.

‘‘(3) LARGE INSTRUMENTS AS CHECKED BAGGAGE.—An air carrier shall transport as baggage a musical instrument that is the property of a passenger traveling in air transportation that may not be carried in the aircraft cabin if—

‘‘(A) the sum of the length, width, and height measured in inches of the outside linear dimensions of the instrument (including the case) does not exceed 150 inches or the applicable size restrictions for the aircraft;

‘‘(B) the weight of the instrument does not exceed 165 pounds or the applicable weight restrictions for the aircraft; and

‘‘(C) the instrument can be stowed in accordance with the requirements for carriage of carry-on baggage or cargo established by the Administrator.

‘‘(b) REGULATIONS.—Not later than 2 years after the date of enactment of this section, the Secretary shall issue final regulations to carry out subsection (a).
‘‘(c) EFFECTIVE DATE.—The requirements of this section shall become effective on the date of issuance of the final regulations under subsection (b).’’

What This Means

Your instrument will be treated exactly like comparable carry-on baggage. It does not get preferential treatment over another passenger’s roller bag just because it’s more fragile, but it’s no longer subject to any additional fees, as some airlines used to charge. If you have a larger instrument, that might fit safely in a seat, you may buy a ticket for it and may not be charged any additional fees as long as it meets the airline’s requirements. If you check your large instrument in a flight case, you are no longer subject to any additional fees as other checked baggage as long as it meets all checked baggage requirements.

Common sense still applies. If your instrument does not fit or somehow creates a safety risk to other passengers, you’ll have to check it. Be sure to plan ahead of time for the worst case scenario.

Best Practices for Flying with Musical Instruments

We have another article on this site called Airline Travel With Musical Instruments written by well-traveled multi-instrumentalist Nick Rosaci. He offers some great advice, and I highly recommend you read it as well.

Don’t Argue

In my experience, the most resistance I get from traveling with my guitar is from the gate agent, who will hand me a gate check tag and instruct me to drop of my guitar at the end of the jetway as he or she swipes my boarding pass. I never argue with the gate agent. This person is simply doing what they’re told to do and trying to make the flight attendants job easier by sending less carry-on baggage onto the plane.

Sometimes I get on a plane behind other passengers carrying a guitar. The gate agent hands them a gate check tag and the passenger immediately goes into a rant about how he has the right to carry his guitar onto the plane! How dare you tell him otherwise!

This really accomplishes nothing other than making people upset. If you argue, there’s no way that person is going to help you, and if you enter the plane upset, the flight attendants are going to pick up on it and be less likely to help you. They have to deal with enough crabby passengers, don’t be another.

Be Nice to The Flight Attendant

Instead, I make my way onto the plane with my guitar, smile at the first flight attendant I see, and ask them how they’re doing. “Is this your last flight of the day?” or “Heading home?” or any other question that tells them I’m not a completely self-centered jerk that wants them to solve my baggage problem. Then I motion to my guitar and politely ask if they think we can find it a safe place onboard.

In the summer, the first class coat closet is usually empty and they might be able to stow it there. Sometimes there’s also space behind the last row of seats in first class. Otherwise you’ll be looking for a spot in the overhead bins. That’s where it pays to be polite to other passengers, who might be able to help you by adjusting their bags to make room for yours. Again, a smile can go a long way when you’re boarding an airplane.

Board Early

If at all possible, be one of the first to board the plane. Overhead bins are first come, first served, and once your instrument is safely stowed, they cannot remove it from the plane without your permission (which you don’t have to grant).

If you travel on the same airline frequently, look into their premium membership programs. These always come with early boarding, and typically a little extra kindness from the airline staff. If you don’t fly that often, maybe one of your relatives belongs to one of these programs and can book your ticket, which sometimes transfers the benefits to you. And if all else fails, many airlines sell upgrades to your ticket, including early boarding. This is a way for the airline to make some extra money, but hey, it’s also a way for you to get your instrument on the plane safely.

Know Your Aircraft

The above law only works if the airplane is actually large enough to fit your instrument. Shorter flights often use regional jets, such as the Embraer 145 which is only 3 seats across plus a small aisle, require all passengers to gate check their carry-on baggage. Only coats and personal items are allowed onboard. My guitar would never fit on one of these jets so I try to avoid routes that use them. If that’s unavoidable, I make sure my guitar is packed well to avoid damage when checked at the gate.

You can usually find out the type of aircraft used when choosing your itinerary. Take a moment to look up that aircraft and you’ll have an idea of what to expect.

Safe travels!

Panel Discussion: How Music Makes Money

Join me on December 10th, at Parsons The New School for Design in NYC, for a panel discussion on the modern music business. I will be joined by professionals in entertainment and intellectual property law, music publishing and rights management, crowd funding, and marketing. The event is free and open to the public.

Here are the details:

The Parsons Institute for Intellectual Property (PiiP) announces an evening panel presentation of industry professionals discussing how music makes money now. Since the advent of digitized music, the methods of making, using, and delivering music have grown exponentially. As a result, many royalty revenue streams and creative ways of monetizing music have emerged. The ways in which music is now marketed, bundled, downloaded, streamed, and otherwise used has resulted in many opportunities and challenges, and have kept legislation and business practices moving at an accelerated pace to keep up. Payments have changed considerably since the heyday of record royalties, making it more important than ever to understand how the new licensing, !nancing, and payment models affect the income of music creators.

If you want to understand what’s happening in the music business today, join us:

On: December 10th, 6:00 to 9:00
At: Parsons The New School for Design, Teresa Lang Center, Mezzanine Level, 55 W. 13th Street.

Panelists include:

Barry Heyman, Esq., Heyman Law
Founder and principal attorney of this boutique law firm, Heyman has been practicing entertainment, intellectual property (copyrights and trademarks), and new media law for over a decade. He also has 10+ years experience working in the music and entertainment business. Heyman protects the legal interests and intellectual property rights of creative talent and businesses. Learn more at

Bill Stafford, Co-Founder, Missing Link Music
Missing Link Music is an independent music publishing company that specializes in the publishing and rights management of modern music ranging from urban, jazz, and gospel, to bluegrass. Founded in 1996, Missing Link represents its writer, artist, and producer clients on a worldwide basis through its sub-publisher affiliates abroad.

Kendel Ratley, Director, Marketing and Outreach, Kickstarter
Ratley focuses on implementing Kickstarter’s mission in the real world via events, community relations, and helping artists conceptualize projects. She has spent a decade marketing NYC music and tech start-ups. She previously served as Marketing Director of (Le) Poisson Rouge, a multimedia arts space in Greenwich Village, overseeing promotion and publicity for hundreds of creative events annually. She has toured with bands and consulted live event and digital music launches. She graduated from New School University and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Cameron Mizell, Musician & Co-Founder,
Mizell is a Brooklyn based freelance musician and online musician’s advocate who knows how to straddle the divide between music and business. As an artist, Mizell leads his own jazz/funk trio and released Tributary, his third album, in 2010. He is also a busy sideman, playing guitar, mandolin, and bass in NYC clubs, restaurants and theatres. Before becoming a full-time musician, Mizell had a gig of a different sort as head of production at the Universal Music Group subsidiary Verve Music Group. In 2008, Mizell decided to combine his knowledge of the industry with his understanding of life as a musician and together with Dave Hahn, Mizell founded the website, which offers music industry advice speci!cally geared towards the working musician. Learn more at


Michelle Bogre, Esq. Associate Professor and Founder of the Parsons Institute for Intellectual Property (PiiP) at Parsons The New School for Design. Bogre is a documentary photographer, IP lawyer and author of Photography as Activism: Images for Social Change, published by Focal Press.

