Music is something that’s enjoyed by all kinds of people around the world. These people are split by those who enjoy listening to music and those who also enjoy making music. But out of the latter, this special group is further divided into what I like to refer to as the “hobby musicians” and the “career musicians.” Sometimes the lines can be blurred (my personal favorite is those precious newbies who blissfully confuse their place in the “musician food chain”), but these six factors will help you determine where you fall.
1. What do your financials look like? Professional musicians have navigated the rough seas of the music biz long enough to know that times have indeed changed, and it’s not easy to make enough money on performing music alone. Diversifying revenue streams is key, i.e., selling music, performing music, working as a session musician, sync licensing, jingle writing, teaching… the list goes on!
Living paycheck to paycheck is the unfortunate reality of many people nowadays, but taking the steps to plan ahead separates the career musicians from the hobby musicians. Of course, there are plenty of people who do music just for fun (like the doctor by day and pay-to-play guitar slayer at the local pub by night), and that’s all good and dandy. But we’re talking about the people who want to make music their main (or only) source of income and are willing to take the risks involved in order to make that a reality.
It’s inevitable that most people will fail at this, because this business is not for the faint of heart, and it is far from easy to do. But those who are determined to succeed will take the time needed to calculate risk, explore the different revenue streams available, budget responsibly, and learn to invest well in themselves.
2. Do you treat your music as a real business? Career musicians understand that their music is a business. They also understand the importance of educating themselves in said business practices, and/or working with the right people who can help them fill that void. Completing valuable and necessary tasks such as registering yourself as an official business in your respective state, having a business bank account, making sure taxes are handled correctly, and taking advantage of all available musician tax write-offs are some of the responsibilities professional musicians take very seriously.
3. Do you have a Rolodex of pros to call on?Every career musician has a solid list of different business professionals that they can count on to help them in a variety of areas. Some key contacts should exist in banking, legal, accounting, higher education, booking, production, distribution, and business management, to name a few.
4. Do you have a hunger to keep learning and honing your craft?Career musicians know that no matter how far they get, the learning is never done. There’s always a hunger to improve, and that’s why career musicians are able to grow and consistently earn in the field they love. Keeping your skills sharp and remaining competitive in an industry chock full of “ankle biters” and people fighting for that number-one spot is one of the most important parts of being a successful musician. Even the best of the best have private coaches to turn to regularly.
5. Do you have an undeniable entrepreneurial spirit?Whether you want to believe it or not, if you’re a musician, you’re an entrepreneur. You’re in business for yourself, and you are your business. You have more stake in it than anyone, and it’s up to you to carve a way for yourself. You are your biggest cheerleader and your toughest critic. It’s your responsibility to get up off your butt every day to make your dreams happen.
So move to the location where you will find the most success and have the best opportunities. Pick and choose the gigs that will help your career the most (even if they aren’t initially the most lucrative). Take the time to learn the parts of the business that you don’t understand, and expose yourself to different areas that will bring value to your art. Always be willing to grow and improve, and have the attitude that the only ceiling that exists is the one you create.
And most importantly: don’t wait for the opportunities to come to you… go out and get them. Find that hustler’s spirit within yourself. Don’t just talk about the change you want to make – be the change, or else be comfortable watching from the sidelines as the career musicians show you how it’s done.
Christine Occhino is the founder and artistic director of The Pop Music Academy and has experience working at Columbia Records/Sony Music Entertainment, in addition to working as a performing artist for over a decade. She has a bachelor’s degree in music business & management with a concentration in entrepreneurship and vocal performance from Berklee College of Music, where she was a vocal scholarship recipient and former editor-in-chief of The Berklee Groove. She is also the proud founder and CEO of Hope In Harmony, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that brings music to those in need.