How To Put More Money In Your Pocket By Increasing Student Retention

One of the most important things that music teachers tend to ignore is how long they are keeping each of their students. As music teachers and school owners, we are constantly focusing on getting new students and developing new marketing materials to bring clients to our businesses. Keeping the flow of students coming in to your business is great, but if you are not keeping your students for very long, then it can be a big waste of time and effort. I track the retention of all my teachers at my school. Shooting for longer periods of time (3-5 years), greatly reduces the amount of marketing needed to keep your schedule full.

If your average student retention is 12 months, you will need to find a new student every month to stay at your current enrollment. If your retention is 3 months, you will need to find 4 new students every month to keep your enrollment at the same level. If your retention is 24 months, you need to find a new student every other month. Can you see now, how working on retention can help your business?

So how do you increase the overall retention of the students you are working with?

1. Keep A Detailed Log

So many teachers wing each of their lessons. They have no plan for their students and will just see how the lesson goes. I understand that sometimes lessons can take their own turn depending on the students needs, but having a general plan of what you and your student will be working on will give your student confidence in your teaching and their lessons.

Additionally, when students are feeling a bit disappointed by their progress, you can show them your detailed log with all of the skills, songs and techniques they have learned over the course of their lessons. Most students are impressed that you have taken to time to keep track of everything. Not only that, it gives them a boost to see all of the skills they have learned since starting.

2. Check In With Student Goals Every 3 Months

As students learn new things, their goals and expectations of the lessons will change. When most students walk through my door, they have absolutely no clue why they are taking lessons. They are not sure what their goals are because they do not know whether they even have the skill to play an instrument.

After the first 3 months of lessons, I do a goal check-in with students. They usually have a better idea about where they want their lessons to go, what songs they want to learn and where they want their lessons to go. If students are still not sure, I will ask them very specific questions. For example, with a gutar lesson I may ask a student, “Would you like to learn more complex rhythms?” “Do you have an interest in finger picking?” “Are you interested in learning a guitar solo?” And so forth and so on. This sometimes helps student decide what they are really interested in.

Keep checking in with your student about their goals and make sure to write them down as they evolve.

3. Lessons Are About The Student, Not How Good Your Are

Students honestly do not care about your skills or how great of a musician you are. All they care about is that you can teach them to do the things they want to do, so do not waste their lesson time showing off your cool skills. Remember, it’s about what they want to learn, not what is on your personal agenda.

Keep in mind each student is different. Not everyone is going to be into improvising. Most of my female acoustic guitar students just want to play and sing songs. So we do not delve into scales and improv as much as a would an electric guitar player that wants to rock a solo. Not everyone is going to love music theory, but I will try and work things in in bits and pieces. I will wait for a moment when they ask a question that requires a music theory answer like: Why is it called an A7 chord? This gives me the opportunity to say, “That’s a great question. To answer that, we are going to have to learn a little music theory.”

I will not spend weeks teaching something the student does not like. Students need to always feel motivated about lessons. If they are not motivated, they practice less. When they practice less, they make less progress. When they make less progress, they get frustrated and quit lessons. This is why the 3 month check-in mentioned above is so important. It allows you to get feedback on how you are teaching the student and correct your teaching approach if you are heading in the wrong direction.

4. Make The Student Feel Like They Are Part Of A Community

Probably one of the biggest things you can do to increase student retention is to make students feel like they are a part of something. Hold student hang outs where student can meet up to play music together, or even just meet up at a bowling alley to have fun. Activities with your students do not always have to be music related. Hang outs like this allow students to meet other students that are just like them.

I recently held a Band Program at my school for adult players. Every single student asked the same questions, “Will I be the worst player?” or “Is everyone else going to be better than me?” Students really do feel like they are alone sometimes in the learning process. Meeting other students that are at the same level is encouraging and creates a sense of community. All those band students have given rave reviews about their experience and most of them have only taken lessons for about a year. They can’t wait until the next one.

Create little get togethers with your students, and you will create a community where students look forward not only to their lessons, but hanging out with the other students.

5. Build More Personal Relationships

As you can see, a lot of these tips have nothing to do with actual lesson material. Teaching lessons is more about pschology than the actual lesson. Every student has a different reason for taking lessons. Learn what those reasons are, and learn about your students’ lives outside of the classroom. Remembering that little Sally had a birthday party last week means a lot. Asking an adult how life is going gives them an opportunity to vent frustrations. I sometimes joke that some of my students think I’m a psychiatrist, but I know it means I have connected with them. When your students feel comfortable opening up to you, you know you have done a good job of building a relationship.

Always strive for the best in your students, but do not forget to build amazing relationships with your customers along the way.

How to Get Hired as a Music Teacher

Do you want a job as a music teacher? In my line of work I often find myself interviewing teachers and deciding who to hire. It occurred to me that many potentially good candidates don’t know what their prospective employer is looking for. Here are a few tips from inside to help you with your next interview. Good luck!

Demonstrate you’ll support your employer.

We’ve all had a job where we had to do things we didn’t fully understand or agree with. I’ll do my best to explain our school’s policies. Help me by letting me know how you’ll give me the benefit of the doubt when it comes to supporting those policies and decisions.

Internal conflict can put organizations in gridlock. I am not a space alien with inscrutable motives. You should try to support your employer unless they ask you to do something unethical, in which case your duty is to refuse. I have good reasons for the decisions I make. It’s frustrating when my teachers agree with me “on paper,” but then in the “lesson room” they don’t seem to be interested in the guidelines. If my policies are mistaken, how can I find that out if you won’t carry them out for me?

Know the business.

Reading a book or two about being a private teacher will give you an idea of how the business works. Basically, we meet prospective new students, and want them to come back to take more lessons. We want our students to attend the lessons because missed lessons is an indication of a student at risk of not meeting their potential, and eventually leads to them quitting their lessons. It’s all about enrollment and retention. Some teachers hang onto their students for years, and others for months. But from a business perspective, that makes quite a difference. A school that attracts 5 new students per month with an average length of study of 6 months can reach an enrollment of 30 students before leveling off. But if students stay for an average of 12 months, that number doubles to 60. It really matters.

I ask all candidates questions intended to measure their knowledge of how to attract and keep good students, and to gauge their awareness of how important this is. This has been a disqualifying factor during my interviews. I know most people can eventually learn this stuff, but I can’t afford to hire someone if they don’t know the first thing about the business. The bottom line is I’m looking for a teacher who can build good relationships with their students. This criterion has consistently helped me make good hires that have withstood the test of time.

