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.

How To Audition for Cirque du Soleil as a Musician

I want to preface this article with this: I didn’t get the gig. I got a free trip to Japan for 5 days of interviews and auditions, but in the end the gig went to the other guy.

So I can’t exactly tell you how to get a gig with Cirque, but I can tell you how to audition (and, maybe, what not to do).

It was January, 2010, when I got a call from a colleague of mine. He had previously worked as a keyboardist for Cirque in Vegas and had since operated, now and then, as one of their recruiters. He told me Cirque was looking for a new music director for a tour they had in Asia and my colleague had recommended me for the spot.

He wasn’t sure what the pay would be, but he estimated that it would pay about as much as a music director on Broadway would earn, which is somewhere around $150,000+/year. Of course I said yes. I told him I would go through the audition and recruiting process and make him proud.

My colleague forwarded me the music that I would need to learn for the audition. That included 9 selections from the show, along with demo recording of the songs and backing tracks that I could record to.

Registering with Cirque’s Jobs Website

The first step with Cirque, though, is to register for their online application system, located here:

I want to emphasize this – they seem to be very strict about their application process, and there are no exceptions – you have to follow the rules exactly as they present them or your application will be disregarded (or simply lost in their system).

So I registered for their jobs site, then set about to make my demo video.

The Demo Video

Cirque du Soleil is smart about it’s videos. They don’t want professional-videographer-quality videos for auditions. I think they know, like everyone, that professional quality videos and recordings can include a great deal of smoke-and-mirrors – including punch-in overdubbing, auto-tune, huge reverb, and all the other tech tools that can turn an otherwise average musician into a virtuoso.

They don’t want any of that. They just want you to put a camera in the corner and hit record.

So, for my video I used a regular ol’ digital camera – my Panasonic DMC-FS15, a 12-megapixel point-and-shoot camera that I got for Christmas the year before. I used the built-in microphone and edited the video (minimally) with Mac’s stock iMovie application. Nothing fancy.

It took me 5 days to learn the songs and make the video, working from morning to night. I would practice a song until I had it polished, then hit record on the camera.

In the video instructions they requested that I talk a little about my background and why I wanted to work for Cirque. So I also videotaped myself talking (which I now find impossible to watch without cringing).

Here is my final audition video that I sent to Cirque:

The Application

Applying for Cirque also requires some paperwork. In addition to the video demo I needed to send them:

  1. A cover letter (PDF)
  2. Resume – including date of birth, nationality, contact info and all school and experience marked by year (PDF)
  3. 3 photos – 2 headshots and 1 full-length shot (jpg/PDF)
  4. One audio demo (mp3)
  5. One 5-minute video from a recent rehearsal

I sent them my grid-based resume that you can read about here. I found 3 photos and sent along my standard demo recording. Here is a copy of the cover letter I sent (with specifics blacked out).

For the 5-minute rehearsal video I brought my little point-and-shoot into the gig I was doing at the time and hit record. Back home I edited out a 5-minute block of time that showed me playing and interacting with singers. I would show you that, but some of the performers there were equity actors and rules are rules – I can’t post the video without their consent. Anyway, it doesn’t matter – I’m sure you can picture it.


Once I had all of this material together I submitted all of it to Cirque through my profile on their jobs website. I remember finding that process a little confusing – the job site’s interface can be difficult to use – but eventually I was able to submit it.

Altogether it took me 6 days to put together and submit my application to Cirque. I worked on nothing else for that time. It was very time consuming.

After successfully submitting my materials I called my colleague and let him know. He then alerted his contacts at Cirque’s headquarters in Montreal and we were all finished.

Basically, that’s the end of this article. That’s how you audition for Cirque du Soleil.

But perhaps my experience might help you with yours, so I’ll tell you the rest of the story.

A Call from Cirque du Soleil

Normally it can take Cirque a long time to get back to applicants. I’ve heard of people being called out of the blue, 4 years after their application, for a gig. I imagine it was because I had been recommended, but this is not how it went for me.

I got a call from Cirque’s headquarters 3 days later. They told me that the job that I had applied for was no longer available. In fact, they told me that someone had been in negotiations for that job for some time.

