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.

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10 Responses to Tips For Surviving As a Musician in New York City

  1. AirGigs.com says:

    Some great tips. NYC is a hard town for sure and I think you laid it out pretty straight. Another good resource for meeting players, if you can afford it, is to take a small share in a monthly rehearsal space. It gives you the opportunity to practice in a focused environment and you’ll just be in the mix of players coming and going.

  2. Andy Sharkey says:

    Hey Mark! I’m glad to have stumbled upon your article. Hope New York is still treating you well.

    This is an extremely important article, because New York isn’t getting any easier to survive in as an artist, as Mark said. Having been a (nominally classical, but versatile) brass musician in the city for only 3 years, kindly permit me to add some additional perspective:

    1. Institutions are a lifeline of support.
    Local municipalities budget for parade marching bands; private and public universities/conservatories budget for and call-in professionals (“ringers”) to play in ensembles when there are enrollment gaps; a variety of religious organizations hire musicians for continuous and seasonal services/rituals; government grants are allocated to dozens of chamber groups to perform quarterly concerts; community performing arts organizations raise funds for professionals to augment their ranks by paying membership fees.

    2. Be principled, prepared AND show grace (i.e., undeserved kindness, generosity).
    This one isn’t easy considering many stressors, but it applies to musicians at every level of the business. A musician is a facet of his own small business; and anyone who has worked in growing a small business – in music or otherwise – will tell you that character matters. You’re poor in New York? So are your colleagues who’ve been here struggling for much longer than you. Someone in your group is late to a gig or rehearsal? You could be late tomorrow (assuming you wake up); that person could hire or refer you tomorrow. If you want to be a “professional,” don’t define professional out loud or explain it to others. Just strive to be it; and grow into it, if necessary. This was the greatest lesson I ever learned outside of music, and the idea began sprouting in my studies with John Rojak (a consummate professional freelancer).

    3. Everything is an investment.
    Need to stay visible to get hired? Pay to go to your friends’ gigs. Can’t make a living playing one instrument? Buy, [learn to] play, and rent out all three. Find a gig out in New Jersey/Westchester/Long Island? Cough up the transportation costs. Going off what Mark said about savings, don’t underestimate how deep your savings account should be! New York is one of the most expensive cities in the world! Conversely, musicians are some of the most underpaid professionals.

    4. Build social capitol.
    Being a good musician isn’t all its cracked up to be when there are 100 other good musicians within a 10 mile radius. One needs to plan time to deliberately not play, talk or listen music with other musicians and just “hang.” This could be any wide array of hobbies. If music is frustrating to a musician, talking to other frustrated musicians isn’t always therapeutic. Make time away from music; meet people you’re comfortable working with and do social (read: non-musical) things with them.

    5. Find the gatekeeper.
    gatekeeper, 1. Creepy Zuul girl from Ghostbusters; 2. The person on a rehearsal or gig who provides you the most networking potential.
    During the next gig or rehearsal one is a part of, instead of exchanging cards with every person you see, find the gatekeeper. He or she is most likely someone who plays one’s instrument, is young enough to be playing with up-and-coming scenes and old enough to have built his/her contact base, and is kind and gracious enough to have built a solid rapport with you and seemingly many others.

    Sorry this post was so long! As in all advice, readers can take it for whatever they find it to be worth within their own context and lives. Some of the best lessons in life are only learned from experience, and that can certainly be different for everyone in a sprawling, diverse and fast-paced city like New York!

    -AS

  3. Glenn White says:

    Hi, Mark. This is great. I have some thoughts on teaching that aren’t popular, but I can’t help but wonder why they aren’t shared alongside other nuggets of advice offered by pros who are imparting wisdom to hopefuls. Namely, teaching doesn’t help build up an audience, because the kids and their parents aren’t going to go to a club to hear you play a 10:00 pm set. You aren’t making contacts, because you have committed to sit in a room and show amateur and non-musicians the fundamentals. So, in my book, teaching is really just one more thing that isn’t playing. And if we all moved to NYC specifically to play, and not specifically to teach, then what difference does it make whether we teach, work in an office, or hang drywall? If it’s not playing, then it’s not playing.

    Moreover, teaching can be just as unpredictable as gigging. Cancellations, no-shows, etc. You can insititue whatever policies you want, but you’ll be surprised, regardless. And for those of us who have had to rent a space to teach in, you’re not only out the bread you would have made from teaching. You also now owe a studio fee.

    With this, I wonder why musicians are never encouraged to first aim for a steady day gig, and to build up their music situation in tandem. Those who do know how much money they’re making every week, and as a result can pick and choose what projects they choose to involve themselves in. Craigslist may be a doorway for some, but I’ve had some really nightmarish, time-wasting situations that usually don’t lead to anything beyond getting shorted on an agreed-upon sum because not enough fans came out to hear a group. Case in point: a recent big band situation in which the entire band of 17 made $62.

    If you’re not lucky enough to play for a living (play, not teach), a day gig can allow for some breathing room, so that you’re not blindly leaping from one Craigslist gig to the next, hoping that maybe the next one will pay enough to cover your rent.

