Years ago a piano student asked me what he could do professionally with a degree in music. I told him he could become a wine maker.
After I elicited a startled laugh from him, I went on to tell him the truth of being a freelance musician: we get paid to do what we love, but no one is going to create the job for us. We have to create it for ourselves from the gifts and resources we’ve been given and from the circumstances of ability, location, age, and life responsibilities. We have to become experts at creating multiple income streams. We have to become savvy self-promoters. We have to accept that nothing—not even the biggest dream—comes without a price.
Unfortunately, while most music programs do a great job preparing us to play our instruments, they give us little or no guidance on how to get people to pay us to make music. We have to figure that all out ourselves, drawing on our own personal abilities and determination. Some talented and lucky few will have paths paved for them. This advice is for the rest of us.
Assess the music industry. To paraphrase an old advertisement, this isn’t your grandfather’s music industry. Neither is it your father’s. I know musicians in their 60s remember a time of plentiful live music gigs, a large network of arts councils who sponsored concerts, recording contracts that paid artists real money, free-flowing grant money, and university career paths that didn’t end in dead-end adjunct servitude. That world disappeared years ago. Throw out that old “play book”, erase any hint of nostalgia from your mind, and get to know what’s happening today. Be aware that the music industry changes as quickly as the rest of society—in other words, make it part of your job to keep up with these changes. Knowing what is or isn’t viable in today’s marketplace will save you many hours of fruitless effort, not to mention a lot of money.
Assess yourself. Soberly and honestly asses your strengths, weaknesses, interests, and abilities. Don’t lie to yourself. Don’t pretend. Make a list of everything you do well. Make a list of things you don’t do well, or things that don’t interest you. Decide if you need more training or guidance in a few areas. Then, through the lens of what you learned about the music industry, begin to hone your options. My particular strengths led me toward writing, collaborative playing, and teaching. My weaknesses kept me away from jazz and pop gigs, as well as composition. Your list needs to be personal to you.
Assess your community. Now that you’re aware of the music industry and your place in it, it’s time to look at the resources in your community. Are there organizations or groups you can join to promote yourself? What performance opportunities exist? Are there places where you can create concert opportunities for yourself and other musicians? If you’re planning to teach, research school districts and neighborhoods before you open your studio. But even while you’re establishing yourself in your own city, don’t forget that thanks to the internet, your community extends far beyond the borders of wherever you live. You live in your city; you work in the world. There are musicians everywhere who are creative and innovative “powerhouses.” Study them, learn from them, and use these good ideas to strengthen your own career.
Embrace social media. For all its bad press right now, social media is one of the best effective ways to market yourself, connect with other musicians, learn about the industry, and be alert to all the latest ideas. In today’s musical world, if you can’t be found on the internet and on social media, you’re effectively invisible. There’s no need to sign up for all options—just pick one or two commit to it for a certain amount of time each day. For an excellent break-down of options, I recommend reading this article by Frances Wilson: https://crosseyedpianist.com/2015/04/14/classical-musicians-and-social-media/. Although written in 2015, Wilson’s points on how classical musicians can benefit from social media remain timeless.
Have a web presence. There’s no need to invest in an expensive website—a simple, clean, easy-to-navigate one will do. And no, a Facebook fan page isn’t enough (although it’s great to have both and to link them to each other). People who want to pay you for your expertise need to know that you’re a legitimate artist and business person. It’s almost impossible to do this without a website.
Whether you design your own or hire someone to do it for you, choose a clean and simple design over anything gimmicky and/or hard to read and navigate. Make sure everything on your site is cleanly written, professional, and lets visitors know exactly who you are, what you do, what you’re selling, and how to reach you. For those wishing to build their own, I recommend reading this article in PC Magazine https://www.pcmag.com/roundup/334639/the-best-website-builders. Important note: if you’re not a writer or if you have no desire to try building your own site, invest in professionals to help you.
Develop a “portfolio career”. Call it a “portfolio career.” Call it multiple income streams. I call it job security. Let me explain: if I work a conventional job, only one person has to fire me before I don’t make an income. If I work for myself and I have multiple sources of income, many more people have to fire me before I can’t pay my bills. The trick to making this work involves two things—knowing what people will pay you to do, and having a great deal of personal discipline.
Any self-employed person understands that being great at something isn’t a guarantee of making a living. Surviving and thriving as a musician means finding the magical intersection between what you’re good at doing and what other people are willing to pay you to do. Look carefully at your list of abilities and interests. Now look at what you’ve discovered about your community and about the music industry. Where do these two things meet?
One of the most inspiring “portfolio” musicians I know is composer and pianist Dr. Joel Pierson. After he received his doctorate in composition, he grew disillusioned with the idea of teaching in universities and pursued his own path. Today he teaches piano lessons, authored the infamously hilarious You Suck at Piano teaching method books, and is creator, band lead, and composer for The Queen’s Cartoonists—a jazz band that’s now represented by CAMI and tours all over the country. Oh, and he continues to compose some pretty amazing contemporary classical music as well. https://www.therealjoelpierson.com
Never stop learning or innovating. The most dangerous thing a musician can do is become frozen in time. What’s relevant today is outdated tomorrow. Leading musicians everywhere are blurring the lines between classical and pop and music and activism. They’re reimagining concert spaces and recordings, and are keeping classical music alive for future generations. They’re doing this by embracing change, not by resisting it. We need to commit to doing the same thing because if we don’t, we’re dooming ourselves to extinction.