All I could think was…geez, I just wasted nearly a week on this thing – and in the end we’d been given bad information?

It was a nice phone call, though. I was still grateful for the opportunity to be recommended and apply anyway. They said they liked my playing and would keep me in mind in the future.

Another Call From Cirque du Soleil

Three weeks later Cirque called back again. They said the position was, suddenly, available again and they would like to consider me for the job.


The next step was a Skype interview with the higher-ups in Montreal, which we scheduled for a few days later. At the interview I met with, if I remember right, three people who were all from the recruiting/human resources department of Cirque. It was a nice interview – we spoke primarily about chain-of-command issues and management styles. Like any music director gig, it’s always less about music and more about how best to manage people. I felt very confident coming out of the interview.

They told me that they were considering 3 candidates for the job, and they would advance only 1 candidate from this round of interviews. That candidate would basically have the job, but would need to fly to Japan to meet the tour and make sure it was a good fit.

A few days later they called again and told me I’d advanced to the next round! Great, I thought, that means I’ve basically got the job!

This was on a Monday or Tuesday, and they asked if I could fly the Japan the following Monday. I cleared my schedule, told all my friends I’d (basically) landed a job with Cirque and packed my luggage.

The Catch

The catch was that I would need to agree to the terms of the contract prior to flying to Japan. There was good reason for this, of course. They didn’t want to pay for me to take a trip to Japan only to find, when I returned, that I wouldn’t sign the contract.

This is where things got weird, though.

They were reluctant to tell me what the pay or benefits of the job actually were. They weren’t entirely sure, even, where the tour was going over the next two years (which was the length of the contract).

I thought that was a little weird, but I didn’t worry too much. I called my colleague for advice and we both agreed that I should just have my lawyer take care of this part of the negotiations. What do I know about contracts this big anyway? This is how it’s done on Broadway (the scene I know most about) – when you are hired to be a music director you have your lawyer negotiate the contract.

So I called my lawyer. To my complete surprise it turned out that my lawyer was the same firm who had been negotiating the previous candidate’s contract – they told me that those negotiations had fallen apart when Cirque offered too little and the candidate had walked away from the table.

I was in a better position, though, as I had less credits than the previous candidate and would probably be much better suited to the results of the previous negotiation.


However, the offer from Cirque was considerably less than I expected. It was more in the $60,000/year range…which you might remember is less than half of what I’d expected all this time.

My lawyers worked to get the offer increased, but Cirque seemed reluctant to budge. By the end of the week they’d moved a little bit and I’d accepted the terms. It wasn’t as much as I expected, but it was enough. I was excited about the job.


On Monday I left for Japan. My friends (and employers) all figured this was the last they’d see of me for awhile and they wished me well. I found subs for all of my gigs.

On Monday morning, while I was at the airport, Cirque called again to let me know that the other candidate and I would be staying at the same hotel, and perhaps we could meet up at the airport in Japan.

The other candidate?

I’ll spare you the drama that followed. I’m not entirely sure how things went down, but the story I ended up with was something like this: 2 days before I left for Japan they called another candidate who hadn’t previously been part of the process and told him to get ready to leave for Japan. He was being considered for a music director job with the same tour in Asia.

Why did they do that? I’ll never know. My guess is that they didn’t like that I’d lawyer’d up…but I had only meant to do the professional thing. Perhaps they just didn’t like my lawyer? I really don’t know. For whatever reason they started to get a bad read on me – and, actually, that part doesn’t bother me. Why they still took the time and expense to send me to Japan for a week is the part I can’t understand.

What followed was 5 days of interviews, meals and meetings. It was really tense, to be honest. The other candidate and I knew that we were competing with each other for this job, both of us wanted it, and we were thrown together in this strange situation in the middle of Japan.

There were personality tests, auditions on tape, auditions with the music director, meetings with the crew, lunches with the artistic director, dinners with the other band members, more interviews late at night.

I’ll admit it – I really wasn’t mentally prepared for all of this. I thought I was going to Japan to meet my new co-workers, not fight with a stranger for a job that paid half of what I expected it to.

