Okay, so you’ve had enough of the good ol’ US of A, or you’re just restless. You want to put those two years of middle school Spanish to work, or you heard that the cost of living in Berlin is really low. Whatever the reason, Europe calls.

After experiencing Europe’s enticements through international tours, many high-caliber musicians have gone on to settle down across the Atlantic. To us rank-and-file freelancers on the other hand, the idea of Tuscan villas and French girlfriends seems like a pipe dream. Villas aside though, settling down in Europe is a very realistic possibility for versatile musicians looking for a less-beaten path. In this article, I want to talk about some logistical questions that often pop up when people think about moving abroad, and offer my story as inspiration.

Why Europe?

There’s a lot that could be said here, but for musicians there are some specific advantages to living in the Old World. Not least among these is the exchange rate. As I write this, www.xe.com reports a rate of 1.29 Dollars to the Euro. Rates in the last couple years have been as high as 1.60, which means your 100-Euro gig at the local Schnitzel Shack will magically turn into 160 bucks when transferred overseas. Okay, it’s not that simple: if you live in Europe, you’re not only earning Euros, you’re spending them too, and the cost of living in cities varies greatly (and don’t forget taxes!), but you get the idea.

In my opinion, the biggest draw in Europe is the audiences. They’re attentive, they’re receptive to artsy experimentation, and they’re willing to pay for good music. As a jazz musician, I am constantly surprised how deathly silent the room gets as soon as a band takes the stage, even in the dingiest of dive bars. There is an inherent respect for musicians in Europe: introducing yourself as such will yield widening eyes, and “ooohh.. when can I come see you play?” as opposed to the response I usually got in the USA, which was a smirk and a “yeah, but what do you do for a living?”

…and then there’s the rest:

  • the chance to learn another language and culture
  • meet really interesting musicians with completely different backgrounds
  • cheap health care

What do I have to do legally?

A lot. Consider this another plate to spin if you plan on moving abroad. I’m not a lawyer, nor do I want to be held accountable for anybody that reads this and does something silly, so I’m only going to make a couple of suggestions. For further info, go to the US State Department website.

As an American, you are allowed to travel for 3 months as a tourist in Europe. After that, you need a visa. You’re also not allowed to earn money in Europe without a visa, though some countries thankfully offer special artist visas for those with proof of musical training and sufficient means of income.

There are two avenues you can take which simplify this whole process.

Avenue 1: Enroll

A university education in continental Europe costs very little. In the German-speaking world, you’ll be looking at less than €1,000 per semester, more likely around the €500 range. As a student, you can get a special visa that entitles you to live, study, and (to a limited extent) work in Europe. I know, you’re a pro: you’re done with school, you want nothing more to do with ear training tests. If it makes any difference though, Europeans study a lot later in life than Americans, and they dabble in university courses long after they’re done, so you won’t be the only adult around. That, and nobody said you had to attend university, just enroll.

Avenue 2: Teach English

Europeans speak pretty good English in general, but they’re always looking for a chance to improve. Little did you know that the language you grew up speaking could turn into your most valuable skill. It’s really the perfect day job: it’s specialized labor, so you can get away with charging as much as you would for music lessons, plus it’s flexible if you’re just giving private lessons or tutoring. As far as certification, many people go through certified TEFL courses before getting their feet wet, but it’s by no means a necessity. Your American-ness and an ability to improvise convincingly are really all you need. Because you’re doing a job that is specifically tailored to foreigners, your road to a visa is much easier.

My Story

I studied abroad in Vienna when I was in college. During that time I polished up my German and made some connections with other American expatriate musicians in the city who encouraged me to come back when I graduated, so I did. I started working at an American institute during the day, though musical work became frequent enough that the day job became more of a burden than a boon, so I quit.

Nowadays I freelance as a musician in styles such as opera, jazz, hip-hop, Austro-pop (don’t ask) and Balkan. The change in musical culture has been refreshing, though frustrating at times (the stereotype about Europeans having trouble swinging is partly true), and the prevalence of experimental and/or high-brow music sometimes makes one long for a good ol’ wedding gig playing Top-40 hits. In general though, I’ve been very happy over here, and I think for some who are jaded with the musical culture in the states it’s a great change of pace.

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13 Responses to Musician Abroad: Making it in Europe

  1. Scott S. says:

    An article well written and practical. Good work, James!

  2. Adam Meckler says:

    Nice article, James! I hope Jana and I can join you in Berlin in a few years, it would cetainly be fun!

  3. Anne Wieben says:

    Nice article James!! I would add, though, that while studying is a great way to get over here and initially get that visa (the route I took…), in order to extend your visa after your first year, you do have to prove that you not only enrolled at the University, but actually passed a few classes. If anyone out there is considering this option, be sure to check with the authorities on this!! I know here in Vienna, the rules just got a little stricter in regards to prolonging the student visa…

  4. andree-ann says:

    wow I have been waiting for an article related to the european music scene for a while now and I’m so happy with this one! Great tips you got there!

  5. tim says:

    Austro-pop? sounds like fun. I enjoyed reading your article and you have convinced me that at some point in my life I’m going to want to play around Europe for a while. why not.

  6. The only article on the subject I have found helpful! Thanks so much.

  7. This does not apply if you are a rock/pop musician and you want to make money.

    I’m an Australian musician who has been living in Vienna for 2 years. It is true that the attitudes and lifestyle is a great one, (the food and beer is particularly cheap), you do not get paid at venues.

    People do not want to pay a door charge here. crowds are rare and venues take a large percentage of what does get paid. Ironically most of my musical satisfaction comes from the US.

    With a lack of music infrastructure/scene here nobody believes that a proper income can be made so other musicians are easy to find but hard to hold on to. If you are a band or wanting to ba a band then the US is probably where it’s at. I soon may need to return to Australia where I had a better musical path.

  8. Gary Gibson says:

    Thank you for this primer. As I’ve developed a sense of wanderlust in the past few years, I’ve often wondered about the how-tos of this matter, as they apply to Canada, Japan, Europe, and Australia and New Zealand. If anyone has experience in these other countries, I would find that helpful. Thanks again.

  9. yomanite says:

    Hi guys, anyone has experience of the music biz in Paris, France?

  10. Alfreida says:

    I am intrested in traveling abroad as a vocalist.

  11. Rina says:

    Hallo!
    Im looking for a job as a musician in Europe. Who should I contact to send my demo and CV?
    Thank you!

    • Ryan says:

      Rina try uploading your info and music to Starnow.com and make a profile. It’s a UK agency that can source work overseas. I’m a guitarist seeking other musicians to work overseas and in the UK. You can apply for loads of jobs on there!

  12. borabora ahn says:

    Thanks James! It is very helful to understand how the international student system in Europe. I have a question about artist visa in Europe at least in Austria. Is there any regulation about this special visa in Austria? (I know Germany has this.)

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