Musical ability.

The easiest way to judge this is to listen to a few examples of your musical recordings, so have those ready. I’m not interested in your production skills, but your ability to perform the instruments I’m hiring you to teach. I’ve found the difference in musical ability shows here, and it’s hard to hide, even with production magic. Many times I made it to the last round with several otherwise wonderful candidates but after listening to their musical samples I could not deny that some of them just didn’t yet have the requisite musical ability to represent our school.

Care about education.

Look, it’s a teaching job. It doesn’t come with a bowl of all-brown M&M’s. But if you want to be a teacher, you need to see some meaning in it. If you just want the paycheck, get real. There are higher-paying jobs out there, after all. Trust me, you don’t have to look hard to find joy and meaning in sharing the gift of music with others.

Teaching ability.

Since I can’t judge this by watching you teach a lesson, I’m going to ask questions about your teaching philosophy. I’m going to find out what your total number of teaching experience is in hours. I want to know what makes you think you can teach.


I’m asking myself: do I trust this person to keep my students safe? Because you may conceivably end up alone with your students, that means I have a responsibility to society to investigate your moral integrity. I’ll determine this by asking some questions, checking your references, and doing criminal record checks where allowable by law.


The best teachers I know of keep their lessons organized. They take lesson notes, they track student progress, and they’re always trying to point their finger at a very precise spot in the student’s playing that is weak and needs improving. I don’t expect to see this kind of insight in someone who is disorganized. When I see a teacher that is organized and collected, I think “here’s someone that will make a good teacher.”

Fitting in.

What do you bring to my team that I don’t already have? I want to build a successful music school. That means providing my students with different options. It would benefit you to take a look at my current team so you can find out what it is that you will be bringing to the mix. Maybe you play a different style, or maybe you just have a unique background or life experience. When I list a job opening, it’s common to get 20-30 applicants. You should let me know what makes you stand out.

Sum it up:

  • Show support for company policies
  • Understand the basics of how the business works
  • Bring 2-3 recordings of your best instrumental performance
  • Be passionate to teach
  • Ideally, have some teaching (or equivalent) experience
  • Demonstrate trustworthiness and moral integrity
  • Demonstrate organizational skills
  • Highlight your unique strengths

Good luck in your search!

Disclaimer: the ideas expressed herein are solely the personal opinion of the author and should be interpreted as general advice only. There are many factors going into every employment decision. The author accepts no responsibility for your results should you choose to follow this advice. The author is himself not limited to these criteria, and this article should not be construed as insight into the author’s own individual hiring decisions.

The Ill Effects of Multitasking

When I was growing up, I learned that multitasking is a positive thing. The better at it you were, the more efficient you could be, and you would have more time for things you actually wanted to do.


Well, actually I don’t believe multitasking is that great for you and your musicianship.

I’ve done some investigating on the topic during my everyday routine, and I want to share some of my discoveries with you. I’ve found that the more stuff I try to pack into one short time period, the more scattered I feel and the less I get done, not to mention the quality of whatever I’m doing decreases. Can you relate?

Here’s an example:

The other day, I was cooking breakfast, and noticed that there was a heaping pile dishes in the sink from the night before. I figured it would be easy enough to cook and clean simultaneously, so I put food on the burners – grits, steamed kale, fried eggs, bacon, and toast. Then, I proceeded to clean the massive amount of dishes in the sink – oh, I had music playing as well.

I instantly got sucked into the task at hand, ignored the music completely, and forgot there was food on the hot stove. All of a sudden I heard sizzling, and smelt burning butter. I looked over and the stovetop had gone rogue! I sped up my dishwashing (I only had a couple bowls left!), hurried to the stove, turned the heat to the minimum, ferociously stirred the grits, flipped the bacon and eggs, and turned the toaster oven off.

It was a close call, but in the end, the breakfast was decent, and the dishes were mostly clean. Both jobs were poorly done, and I didn’t hear a single bit of the amazing music that was playing (Glenn Gould playing Bach’s English Suites, if you’re interested.

Though I completed all of my tasks that morning, the results were subpar and barely productive, all thanks to multitasking.

Check it out – This cooking example can be used as a metaphor for a practice routine, or really anything you do in life, such as your career or your health.

If you read a book with headphones on, chances are you aren’t fully receiving what either art forms are offering to you.

I even consider thinking randomly while you’re practicing or listening to music as multitasking.

The entire point of giving yourself to the moment is to fully concentrate (without extraneous thoughts) on the task at hand, whether it be taking a shower, listening to music, or washing dishes.

Try to receive every second of your life.

If you watch television while you practice, you wont be giving your full attention to your craft or T.V. show that’s playing. If you’re going to watch a show, do just that. Let yourself be completely taken by the task at hand, with no other distractions. This is a simple enough concept to try out in your everyday life, and after you try it, I guarantee your life will feel fuller, more invigorating, and more satisfying.

So why exactly is multitasking inefficient and a waste of time?

1. It takes you out of the moment.

When you musically improvise, it’s essential that your mind does not get in the way. True creative improvisation comes from the heart. Your logical, thought-based mind needs to step aside for pure creation to happen.

If you’re thinking about tempo, fingerings, chord voices, or playing in time, you wont be able to create at your fullest potential.

Stay in the moment – the moment where your unique creativity lives.

2. It scatters your mind.

A scattered mind is an untrained mind. The better your concentration skills are, the less likely you are to make mistakes when you’re playing your instrument. You’re ability to become immersed in the music with enhance, and you’ll enjoy yourself a lot more.

You have the ability to literally change your brain’s structure. If you can practice doing one thing at a time, your brain will shape to support that. Unfortunately, the opposite can occur when you multitask, so it’s important to practice mindfulness as much as possible.

The next time you notice your mind is in a frenzy, check yourself. Are you trying to do to much in one moment?

Close your eyes, breathe, and take a minute to relax.

3. It prevents you from seeing and feeling real, lasting improvement.

More time spent practicing is NOT always the answer.

The way in which you live your life in every moment can transform the way you perceive and play music.

I went through a period of time were I thought I need to practice 4 or 5 hours a day, just to “keep up” with the other musicians in my circles. My thoughts were competitive and ego-based, and ultimately, they weren’t supportive.

I learned that if I could change my everyday habits and start to shift my thinking to allow for more focus on a single thought, feeling, or action, being happier about my life and playing happened with little or no effort. Also, as a result of less multitasking, my musical abilities improved at a much faster rate.