You can imagine about how well this all went. I did my best, but I’m sure they saw a little shadow in my eye that hinted at my misgivings. I don’t fake emotions well. I’m sure I seemed a little put off. I was.

Back Home

We left Japan without any indication about who had won the job. It was a full week before I got the call from Cirque that told me that they had given the job to the other candidate. My reaction was a mix of disappointment and relief. I felt bad that I’d lost the gig, but the Japan experience had left a bad taste in my mouth that I wasn’t eager to revisit.

I had to rebuild things here in NYC after that. Obviously I’d made a big deal about how I was very close to working for Cirque du Soleil, and I had to retract all of that, apologize to subs and employers and get my old gigs back. It wasn’t as hard as it sounds, I think I just found it a little embarrassing.

Final Conclusions

I still think that Cirque du Soleil is an incredible company that puts on high quality shows. I’m not sure if the situation I went through with them was a normal recruiting process, but I’ll say this – they are a private corporation that has grown and seen a lot of success. Corporations don’t make a cake that big without breaking some eggs, you know? They do what they have to do to get the best product possible. And I think I just caught the bad end of that stick back in 2010.

Bottom line, they are a major employer of musicians and other artists worldwide – and for working artists that is something that can’t be ignored. I recommend auditioning for Cirque. Once you get the gig they really seem to take care of their people.

If you’re interested in the Cirque gig, take my story with a grain of salt. Sign up for their jobs site and make your own story.

5 Tips to Keep Your Gig

Much has been written recently on the topic of networking, and as a freelance musician, I fully understand and appreciate the importance of constantly seeking new sources of work.

But what about keeping the gigs you already have? Assuming you have a handle on the most commonly discussed factors like punctuality, reliability, playing in tune, keeping your chops up through regular practice, and even personal hygiene and social skills, there are other less obvious traits I’ve discovered (many through trial and error) that can make a lasting impression.

Unlike musicians who perform and compose their original music, a sideman’s key to success is understanding, meeting and ultimately exceeding the expectations of the artist to stand out from the thousands of other players available for the job.

1) Immerse yourself in the material.

This issue is a personal favorite, and one I feel very passionate about.

As a freelancer, there may be weeks when you’re learning material for 4 different bands, and full immersion simply doesn’t seem feasible, but I highly recommend listening to the songs at least enough to recognize each one by name. A blank stare at the mention of a specific tune can make it appear that you’re planning to mail it in.

I’ve found songwriters to be very appreciative when a band member demonstrates that he or she isn’t hearing something for the first time at rehearsal or intending to just sight read the charts and hope for the best.

There’s an excellent article on this site by Matt Baldoni titled, “Learning Music Quickly and Efficiently,” which thoroughly examines this topic and details a ritual I’ve successfully followed for years.

When people ask what music I’ve been listening to lately, my response is usually, “The songs I have to learn for shows this week.” It ‘s definitely a sacrifice that can seem excessive, and perhaps even a little obsessive, but if you ace the gig and get invited back regularly, the steady work is well worth the initial time investment.

If it turns out to be a one-time thing for reasons beyond your control (the songwriter moves away, decides he can’t afford a band and goes solo, etc.) the effort still isn’t wasted because you establish a reputation with your musical peers as someone who does his homework.

2) Be a supportive team player.

During a typical week, I record, rehearse and perform with a wide variety of people in a handful of different projects. When songwriters choose to hire full-time freelance musicians, they’re usually aware that our survival is dependent upon keeping busy with multiple bands, and willing to accept a smaller overall time commitment in exchange for efficiency and professional musicianship. That being said, I believe that during the two hours you spend in the club or practice space, the artist deserves 100% of your energy and enthusiasm.

If the bandleader has a carload of PA equipment, grab a heavy speaker, and unwind a few cables. If there’s a rush to start on time, offer to help with the set list.

If you’ve already recorded and uploaded a rehearsal to supplement your own learning, it only takes a few extra minutes to email the files to your band mates. Not only does this ensure that everyone is on the same page (especially with last-minute arrangement changes) but it also shows that you’re genuinely interested in the overall success of the performance, and not just in it for a quick buck.