  4. Daniel Erickson says:

    Good article, very interesting. I’m currently taking the Army Band route right now, but the points you made will apply to anyone thinking of moving to NYC at any point in their career. I don’t know if you have experience in other big musical cities (e.g. New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Nashville, Austin, etc.) but I would love to see some of those cities covered in the same fashion as this.

  5. Roach says:

    Some really great tips. New York is a really hard and competitive area and you need to be successfully managing yourself correctly.

  6. Andy says:

    Great article. I’ve been involved in the NYC music scene for over a decade and one thing I’ve found is that persistence pays off but you need to be able to stick around for 2-3 years, or longer. And network, network, network IN PERSON (not online) – you’ll get most of your gigs from people who refer you. Get known – and for the same reason never EVER be a jerk, or badmouth other musicians. NYC can be a VERY small town in many ways and a bad reputation will follow you everywhere you go. But I’ve also seen far too many gifted & talented performers never get off the ground simply because they couldn’t organize themselves, never returned phone calls or e-mails promptly, never kept track of their recording or performing rights, and “left money on the table”. So I developed a line of downloadable ready-made forms and templates for musicians to use and adapt in the popular and free Evernote organizer app. If you’re curious take a look at http://www.minettamedia.com

  7. I think this is just as applicable to musicians in the Boston area.

    In response to Glenn, it’s great to have a day gig, but I didn’t take music seriously until I actually quit my day job. I was making like $70k/year and quit with a few guitar and voice students. I have since built up a sizable business and opened my own music school, but it didn’t take earning money from music seriously until I had not other option.

  8. mario says:

    How bout other towns like houston?..does anyone have any experience as a musician there?..please share them with us?..thank u mario

  9. Owen says:

    “I would love to see some of those cities covered in the same fashion as this” Says Daniel Erickson, and I gotta tell ya – there’s not much of a difference.

    I’m from the East, born and raised in Boston and did music out there for a while. Had a band for 5 years and played NYC as well. Fresh out college, I got night jobs trying to work in tandem with my music career that I was feeling, had just begun. All in all, these jobs don’t work for gigs. You can write/record all day long, enjoy. But you won’t be gigging and you wont have your weekends. You live you learn, and a with a fast lesson learned : get a day job ( 9-5) and blend in. Weekends and nights to really focus and take action on your music goals.

    I drove across country with my band a year after i was out of college. $3K saved from a day job i got, not a job lined up, student loans in deferment and Los Angeles as the destination. Quickly the money went and faster was I looking for work. Finding work in a place you just arrive in is intimidating and the pressure will threaten your success. My advice to anyone moving to highly populated, fresh new territory is to practice staying focused through the chaos, regardless of how expensive it is. As Andy from above stated – “ If you want to be a “professional,” don’t define professional out loud or explain it to others. Just strive to be it; and grow into it, if necessary”.

    I watched everyone I came out here with go home. Not because music didn’t work but because they failed to stay focused on conventional aspects. They tried hopping around craigslist and were distracted by things they wish they could have though of in hindsight. In other words, foresight is crucial.Yes the future is dark, i know. But you have an idea of how things work… I guess its like when you make a camping list. Just make sure you got everything (The comfort that allows you to sit here and read these posts before you make your move) Ask “what do I got?” because that’s at least what you’ll need.

    But to address trivia – Los Angeles is very affordable and there are very nice Burroughs and neighborhoods where one could live. I live in Silverlake, which is truly only discovered by being here. There is also Echo Park, Los Feliz, Hollywood (obviously) North Hollywood, West Hollywood, The Valley which is anything really north of the city, indeed in the valleys. Thats also where all the porn is. Yes, had to say it. If you like cities you’ll like Los Angeles. There is always something to do and a very similar music scene that you’ll find across the board. Work however is scarce, I suggest at least sending some resumes out for a bite. It may be one or two months until a rapid fire of HRs email you back. Thats another thing : most people from l.a. are from somewhere else they are always coming and going.

    All in all conventional wisdom, social rationalism and perception all play a huge roll…when you’re choosing this kind of path, in this day and age.

    Thats all

    - Owen

  10. Kevin Ellis says:

    I’ve been a working musician, born and raised in Brooklyn, and working in NYC for over 35 years. I find New York is the easiest place to get work as a musician. As a native New Yorker, growing up in Brooklyn and Queens, it seemed as if everyone in my neighborhood was a working musician. And everyone worked; the key is to make, and keep contacts, because you will get referred for work, that is, if you’re good.
    But coming to New York from another city and /or state would prove to be a problem (I assume), because you now have to make new contacts (I grew up with my contacts). But now, imagine leaving New York and expecting to find work in another, much smaller town. So this is the reverse of what your article addresses. I find myself now living in Princeton, New Jersey where the work is nowhere near what it was in NYC. I now find myself commuting 50 to 75 miles or more to my gigs.
    My point is, even though it’s somewhat more difficult since the recession, but: if you can’t find work in NYC, then you’re not really looking.

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