How do you make it in the music business? Practice of course! Seriously though, the real answer is keep your day job. Wait, wait, come back. Ok the real first step is to define what you mean by making it. Is it to be rich and famous? Sadly unless your name is Prince, and you are funky, you are probably not destined for superstardom. Also, as I’ve written before, fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. You might not even like it! Ok, well what about just getting rich without all the fame? This is certainly possible. The best way to do this is to be one of the absolute best in the world at your instrument, work unbelievably hard, be willing to move to another town, sacrifice family life or whatever else it takes, and get extremely lucky. Note that if fame and riches are your criteria, I have not come remotely close to making it in the music business and you should probably stop reading right now.
What about just making a living? That much I have done, so I can vouch that it is possible. In my own experience, and in conversation with friends who are working musicians, I have identified a few key elements that I think are helpful. The first is to be versatile. This can mean playing multiple instruments, like I do, but can also mean playing different styles of music. I’ve played in jazz, rock, country, Hawaiian, and African bands among others. I also sing and compose my own music.
Versatility also means using other talents that you may have, musical or otherwise, to make a living. I play gigs, book my own bands, teach privately and in the classroom. Another friend has a regular gig at a church to supplement his performance income. Others record music for licensing, do studio work, work as bookers for clubs, or repair instruments. I’ve also benefited from the computer and business knowledge I developed in my many years of, you guessed it, working a day job. There are a lot of skills that can help your career, not just music skills.
Another important element to success, that almost anyone can learn, is to be pleasant and professional. This means understanding your role in the group, being a team player, showing up on time, and focusing on the music when it’s showtime. Your reputation is your best friend in the music business. People will often hire a lesser player who is easier to get along with over a great player who is difficult.
Finally, you have to accept that music is a business. It is a beautiful art form, but it is also a business. You have to ask for what you’re worth. You have to be comfortable dealing with money, making deals, record-keeping, and all the other aspects of running a small business. You have to understand the market and try to find underserved niches like any good businessperson would. In the modern world, it helps to be able to use the internet and other technology. Speaking again of fame, musicians are often misled by the promise of fame into making bad business decisions like playing for exposure. Remember, musicians die of exposure! If we treated musicians as workers, they would be more able to make a living and that would result in more, not less, beautiful music.
So that’s how you make it in the music business! Seriously though, there’s nothing wrong with keeping your day job. A lot of the best players in town have day jobs. And practice. You really have to practice.