You can separate yourself from the competition by consistently going above and beyond for the people who hire you, and becoming a valuable, and hopefully irreplaceable, part of their support system as a team player. If you maintain that reputation over an extended period, it’s possible that someone may even value your contribution enough to have flexibility with booking and plan shows around your schedule.

3) Play the part you were hired to play.

A few years ago, I got a call from a drummer friend to fill the bass position in a singer/songwriter project. As with many bands of this type, it quickly became apparent that my role was to provide a simple, solid foundation with the kick drum. After the first rehearsal, he expressed relief and thanked me, explaining that the previous bassist was an accomplished fusion player who used the songs as a vehicle to showcase his ferocious chops and rarely ever played a root note–clearly not playing the part the singer/songwriter wanted to hear.

In other situations, with wedding and corporate event bands, I’ve seen world-class jazz virtuosos fired because they felt it was beneath them to learn a Billy Joel song or insisted on re-harmonizing the chord progression of a Journey power ballad.

One of the most difficult challenges for younger musicians, especially recent music school grads with a high level of proficiency and a strong improvisational background, can be adapting to a sideman situation where a “less is more” approach is required. If you agree to work with an original or cover band and the idea of playing a three-chord song just like the recording makes you cringe, remember that you’re getting paid to execute the material a certain way.

It’s not always about you, so whenever possible, be flexible, be aware of what’s expected of you, and most importantly, be willing to check your ego at the door.

4) Be thorough with your pre-gig communication.

Another way to make a good first impression and instill confidence in your musical employers is to be thorough with your communication and address any aspect of the set list or the material itself that isn’t clear.

With original gigs, I usually start out by asking if there are mp3s and/or charts for the songs, and whether they accurately reflect the most current arrangements. Even if charts exist, I compare them to the recordings, and frequently end up making my own if I discover discrepancies or omissions.

In subbing situations, clear communication can be even more crucial, especially for weddings and club dates, where players are often expected to show up and nail a list of 40-50 songs with no rehearsal. Most seasoned musical directors will include the keys and artist names with the title and tell you up front whether they generally stay true to the original.

When you receive emails containing audio files, always listen to the attachment, and never assume anything, even if you’re convinced that the version in your iTunes library is the definitive one. Within the standard club date and wedding repertoire, there are multiple versions of many popular songs.

For example, if the song list includes “Soul Man,” you can avert a potential train wreck by asking if they’re doing the original Sam and Dave version or the Blues Brothers remake. The latter is in a different key, and repeats the intro for four extra bars after the bridge.

There are also common titles shared by completely different songs (“Just the Way You Are” by Bruno Mars and Billy Joel), as well as extended dance mixes, acoustic versions, and even an occasional customized edit a bandleader might make to fit a special dance request or guest entrance. Never assume anything!

5) Have patience and a sense of humor.

There’s a good reason for the immense popularity and widespread quoting of This is Spinal Tap among musicians. I read once that The Rolling Stones couldn’t bear to watch the movie because it hit too close to home, but I personally love to exchange stories about double booking debacles, no-shows and blown lighting systems.

Obviously, when you’re in the middle of a set, a technical meltdown is anything but amusing, but when you’re sharing stories of past shows, are you more likely to recall that funk gig where everyone nailed the outro section of “What is Hip,” or the retirement party where the jeweler downstairs went ballistic because the bathroom flooded and leaked all over his display counter?

One of my first paying gigs during college was a beach party for some wealthy young clothing company executives who offered $20 per man and free boxer shorts as payment. Every few years, when I mention the event to any of the other musicians from that night, nobody really remembers what we played, but everyone recalls very clearly (and with hearty laughter) that the band set up on a narrow concrete pier in a lightning storm, and made it though about 5 songs before the skies opened up and the guests lunged forward to cover our equipment with wet, sandy tarps.

When you perform several nights a week, year after year, it’s inevitable that you’ll encounter plenty of adversity. A large part of paying dues as a musician is repeatedly dealing with humbling experiences, like getting ripped off by shady club owners, or arriving to play at a crowded house party with the promise of great exposure and learning that you’ll be singing to a pile of coats in a remote bedroom.