Interview with Touring Sideman Jesse Bond

Jesse Bond is a fantastic guitarist out of Atlanta that makes a living as a touring sideman. I met Jesse through a mutual friend and after learning about his career and artists with whom he’s recorded and toured, I knew he’d have a lot of great information to share through our working musician interview series.

MW: When did you start playing music, and when did you realize it was something you wanted to do professionally?

JB: I started playing guitar around 14 years old. My mom is the one that actually got me into the guitar. She was the music director at our church and picked one up when I was about 13 so she could accompany herself and lead the band.

I had friends in high school that were starting metal and punk bands so music and guitar were all around me. I joined a band and also started taking lessons.

My sophomore year in high school is when I started looking at colleges and my counselor suggested Berklee college in Boston. It sounded like a good idea so I made the decision to pursue music seriously then. I also joined my high school jazz band.

Jesse Bond guitaristDid you study music in school? How has that impacted your career?

I did end up going to Berklee and it has definitely helped me in many ways. First off, the musical knowledge that you get at a school like that is amazing. There’s so much info that you actually have to forget half of it and just play when you get out.

On top of what you learn at a school like Berklee is the connections you make. The networking is worth its weight in gold. I got my first big touring gig (Anthony Hamilton) from a Berklee connection.

I did take high school lessons as I said earlier, and I took two high school music theory classes as well. My advice for all who are considering music school:

  • Know as much as you can before going. The more advanced you are is the more you can pull from your teachers.
  • Get the text books early.
  • Test out of classes.
  • Take a few semesters off before starting.
  • Take general education classes first.

That’s what I wish I would’ve done anyway.

Briefly describe your career today. What kinds of work do you do to make a living?

My career today is mainly dependent on touring with artists. I moved to Atlanta to play with PJ Morton in 2002. I started playing in churches soon after, and in Atlanta that’s a decent steady income stream for a musician.

I then got on Anthony Hamilton’s tour in 04. My biggest touring gig was Kanye West from 07-09. I’m currently music directing for Melanie Fiona (since 2010) and we’re opening for D’angelo and Mary J Blige as we speak.

I also do studio work but touring makes the bulk of my income. I’d like that to switch in the near future however.

How do you find work as a musician?

I find work as a musician by networking and networking and networking… and networking. It really is less about how you play and more about who you know and your professional reputation. I know that I would rather hire a friend than someone I don’t know. It’s important to be on time, personable, dependable to learn material, etc. Make friends and be professional. Work will come.

What skills are necessary to be successful at your job (or jobs)?

Other skills that help me are definitely on the engineering side. I have the capability to cut guitar tracks out of my house via email. I also program live shows for artists and run their tracks from stage. It’s the age of the home studio so know how to be self sufficient.

Also… The Nashville number system is the fastest way to chart. Learning that system streamlined the way I learn music.

Finally, do you have any advice for younger musicians aspiring to be professionals?

Stay humble; soak in as much information as you can from your peers and mentors; learn your music; develop your ear; learn your tunes; don’t overplay; be prepared to step out and shine when you need to; look the part as well…

And, make sure you get paid for what you do. If you’re spending 8 hours a day at a day job, you only get 4 hours or so to work on your craft. You’re already behind because others are spending 8-12 hours a day specifically on their craft. The raw number of hours spent just won’t allow you to keep up. Demand compensation.

And write write write! One song placement can get you the same compensation as a year or two worth of gigs.

Keep your head up in the hard times (and slow times) and don’t forget why you started playing in the first place… because it’s fun!


More about Jesse Bond:

Jesse Bond is an Atlanta based guitarist and producer that originally hails from Reno, Nevada. He is also a graduate of Berklee College of Music (02′).

He is a member of the PJ Morton Band and has toured and recorded with Kanye West, Rihanna, Celine Dion, Anthony Hamilton, Ledisi, Melanie Fiona, Toni Braxton, Faith Evans, Janet Jackson, Ne-Yo, John Legend, Jazmine Sullivan, Chrisette Michelle, Mary J Blige, Mary Mary, Kim Burrell, Adam Levine, India Arie, and many more.

He is a husband and a father and is currently music director for Melanie Fiona. Follow Jesse on Twitter to keep up with his life as a touring guitarist.

Interview with Guitarist Alec Berlin

For this week’s working musician interview, I talked to guitarist Alec Berlin. I’ve gotten to know Alec while subbing for him on a show. He’s a fantastic guitarist and also a very humble and hardworking guy. I learned a lot from him through the show, so he was a natural choice for this interview series.

MW: When did you start playing music, and when did you realize it was something you wanted to do professionally?

AB: I started playing the guitar when I was 7. I didn’t really have a realization that I wanted to do it professionally – it just sort of happened, after I had invested a lot of time, energy, resources, interest, and passion in music for any number of years. The goal was just to keep doing it and keep doing it and keep doing it, etc.

Did you study music in school? How has that impacted your career?

I received a Master’s of Music in Jazz Studies from the New England Conservatory. Music school allowed me the opportunity to log in many, many hours on my instrument, under the guidance of some incredibly insightful and talented teachers.

Also – perhaps more importantly – it was the first time in my life that I was in such a big musical environment. In high school and college, musicians were few and far between, just a few random stragglers amidst a much larger population. Being surrounded by musicians all the time was invaluable – from a creative perspective, of course, but also in terms of thinking about and understanding what it meant to commit to a life as a professional musician.

Briefly describe your career today. What kinds of work do you do to make a living?

For the last several years I’ve done most of my playing in theater – ranging from grungy independent productions like The ATrain plays (a 24-hour theater project) to super high profile Broadway productions like Green Day’s American Idiot. And lots in between.

I’ve spent a lot of time subbing for any number of different shows, which has it’s joys and it’s annoyances. What most appealled to me about subbing in the first place was the instrumental challenge – it’s not a gig that values personal interpretation, and if you are okay with that, then the challenge becomes trying to own the music as thoroughly as possible – including being comfortable playing on the show guitar, with that particular conductor, on that particular rig (ie with that amp and those pedals), with that particular rhythm section, etc. At times I’ve subbed on as many as 6 shows at a time – so maintaining that much music, and that many different scenarios – it’s no mean feat!

I’ve always valued musical variety, so I appreciated situations where I’d be playing a matinee that consisted largely of acoustic blues and an evening show of disco music. Followed, the next day, by big band swing. And so on. It requires a lot of time, patience, and adherence to some very particular ground rules – but as I said, if you are okay with all of that, then subbing on shows can be very rewarding.

Having your own show, on the other hand, is a whole different matter. The challenge to that gig is to try to be as consistent as possible in your playing while still feeling enthused about your gig, your instrument, your time, your output. In my experience, this requires balance – musical and otherwise. I’ve found balance partly in outside, original music projects, and partly in trying to have a well-rounded life, trying to read and see movies and hear music and excercise and spend time with family and friends and generally engage with the world.

How do you find work as a musician?

Be visible. Be respectfully persistent – no one likes a nag, but you also can’t risk just being wall paper. Be excited and humble. As Joni Mitchell said, “Heart and humour and humility… will lighten up your heavy load.” Basic psychology – what you put out comes back – so put out good energy, enthusiasm, and sincerity.

What skills are necessary to be successful at your job (or jobs)?

For theater work – organization. Reading skills. Attention to detail. Thoroughness. Good nature. A good ear. Good hands. A sense of humor.

Finally, do you have any advice for younger musicians aspiring to be professionals?

Just to reiterate – follow your passion. There are ways to make money and there are ways to be creative. Ask yourself what role those two objectives will play in your life. Do you want to work in a wedding band? Play in Broadway pits? Write music for commercials? Play original music in a band?

