There are a lot of different ways to make a living as a modern musician, and it’s fair to say that most professional musicians make their living from not just one job, but from many different jobs. Diversifying your income streams is important to a lot of different professions, and the musician business is definitely one of them.
In this article, I talk about the following types of musician jobs. Click a job to jump ahead.
- Original Music
- Selling CDs
- Cover Bands
- Symphony Orchestras
- Musical Theatre (Broadway) Musicians
- Cruise Ship Musicians
- Freelance Musicians
See also, Top 10 Gigs You May Not Have Thought Of.
Teaching Private Music Lessons
Teaching income rates vary widely, from $18/hr at a local music shop, to $150/hr for the most highly trained and sought after teachers. Rumor has it that the concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic charges $200+ an hour for lessons. When I was a kid, my teacher charged my parents $12 for a thirty minute piano lesson.
I knew a concert pianist in Chicago who charged $75/hr, and I recently heard from a composition teacher in Manhattan who charges $100 for 50 minutes. These rates and the rumored rates of the NY Phil concertmaster represent the upper tier of lesson rates, and these musicians can only sustain this income because of their level of training and success. The average musician, teaching beginner and intermediate students, can probably expect to make $30-60 an hour. It all depends on training, experience and your perceived value in the community you teach in.
A full-time teacher can have upwards of 50 students a week. I’ve never heard of someone having more than 60 students, but its possible, especially if the lessons are all 30-minute sessions.
Say you have 30 students, with 25 of them in 30-minute lessons and the rest in 60-minute lessons. Lets say you charge $20 for 30 minutes, which I would say is more than reasonable if you are experienced and educated.
((30 x $20) + (5 x $40)) x 52 weeks = $41,600 a year
That is roughly a gross income of $40,000 a year for 17.5 hours of teaching a week. Travel and prep time are not included in that figure and will vary depending on the job and location (in-home lessons, for instance, will naturally require a lot of travel time). Nevertheless, the amount of time musicians spend teaching lessons is scalable (you don’t have to take 30 students, of course) so many musicians teach part time and spend the rest of their work week performing with other groups, practicing, recording, etc.
For valuable tips on starting your own teaching studio, read our article Start Your Teaching Business in 30 Days by Greg Arney.
Lets move onto the next category, which will take much more time to discuss: performing.
Performing and Recording
Let’s break this down into two categories: performing original music and performing someone else’s music.
Performing your own music is, of course, a very personally rewarding thing to do, but making money at it can sometimes be challenging. You’ll need two things to make a living playing original music.
- You’ll need to be able to write music that people like to listen to so much that they would pay money to hear it over and over again. That ain’t easy.
- You’ll need to find some way to get lots and lots of people to hear your music. You could try to get it on the radio, or featured on a commercial (Apple commercials are especially popular for this recently), on a movie, etc. You could also try to land a gig as the opening act to a touring band. These days, its also possible to get exposure for your material entirely through the internet (See Jonathon Coulton, internet superstar).
Once you have these two things (good music and fans), there are two ways to make money off original music. First, by performing it. If you play it at a bar or club for a group of friends or fans, you can make anywhere between $5 and $800 a night. I would say that $100 per performer could be considered a good night for a live, original band. Remember, though, that this nightly take might be split between you and all of the people that made the night possible (a manager or talent agency that booked the show, the bar owner, the sound man, etc.).
For an interesting read on this subject, I recommend reading Cameron’s article, The Truth About Booking Shows for Musicians in New York City.
The other way to make money playing your own music is to sell recordings of it. Recordings are sold everywhere these days, not just as concerts and record shops, but in Wal-marts and Starbucks and all over the internet. The traditional 20th century record label business model has all but collapsed since the digitization of the record business, and this has made the distribution and sale of recordings available to anyone with an internet connection and a PayPal account.
If you have music that people want to buy, selling records is probably the easiest way to make money as an original musician, because it takes much less effort and expense than performing and touring. Sometimes it seems like musicians perform primarily to showcase their music to large crowds of people in the hopes that these people will like them enough to buy their recordings.
So let’s get down to real numbers. Say it costs $5,000 to record and press your album (assuming you press CDs and record in a studio). If you sell the album for $10, you have to sell 500 to break even. You should be able to do that, even if it takes a little while. After that its pretty easy. People can buy your album online without you even having to ship anything to them. People pay cash for it at your concerts. Say you sell 100 albums a month online or in stores and another 20 at shows.