If a band loses a weekly engagement because one of its members has a volatile temper and engages in altercations with belligerent drunks over Skynyrd requests, there’s a good chance that person won’t have their job for long or won’t be asked back at all if they’re a sub. There will be nights when you want to sell your drums as firewood, or slam your guitar down mid-song and make a dramatic exit, but your ability to keep a cool head and see the humor in these absurd fiascos will endear you to your fellow musicians and demonstrate that you’re mature, professional and emotionally stable.

All of these tips basically boil down to having your act together and being so dependable and reliable that, when you’re committed to a date, the person hiring you feels more relaxed and confident. Obviously, self-discipline, musicianship and dedication to your instrument are very important, and helped you land the gig in the first place, but to keep it, you need to exhibit a greater sense of professionalism that can’t be learned in a practice room.

How Do I Get a Job After Music School?

T., a guitarist and soon-to-be music school grad, wrote us last week with this question:

I’m getting my degree soon, but I feel that I don’t really have a lot of actual work experience to flesh out my resume. How far do you think a degree can take me and where would be the best place to help get some work with my skills?

That’s a good question, T., and I’m sure there are other MW readers that are in the same boat.

So, you’re about to leave music school and you need a job. You don’t have a lot of credits on your resume and you’re not sure how to get started.

Let’s start off with what jobs are available these days. I often think about jobs in the musician industry split into to categories:

  1. Your music
  2. Other people’s music

Your Music

There are two of us that maintain – Cameron Mizell and myself. Cameron is an expert in category #1, so instead of rambling on about things I don’t know, I’ll defer to his incredible breadth of knowledge.

Here are some of Cameron’s articles that will help you create a career with your own music:

Also read the archives of Cameron’s articles, I’m sure you’ll find a ton of useful information.

Other People’s Music

Although I do write and record my own music, I make my living playing other people’s music. I freelance as a Broadway musician, a church musician, a for-hire accompanist, a music director for theatre, a vocal coach, and many other things.

So let’s say you’re like T. and you’re about to graduate college and you want to be a freelance musician like me. Aside from experience (which I’ll get to later), what do you need to succeed?

  • Sight-reading

    I would say that this is the real value that I give to my employers – if you take everything else away, this is the one thing that they are really paying me for. I show up and I play whatever they put in front of me. It saves them time and money – it cuts down on prep and rehearsal time, it allows them the convenience of thinking about other things, and allows them the flexibility of changing music at the last minute.

    If you’re sight-reading isn’t up to par, you can improve it. I’ve written about the subject before, and it basically boils down to practice. The more you sight-read the better you’ll become.

  • Recommendations

    I never audition or apply for positions in my business, all work is passed around through word-of-mouth. That can be really frustrating for someone starting out, but I promise it gets easier. Make sure that you keep in touch with your fellow classmates from your music school – those will be your first contacts. As they find work, they will pass work to you and vice versa.

    Giving away work is worth pointing out – you should have a small list of colleagues that you pass work to now and then. They’ll do the same for you when they have gigs they can’t take.

    There are some colleagues that will take the work and never pass anything back to you – and those are probably the wrong colleagues to have on the list. Generally, creating a sense of generosity and community around you is much more effective than creating a sense of competition.

  • Geography

    Look, if there isn’t any work where you are, you should move somewhere else. If you want to work as a freelance musician, I’m very sorry, but you just can’t live anywhere you want. You’re career will always be limited by the amount of work available (divided by the number of musicians) in your city. I just don’t see any way around that.

    When I was just out of college I moved back to my home town in the suburbs of Chicago. I took all the gigs I could get. I music directed local theatre shows, I played cocktail music at the country club, I accompanied at the local schools, I joined a band, I taught lessons. I made about the same amount of money as my friends that had entry-level day jobs. It was cool for awhile.

    But check it out – I was playing every gig in town. I’d already hit an income ceiling and I was 25. I tried Chicago for awhile, but I felt like the scene in that city was locked up tight and paid worse than the suburbs. So I left.