The way you live your life and focus your thoughts is a direct reflection of your musicianship.

Do you notice that you multitask throughout your day?

Maybe you can see it, maybe you can’t, but now that you’ve read this post, you can make change happen.

The first step to changing anything is becoming aware. If you notice yourself multitasking at some point, take a moment to really feel what you should be doing in that given moment.

Chances are all you need to do is slow down, notice your breathe, and make a simple choice.

Try this, and leave a comment to let me know what you did and how it felt!

Creating a Structured Practice Routine

Like many of you, I teach private lessons to supplement my musician income. In every lesson, regardless of the student’s skill level, I spend a lot of time teaching one thing: How To Practice Guitar. After all, the real progress does not come from the hour the student and I spend together, it comes from the hours they spend with their instrument in the six days of the week between lessons.

This goes for all of us. Our progress as musicians relies on how effectively we spend our practice time. The New Year is always a great time to establish (or re-establish) better habits. Even if you’re reading this in June, today is the first day of a new year. Decide today how you will approach your practice tomorrow.

What To Practice

A good practice routine should accomplish three things:

  1. Maintenance
  2. Improvement
  3. Expansion

Maintain your current skills and repertoire.

Freshman year of college, one of my instructors told a roomful of incoming guitarists, “There will be no other time in your life where you will be able to learn as much as you’ll learn in the next four years. After college, you’ll mostly try to maintain what you’ve developed here.”

That is scary, and largely true. Real life is not friendly to your practice routine. Maintenance is important, but also relative. Will you always need to be able to shred Giant Steps? Probably not. But intonation, technique, sight reading, a good ear, and a standard repertoire for whatever scene you’re in must all be maintained to continue performing at a high level.

Improve your technique.

As good as you may be, there is always room for improvement. Take any skill you’re maintaining and push yourself a little further–speed up the metronome, change keys or modes, apply it in a new way.

For years I practiced four note 7th arpeggios up and down within a scale. I could comfortably do this pretty fast and in any key. One day I decided to add a fifth note at the bottom, simply starting on the 7th. The five note pattern completely threw me off at first, but it brought my awareness back into this little element of my routine. It also turned an exercise into a cool new lick!

Music is essentially a variety of patterns, some are very complex, but they all break down to the same basic problems. If good technique allows you to play a scale with ease, excellent technique will prepare you to play whatever piece of music lands in front of you on a gig.

Expand your repertoire.

Growing up I had a neighbor that played viola in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. When I was about 14 or 15 I told my parents that I wanted to be a musician. None of us had any idea how you do that, so my dad took me up to that neighbor’s house for a chat. I brought my guitar. The first thing he asked me to do was play a song. I couldn’t play a whole song by myself! I was embarrassed, but the lesson stuck with me:

If you’re going to be a musician, you better be able to perform a complete piece of music, by yourself, on command. Everything else we practice is in vain if we can’t play a tune. Always, always be learning new music.

Time Management

None of my students are professional musicians. They all have jobs or school or hobbies outside of music (why, I will never understand). We spend some time talking about how to schedule their practice time. If they can practice for one hour a day, here’s how I might ask them to spend that time:

  • 20 Minutes – Warmup / Scales / Arpeggios
  • 10 Minutes – Getting to know the fretboard; learning every place to play a note, chord, etc.
  • 30 Minutes – Work on repertoire

If they have two hours to practice, I might recommend the second hour look like this:

  • 15 Minutes – Free Improvisation or Composing
  • 15 Minutes – Working on roadblocks, such as difficult chord changes
  • 30 Minutes – Work on repertoire

Scheduling your practice time into hour blocks with a few different chunks of time can be very helpful. Set a stop watch or timer so you can keep track of how long you’re working on something. If it helps, write down how long you spent working on something, just like you’d track your exercise at the gym. Perhaps you’ll come up with a few different “workout” variations for each block of time, and you can vary which workouts you do each day.

Repetition. Rest. Repeat.

Just as repetition and rest builds muscular strength, the act of repeating a skill over and over creates stronger connections between neurons in our brain. However, those connections won’t be immediately apparent. Rest plays an important role in allowing our brain to process what it has just learned.

Once I was on the road, sleeping on the couch in a friend’s apartment. He was trying to learn a melody on a glockenspiel, but since he didn’t play any instruments, he was having a hard time getting it right. Before he went to bed, I told him to play it ten times, focusing on playing the correct notes and not worrying about speed or rhythm. The next morning I woke up while he was on his way out the door. I stopped him and asked him to play the part on the glockenspiel. Running late for work, he hesitated for a moment, but then picked up the mallets and to his surprise, nailed it.

Think about all the times you struggled to learn something one day only to find it made complete sense the next. Or think about all the times you pulled an all-nighter cramming for a test and barely retaining any of the information after it was over. Our brains need that rest to process information. There’s simply no way around it.


The absolute best way to improve yourself as a musician is to transcribe, transcribe, transcribe. What better way to master our craft than to emulate the masters?

Transcribing utilizes everything we would ever need to practice:

  • Aural skills – Your ears!
  • Musicality – Learn not only the notes, but the tone, inflection, and nuances of each note.
  • Technique – Master those difficult passages.
  • Scales, arpeggios, chords, rhythm – The building blocks of all music, directly applied in the piece of music you’re learning.
  • Composition, improvisation – These skills are two sides of the same coin. Learning somebody else’s composed melody or improvised solo requires the same skill and reaps the same benefits.
  • Notation – Memorize your transcription first, but then write it down. Not just for posterity, the act of writing down transcriptions will help you see the music, which will help you improve your reading.
  • Expand your repertoire – You’ve just learned a new piece of music or lick.

When in doubt, Beatles.

When all else fails, when I’m burnt out on my usual practice routine, when I can’t decide what to transcribe, when I start making excuses as to why I can’t practice right now, I learn a Beatles song. My default rule was to learn the second cut on every album, in chronological order. The fewer decisions I have to make before I start practicing, the more likely I am to simply practice.

The Beatles repertoire is my practice safety net. It could be Bach, or tone rows, or Miley Cyrus. Well, maybe not Miley–it helps to have a safety net with a deep catalog–so how about Rush? Whatever it is for you, choose something that will always give you something to practice when all else fails.

Take lessons.

All of us, regardless of our skill level, could benefit from private lessons every now and then. If you’ve tried to structure your practice time and still can’t decide what to work on, perhaps it’s a sign you need to take lessons. Many musicians, myself included, teach via Skype. No matter where you live, all you need is a good internet connection to take lessons.

