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:
- Your music
- Other people’s music
There are two of us that maintain MusicianWages.com – 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:
- Creating Income With Your Original Music
- The Self-Released Album (4-part series)
- How to Effectively Promote and Sell Your Music on iTunes
- Booking Your First Tour
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?
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.
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.
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.
There are other gigs like the cruise gig. There are summer gigs at theme parks. Try this link at Backstage.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit BackStageJobs.com (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.
MusicianWages.com 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!