    I worked the regional theatre market for awhile, and eventually settled in New York – not because I necessarily wanted to live in New York – but because there was a lot of work here for my skill set.

    I think I’ll always live in New York. I can make a living here. Other players like me are making a living here. It’s not a musician utopia or anything like that – but there is a need here for musicians and I am a musician – so this is where I ended up. Luckily, I’ve also grown to really enjoy living here.

    You don’t have to live in New York. There’s a good discussion in our forums about the best cities for musicians. See what other musicians have to say.


Ok, so now on to your actual question – how far can a degree get you and how can you get more experience.

Your degree is a piece of paper, and it won’t get you a gig. What you really paid for at your college, as I touched on before, is the connections you have with your faculty and fellow students. This is for real – stay in touch with your fellow students. That’s where your work will first come from.

There are several entry-level positions for freelance musicians. None of them are particularly well-paid or comfortable, which is why they are relatively easy to get.

  • Cruise Ship Musician

    Cruise ship musician is the route I took. It’s pretty easy to get a cruise ship job – you take an audition with a talent agency and then wait for a call. Read this article for more info on how to book the job.

    If working on a cruise was a totally amazing, satisfying, well-paying gig, nobody would ever leave it. But in reality, it can burn you out within a few contracts (see: What Was There To Be Dark About?). But if you are just looking for some experience, it’s perfect. Take a contract or two and hone your chops in the real world. Think of it as your internship.

  • Theme Parks

    There are other gigs like the cruise gig. There are summer gigs at theme parks. Try this link at and search for “Theme Parks”. Expect the gigs to be long, hot and poorly paid. But don’t worry, just work the gig and get the credit on your resume. You gotta pay your dues.

  • Non-Union Broadway Tours

    Non-union musical theatre tours are a step or two up from entry-level. They can be pretty cool gigs if you get on a good tour. They can be brutal if you don’t.

    Jobs at this level start to be word-of-mouth placements for musicians, but you can submit your stuff. Networks is a major non-union touring company. Bookmark their jobs page and send your resume and website to You can also visit (search for “Musical” under the Departments category), they sometimes list these kinds of jobs.

    Also, dive into this discussion in the forums for more info about non-equity tours.

  • Jobs Board

    I have to give a plug to our musician jobs board here at MW. We have a growing list of musician jobs categorized by instrument and location. Subscribe to the RSS feed and have the jobs sent to your feed reader. I moderate that list myself, so it’s only good stuff going up. You might find a gig there.

I hope that helps – good luck T!

5 Traits of a Professional Musician

Being a musician is awesome. It’s almost a crime that people are allowed to play music for a living. But like crime, music doesn’t usually pay. To get the gigs that pay, and keep getting them, musicians need to exude a high level of professionalism that is often a lot less glamorous than the sexy life of a rock star. While these qualities might seem obvious, you’d be surprised at how many prima donnas out there don’t get it.

1) Follows directions well.

Because most musicians make a living playing music for other people, they have to be good at doing what those people want. If that sounds vague, it is. Whether you’re hired to play a wedding, write a jingle, perform as a sideman, be a studio musician, be a pit musician on Broadway (or your local community theater), you have to be good at taking directions.

More often than not, those directions are poorly communicated by people that don’t know music, but a professional musician knows how to translate any kind of instruction quickly, without getting frustrated, and make the client happy. Other times you’re getting quick directions from a music director that knows exactly what she wants, and your ability to adapt quickly is key. These are one way communications where there’s either no time to ask questions. Performing well in this type of scenario will get you recommendations and ultimately more work.

2) Well organized.

In a nutshell, keep a calendar and learn how to tell time. There’s nothing more frustrating or embarrassing than tardiness. In a world of great players scraping together $50 gigs to make ends meet, schedules are usually both busy and erratic. Everyone is trying to squeeze a rehearsal in before teaching a lesson and then get to a gig later that night. But if you can’t keep track of everything and be where you need to be on time, you’ll lose work. Plain and simple.