Good luck on your practice routine, please share your progress in the comments below. Remember, decide today how you will approach your practice tomorrow!

Flying With Musical Instruments: Know Your Rights

If you’re like me and will be traveling with a musical instrument this holiday season, you’ll be happy to know that by law, you have the right to bring your instrument onto the plane as carry-on baggage so long as the instrument can be safely stowed. The clause is part of Public Law 112-95, which was signed by the President and went into effect on February 14, 2012. Below is the section dedicated to musical instruments, copied verbatim (emphasis mine) from pages 74 and 75 of the law, which can be found on the Federal Aviation Administration”s (FAA) website right here.

PUBLIC LAW 112–95—FEB. 14, 2012

41724. Musical instruments

‘‘(a) IN GENERAL.—

‘‘(1) SMALL INSTRUMENTS AS CARRY-ON BAGGAGE.—An air carrier providing air transportation shall permit a passenger to carry a violin, guitar, or other musical instrument in the aircraft cabin, without charging the passenger a fee in addition to any standard fee that carrier may require for comparable carry-on baggage, if—

‘‘(A) the instrument can be stowed safely in a suitable baggage compartment in the aircraft cabin or under a passenger seat, in accordance with the requirements for carriage of carry-on baggage or cargo established by the Administrator; and

‘‘(B) there is space for such stowage at the time the passenger boards the aircraft.

‘‘(2) LARGER INSTRUMENTS AS CARRY-ON BAGGAGE.—An air carrier providing air transportation shall permit a passenger to carry a musical instrument that is too large to meet the requirements of paragraph (1) in the aircraft cabin, without charging the passenger a fee in addition to the cost of the additional ticket described in subparagraph (E), if—

‘‘(A) the instrument is contained in a case or covered so as to avoid injury to other passengers;

‘‘(B) the weight of the instrument, including the case or covering, does not exceed 165 pounds or the applicable weight restrictions for the aircraft;

‘‘(C) the instrument can be stowed in accordance with the requirements for carriage of carry-on baggage or cargo established by the Administrator;

‘‘(D) neither the instrument nor the case contains any object not otherwise permitted to be carried in an aircraft cabin because of a law or regulation of the United States; and

‘‘(E) the passenger wishing to carry the instrument in the aircraft cabin has purchased an additional seat to accommodate the instrument.

‘‘(3) LARGE INSTRUMENTS AS CHECKED BAGGAGE.—An air carrier shall transport as baggage a musical instrument that is the property of a passenger traveling in air transportation that may not be carried in the aircraft cabin if—

‘‘(A) the sum of the length, width, and height measured in inches of the outside linear dimensions of the instrument (including the case) does not exceed 150 inches or the applicable size restrictions for the aircraft;

‘‘(B) the weight of the instrument does not exceed 165 pounds or the applicable weight restrictions for the aircraft; and

‘‘(C) the instrument can be stowed in accordance with the requirements for carriage of carry-on baggage or cargo established by the Administrator.

‘‘(b) REGULATIONS.—Not later than 2 years after the date of enactment of this section, the Secretary shall issue final regulations to carry out subsection (a).
‘‘(c) EFFECTIVE DATE.—The requirements of this section shall become effective on the date of issuance of the final regulations under subsection (b).’’

What This Means

Your instrument will be treated exactly like comparable carry-on baggage. It does not get preferential treatment over another passenger’s roller bag just because it’s more fragile, but it’s no longer subject to any additional fees, as some airlines used to charge. If you have a larger instrument, that might fit safely in a seat, you may buy a ticket for it and may not be charged any additional fees as long as it meets the airline’s requirements. If you check your large instrument in a flight case, you are no longer subject to any additional fees as other checked baggage as long as it meets all checked baggage requirements.

Common sense still applies. If your instrument does not fit or somehow creates a safety risk to other passengers, you’ll have to check it. Be sure to plan ahead of time for the worst case scenario.

Best Practices for Flying with Musical Instruments

We have another article on this site called Airline Travel With Musical Instruments written by well-traveled multi-instrumentalist Nick Rosaci. He offers some great advice, and I highly recommend you read it as well.

Don’t Argue

In my experience, the most resistance I get from traveling with my guitar is from the gate agent, who will hand me a gate check tag and instruct me to drop of my guitar at the end of the jetway as he or she swipes my boarding pass. I never argue with the gate agent. This person is simply doing what they’re told to do and trying to make the flight attendants job easier by sending less carry-on baggage onto the plane.

Sometimes I get on a plane behind other passengers carrying a guitar. The gate agent hands them a gate check tag and the passenger immediately goes into a rant about how he has the right to carry his guitar onto the plane! How dare you tell him otherwise!

This really accomplishes nothing other than making people upset. If you argue, there’s no way that person is going to help you, and if you enter the plane upset, the flight attendants are going to pick up on it and be less likely to help you. They have to deal with enough crabby passengers, don’t be another.

Be Nice to The Flight Attendant

Instead, I make my way onto the plane with my guitar, smile at the first flight attendant I see, and ask them how they’re doing. “Is this your last flight of the day?” or “Heading home?” or any other question that tells them I’m not a completely self-centered jerk that wants them to solve my baggage problem. Then I motion to my guitar and politely ask if they think we can find it a safe place onboard.

In the summer, the first class coat closet is usually empty and they might be able to stow it there. Sometimes there’s also space behind the last row of seats in first class. Otherwise you’ll be looking for a spot in the overhead bins. That’s where it pays to be polite to other passengers, who might be able to help you by adjusting their bags to make room for yours. Again, a smile can go a long way when you’re boarding an airplane.

Board Early

If at all possible, be one of the first to board the plane. Overhead bins are first come, first served, and once your instrument is safely stowed, they cannot remove it from the plane without your permission (which you don’t have to grant).

If you travel on the same airline frequently, look into their premium membership programs. These always come with early boarding, and typically a little extra kindness from the airline staff. If you don’t fly that often, maybe one of your relatives belongs to one of these programs and can book your ticket, which sometimes transfers the benefits to you. And if all else fails, many airlines sell upgrades to your ticket, including early boarding. This is a way for the airline to make some extra money, but hey, it’s also a way for you to get your instrument on the plane safely.