Try to be as clear about your goals as possible – and then commit to it hugely. Don’t apologize for anything and don’t look back – just keep moving forward.


More about Alec:

Alec Berlin has released 2 albums of original rock music – 2007’s Beauty, Grazing at the Trough, and 2012’s Innocent Explanations, both available on iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, and His theater credits include Rent at New World Stages, Green Day’s American Idiot (at the Berkeley Repertory Theater and on Broadway), and Next To Normal at Second Stage. Subbing credits include: Lion King, Rent, Next To Normal, Billy Elliot, The Color Purple, Mamma Mia. He has performed with Green Day, Elton John, Rufus Wainwright, and James Taylor. He has appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Good Morning America, and the Tony Awards live from Radio City Music Hall. He appears on the Grammy-winning Soundtrack to Green Day’s American Idiot and A Colbert Christmas. Check out,, for performance information and music samples.

Why Are There Fewer Working Musicians in 2012 than 1999?

Every day I receive a few email newsletters, including the Digital Music News. As I sipped on a fresh cup of coffee this morning, one of their articles titled “Recording Sales Declines & Musician Employment, 1999 – 2011…” caught my attention. It was published on Saturday by DMN editor Paul Resnikoff. I enjoy Paul’s insight on the music industry. Digital Music News does a great job covering the changes in the music industry and I recommend all of you subscribe to their newsletter.

I was mostly interested in the article because of the “musician employment” part of the title–which is of course the primary topic of It’s also something DMN rarely discusses.

In this particular article, Paul writes:

There’s more music being created than ever before, but paradoxically, musicians are making less. Which means there are also fewer musicians and music professionals enjoying gainful employment, thanks to a deflated ecosystem once primed by major labels and marked-up CDs.

He also shares this graph overlaying statistics from the US Department of Labor and the RIAA.

The reddish orange bars represent the number of “musical groups and artists,” which is a classification used by the US Census Bureau. The white squares represent the amount of recorded music shipped, which basically means sold to retail stores (and includes digital sales even though nothing is actually shipping).

This graph is trying to draw a correlation between album sales and musician jobs, so it begs the question: Is the decline in album sales responsible for the decline in musician jobs?

I have a buddy that works for the US Department of Labor so I asked him for some help checking these employment statistics. I found that while there is a decline in the number of self-reported “musical groups and artists,” it is not as dramatic as this graph makes it appear. Paul wrote that there has been a 41% in paid musicians since 1999, but based on statistics I find from the Census Bureau, there has been a 15% decline. Perhaps there are other numbers in play? I’ve asked him about his source, so we shall see. For all intents and purposes, most people would agree that there has been a decline in jobs for musicians.

The decline in album sales has been well documented by the RIAA and through Nielsen Soundscan sales reports. I don’t think anyone will argue that there are far fewer albums being sold today than 10 years ago.

My wife is a professional researcher, so I asked her what a statistical analyst would think of this graph. She said it was a weak correlation, and suggested I look up this blog post about correlation and causation. Turns out statistical analysts have a sense of humor that is 63% better than expected. It also means that this data alone is not sufficient to explain a cause/effect scenario.

Now, I have no doubt that the decline in album sales has had a negative effect on musician employment as we’ve known it over the last 70 years. Dave Hahn once pointed out that the recorded music industry isn’t responsible for creating the career of “professional musician.” For hundreds of years before recordings, people worked as musicians, and it’s reasonable to believe that will be the case even if recordings are no longer worth money.

However, I don’t believe that we can simply blame the decline in album sales, and to do so would be short-sighted for the musician industry. Let’s look at the bigger picture. What other factors could cause a decline in musician jobs?

1) Recording Technology

Without a doubt, technology has always been one of the most consistent disrupters of industry. Printed sheet music, player pianos, the phonograph, synthesizer, and mp3 are all examples of technology that impacted the musician industry.

Dave and I recently had a conversation with a veteran NYC drummer. He compared the scene of 30 years ago to the scene today. NYC used to have thousands of recording studios and employ tens of thousands of musicians, many of whom made very good money. Back then, he explained, every note of music you heard anywhere had to be played by a musician. Commercials, albums, demos, jingles, soundtracks, and anything else that required music required musicians.

By comparison, these days I can cut a demo and pitch a commercial in my living room, on my computer, by myself. Anybody can do that today. The technology is relatively affordable, and sample packs and plugins can take the place of other musicians and expensive studio gear. It’s not necessarily better, it’s just possible.

Furthermore, how many musicians does it take to record a hit album these days? I looked up the top album on iTunes today, and then looked up the album credits. There are a bunch of producers and writers, but I could only find one guitarist credited. Another guy was credited with “strings.” The rest of the music? Probably assembled by the various producers.

I also looked up the credits for Rihanna’s latest album. She is one of the biggest stars today, so how many musicians does she use on her albums? Two, covering the guitar and bass. No drummer. Somebody has a credit for “instrumentation,” and there are also credits for fluids and good vibrations, hair stylist (two of those), vocal engineer, and many, many more production credits.

Compare either of these to Michael Jackson’s Thriller which employed dozens musicians in the studio during the early ’80s and had only one producer.

Recording technology has replaced the need for musicians the same way robotics have replaced people on assembly lines, but there will always be a demand for high end, hand crafted product.

2) DJs (and DJ technology)

I realize that this might make me sound like a crotchety old man, but hear me out. I have nothing against DJs, but it is a fact that where there were once bands full of musicians, there is now a guy behind a computer. If we’re lucky, he or she is actually using turntables.

DJs exist because there is a demand for them. They cost less and take up less space. People like to dance to the music. In fact, sometimes the music they play isn’t even recorded by real musicians, so why would you hire real musicians to perform what a DJ spins?

Regardless, I think we need to agree that DJs are a cheap competitor to working musicians from here on out, and technology will continue to make DJing possible for anybody with a laptop and decent taste in music.

3) Greed/The Economy

Just as technology allows you to do more in a recording studio with fewer musicians, you can do more in live performance. Backing tracks, or “sweetener tracks” are more common on pop tours. Broadway pits have gotten smaller and smaller over the years, partially due to pop/rock musicals written for smaller orchestras, but also due to the never ending battle between the producers and the musician’s union. Producers will make more money if a show uses pre-recorded music. Sometimes it just boils down to somebody wanting to make more money by downsizing the band.

Additionally, maybe people just don’t have the disposable income to spend on entertainment like they used to. This is especially true with younger people, who might go out more frequently. There are numerous economic factors that could come into play, but the point is, people choose to spend their hard earned money elsewhere.

4) People’s Choice

Has the evolving aesthetic of popular music cost musician jobs?

Bob Lefsetz keeps saying electronic music is the new rock’n’roll. There’s something to that. Not everybody wants to go to the local symphony, jazz club, or blues bar. Some people, just prefer music that doesn’t require any musicians.

Also, can the audience really tell the difference between pre-recorded music and a live band? Even if they could, do they care? Pop stars have been lip synching or using autotune live for decades, and for the most part their fans don’t seem to care. Will those same people ever appreciate a great live band in the same way? It’s difficult to speculate, but it’s very possible that the market for live music is smaller than it used to be.

What can musicians do?

I don’t believe the failing recording industry is entirely to blame for a decline in musician jobs. Did it have an impact? Absolutely. But so have these other factors.

To succeed as a musician, it’s very important that you pay attention to the state of our industry. It’s foolish to think that because you studied at an elite music school you’re entitled to make a ton of money as a studio musician, or that you can form a band, get signed to a label, and be set for life. Sure, it’s possible those things can happen, but the probability is much smaller today than it was before 1999.

