Tips For Surviving As a Musician in New York City

For most artists, living in New York is the only place where they can have a legitimate shot at making a living doing what they love. Unfortunately, a good deal of those people leave empty handed and the ones who stay either struggle to get by or find some other field to make a living. There are always exceptions, so being prepared can make a big difference when you’re going for broke.

There are a lot of things that I had to learn on my own when I first moved to New York City in 2005. I had some things going for me, but I could have set myself up for greater success if I had a heads up about what to expect and how to approach making a name for myself in the big city.

Setting Yourself Up for Success

First of all, if you’re fresh out of college and are eager to hit the ground running, rethink an immediate move to New York City. If you think it’s all shedding (practicing) during the day and gigging at night, think again. It’s actually quite the opposite.

I would suggest moving to New York with a substantial amount of savings. This way, if you run up against hard times you will have a safety net.

In my case, I worked on a cruise ship for a year and a half saving up enough money so that I wouldn’t have to find a day job right away.

I also moved to New York for graduate school. This to me was an easy transition. It allowed me to be in New York but not feel like I had to make it on my own without any contacts. My professors were some of the top jazz musicians in New York City and the other students in my class were experienced players who were already making a name for themselves. For me it was all about making connections and practicing. Having a day job didn’t fit into my schedule. But when school was out, I worked.

Paying the Bills

If you have to have a job to pay your bills, try to keep it in music.

Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of private teaching opportunities in New York City like you would think, at least for certain instruments. Arts programs are always being cut and wind instruments are first on the list. Plus, these kids have their pick of any professional in New York, so why would they go with a newcomer?

What there is an abundant supply of are piano and guitar students. Being able to play one or both instruments fairly well will more than likely lead to private teaching gigs. Parents independently want their children involved in some form of the arts, especially when it is not a part of the general school curriculum.

If you are a talented piano player and have experience accompanying vocalists, you can find work as a musical theater or opera vocal accompanist. If you like working with very young kids, there are opportunities to work as a toddler day care music specialist. These jobs usually require you to play guitar and sing. It may not be playing at Birdland, but it beats sitting at a desk answering phones all day.

If you don’t have the skill set to play piano or guitar, make sure you have your office skills in top shape. Temping is one way that most artists make a living between big gigs. These jobs are usually in offices that need receptionists who can type fast and direct calls. There’s not a lot to it, but you are required to know the basics of Microsoft Office: Word, Excel, Power Point, and Access. The more you are familiar with these programs, the better your pay will be. These jobs usually pay $15-$20/hour.

The good thing about temp jobs is that you can leave the job whenever you have a gig or tour coming up and usually come back to it when you are available. And they generally occur during regular office hours: 8am-5pm, so it doesn’t interfere with practicing/gigs. The downside is that it is what is: temporary. Some jobs are long-term and can be flexible enough with your schedule to make it work for you. Other jobs are short-term and are only booked for a certain amount of time.

There is a good deal of money to be made in the food service industry, but those jobs don’t allow for the freedom to gig. Especially on last minute sub calls.

Finding Gigs

So you’ve got your job taken care of, now how do you get gigs?

First and foremost it’s all about contacts, especially on your own instrument. If you’re moving to New York City without any contacts in music, the best place to start is by going to jam sessions and meeting other musicians. If jazz isn’t your thing, then find out where a lot of musicians who play your style hang out. There are certain bars in midtown, for example, where a lot of Broadway players hang before or after a show. Craigslist is another good place to start.

Be prepared to play and rehearse for free. Remember, you’re trying to make a name for yourself and this is one way to do it. Taking a couple of non-paying gigs or joining a band that is just starting up is a great way to make contacts that can lead to other gigs.

My first gig in New York was playing with an Afro-beat band that I found off of Craigslist. I wasn’t really into the music or the band but I did make one contact (a sax player) that I have used on numerous occasions and became good friends with. This led to other gigs and got me into playing around the city. I also joined a jump swing and blues band that rehearsed about once a week for six months without a gig in sight. Once we finally played our first gig, we were booked every week at a club in midtown. This again led to other work from members of the band. Another good outlet for gigs is taking private lessons. Once a player becomes familiar with your playing, they may call on you to sub for them in the future. This happens quite often so it’s worth the investment.

Here’s the bottom line: living in New York is expensive and is not easy on musicians or artists of any kind. Having a heads up on what to expect before moving here can help you deal with the struggle of being a starving artist. A good number of musicians leave and come back multiple times before they feel like they can handle it. They say that this is a seven year town, meaning that it takes about seven years before you start to see any real work. So if you’ve got the patience and the determination, it will probably pay off in the long run.

Contract Negotiation for Musicians

Unfortunately there are a lot of important aspects of the music business that are never dealt with in college. After receiving two degrees in music, I can’t think of one instance where the topic of contract negotiation was discussed. This is unfortunate for the student because he or she will more than likely be taken advantage of the first time they are presented with contract work. Knowing what to ask for and how to ask for it can make any job that much better. In the contract world, there is no fairness, only shrewdness. Those who get paid more usually are the ones who ask for it.

My First Contract

My first experience dealing with contracts came after I graduated from college. Like most new graduates, I wanted a job and was willing to take anything thrown my way. I had been in contact with a couple of cruise lines and desperately wanted to get booked on a ship. I was offered my first cruise ship contract with Celebrity Cruise Lines. At the time they were using an agency to contract all of their musicians. Little did I know, getting hired for a cruise ship through an agency was not the smartest move. The reason is that any agency has to take a cut for finding you work. I believe their commission at the time was 20%. Now, musicians who have worked on ships before know that any commission taken out of how little we get paid is a crime. The standard for the agency was to start new musicians out at around $1,750/month after their commission. This was way too low! But I didn’t know any better and gladly took what they offered. So I signed the contract and boarded the ship.