Know Your Aircraft

The above law only works if the airplane is actually large enough to fit your instrument. Shorter flights often use regional jets, such as the Embraer 145 which is only 3 seats across plus a small aisle, require all passengers to gate check their carry-on baggage. Only coats and personal items are allowed onboard. My guitar would never fit on one of these jets so I try to avoid routes that use them. If that’s unavoidable, I make sure my guitar is packed well to avoid damage when checked at the gate.

You can usually find out the type of aircraft used when choosing your itinerary. Take a moment to look up that aircraft and you’ll have an idea of what to expect.

Safe travels!

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.

Panel Discussion: How Music Makes Money

Join me on December 10th, at Parsons The New School for Design in NYC, for a panel discussion on the modern music business. I will be joined by professionals in entertainment and intellectual property law, music publishing and rights management, crowd funding, and marketing. The event is free and open to the public.

Here are the details:

The Parsons Institute for Intellectual Property (PiiP) announces an evening panel presentation of industry professionals discussing how music makes money now. Since the advent of digitized music, the methods of making, using, and delivering music have grown exponentially. As a result, many royalty revenue streams and creative ways of monetizing music have emerged. The ways in which music is now marketed, bundled, downloaded, streamed, and otherwise used has resulted in many opportunities and challenges, and have kept legislation and business practices moving at an accelerated pace to keep up. Payments have changed considerably since the heyday of record royalties, making it more important than ever to understand how the new licensing, !nancing, and payment models affect the income of music creators.

If you want to understand what’s happening in the music business today, join us:

On: December 10th, 6:00 to 9:00
At: Parsons The New School for Design, Teresa Lang Center, Mezzanine Level, 55 W. 13th Street.

Panelists include:

Barry Heyman, Esq., Heyman Law
Founder and principal attorney of this boutique law firm, Heyman has been practicing entertainment, intellectual property (copyrights and trademarks), and new media law for over a decade. He also has 10+ years experience working in the music and entertainment business. Heyman protects the legal interests and intellectual property rights of creative talent and businesses. Learn more at

Bill Stafford, Co-Founder, Missing Link Music
Missing Link Music is an independent music publishing company that specializes in the publishing and rights management of modern music ranging from urban, jazz, and gospel, to bluegrass. Founded in 1996, Missing Link represents its writer, artist, and producer clients on a worldwide basis through its sub-publisher affiliates abroad.

Kendel Ratley, Director, Marketing and Outreach, Kickstarter
Ratley focuses on implementing Kickstarter’s mission in the real world via events, community relations, and helping artists conceptualize projects. She has spent a decade marketing NYC music and tech start-ups. She previously served as Marketing Director of (Le) Poisson Rouge, a multimedia arts space in Greenwich Village, overseeing promotion and publicity for hundreds of creative events annually. She has toured with bands and consulted live event and digital music launches. She graduated from New School University and lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Cameron Mizell, Musician & Co-Founder,
Mizell is a Brooklyn based freelance musician and online musician’s advocate who knows how to straddle the divide between music and business. As an artist, Mizell leads his own jazz/funk trio and released Tributary, his third album, in 2010. He is also a busy sideman, playing guitar, mandolin, and bass in NYC clubs, restaurants and theatres. Before becoming a full-time musician, Mizell had a gig of a different sort as head of production at the Universal Music Group subsidiary Verve Music Group. In 2008, Mizell decided to combine his knowledge of the industry with his understanding of life as a musician and together with Dave Hahn, Mizell founded the website, which offers music industry advice speci!cally geared towards the working musician. Learn more at


Michelle Bogre, Esq. Associate Professor and Founder of the Parsons Institute for Intellectual Property (PiiP) at Parsons The New School for Design. Bogre is a documentary photographer, IP lawyer and author of Photography as Activism: Images for Social Change, published by Focal Press.

How To Help Protect Your Health as a Musician

Hard working musicians subject themselves to irregluar working hours, late working hours and often find themselves in areas of slightly different risk compared with many other professions. This article is definitely not meant to replace seeking medical and postural advice if you have a problem that needs addressing. However it does offer some basic and sensible advice which is easy to neglect during periods of heavy work load and stress, whether you are writing an album or on tour as a musician.

Protect your hearing

One of the most important facalties for a musician is their hearing, ears are sensitive and it is a good plan to protect the longevity of your hearing. Each country has a set of guidelines that provide safe sound pressure level values and exposure times. The louder sound is the less exposure time is recommended. Try and get a handle on your sound exposure levels and take steps to reduce and minimize it. Your career relies on the longevity of your ears and hearing, so use ear plugs to protect them from excessive SPL’s (Sound pressure levels) whenever possible. Like much of the advice within this article it might not be very rock and roll to wear ear plugs but it bears serious consideration as your career relies on it. Nowadays you can get ear plugs with a tailored frequency response which offers good protection but stops the music sounding too dull and makes it less problematic to hear some of the musical details on stage.

Take care when lifting

There is a right way and a wrong way to lift heavy items, the wrong way can have you with an accute back problem in no time. Lugging guitar combo’s, stacks, drum kits and full size keyboards and flight cases is not trivial, some of these items can easily weigh 20Kgs. When you lift your equipment consider your back. By and large it is safer to lift heavy items from the ground by keeping the back straight and bending your knees. Again your local medical authority will be able to advise on how heavy items are best lifted with minimum risk. Also make sure you do not hyper extend yourself when lifting (i.e. lifting items when stooped over… and arms fully extended) Being directly over the item is generally safer. If something is too heavy don’t feel like a wimp get a band member of stage hand to help you out, better safe than sorry.

Consider a flu jab

I personally take a flu jab annually, this is up to your own discretion. I feel the cost versus the potential loss of earnings from being on your back for 10-14 days is minimal. Letting people down and losing income from having the flu adds insult to injury. The flu is a very unpleasant and a common malady during the winter months and is best avoided. The flu jab is definitely worth considering before the winter period starts.


2 camps of opinion here, they don’t make any difference and they make a worthwhile difference. I am of the latter persuasion personally. Now rather than list scores of vitamins I will suggest a few that I believe will be of most benefit to musicians.

Fish oil (Omega 3) – known to protect joints, so if you want to tickle the ivory’s and keep on strumming for years and years to come this supplement will assist in keeping your joints in good shape, critical for being able to play an instrument.

Vitamin C – an important vitamin for keeping away the common cold and other minor viral infections, again playing out when under the weather is not fun or recommended so try and keep these mild illnesses at bay with a 500mg of vitamin C a day.