((100 online x $10) + (20 live x $10)) x 12 months = $14,400 a year
Its not enough to live on, maybe, but after you’ve recorded it and broken even, it doesn’t take a lot of effort. And as you build a fan base, that number is bound to increase.
On a side note, if you get a record label involved with this process you are almost guaranteed to sell more recordings, but you are not guaranteed to make more money, as record labels often take a lion’s share of profits. There’s a great deal of literature written about that phenomenon. Look up Donald Passman’s books for more info on record labels.
Personally, I highly recommend researching cdbaby.com if you are considering selling your music independently. They are a fine organization and have helped thousands and thousands of musicians sell their music with very little hassle and maximum profit.
For a thorough explanation of how to release your own music, read Cameron’s series A Musician’s Guide to the Self-Released Album.
The second category of performance income is money made off of music other people wrote. This includes all kinds of performance jobs – not just cover bands, but lots of jazz gigs (playing standards), musical theatre jobs, cruise ship jobs, big bands, Vegas jobs, amusement parks, symphony orchestras – all kinds of work!
First, cover bands. These gigs can be a good source of income, and wedding bands are probably the best example of this. These bands often have hundreds and hundreds of songs memorized. If the bride requests a song, they better know it! Wedding bands are usually pop rock bands or big band swing jazz bands (the jazz bands have written music, they usually don’t have to memorize songs). Wedding bands can charge $1,000 – $10,000 on one wedding, depending on what’s needed. There are weddings every weekend of every year. Let’s say your band makes an average of $1,500 on a wedding and you work one wedding every other week (26 weeks a year).
$2,000/wedding x 26 weddings = $52,000 a year
Bear in mind, though, that that money is usually split between every one involved (musicians, booking company, etc.). If 8 people are involved in the band (6 musicians, 1 booking agent, 1 sound guy), an even split would be $6,500 each year. Perhaps not a lot, but also consider that many cover bands work much more often than every other week, and $2,000 is on the low side of the potential wages.
For a real-world example of cover band rates, check out the website of DC-based band Oracle – specifically the How Much Does Oracle Cost? section.
Generally speaking, you’ll make a lot more money if you manage the band yourself and book the gig yourself. If you work for a booking agency as a hired “sideman” musician, you’ll probably make more like $100 – $300 a wedding. On the other hand, you’ll book more gigs through an agency.
If you are interested in being a professional sideman, don’t miss our series A Guide to Being a Successful Sideman, written by some of the best sidemen from NYC and LA.
There is a great range of salaries for orchestras around the world. Positions, at least in union orchestras, are typically full-time with benefits. The lowest paying orchestras start their members at around $22,000 a year, and the highest paid orchestras starting at $143,000 (The Los Angeles Philharmonic). A full list of orchestra salaries is posted at www.icsom.org, but here are some examples of base salaries around the U.S. (all examples are from the 2011 season and available at icsom.org):
New York Philharmonic: $134,940
Kansas City Symphony: $45,822
Louisville Orchestra: $34,225
San Francisco Opera: $78,445
These wages don’t include pension, healthcare, extra services, or premiums for doubling and principles. For example, pension contributions can be an additional 8-12% and the concertmaster of an orchestra traditionally earns twice the orchestra’s base salary.
Cruise Ship Musician
As in most traveling jobs, housing is provided on cruise ship jobs. Cruise jobs also provide excellent food and opportunity to travel to some of the most beautiful places in the world. They also pay you!
Just kidding. (Not really.) When I worked on a ship in 2004, I was paid $50/day to be the keyboardist in the show band. I understand that recently (2008) wages have been raised to $65/day.
Because of the other benefits to the job, it doesn’t really matter what they pay. People will always want the work.
Contracts are usually four to six months. If you work on ships year-round, the typical schedule is 6 months on, then 1 month off. For ease of example, let’s take a 12 month period where 10 months are spent working.
$65/day x 7 days x 40 weeks = $18,200 a year
This may not seem like much, but nevertheless, expenses are very low and it can be easy to save money while on a ship. Musicians often come off of ships having saved thousands of dollars.
For more information on this gig, see our comprehensive guide on this subject, Chronicles of a Cruise Ship Musician.
The income potential for theatre musicians can vary widely. To start, lets say you play with a regional theatre company that pays $75 a performance. They put up 5 shows a year, and have 60 performances of each show.