Learn how to adapt. I can not stress that enough. The way you make a living today might be very different in two years. The studio musicians of 20 years ago that are still working today figured out how to adapt. Along with being a great musician, learn how to use the internet to your advantage to help you network and be easily available to people that can hire you.

Understand what is in your control, and what is not in your control (hint: You cannot stop technology, avoid greedy people, or change people’s taste in music). The biggest lesson we can learn from the recording industry and the digital music revolution is that you cannot fight change.

Learn from other musicians. Dave and I try to share as much of our knowledge as we can on this site, but we also interview others and look for guest bloggers to cover topics we cannot write about ourselves. Many times it’s just an excuse to pick the brain of musicians smarter than us!

Finally, be a champion for the working musician. Support the arts and arts education and help kids appreciate music. Take pride in your work. You don’t have to be in the union to advocate for musician jobs, all you have to do is support industries that support musicians.

Interview with Drummer Travis Whitmore

For this week’s installment of our working musician interview series, I spoke with drummer Travis Whitmore. Currently settled in Virginia, Travis thrives as a studio drummer through online collaboration, built upon his experience as a working drummer in Nashville.

MW: When did you start playing music, and when did you realize it was something you wanted to do professionally?

TW: I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by music at a very young age. Whether it was listening to mom play piano or just playing along to records, music has always been a big part of who I am.

According to my parents, my first drum kit was given to me at around 4 or 5 years old. I remember it was soon after high school in 1995 that I realized I wanted to give this music thing a go professionally.

A couple of years later, I packed up and moved to Nashville and spent 5 years there working in the music business. I worked at Pearl Drums Corporation, toured North America and tried picking up as many studio sessions and live gigs that I could.

Being completely submerged in the music business was certainly challenging at times. However, I was able to improve not only as a drummer, but through all of the experiences I learned what it meant to be a professional musician.

Drummer Travis WhitmoreDid you study music in school? How has that impacted your career?

In High School, I was part of basically anything music related that was offered. Then in Nashville, I studied music theory and music business. I also studied with other professional drummers in the area and took courses on studio techniques.

Of course, any type of study related to something you love is always beneficial. That said, whether on the road or in a session, the experiences and interactions with other musicians, producers and engineers was (and still is) the most beneficial form of education. To this day, I still work hard to incorporate all of the things that impacted me early on.

Briefly describe your career today. What kinds of work do you do to make a living?

I’m currently settled back in my hometown in Virginia and I have a home studio where I offer onsite recording projects and custom drum tracks via online collaboration. I have always been a huge fan of studio work and love the creative process that comes from the studio environment and recording process. Essentially, I built a home drum studio in my basement where I can still offer studio sessions.

The great thing about online collaboration is that I can offer my services to anyone in the world who may need real drum tracks on their songs or projects and don’t have the resources or time to set up and track a drum kit. In addition to studio work, I also play in a local horn driven funk band and offer drum lessons and a blog on the studio site with recording tips and musician resources.

How do you find work as a musician?

In regards to studio collaboration, the social resources available today has had a huge impact on finding work. On my studio site, I offer a blog with tips and resources for fellow musicians and drummers. As a result, I have clients finding my services through not only the blog but other social resources such as Facebook and Twitter.

Aside from the online activity, I find work by simply working with other musicians, going to live shows, meeting like-minded musicians and just being available for anything that comes my way. Word of mouth has also been an important aspect of finding work.

What skills are necessary to be successful at your job (or jobs)?

First and foremost, I believe that consistent practice in your instrument is key, no matter your expertise. As a drummer, I am always striving to be better and am always mindful of finding quality time to practice.

Whether live or in the studio, a few key skills that are vital to be successful are:

  • Pro Tools (or your DAW of choice)
  • Microphone placement
  • Recording techniques
  • Playing along to a click track

Other skills that are often overlooked is:

  • Listening to the other musicians in the band
  • Playing what’s right for the song
  • Showing up on time to the gig
  • Doing your homework on the songs to be played or recorded

Finally, do you have any advice for younger musicians aspiring to be professionals?

There are a couple of major lessons that I learned early on that I continue to be mindful of to this day. As I stated above, make sure you find ample time to practice your instrument. Whether you are a beginner or expert, practicing will keep you sharp and on your toes.

Second, be careful to not spend all of your time with your own kind. In other words, if you are always spending your time meeting and hanging out with fellow drummers, you most likely won’t get a gig. Instead, thing of ways to meet and get to know other musicians (Keyboard players, singers, bass players). These are individuals that will call you the next time they need a drummer.

And last but not least – have a great attitude! Probably the most important lesson of all. It doesn’t matter how many chops you have, if you’re showing up to a show with a bad attitude or a negative demeanor, it will eventually cost you. On the other hand, showing up on time, doing your homework and having a positive attitude will keep those gigs coming and your reputation as a professional will spread like wildfire.


More about Travis:

Travis Whitmore is an experienced session and touring drummer/percussionist. Having worked as a Nashville session drummer, Travis has either played on the same stage or recorded with a variety of world-renown musicians and recording artists. Whether he’s playing a shaker, hand drums or a full drum kit, his main goal is to always serve the song. Based in Virginia and working out of his own SilverLake Studio, Travis offers recording services and custom drum tracks via online collaboration. Travis is also passport ready and available for live shows, studio sessions and lessons.

My Ever-Changing Career as a Musician

When I was in college, I held several part time jobs to make ends meet. One of those part time jobs was playing guitar at a few restaurants every month. Nothing glamorous, but I was happy to be playing guitar. I started keeping track of how much money I made on those gigs to see if I could justify quitting one of the other part time jobs.

It turns out keeping a detailed list of my music income has served me well over the last 10 years. I was eventually able to justify quitting all of my day jobs and become a full time musician, and since being a full time musician, I’m able to keep a finger on the pulse of my various streams of musician income. Just as a shop owner keeps track of her inventory and carries whatever products are in demand, I’ve been able to assess and adjust my inventory of music jobs that keep me in business.

Over the last 10 years the way I make a living has changed dramatically. I’ve never made a lot of money, but I’ve been able to make more each year despite the changes in the music industry and economy in general. Here’s my method and what I’ve learned along the way.

Multiple Streams of Income

One thing I learned early on was to diversify my income. If one stream hits a drought, you can lean on the others to get by. Here’s how I categorize my income:

  1. Non-Union Gigs
  2. Union Gigs
  3. Recorded Music Sales/Streams
  4. Royalties
  5. Miscellaneous

Anything that pays me to be playing guitar falls under one of the gig categories. Performances, rehearsals, recording sessions, etc. Additionally, I separate my gigs between non-union and union, mainly because my accountant tells me to (taxes are withheld from my union paychecks), but it also gives me a good understanding of where I make more money. Currently, that’d be non-union gigs.

My recorded music income is essentially anything I make from my distributor: CD and download sales, streams, ringtones and whatever other formats exist today.

Royalty income is earned through BMI. There are other avenues to earn royalties, but for now, I’m only earning money through BMI. This income is also reported in a separate space on my tax return, so I keep strict records for my accountant.

The miscellaneous category covers a lot of ground, but none of it is significant or regular enough to warrant tracking under it’s own category. Some of this income includes:

  • Licensing
  • Commissions
  • Teaching lessons/masterclasses/clinics
  • Revenue from websites (MusicianWages and my own)
  • Transcriptions/charts
  • Arranging/orchestrating
  • Backend earnings that don’t qualify as royalties

Broad Categories for Musician Income

Dave Hahn and I have often discussed musician income in two broad categories: Active/Passive and Yours/Others. Naturally, I think of my earnings in this way as well.