Lutein – Lutein is a suppliment that can help protect the retina of the eye. Musicians often work in dimly lit conditions, be it on stage or in the studio staring at a computer monitor for hours at a time. On stage this is often coupled with harsh lighting. Anything capable of protecting eyesight is going to be a bonus.

Vitamin D – we all know the joke about a “studio tan” well there may be more truth in it than one might think. In the northern hemisphere vitamin D deficiency is very common place especially towards the end of winter. (compounded by working indoors and lack of sunlight) It is a very important vitamin not to be depleted of.

A multivitamin tablet will be a good general daily suppliment especially if irregular and fast food type meals are consumed when in a hurry or on tour. A daily multivitamin will keep the basic nutirents topped up until you are eating better again.

Water vs. mental and physical performance

It is said that dehydration can reduce mental and physical performance so try and take a bottle of water wherever you are and keep well hydrated. A human being is recommended to drink approx 2 litres of water during the course of a day to keep peak mental and physical performance.

Sleep makes a difference

Eveyone knows that being deprived of sleep can have a large impact on mood and general well being. Of course musicians gigging are often night workers and long nights in the studio have almost become a cliche. Thats fine as long as you are getting 6-8 hours of sleep a day. It’s important for mental and physical well being to get rest. You are likely to be more creative and have more energy which is exactly what performing and creating music requires.

Interview with Touring Sideman Jesse Bond

Jesse Bond is a fantastic guitarist out of Atlanta that makes a living as a touring sideman. I met Jesse through a mutual friend and after learning about his career and artists with whom he’s recorded and toured, I knew he’d have a lot of great information to share through our working musician interview series.

MW: When did you start playing music, and when did you realize it was something you wanted to do professionally?

JB: I started playing guitar around 14 years old. My mom is the one that actually got me into the guitar. She was the music director at our church and picked one up when I was about 13 so she could accompany herself and lead the band.

I had friends in high school that were starting metal and punk bands so music and guitar were all around me. I joined a band and also started taking lessons.

My sophomore year in high school is when I started looking at colleges and my counselor suggested Berklee college in Boston. It sounded like a good idea so I made the decision to pursue music seriously then. I also joined my high school jazz band.

Jesse Bond guitaristDid you study music in school? How has that impacted your career?

I did end up going to Berklee and it has definitely helped me in many ways. First off, the musical knowledge that you get at a school like that is amazing. There’s so much info that you actually have to forget half of it and just play when you get out.

On top of what you learn at a school like Berklee is the connections you make. The networking is worth its weight in gold. I got my first big touring gig (Anthony Hamilton) from a Berklee connection.

I did take high school lessons as I said earlier, and I took two high school music theory classes as well. My advice for all who are considering music school:

  • Know as much as you can before going. The more advanced you are is the more you can pull from your teachers.
  • Get the text books early.
  • Test out of classes.
  • Take a few semesters off before starting.
  • Take general education classes first.

That’s what I wish I would’ve done anyway.

Briefly describe your career today. What kinds of work do you do to make a living?

My career today is mainly dependent on touring with artists. I moved to Atlanta to play with PJ Morton in 2002. I started playing in churches soon after, and in Atlanta that’s a decent steady income stream for a musician.

I then got on Anthony Hamilton’s tour in 04. My biggest touring gig was Kanye West from 07-09. I’m currently music directing for Melanie Fiona (since 2010) and we’re opening for D’angelo and Mary J Blige as we speak.

I also do studio work but touring makes the bulk of my income. I’d like that to switch in the near future however.

How do you find work as a musician?

I find work as a musician by networking and networking and networking… and networking. It really is less about how you play and more about who you know and your professional reputation. I know that I would rather hire a friend than someone I don’t know. It’s important to be on time, personable, dependable to learn material, etc. Make friends and be professional. Work will come.

What skills are necessary to be successful at your job (or jobs)?

Other skills that help me are definitely on the engineering side. I have the capability to cut guitar tracks out of my house via email. I also program live shows for artists and run their tracks from stage. It’s the age of the home studio so know how to be self sufficient.

Also… The Nashville number system is the fastest way to chart. Learning that system streamlined the way I learn music.

Finally, do you have any advice for younger musicians aspiring to be professionals?

Stay humble; soak in as much information as you can from your peers and mentors; learn your music; develop your ear; learn your tunes; don’t overplay; be prepared to step out and shine when you need to; look the part as well…

And, make sure you get paid for what you do. If you’re spending 8 hours a day at a day job, you only get 4 hours or so to work on your craft. You’re already behind because others are spending 8-12 hours a day specifically on their craft. The raw number of hours spent just won’t allow you to keep up. Demand compensation.

And write write write! One song placement can get you the same compensation as a year or two worth of gigs.

Keep your head up in the hard times (and slow times) and don’t forget why you started playing in the first place… because it’s fun!


More about Jesse Bond:

Jesse Bond is an Atlanta based guitarist and producer that originally hails from Reno, Nevada. He is also a graduate of Berklee College of Music (02′).

He is a member of the PJ Morton Band and has toured and recorded with Kanye West, Rihanna, Celine Dion, Anthony Hamilton, Ledisi, Melanie Fiona, Toni Braxton, Faith Evans, Janet Jackson, Ne-Yo, John Legend, Jazmine Sullivan, Chrisette Michelle, Mary J Blige, Mary Mary, Kim Burrell, Adam Levine, India Arie, and many more.

He is a husband and a father and is currently music director for Melanie Fiona. Follow Jesse on Twitter to keep up with his life as a touring guitarist.

An Update from Dave and Cameron

Over the last year, has experienced rapid growth in our readership–something for which both Dave and I are very grateful to all of you. With the increased traffic, however, comes an increased risk of hackers and security concerns.

Some of you may have seen a warning when visiting the site, or found the site to be loading too slow, or noticed the site was down all together. We received feedback from many of you and as always, have been addressing the issue.

This past week our site was down for several hours during which a complete security overhaul was performed. We can’t guarantee there will be no problems in the future, but we have a team constantly monitoring to help it run as securely as possible as we continue to grow.

Meanwhile, we’ve been continually adding valuable content to the site. You might have missed some of it during the outages, so here’s a recap:

The Working Musician Interview Series

We started interviewing musicians that we thought could offer some great advice and insight into the world of the working musician. So far we’ve interviewed these amazing musicians:

We’ll continue next Tuesday with an interview from touring guitarist Jesse Bond, and there will be more in the coming weeks.