$75/performance x 60 performances x 5 times a year = $22,500 a year
The next level is touring musical theatre. This can be a hard life, but the money can sometimes make it worthwhile. Touring sidemen can make $500 – $1,000 a week on non-union tours. $600 a week plus a $300 a week per diem is a good wage for a touring non-union musical theatre sideman (this includes per diem and assumes hotels and transportation are paid for). Musical theatre tours typically work from fall to spring, mirroring the school year.
36 weeks x $900/wk = $32,400 a year
Music directors and conductors can expect to make 30% more than sidemen. This seems to be true across all musical theatre gigs.
The best musical theatre wages are found, of course, on Broadway in NYC, but also on union tours of Broadway shows (which can sometimes pay the same). Broadway scale is negotiated and protected by Local 802, the NYC chapter of the American Federation of musicians. A full list of 802’s wages can be found on the wage and contract info page of their website. But I will summarize (these wages are as of 2011):
The starting weekly wages for a musician on Broadway is $1,673.24 or roughly $209 for each performance. This is assuming the musician plays every show and only plays one acoustic instrument. However:
The union contract on Broadway allows musicians to “sub out” up to 50% of the shows in any 104-consecutive show period (about 2 months at 8 shows a week). In my experience, it’s uncommon for a Broadway musician to play every show in an 8-show week.
Many musicians on Broadway play more than one instrument, or play an electric instrument – and this earns them 1 (or several) “doubles”. “Doubles” increase the wages of that player (for example: 25% more for play a synthesizer instead of a piano, 12.5% for playing flute in addition to saxes, 30% to be Associate Conductor).
Doubles are not optional, I should add. The orchestration of a show is dictated by the composer, orchestrator and music director. Most reed books require musicians to play 3 or 4 reed/wind instruments. So, for example, a reed player on Broadway who plays flute, alto sax and clarinet would make 2 doubles, which is 31.25% above scale, or $2,185.88 per 8-show week (again, assuming the musician played all 8 shows).
The other mitigating factor of Broadway jobs is that shows are never guaranteed to run for any specified length of time. If a show opens and ticket sales are poor, it might close within a few weeks.
Let’s assume a show ran 36 weeks out of a year and you are the reed player above, making 18.75% above scale, or $247.60 per show. Let’s assume this musician played, on average, 7 shows a week.
36 weeks x 7 shows a week x $247.60 per show = $62,395.20 a year
If you’d like to know how I landed a gig on Broadway, read our series How I Became a Broadway Musician.
As I mentioned before, few musicians are able to devote all of their time to just one income stream. Many work as self-employed freelancers in a variety of musician jobs. In fact, according to a study done by the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Endowment for the Arts (available here), 44% of professional musicians in the U.S. are self-employed.
Regarding freelance income, geography has a big impact on one’s income potential (but also on one’s expenses). Living in a small town in Montana may not net you the volume of work that would be available in a large population area. That said, although one might associate music careers exclusively with only the highest population centers (New York, LA for example) it is still possible to make a living as a musician in a smaller population centers. I have met musicians living and working comfortably in cities like Phoenix, San Francisco, Orlando – even St. Paul, MN and Richmond, VA. I do not mean to suggest that one could make the same living freelancing in St. Paul as one could make in New York City, as that is not true. I only mean to suggest that towns like St. Paul may have enough volume of work for musicians to make a living.
In my experience, how well you can make a living in a given area seems to have at least a partial link to the population and median income of the area. This is just my own approximation, but I estimate that a working musician can make at least $30,000 a year living in a population of at least 400,000 with a median income around $55,000. Again, this is my own evaluation based on what I’ve seen in several different cities in recent years.
For help keeping track of freelance music income, see also Freelance Musician Excel Spreadsheet.
This entire website is devoted to the freelance musician career. We only allow working musicians to write for this site – everything here (over 500 articles) is written by people who know what they are talking about. So have a look around – click on the links in the sidebar, follow us on the social media of your choice and please tell your friends.
My point here is that it is possible to make a living playing music, and that its more possible than we’ve all been taught to believe. From these figures, its clear that you would not make a LOT of money. I certainly don’t mean to suggest that working as a musician would ever make someone a lot of money. Chances are good it never will. But if you had the choice between making enough doing something you loved, and making more than enough doing something you didn’t love…well, for me the choice is obvious, and I think its that way for a lot of working musicians.