Additionally, you will probably need to keep track of a large amount of material. Many sidemen play in multiple bands and have to learn both original music by songwriters that hire them, and cover songs for weddings or corporate gigs. Storing all this music in your head gets easier with practice, but in the beginning you’ll need to learn how to organize it. Matt Baldoni, a successful and very busy freelance guitarist, wrote an article on learning music quickly and efficiently.

There’s a saying among musicians that goes something like this:

An amateur practices until he gets it right, a professional practices until he never gets it wrong.

3) Good communication skills.

When dealing with people that don’t know anything about music and not much more about the business, you have to be able to lead most of the conversation. Offer suggestions, draw up contracts, and know how to say what you want without coming off as brash or greedy. Don’t be too proud to ask questions.

At the other end of the spectrum you’ll be dealing with other musicians. Show up to the first rehearsal with the music prepared. If it’s your gig or you are the music director, make sure your music is written neatly or created in a program like Finale or Sibelius. Make sure the sheet music communicates the road map of the tune clearly (repeats, coda, etc.). If you expect the other musicians to learn from a CD or MP3s, make sure they have the proper tracks and are aware of any key changes or cuts that are not on the recordings. These things will make the first rehearsal run as smoothly as possible.

4) Plays well with others.

This should go without saying, but you’d be surprised. Not only should you be able to play your butt off, you should be able to tone it down and play what’s called for in the music. Stereotypically speaking, guitar players are notorious for turning their amps up too loud and never shutting up. Singers zone out when they’re not singing and miss their entrances. Drummers are too loud. Horn players don’t listen to each other and sound sloppy as a whole section. This is all Music 101, but it’s often over looked.

While it’s very important to nail your solo, it’s more important to blend in with the ensemble or make the soloist sound better. Playing tastefully and in the appropriate style will get you more calls than being able to shred.

5) Prepared for the job.

Ultimately, the big difference between a professional and everyone else is preparation. This is the same in any field. A professional salesman is expected to know his product. A professional marketer is expected to know her target audience. A professional custodian is expected to know what kind of cleaner to use on what surface. Likewise, a professional musician is expected to show up for the gig with the right instruments, dressed appropriately, and prepared to nail the music. Let me repeat part of that. A professional musician dresses appropriately. Whatever the gig, make sure you know what to wear. Flip flops are probably a bad idea unless a grass skirt is involved.

In summary, if you want to establish yourself as a professional musician, step back and evaluate these five qualities. Music is a highly competitive field, and mastering your instrument is simply the first step to becoming a working musician. For those that want to take their craft to the next level, the thing that sets professionals apart from the rest is what they can do beyond playing their instrument.

Establishing Good Practice Habits as a Professional Musician

One of the most difficult duties of a professional, freelance musician, is finding time to practice. Yet practicing should be at the heart of the musician’s daily routine. Much like a professional athlete needs to constantly maintain their level of fitness, so must musicians keep their skills sharp. Yet unlike an athlete, musicians’ skills can continually improve over decades before peaking, making for a long, fruitful career. It’s just a matter of focused practicing.

Since college, I have struggled with keeping a steady practice routine. Life has always been full of distractions. Some distractions have nothing to do with music, like day jobs or TV, and others have everything to do with music, such as writing new music or booking gigs. Unlike college, when I’d practice roughly eight hours a day, I now rarely have a solid hour of uninterrupted time for practicing.

But let’s face it, everyone deals with the same types of distractions. The people that are the best at what they do have simply established better practice habits than everybody else. Everyone has their own methods–here are some I’ve adopted to improve my own habits.

Set Goals

What are your goals as a musician? What skills do you need to reach those goals? This seems obvious, but knowing what you want to do as an artist is the first step towards being the best. John Coltrane didn’t happen by accident!

When time is limited, you need to be very focused with the time you have. If you’re not sure what exactly you want to do, keep working on the skills that are in demand for better paying gigs such as sight reading and memorization. Those can come in handy in a variety of musician jobs. It’s also always valuable to use your metronome and work on your tone. Excellent time and unmistakable tone are the two things every great musician has in common.