Active Income / Passive Income

Active Income, also known as Earned Income, is a finite amount of money paid for specific time or services. Everything under the Gig categories and about half of the jobs under Miscellaneous count as Active Income. Every month I try to make sure there are enough jobs that create Active Income to at least cover my expenses.

Passive Income is the money I make from my recorded music, royalties, website revenue, and various other backend percentage agreements. I usually have an idea of about how much Passive Income I’ll earn each month, but experience tells me that you can’t count on the check arriving before rent is due. Nonetheless, this money is vital in rounding out my income, especially when there are holes in my calendar for Active Income jobs.

Your Music / Other People’s Music

This broad category is pretty easy to understand:

Your Music is basically anything you create as an artist or songwriter. If you have your own original band and play shows and sell CDs, then you’re making money from your own music.

Everything else is Other People’s Music. If you work as a sideman, play in a cover band, in a church, in musical theatre, teach, or any other type of musician job we’ve ever discussed on this site that you can’t call your own music, then you’re making money from other people’s music.

How My Streams of Income Have Changed

Creating Passive Income with my Original Music

In 2007 I was working a full time job at a major record label, a job I’d somewhat fallen into through temp work a couple years earlier. Meanwhile I was playing a few times a month with my own jazz trio, performing mostly original music from an album I’d independently released earlier in the year.

The day job helped me cover rent and bills, which freed up most of my music income to be reinvested. In other words, I could use my music income for things like paying my band, saving up to make a new album, or buying new gear–all things I felt would have long term benefits to my career as a musician. I was my own patron, supporting myself as my art developed.

At this time, most of my music income came from music sales, and most of that was through iTunes. You see, for a brief period of time I figured out a way to use iMixes in the iTunes Store to help people discover my music. I started making enough money that in early 2008 I quit my day job and took a pay cut to become a full time musician.

Because I was making most of my money as passive income with my own music, the logical thing to do was create more content–or write and record more music. In 2008 and 2009 I wrote and recorded a new album for my trio while also creating several DIY albums with friends under various monikers. I figured each recording was a new asset that could potentially earn more passive income down the road. And for a time it did.

By the end of 2009, however, it was clear that the decline in music sales that had been decimating record stores since 2001 was finally catching up to the small, independent artist and DIY scene that had gained some footing a few years earlier. Despite having three times as many albums (for a total of nine) available on iTunes and other online stores, my distributor was paying me a quarter of what I had been making on average the year before. It’s even less today, and unless I wanted to get a day job again, I needed to beef up my other streams of income.

Generating Active Income with Other People’s Music

Having worked for a record label, I knew that a decline in my record sales was inevitable. Once I quit my day job, I had a lot more time to start playing with other people. I began networking with other musicians and gradually started playing as a sideman.

Playing other people’s music is a much different gig than playing your own music.

When you write and perform your own music, it’s easy to cater to your strengths. When your job is to play other people’s music, you really can’t have any weaknesses.

To become a well rounded guitarist, I started transcribing players from all genres, especially genres in which I had less experience, like country. Gradually I felt confident copping the styles of many major guitarists. You never know when the person hiring you will ask for a David Gilmour lick in one song and a Vince Gill lick in another. You don’t have to play like every guitarist all the time, but you have to convincingly play like any guitarist some of the time.

I also had to think about earning active income, which meant playing a lot more gigs. One of my goals was to play 100 shows in a year, and doing whatever was necessary to make that happen.

In New York City, original bands play about once a month locally, more if they tour. Cover bands might play once or twice a week. Broadway and Off-Broadway shows run 8 times a week, and as a sub you can usually count on at least a few gigs a month. In order to reach 100 shows, it was clear I needed to play a lot of different gigs as a sideman.

This was a lot easier to do without a day job. Learning music can be a full time job in itself, and for every band you play with you can expect at least one rehearsal each month. Networking also takes time. I spent many late nights going to friends shows trying to meet other musicians.

Eventually I began playing with singer/songwriters, rock bands, pop singers, a bluegrass band, jazz vocalists, and occasionally playing private events and club dates. At first I didn’t ask for much money, but as I got busier it was easier to value my time. I found that if a gig wasn’t paying much, and especially if I wasn’t that into the music, it was best to walk away amicably because a better gig was always around the corner.

In 2012 I’m on pace to play about 125 shows. The active income I’ll earn from playing other people’s music this year will more than make up for passive income I’ve stopped earning with my own music.

Nurturing the Odd Jobs

Along with playing and recording, there are many types of musician jobs to supplement your income. These jobs help round out your days and can often get you through sales droughts and slow months for gigs.

The first job that comes to mind is teaching private lessons. Now, for many musicians, this is actually their main gig. I enjoy teaching motivated students, but for the most part I never have more than a couple weekly students at a time. Most of the time I’ll teach a few lessons to intermediate to advanced level students that want to work on something very specific. I’ve attracted many of my students by posting semi-regular free guitar lessons on my website. Currently I have one Skype student and one local student.

Other services I offer include recording demo tracks for songwriters, writing easy to read charts for bands, and arranging horn or string parts. These are all active income jobs.

Although recorded music sales are dwindling, there is still money to be made from recordings. Licensing your music is an incredibly viable way to keep some passive income flowing. I’ve delivered most of my music to various music libraries and fostered relationships with people in music supervision. The music I’ve recorded so far has been licensed more and more frequently, and I’m also earning quarterly royalty checks through BMI. The big money, however, is in exclusive custom jobs, and I’ve submitted several demos for commercials. I haven’t landed anything yet, but eventually I will.

I also earn some money through my websites. was created as a passion, but Dave and I have built it up to a point where we can make a little bit of money each month.

Looking Ahead

There are limitations to the work I’m doing now, and I’m constantly thinking of solutions.

There’s only one Friday and Saturday night a week, and as I get busier I get more calls to play those nights. Eventually some of those bands are going to have to replace me with somebody that’s more available. The only way to make more money is to land gigs that pay more. These gigs are higher pressure and have more competition, so I try to play all of my current gigs as perfectly as possible. You never know who’s listening. I sometimes tell people who ask me about my career that I’m no rockstar, but if a rockstar called and needed me for a tour, I could get the job done.

Another option is to find gigs earlier in the week. Most of these gigs pay less, with the notable exceptions of tours and Broadway gigs. This year I started subbing on a couple shows off Broadway, including the revival of Rent, and I believe I’m well equipped to play more of these highly competitive gigs.

I also see the importance of writing music. All kinds of music. Publishing is still a viable source of income for musicians, and if you have a writer credit on a few successful songs, you can make decent money. I try to write something every day–even if it’s just four bars of melody–and am always open to collaborate with other musicians.

And finally, I’d like to keep developing my own music and create art for the sake of art. After all, that’s the reason I started playing music in the first place!

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the music industry, it’s that these days nothing stays the same for long. Multiple streams of income makes it easier to adapt. Owning the rights to my albums means I can exploit them however I see fit in the future. Playing a lot of gigs with a lot of different bands prepares me for bigger, higher paying gigs. If any of these miscellaneous jobs turn into a bigger gig, I’ll be prepared for that, too. I can’t control when opportunity will knock, but I know I’ll be ready.

Interview with Freelance Musician Tony Maceli

At Musician Wages, we’ve always believed there are as many ways to be a freelance musician as there are freelance musicians. Every musician we’ve talked to has their own combination of jobs that, combined, make up their career. We’d like to share the experiences and advice of more working musicians on our site through a series of interviews. Each musician will be asked the same questions, but their answers will reflect their unique career.

