A musician’s life is not for the faint of heart. Entertainment is a fickle business. This is no gallon of milk or gallon of gas you’re peddling. Folks don’t need music to survive, nor do they need it to get to work to earn the cash to buy the milk they need to survive.
Luckily, music feeds the soul.
But still, the music biz is fickle, and it can be hard to earn a living at it. When it comes to business in general, you only earn money when people are willing to buy your products and services. For people to be willing to buy, they first have to want, and then they have to decide that they want badly enough to pay the price you’re asking.
And for potential buyers to want in the first place, they have to know about it. So, in order to make a living as a performing musician, you need the following recipe. Each step takes hard work and dedication.
1. Have a product that customers want. This means that you have to not only be a musician, but you have to be a *good* musician. Being a good musician requires no shortage of natural talent, some amount of music education, and practice, practice, practice. It also helps to have a solid brand behind your act. Who is your audience? What kind of mood do you set? Will you perform in a bar? A club? A coffee shop? Will you cater to men? Women? Children? One-size-fits-all does not cut it in this industry. You must identify your brand in order to create a marketable product. If you have not yet identified your brand, spend some time experimenting. What songs suit you best? Which make your listeners sit up and notice? Which do you most enjoy playing? Look for themes and build on them.
2. Build product awareness. If are holding out to win American Idol or be “discovered” by a talent scout, you will spend a long time starving. People – audiences and talent scouts alike – can not discover you if you are not visible. You have to market your product. Do not just upload that video you recorded in your living room. Spend some money on a demo CD and hand it out to bar, restaurant, or coffee shop owners. Use social media to advertise new published recordings. And most importantly, find the live gigs that make people notice you. Be willing to perform for pennies – or even for free – in order to get noticed. Have CDs, business cards, signage, and email list sign-ups available at your gigs to let people know who you are. Start building your brand and the name recognition that goes with it. As your popularity grows, so will your marketability. When you can bring in customers, venues are more likely to hire you.
3. Set your pricing to sell. You may think your act is worth a certain amount, but it may be that the venues just don’t have that kind of budget. Yes, you put a lot of work into a gig. Yes, you practiced your setlist until your fingers bled / you lost your voice / you developed carpal tunnel. Engineers and doctors spent a lot of time not only studying, but paying for school, before they could earn a living. Practice, building setlists, cutting records, songwriting, networking, marketing, and hunting for gigs are just part of the job, and your customer should not be expected to pay for it. Your customer should be expected to pay for one, two, three, or four hours of live music at a reasonable rate. The reality is that if you set your pricing too high, you simply won’t land the gigs. If you don’t land gigs, listeners will not be aware of your product, and you will not be making a living as a musician.
Bottom line, if you want to be a professional musician, you have to love it. You have to be doing it for the right reasons. Statistically speaking, you will not win American Idol, you will not be discovered by a talent scout, and you will not make millions cutting record deals with national labels. Realistically speaking, you won’t do any of these things unless you perfect your art, market your brand, and set your pricing to land the gigs and gain visibility.