And remember that making a living as a musician isn’t necessarily about being front and center. Highly skilled sidemen are always in demand. Guitarist Gary Melvin recently contributed an article to this site called A Guide to Being a Successful Sideman. In it, he recommends starting out with a broad skill set in various genres that can become more focused later:

Chances are, you’ll end up working in only a couple main genres with an occasional gig in another, but you want to start out with this mantra in mind: my specialty is not having a specialty. This leaves you open for many types of gigs, and once you get going you can steer yourself towards the genres you prefer.

Most importantly, by setting goals you can determine what not to practice. If you have no ambitions to be a studio or theater musician, then sight reading could be a lower priority. If you want to be the first call accompanist in town, then sight reading should dominate your practice routine.

Honest Self Assessment

If you don’t study with a private teacher, then it’s up to you to evaluate your own skills. Record yourself whenever you can, date the recording, and save it. I learn the most from video taping my gigs. Seeing myself play live really helps diagnose the weaker points in my guitar playing and musicianship. I find recording to be the best method of self assessment available, and listening to recordings made over a year ago really helps me chart improvements.

One Hour Before Noon

If you need to force some practice time, I’ve found that the One Hour Before Noon rule works for me. Regardless of what I have going on each day, I can get up and give myself one hour of dedicated practicing before noon. The idea is that once your day starts, you’ll have more distractions and find more excuses to not pick up your instrument. But if practicing never happens later in the day, at least you had your hour before noon.

I’ve also found that by giving myself this hour I can warm up for the day. Then if I have a few minutes here and there, I can pick up the guitar and my hands feel ready to go. These small chunks of time add up to more hours.

Practice Before Bed

When you learn something new, your brain forms new connections, or synapses, between neurons. Through repetition, these synapses become stronger and permenant, which is essentially how learning takes place. There have been studies that suggest sleep enables these connections to become stronger.

Understanding this idea in college, I never pulled an all nighter. I also discovered that if I practiced a new transcription or etude before going to sleep, it was significantly easier to play the next morning. If you’re into efficiency, practice the really hard stuff right before bed, and your Hour Before Noon will be even more productive.

Practice in Your Head

I used to have an hour commute between home and work, and it was a great time to zone out and visualize myself playing guitar. Because a great deal of playing music is just knowing what you’re going to play, visualization can be highly effective. Your brain won’t know that you don’t have your instrument, yet you’ll continue to strengthen the connections between neurons.

Tip: You need to be idle to do this properly. I don’t recommend visualization while driving or listening to your significant other.

Keep Your Instrument Easily Accessible

Most musicians don’t have a problem keeping their instruments out of the case and ready to play, except after a gig. I’ve gone days without even realizing my guitar is still in it’s case (granted I have several sitting out), but now I take it out after getting home from every gig, so it’s ready to go the next morning. Sometimes, just the act of doing this leads to an hour or so of inspired practicing before bed.

Practice vs. Maintenance

One mistake many beginners make is thinking that noodling counts as practicing. Professionals make the same mistake, but the noodling is just fancier.

I used to be a competitive distance runner. When you first start training, you make huge improvements through relatively less intense workouts. When you reach your peak fitness level, it takes more intense workouts to make incremental improvements.

It’s easy for a skilled musician to just keep working on what’s already in their bag because it’s full of great things to play. There’s nothing wrong with this, but sometimes we need a little shove to get outside our comfort zones and work on the stuff we can’t do. At this stage it takes a lot more work to show smaller signs of improvement, but unlike distance running, the improvement is virtually limitless. Be honest with yourself and know whether you’re practicing or maintaining.

Turn off the Computer

We have control over everything that distracts us, yet it can be so difficult to get away from something like your computer or TV. Just remember, nobody will really care if you saw the latest episode of American Idol, or are caught up on all your blogs. But you will only disappoint yourself if you screw up on the next gig!

Schedule Practice Time

Finally, set aside the time for yourself. Allow yourself a solid chunk of several hours a few times a week to really practice. Put it in the calendar ahead of time so you don’t book yourself with other activities. I’m not suggesting you turn down a paying gig, but schedule your social life around your personal improvement. I know people that work their schedule around their favorite TV shows, so I doubt your friends will mind!

Now then, get away from your computer and give me 15 minutes of arpeggios!