Our first interview is with New York bassist (and multi-instrumentalist) Tony Maceli. You can often find Tony playing or hanging out in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, an area known for it’s music scene.

MW: When did you start playing music, and when did you realize it was something you wanted to do professionally?

TM: I started playing trumpet when I was 10 years old. I loved it right away. My band director featured me in a piece in the spring concert and I told my parents, “I want to be a musician!” To which they answered, “That’s nice.” I knew right away I wanted music and it’s been with me ever since.

From there, I picked up the electric bass at 15 years old, but never really got serious with it till later. I played in different rock bands and used the bass as a tool to meet girls–even the least coolest kid has a chance playing in a band. Trumpet was my bag for my early years, though.

Tony MaceliDid you study music in school? How has that impacted your career?

I went to the Crane School of Music for my undergraduate degree in music education with a concentration in trumpet performance. After I graduated, I taught for a few years to save some money.

It was at 25 years old that I bought an upright bass and really began my bass playing career. I took a few lessons with Cecil McBee and went off to pursue my Masters of Music at Indiana University in jazz studies. Once I finished at IU, I came to NYC and have been here ever since, finishing a doctorate in music education at Teachers College Columbia University.

Studying music is a lifelong endeavor, one you can hone in college, or by practicing and learning on the scene via the school of Hard Knocks. Sometimes I look back and wonder whether or not I should have saved the money I spent on my education and come straight to New York to learn from the school of hard knocks, instead of taking the over-educated route.

For me, balance has been the key. At times, when I feel like getting out of the music rat race, I know I have other options, so I can investigate my options and not feel trapped. Ultimately, my music career prevails, but it helps knowing that I can try other things and am making the choice to live the life I am living.

Briefly describe your career today. What kinds of work do you do to make a living?

Cellist Dave Eggar (someone everyone should know about and can learn a lot from) once told me that your music career is a portfolio. I think that’s the best description for what my career looks like.

I’ve performed on broadway (as a sub), in the studio, orchestras, club dates, cover gigs, indie band gigs, tours or anything I’ve been called for. I’ve played on electric bass, upright bass, electric guitar, trumpet, keyboards, and even banjo for a gig. Also, I’ve done several arrangements, be it big band, string or wind parts for a studio record, or something simple for a rock band. I’ve been a musical director for benefits, rock bands/ensembles, and large productions. I’ve even been on the road playing bass, tour managing, and driving (sometimes all at once).

Lately, I’ve been really learning Pro Tools and Logic and getting into the production end of things. I’ve submitted music for commercials (nothing’s stuck yet, but I’m trying to get my foot in the door, just like everyone else), and been working with artists to produce records. I’m always looking for new ways to broaden my portfolio.

Any one of these skills, by themselves would not be enough to sustain my living, but put together, it fits who I am and how I like to go about my business.

How do you find work as a musician?

Generally speaking, finding work is all about the hang.

I was a school teacher for 15 years before I really became a musician (I was 36 when I quit my job). I didn’t realize that finding work as a musician was a full time job and I was trying to do it part time.

Once I quit my job, I realized that I didn’t know anyone, so I ended up going out every night to meet people. Money was an issue, so I had to get to know the bouncers at clubs that charged a cove or go to places that didn’t charge a cover. From there, I’d start noticing a lot of the same musicians playing most of these gigs. I got to know these folks and eventually, someone recommended me to play a gig. I did my best (which probably wasn’t great) and they called me back because I was a nice guy and had the right attitude. The gig didn’t pay much (maybe $75 for a gig and a rehearsal) and I went from there.

Without a doubt, the amount I hang is directly correlated to how much work I get. Go support good music and you’ll eventually get asked to play. Don’t be pushy or a professional hand shaker. Hang loose, keep supporting and you’ll eventually get a shot.

Also, people talk a lot about your network and I think that’s a key. It’s simple math. If you know 3 bands/songwriters that you play with and they all play once a month, you have 3 gigs a month. That’s not going to cut it. If you know 30 folks and they play once a month, that’s roughly one gig a night. That’s if you’re everyone’s first call.

That’s why it’s best to know thousands of folks. That math always works in your favor. Finished playing a gig, you’re part of the hang, stick around. Not working that night, go out and support your colleagues. It can feel overwhelming, but start small and eventually you’ll meet more and more folks. Be patient and know it takes time.

What skills are necessary to be successful at your job (or jobs)?

This is different for everyone. Figure out what you love to do and make that your focus.

For me, I like being completely ADHD and doing as many things as possible. I make sure I’m completely focused on the project at hand and do my best to nail it. If I have a pop gig that requires bowing on the upright, I’m all about practicing my classical chops. If I have a gig that’s a jazz gig, I do my best to play standards that week, and so forth. There are friends of mine that just love playing jazz and that’s all they do with a focus and purpose and that’s cool too. That’s for the music.

I know this might sound like common sense, but don’t be late, and know the material (memorized-avoid charts). If you don’t do this 100 other people will. Think of that bumper sticker, “Don’t be a Dick” – stick to that.

I imagine this post is for folks that are not established, so I recommend memorizing music and being on time, always. If someone like Will Lee or Mike Visceglia are reading this, then it doesn’t matter for them. They’ve been around and are completely established and can do what they want because they are in demand. I would venture to say, however, those guys still come on time and super prepared (just a hunch- that’s why they work a lot).

For me, I make a living, but don’t feel that I am established enough to be slacking off – we’re only on this planet for a short time, make it count, no matter what you’re doing.

Finally, do you have any advice for younger musicians aspiring to be professionals?

First, try not to get involved in a situation asking what you are going to get out of it. Ask instead what you are going to give to it. Sometimes, you are needed to be an audience member. Sometimes it’s to be a guitarist. Other times a background vocalist, and the list goes on. Figure out what you are contributing and people will feed off that positive energy.

Second, think of being a musician as opening a business. That’s what you are – a one person business.

I think of it like a coffee shop (who doesn’t love coffee?). Let’s say I can make the best coffee and only do coffee, but is that enough? Is my coffee that good? Do I need the cup holders that make sure my customers don’t burn their hands when holding a hot cup of joe? How about pastries? Do I want to sell music in my coffee shop like starbucks? etc, etc, etc.

You play an instrument – that’s obviously the coffee. How much do you charge for coffee? The price changes by the pound (gig), you offer other frills such as pastries (background vocals), cup holders (instrument doubling), and the list goes on. Make conscious decisions about what you want to be so you have a focus.

This is how you create your brand. I know this part is so unmusical and it kinda is something I’m terrible at, but I acknowledge it’s existence and my shortcomings in it. At present, I choose my brand to be unfocused because I’m kinda all over the place. I realize that limits the type of work I can get, but for now it makes me happy. When it’s time for a change, I’ll change.

Third, try to divide your day up so that you can hit what you need to hit. I don’t write this down everyday, but I have an idea of what I’m going to do. Maybe something like this:

  • 11am-12pm – Internet time/coffee/breakfast
  • 12pm-1pm – Upright warmup/bowing exercises
  • 1pm-3pm – Learn tunes for Friday gig
  • 3pm-3:30pm – walk around park
  • 3:30pm-6:30pm – rehearsal for friday gig
  • 6:30-7pm – Dinner
  • 7pm-9pm – Rockwood Music Hall to watch two shows
  • 10pm – 12am – Living Room for a show
  • 12am – 2:00am – Back to Rockwood for late hang

Fourth, be in it for the long haul. If you have the proverbial, “If I don’t make it by the time I’m (a certain age),” attitude, don’t bother trying to be a musician. A musical career takes years to establish. Being short sighted will come across and no one will want to play with you. They’ll see the stars in your eyes and run the other way. Besides, if you wake up in the morning and your job is to make music, and that’s all you do, you’ve made it. Regardless of how much money you make.