Recent Articles

Dave recently changed his focus from music directing to songwriting, and wrote an article all about it, as only he could. Check out How I’m Building a Career As A Songwriter. He also wrote a great piece reflecting on one of his first songwriting projects: ringtones. Have a read at Half A Million Downloads and 500,000 Dilemmas.

We also received another great piece from SFC Joshua DiStefano, our expert Army musician. This time he focused on musicians that have recently joined the Army band. If that’s you, I highly suggest reading his Advice for New Army Musicians.

Finally, I’ve written a couple pieces as well. First I reflected on My Ever-Changing Career as a Musician and explored my changing streams of income over the last decade, and the effect it’s had on my approach to being a musician. I also wrote an editorial piece in response to some industry news, trying to answer the question: Why are there fewer working musicians in 2012 than 1999? Or 1989 for that matter.

Thanks again for reading, discussing, and sharing your experiences as musicians. Happy gigging!

Interview with Guitarist Alec Berlin

For this week’s working musician interview, I talked to guitarist Alec Berlin. I’ve gotten to know Alec while subbing for him on a show. He’s a fantastic guitarist and also a very humble and hardworking guy. I learned a lot from him through the show, so he was a natural choice for this interview series.

MW: When did you start playing music, and when did you realize it was something you wanted to do professionally?

AB: I started playing the guitar when I was 7. I didn’t really have a realization that I wanted to do it professionally – it just sort of happened, after I had invested a lot of time, energy, resources, interest, and passion in music for any number of years. The goal was just to keep doing it and keep doing it and keep doing it, etc.

Did you study music in school? How has that impacted your career?

I received a Master’s of Music in Jazz Studies from the New England Conservatory. Music school allowed me the opportunity to log in many, many hours on my instrument, under the guidance of some incredibly insightful and talented teachers.

Also – perhaps more importantly – it was the first time in my life that I was in such a big musical environment. In high school and college, musicians were few and far between, just a few random stragglers amidst a much larger population. Being surrounded by musicians all the time was invaluable – from a creative perspective, of course, but also in terms of thinking about and understanding what it meant to commit to a life as a professional musician.

Briefly describe your career today. What kinds of work do you do to make a living?

For the last several years I’ve done most of my playing in theater – ranging from grungy independent productions like The ATrain plays (a 24-hour theater project) to super high profile Broadway productions like Green Day’s American Idiot. And lots in between.

I’ve spent a lot of time subbing for any number of different shows, which has it’s joys and it’s annoyances. What most appealled to me about subbing in the first place was the instrumental challenge – it’s not a gig that values personal interpretation, and if you are okay with that, then the challenge becomes trying to own the music as thoroughly as possible – including being comfortable playing on the show guitar, with that particular conductor, on that particular rig (ie with that amp and those pedals), with that particular rhythm section, etc. At times I’ve subbed on as many as 6 shows at a time – so maintaining that much music, and that many different scenarios – it’s no mean feat!

I’ve always valued musical variety, so I appreciated situations where I’d be playing a matinee that consisted largely of acoustic blues and an evening show of disco music. Followed, the next day, by big band swing. And so on. It requires a lot of time, patience, and adherence to some very particular ground rules – but as I said, if you are okay with all of that, then subbing on shows can be very rewarding.

Having your own show, on the other hand, is a whole different matter. The challenge to that gig is to try to be as consistent as possible in your playing while still feeling enthused about your gig, your instrument, your time, your output. In my experience, this requires balance – musical and otherwise. I’ve found balance partly in outside, original music projects, and partly in trying to have a well-rounded life, trying to read and see movies and hear music and excercise and spend time with family and friends and generally engage with the world.

How do you find work as a musician?

Be visible. Be respectfully persistent – no one likes a nag, but you also can’t risk just being wall paper. Be excited and humble. As Joni Mitchell said, “Heart and humour and humility… will lighten up your heavy load.” Basic psychology – what you put out comes back – so put out good energy, enthusiasm, and sincerity.

What skills are necessary to be successful at your job (or jobs)?

For theater work – organization. Reading skills. Attention to detail. Thoroughness. Good nature. A good ear. Good hands. A sense of humor.

Finally, do you have any advice for younger musicians aspiring to be professionals?

Just to reiterate – follow your passion. There are ways to make money and there are ways to be creative. Ask yourself what role those two objectives will play in your life. Do you want to work in a wedding band? Play in Broadway pits? Write music for commercials? Play original music in a band?

Try to be as clear about your goals as possible – and then commit to it hugely. Don’t apologize for anything and don’t look back – just keep moving forward.


More about Alec:

Alec Berlin has released 2 albums of original rock music – 2007’s Beauty, Grazing at the Trough, and 2012’s Innocent Explanations, both available on iTunes, Spotify, Pandora, and His theater credits include Rent at New World Stages, Green Day’s American Idiot (at the Berkeley Repertory Theater and on Broadway), and Next To Normal at Second Stage. Subbing credits include: Lion King, Rent, Next To Normal, Billy Elliot, The Color Purple, Mamma Mia. He has performed with Green Day, Elton John, Rufus Wainwright, and James Taylor. He has appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Good Morning America, and the Tony Awards live from Radio City Music Hall. He appears on the Grammy-winning Soundtrack to Green Day’s American Idiot and A Colbert Christmas. Check out,, for performance information and music samples.

Why Are There Fewer Working Musicians in 2012 than 1999?

Every day I receive a few email newsletters, including the Digital Music News. As I sipped on a fresh cup of coffee this morning, one of their articles titled “Recording Sales Declines & Musician Employment, 1999 – 2011…” caught my attention. It was published on Saturday by DMN editor Paul Resnikoff. I enjoy Paul’s insight on the music industry. Digital Music News does a great job covering the changes in the music industry and I recommend all of you subscribe to their newsletter.

I was mostly interested in the article because of the “musician employment” part of the title–which is of course the primary topic of It’s also something DMN rarely discusses.

In this particular article, Paul writes:

There’s more music being created than ever before, but paradoxically, musicians are making less. Which means there are also fewer musicians and music professionals enjoying gainful employment, thanks to a deflated ecosystem once primed by major labels and marked-up CDs.

He also shares this graph overlaying statistics from the US Department of Labor and the RIAA.

The reddish orange bars represent the number of “musical groups and artists,” which is a classification used by the US Census Bureau. The white squares represent the amount of recorded music shipped, which basically means sold to retail stores (and includes digital sales even though nothing is actually shipping).