After I proved that I could do a good job working in a show band, I was transferred to the flagship of the fleet. This would have been a perfect time to renegotiate my contract, but I was still a little green and no idea how to do it or what to ask for. So I took the job and hoped for a raise. I ended up getting $50 more a month. While I was working for $1,800/month, other musicians were making $400-$500 more a month than I was. They were older and had a relationship with our new contractor and were able to negotiate a higher pay. I couldn’t hold that against anyone but myself. If you don’t ask for it, you don’t get it.

I stayed at that pay rate the entire time I worked on cruise ships, which was about a year and a half. My last contract was for just one month and when I received my contract, the contractor had given me $1,750. A decrease in pay! I immediately called them and asked for more money. Their response was, “The contract has already been written. There’s no changing it now.” This is completely false! It was a contract that had not been signed or agreed upon. I had the right to renegotiate but they knew that they could strong arm me and get me to agree, which I did. They completely took advantage of me and my inexperience. This was not going to happen again.

The Art of Negotiation

I quit the cruise ship industry after that contract and went to grad school. Upon completing my graduate degree, I was offered a job playing for the national tour of Peter Pan. Again, I had no idea what the standard pay was for a non-union theater tour but this time I had a little more experience and knew that I was worth more than what any cruise ship had ever offered me. Their offer was pretty good but I was able to negotiate a little more being that I was being called to fill a spot that they had trouble filling. Apparently they had gone through three other trumpet players who couldn’t handle the work. This was a key point in negotiating. Not only did they need someone right away, but they also needed someone who could handle the book. They were willing to work with me and find a price that we could both agree upon.

Here are some points to keep in mind when negotiating money for a contract:

  • Always be polite. Show that you are grateful of the offer and opportunity. Say thank you.
  • Be willing to turn down a contract that doesn’t meet your needs. Be able to feel good about turning it down if you must.
  • Know what you are worth and be confident when asking for what you want.
  • When talking about money, let them make the first offer. It may be more than you were expecting. If not, kindly ask them if it is possible to raise it closer to your standard. In some cases they may come back with an offer without even hearing your counter offer. If they do ask for a counter offer, go a little above what you would accept and work your way down.

There are many other areas of contract negotiating that will be discussed later on.

After I completed my first tour, I was not eager to go back out on the road. Nevertheless, I was contacted by another company to perform on another tour. Just to see how much I could get out of the company, I made a list of demands in a very arrogant way to the contractor. He hadn’t even given me the official offer before I started in on what I wanted to make it worth my while. He was just calling to get a sense of who I was and if I was interested in the show. I immediately turned him off to the prospect of hiring me for the show. As it turned out, I didn’t get the tour and possibly ruined my reputation with that company. Bad move.

About two months had passed before I was offered another tour by another company. This company had a good reputation and I didn’t want to make the same mistakes that I had previously made. They offered me the role of second trumpet on the tour of Annie. Now, I have never been a fan of musical theater and this show was not what I considered to be on the list of high quality music. This contract was going to come down to numbers, plain and simple. I was very kind and respectful of the call and let them tell me about the company and the tour. After we had discussed various topics about the tour, i.e. how long the contract was, where it was going, etc., I kindly asked how much the position payed. It was well below what I had made previously. About $200/week lower than my last tour. I knew that this was for the role of 2nd trumpet but my standard had been set and I was not about to take any less than that. I politely thanked them for the offer, told them what my rate was, and told them to keep me in mind if another position became available that met my quote.

Sure enough, a few weeks after that conversation, the same company contacted me again with another offer for another tour, The Wizard of Oz. I found out as much as I could about the tour from the contractor which included one vital piece of negotiating information: they were hiring me as a replacement. This told me two things: they needed someone and they needed them quickly. After hearing their offer, I used the information that I had in order to negotiate a slightly higher pay. I politely asked them if they could bump up the offer to meet my quote. They came back and met my request. It wasn’t a show that I was dying to do, but at least I was getting paid enough to make it worth my while.

Additional Tips

My experiences have helped me to look after myself in the music business. No one else was going to do it for me. Freelance musicians do not have the luxury (or the money) of having an agent so we must know how to ask for what we want. Here are some additional points to keep in mind when negotiating contracts:

  • Find out as much as you can about the company. How big they are, what is their show budget, how many people they employ, their reputation, etc. This could help to determine how much you are able to negotiate.
  • Find out if you are the first call or a replacement. Replacements can usually negotiate more easily.
  • Discuss the housing situation. Will the company be paying for hotels or are you required to pay? If you are required to pay, does the per diem cover it? Most companies that pay for hotel rooms provide a per diem of $250-$300/week. If they do not provide housing, then the per diem should be enough to pay for it: about $500/week. All per diem is non taxed.
  • Find out if the company offers some form of health savings account.
  • Discuss if the company offers any form of incentive plan for completing the contract, such as overage compensation. In other words, do they give a percentage of the projected sales that are exceeded back to the company members at the end of the contract?
  • Make sure that you have an “out” in your contract. If you need to leave the contract for any reason (hopefully a better gig) have it stated in your contract that you must present the company with 3-4 weeks notice before leaving. This protects both you and the company.
  • Contact the contractor at the end of the contract to say thank you for the opportunity. This will keep you fresh in their mind and possibly first on their call list for future employment.