Finally, for anyone new to New York, I have a musician hang/community night once a month at Rockwood Music Hall. It’s called Full Vinyl ( The night is populated by performing songwriters and working musicians in New York City. It’s like our office holiday party once a month. We pick a theme (i.e. – Stevie Wonder night, 80’s Movie Music themes) and everyone performs a song relating to the theme. No rehearsal, just throw down and know your part. I try to involve everyone in the night in some way, shape or form, but can’t get everyone in due to limited slots. It’s a great place to meet folks and support the music community. I try my best to help connect folks, so stop by.

Thanks for reading and I wish anyone pursuing a career in music the best.


Tony Maceli has performed with many artists including Dave Egger, Jenny Own Youngs, Elizabeth and the Catapult, Elizaveta, Ian Axel, Bob Kinkel, Vienna Teng, and many more. He has also subbed on Broadway shows, including the original production of Rent. Connect with Tony at the next Full Vinyl show at Rockwood.

Introducing the Working Musician Interview Series is dedicated to helping the musician industry thrive. We’ve offered advice and tips to help working musicians make the most of their careers. Along the way we’ve also spoken to many of our peers and learned about how they make their living. We really believe that there are as many ways to be a freelance musician as there are freelance musicians.

To help illustrate that point, we’re going to start posting more interviews with working musicians. You may not recognize all of these musicians’ names, but you are probably familiar with their work, or can relate to the types of gigs they play.

We’ll start tomorrow with an interview of New York’s Tony Maceli, a multi-instrumentalist that’s done just about every type of musician job imaginable. Meanwhile you can read some of the past interviews on our site, including keyboardist Brad Whiteley, producer Steve Migliore (aka Mr. Mig), guitarist Lance Seymour, indie artist Allison Weiss, music director Tom Carradine, and more.

Freelance Musician Profile: Guitarist Lance Seymour

Several months ago I was looking for a specific piece of gear. I couldn’t find it on all the usual places you go to shop for used items, but then I saw a friend post something in a Facebook group called Gear Talk: Classifieds. I promptly joined the group and found the pedal I wanted, er, needed (as I explained to my wife).

I later learned that Gear Talk: Classifieds was an extension of a Gear Talk group where musicians, mostly guitarists, just chatted about gear. You see, guitarists can have vastly different ideas about politics, religion, and even different tastes in music, but we all see eye to eye when it comes to a sweet rig.

It turned out the Gear Talk groups were started by Atlanta based guitarist Lance Seymour. As the original group continued to grow, Lance saw the need for smaller regional groups, and groups for bassists, drummers, pro players, praise and worship guitarists, acoustic instruments, and more. Collectively these groups have become an enormous network for guitarists and other musicians all over the world.

Over the last several months I’ve gotten to know Lance. Before he started Gear Talk, he built a career as an in-demand freelance guitar player in the Southeast. On a recent visit to Atlanta, I got together with Lance, played some guitar, and talked to him about his career and what he’s learned about building online communities with Gear Talk.

Guitarist Lance SeymourCM: Tell us about your career. How long would you say you’ve been playing professionally?

LS: I have been playing professionally for about 10 years in Atlanta. I started doing gigs quite a few years before. Small bar, cover band type stuff. I also played in church almost immediately after starting to play music, 13 years ago, or so.

What kinds of gigs are you doing these days, not just playing, but any sort of musician job that puts bread on the table?

You could say playing guitar has been my main source of income for the last 10 years.

I definitely have been playing the ‘jack of all trades’ role as a professional musician. My gigs are so spread across the board, playing everything from Rock and Pop gigs, to Classic country, and new country and of course playing gospel and contemporary Christian music all the time. Atlanta is really as diverse as it can be, music-wise. But I think that’s a good thing. I love one night getting to play classic country and then the next night play RnB, and get up the morning after that and play at a church somewhere. Makes for A LOT of music to learn.

As for other things that put bread on the table, I teach several instruments. I just started teaching Skype lessons, which has been incredibly rewarding. I am also the band leader for a few different artists. I write charts for them, which I’m paid for.

How do you find your gigs? Or how do they find you?

Typically gigs find me. Fortunately I have been able to play with so many musicians in the last 10 years, that my number gets passed around. I get calls constantly where the conversation starts with “Hi, I got your number from ….so and so. I’m looking for a guitarist.”

The key is being a professional when you’re on a gig. I often say “the gig you’re on right now is an audition for your next gig.” If you do your job and are a great hang at the same time, it’s impossible not to get called for work.

What advice would you give specifically to young guitarists that want to make a living playing music?

HA! Why would anyone want to make a living playing music? No, I think being a professional musician is awesome and I would not trade it for another job.

I think it’s important for young musicians to learn the type of things that really get you work:

Knowing tons and tons of songs and playing them all authentically is huge for getting gigs. Constantly be adding to your repertoire.

Learn musicians’ language, terms and phrases so you know what people are talking about in rehearsals and on stage.

Also LEARN NUMBER CHORDS. It’s so important for musicians to be able to recognize chords by their numerical name. No excuse for not knowing them and being able to read them.

I think for guitarists in general, need to be able to able to tailor their tone to whatever style they happen to be playing at the time. Guitarists have so many choices when it comes to gear and effects, in general. It’s important to know how to dial it in and make it feel right for the song.

One piece of advice I give to younger players all time comes from that saying “dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” Meaning basically to do every gig like it’s your dream gig. Just because you’re doing what you consider a ‘less than stellar’ gig, you have no excuse to give less than 100% to it. It’s disrespectful to the people you’re working with and to yourself. That attitude will lead to the gigs you actually want to be doing.

Changing directions a little bit, you’ve also been actively building a community of musicians on Facebook with the Gear Talk groups. What made you start the first Gear Talk group?

Gear Talk started for a couple of reasons. First being, I wanted a place for me and my friends could go and talk about guitar gear. Pedals and amps and all that sort of stuff. I found myself on the phone constantly with my gear head friends, having two hour long conversations about guitar pedals. Like really passionate debates. I wanted there to be a network online where all my gear head friends would talk and debate and learn.

Also, just over a year ago, when I started Gear Talk, I had several guitar pedals I wanted to sell. I posted them on my newsfeed on Facebook and got zero responses. I thought it was strange considering the majority of my friends are musicians. Did my post just go down Facebook’s timeline and hardly anyone saw it? I figured I’d create a group and add all the guitarists I knew might be interested in buying my pedals! The whole thing kind of snowballed from there.

Why did you decide to do it on Facebook, verses a different online platform?

Facebook seemed like the ultimate platform. Everyone is on it and are using it all day. They know how it works, there’s not much of a learning curve. It has a great mobile app that’s easy to use.

I could not have invited all my friends to join some random gear forum somewhere else online and expect them to join it. The members were already built in to the network. Seemed like a perfect place for gear nerds to commune.

Also, one of the big advantages of Facebook over traditional forums is that there’s no anonymity. People tend to be friendlier and more honest because they are using their real names and you can see their picture. Nobody is hiding behind screen names.

Do you have any plans to create a website for the group outside of Facebook?

Yes. As a matter of fact, I am about to launch It’s a site that will cater to Gear Talk members’ interests. It’ll have articles, gear reviews, interviews with professionals in the industry and lessons.

So essentially, it’s not a forum to try and take Gear Talk members off of Facebook, but a site that offers them more options than Facebook groups allow and is custom tailored specifically for already existing Gear Talk members.