This graph is trying to draw a correlation between album sales and musician jobs, so it begs the question: Is the decline in album sales responsible for the decline in musician jobs?

I have a buddy that works for the US Department of Labor so I asked him for some help checking these employment statistics. I found that while there is a decline in the number of self-reported “musical groups and artists,” it is not as dramatic as this graph makes it appear. Paul wrote that there has been a 41% in paid musicians since 1999, but based on statistics I find from the Census Bureau, there has been a 15% decline. Perhaps there are other numbers in play? I’ve asked him about his source, so we shall see. For all intents and purposes, most people would agree that there has been a decline in jobs for musicians.

The decline in album sales has been well documented by the RIAA and through Nielsen Soundscan sales reports. I don’t think anyone will argue that there are far fewer albums being sold today than 10 years ago.

My wife is a professional researcher, so I asked her what a statistical analyst would think of this graph. She said it was a weak correlation, and suggested I look up this blog post about correlation and causation. Turns out statistical analysts have a sense of humor that is 63% better than expected. It also means that this data alone is not sufficient to explain a cause/effect scenario.

Now, I have no doubt that the decline in album sales has had a negative effect on musician employment as we’ve known it over the last 70 years. Dave Hahn once pointed out that the recorded music industry isn’t responsible for creating the career of “professional musician.” For hundreds of years before recordings, people worked as musicians, and it’s reasonable to believe that will be the case even if recordings are no longer worth money.

However, I don’t believe that we can simply blame the decline in album sales, and to do so would be short-sighted for the musician industry. Let’s look at the bigger picture. What other factors could cause a decline in musician jobs?

1) Recording Technology

Without a doubt, technology has always been one of the most consistent disrupters of industry. Printed sheet music, player pianos, the phonograph, synthesizer, and mp3 are all examples of technology that impacted the musician industry.

Dave and I recently had a conversation with a veteran NYC drummer. He compared the scene of 30 years ago to the scene today. NYC used to have thousands of recording studios and employ tens of thousands of musicians, many of whom made very good money. Back then, he explained, every note of music you heard anywhere had to be played by a musician. Commercials, albums, demos, jingles, soundtracks, and anything else that required music required musicians.

By comparison, these days I can cut a demo and pitch a commercial in my living room, on my computer, by myself. Anybody can do that today. The technology is relatively affordable, and sample packs and plugins can take the place of other musicians and expensive studio gear. It’s not necessarily better, it’s just possible.

Furthermore, how many musicians does it take to record a hit album these days? I looked up the top album on iTunes today, and then looked up the album credits. There are a bunch of producers and writers, but I could only find one guitarist credited. Another guy was credited with “strings.” The rest of the music? Probably assembled by the various producers.

I also looked up the credits for Rihanna’s latest album. She is one of the biggest stars today, so how many musicians does she use on her albums? Two, covering the guitar and bass. No drummer. Somebody has a credit for “instrumentation,” and there are also credits for fluids and good vibrations, hair stylist (two of those), vocal engineer, and many, many more production credits.

Compare either of these to Michael Jackson’s Thriller which employed dozens musicians in the studio during the early ’80s and had only one producer.

Recording technology has replaced the need for musicians the same way robotics have replaced people on assembly lines, but there will always be a demand for high end, hand crafted product.

2) DJs (and DJ technology)

I realize that this might make me sound like a crotchety old man, but hear me out. I have nothing against DJs, but it is a fact that where there were once bands full of musicians, there is now a guy behind a computer. If we’re lucky, he or she is actually using turntables.

DJs exist because there is a demand for them. They cost less and take up less space. People like to dance to the music. In fact, sometimes the music they play isn’t even recorded by real musicians, so why would you hire real musicians to perform what a DJ spins?

Regardless, I think we need to agree that DJs are a cheap competitor to working musicians from here on out, and technology will continue to make DJing possible for anybody with a laptop and decent taste in music.

3) Greed/The Economy

Just as technology allows you to do more in a recording studio with fewer musicians, you can do more in live performance. Backing tracks, or “sweetener tracks” are more common on pop tours. Broadway pits have gotten smaller and smaller over the years, partially due to pop/rock musicals written for smaller orchestras, but also due to the never ending battle between the producers and the musician’s union. Producers will make more money if a show uses pre-recorded music. Sometimes it just boils down to somebody wanting to make more money by downsizing the band.

Additionally, maybe people just don’t have the disposable income to spend on entertainment like they used to. This is especially true with younger people, who might go out more frequently. There are numerous economic factors that could come into play, but the point is, people choose to spend their hard earned money elsewhere.

4) People’s Choice

Has the evolving aesthetic of popular music cost musician jobs?

Bob Lefsetz keeps saying electronic music is the new rock’n’roll. There’s something to that. Not everybody wants to go to the local symphony, jazz club, or blues bar. Some people, just prefer music that doesn’t require any musicians.

Also, can the audience really tell the difference between pre-recorded music and a live band? Even if they could, do they care? Pop stars have been lip synching or using autotune live for decades, and for the most part their fans don’t seem to care. Will those same people ever appreciate a great live band in the same way? It’s difficult to speculate, but it’s very possible that the market for live music is smaller than it used to be.

What can musicians do?

I don’t believe the failing recording industry is entirely to blame for a decline in musician jobs. Did it have an impact? Absolutely. But so have these other factors.

To succeed as a musician, it’s very important that you pay attention to the state of our industry. It’s foolish to think that because you studied at an elite music school you’re entitled to make a ton of money as a studio musician, or that you can form a band, get signed to a label, and be set for life. Sure, it’s possible those things can happen, but the probability is much smaller today than it was before 1999.

Learn how to adapt. I can not stress that enough. The way you make a living today might be very different in two years. The studio musicians of 20 years ago that are still working today figured out how to adapt. Along with being a great musician, learn how to use the internet to your advantage to help you network and be easily available to people that can hire you.

Understand what is in your control, and what is not in your control (hint: You cannot stop technology, avoid greedy people, or change people’s taste in music). The biggest lesson we can learn from the recording industry and the digital music revolution is that you cannot fight change.

Learn from other musicians. Dave and I try to share as much of our knowledge as we can on this site, but we also interview others and look for guest bloggers to cover topics we cannot write about ourselves. Many times it’s just an excuse to pick the brain of musicians smarter than us!

Finally, be a champion for the working musician. Support the arts and arts education and help kids appreciate music. Take pride in your work. You don’t have to be in the union to advocate for musician jobs, all you have to do is support industries that support musicians.