What are you learning about building communities online?

I am constantly learning. My goal was not to start a forum and get a ton of members in it. There’s really no reason to have tens of thousands of members in these groups if they’re not passionate about gear.

What was great about Gear Talk as it started with me and a bunch of full-time working musicians. It was not something I started to create a business. It’s been really organic from the get go and I think that’s what people find cool about it. It’s not sponsored by some company trying to sell you anything. It’s a great hang for gear heads from all over the world now.

I think as the groups have grown, I am able to spot things that need to be fixed and improved, so things in the group evolve. Sometimes rules are made. Sometimes I have to re-direct to focus of the group/groups.

One thing I have learned, is people love to feel part of a community. Not part of this massive monster forum of anonymous people. This is why I started Gear Talk regional groups, in order to help people network in their own regions and also make buying/selling/trading much easier.

Last March you hosted the Gear Talk Expo 2012 in Atlanta, which turned out to be a big success. Tell us a little about why you decided to put that together and how it’s effected the online community.

Yeah, GTE2012 was amazing! It was also an idea that snowballed into this huge thing.

Several months ago, we were talking about having a get-together for Gear Talk members in Atlanta. It started as a backyard BBQ sort of idea. Bring your gear, hang out, eat some food.

A friend of mine, Damon Breeland, works for Avatar Events Group in Atlanta suggested we host it there. Seemed like a perfect location. Right in the center of Atlanta and a venue that is quite comfortable with guitar geeks cranking up their amps. Since Avatar has a stage, I booked Damon’s band, Nigredo to play. They’re a terrific instrumental band. Sort of an amazing wall of sound created by dozens and dozens of amps and guitar pedals.

Iconic guitarist/Co-Founder of 65 Amps/producer/sideman, Peter Stroud has been an active member on Gear Talk, and also lives in Atlanta. I emailed him and asked him if he’d be interested in doing a clinic at the get together. There really was not a better choice. Peter was incredibly cool and agreed to come out.

After Peter/65 Amps were on board, it seemed like a good idea to invite other builders in the area to bring their stuff to show off. I asked Richard Goodsell of Goodsell amps and he was in. Then Fuchs amplifiers, thanks to Bryan Akers who works for Avatar. After that, companies from all over the country started contacting me asking me if they could come.

I had about 40 days to organize and promote GTE2012. It ended up exceeding my expectations with number guests and amazing networking. The cool thing about it was, it was not corporate at all. It was grassroots. It was not sponsored by some corporation. I financed the entire thing myself! It came off exactly how I wanted it. A get together among gear heads with a bunch of special guests and some truly amazing gear.

What’s next for Lance Seymour?

Tons of gigs. I am pretty slammed right now and working on Been one of the busiest years of my life. I am already planning GTE2013. I can’t wait for it. I am working on ways to develop Gear Talk for members and companies. Just recently, i started the group Gear Talk: Marketplace as a way for companies to promote their products for free to Gear Talk members without coming off like they’re trying to post a commercial on one of the Gear Talk groups. It’s been really successful so far.


Visit guitarist Lance Seymour’s website and Facebook page to learn more.

If you’re interested in being a part of the Gear Talk community, join one or more of the groups below!

An Open Letter to An Angry Reader

Since it’s launch, MusicianWages has been well received by the musician community. Dave Hahn and I have been very pleased to see our pet project grow into an informative hub for all types of musicians. We believe this growth is due to our commitment to integrity and quality content, and as long as we find the articles on our site useful, you will too.

Sometimes, though, people get upset and send nasty emails. Most of them are ignored, but I felt this recent one deserved a response. The author is upset because we’re selling some contact lists from the Chronicles of a Cruise Ship Musician blog. Since he didn’t include a valid email address, prohibiting us from writing him back, we decided to respond publicly.

These lists are the first products we have ever sold from the site, and perhaps all our readers deserve an explanation of why we’ve opened the MusicianWages Shop after four years of giving away all our information for free.

Here is the email from “Joe” and our response.

You suck. I have been at your site before and you were all cushy cushy with all the agents. I thought your site was a cool idea at first. But you really don’t have a clue as to what real musicians wages in the real world are. I’ve been pro for 25+ years and know a lot of musicians. And now I see you are selling the list of cruise ship agents. Well there goes any respect I have for you. Obviously your not making enough money as a musician. You’re going to end up working for an agent before too long. Sad. Last time I visit the site.

Well Joe, sorry you feel that way. I hope you’ll read this response and have a better understanding of what Dave and I do, what MusicianWages is all about, and why we’re selling these lists.

Dave and I keep very busy working as full time musicians. Dave plays keyboards and conducts on Broadway, which is one of the best paying steady gigs a musician can get these days. I’m a freelance guitarist playing with different bands, subbing on musicals, and earning income from my own recordings (sales, royalties, licensing, etc.). We’re both members of our local AFM chapter and are well aware of union and non-union wages for a variety of musician jobs.

While continually building our careers, Dave and I have written extensively on everything we know about being musicians. We’ve shared all this information for free, on MusicianWages. We are the only people that run the site, and we do it for the love of sharing practical advice and helping others.

The website does generate some money, but not very much. We are far better professional musicians than we are professional bloggers! For the last several years we’ve basically been breaking even, making enough to cover monthly maintenance costs and hire professionals to help us with things beyond our skill set. However, we aren’t trying to make a living from this website, we’re trying to make a community of musicians.

When the two of us started MusicianWages four years ago, Dave’s articles about working as a cruise ship musician were a central part of the website’s launch. He had written extensively about the gig while playing on ships in 2004 because before he got the gig, there was simply no information online to prepare him for life as a cruise ship musician. His articles filled a void, which has made them very popular, and everybody researching cruise ship gigs finds MusicianWages in the top of their search results.

Dave’s only experiences on ships, though, were contracts in 2004 and 2007. I’ve never played on ships. We really don’t have any new information on the scene, with the exception of some contributions by other cruise ship musicians. Nonetheless, that section of the site has always been popular and we regularly receive emails from people wanting to know how to get a gig on a cruise ship.

In response to the many emails asking us, “How do I get do I get a cruise ship gig?” and all the resumes and links we receive from readers thinking we can place them on a ship, we decided to create these lists.

The Cruise Ship Talent Agency Directory and The Cruise Line Entertainment Department Directory were both created through time intensive research. The How Do I Get A Cruise Ship Musician Job eBook is a collection of articles from our website compiling answers to the 30 most asked questions about the cruise ship gig.

All of the information in these resources is freely available online for those who take the time to do their own research. Because we invested our own time and money compiling the information and presenting it in clean, easy to read eBooks, we decided to make them our first products to sell. We are charging for the convenience, for the time we’re saving you, not for exclusive information.

No agents, agency, or cruise lines were involved in or benefit from the creation and sales of these lists. We receive no commission on any cruise contracts signed by anybody that buys these lists. Most of the money we make from these lists goes back into the site or helps us develop other projects that we hope will help us and our fellow musician.

The musician industry isn’t the only place you’ll find these kinds of resources. After college my wife was applying for a very specific job in an industry where she had little experience. She bought a book that taught her about the industry, the position she wanted, and how to prepare for the interview. She studied the book cover to cover, tidied up her resume, nailed the interview, and got the job.

Similarly, we believe these lists are a very valuable resource for talented musicians that have everything it takes to play the gig, but don’t know much about it.

If you don’t want to work on a cruise ship there are plenty of other ways to make a living as a musician. Dave and I both have steady careers on land, as do many of the site’s contributors. We strive to keep MusicianWages full of pragmatic, useful information culled from the experience of professional musicians. This information will always be available for free.