Most musicians don’t make money

The economic reality is that most musicians in any field aren’t going to make much money.  And by “making money” what I mean here is that most musicians just won’t be able to make a living doing music.

There are many reasons for this, and for many musicians, being able to make a living just isn’t a concern and there s nothing wrong with that for them, but for those who would like to use music as a sustainable lifestyle then I think it’s important to get past so many of the misconceptions.  Foremost amongst those misconceptions being that some particular musical genre creates livable wages over others.  This is just not true and for those involved in the debates regarding pop versus classical music, it can be dangerously misleading (if the end outcome is to create livable sustainability).

I think one of the more useful ways to look at musicians, rather than by genre, style, or even country, would be to see them structurally (and functionally).

1) Superstars –these are the musicians at the top of the food chain.  Whether deserved or not isn’t the point since these are the artists most likely to win the awards, get the biggest paying an highest profile gigs.  They are constantly in the media nationally and internationally.  And they can be in any genre or style.

Normally we think of the pop superstars like the current example of Lady Gaga, or past examples of Michael Jackson or the Beatles.  But Yo-Yo Ma, Wynton Marselis, Ravi Shankar, Willie Nelson and Pavarotti are (or were) superstars from the classical, jazz, world, and country music scenes.  Looking at all these artists from a structural standpoint and you’ll see the only real difference between them is the style of music they normally perform.  And that is a difference without much of a distinction as far as the reception they all get.

2) Full-time working musicians –these are musicians that have steady work in usually one group or ensemble meaning that most, if not all, their income comes from one big breadmaking ensemble or band.  These groups aren’t often touring groups and usually fill in some kind of social function within a relatively narrow region.  They may or may not be often featured in more local press (more rarely in national or international press).  They spend an inordinate amount of time on their craft which more often than not involves music that they have not writen themselves.

Orchestras (Opera/Ballet orchestras as well) are the obvious model here.  But full time cover bands and jazz bands fall just as easily into this model as well.  While the orchestras fill an obvious functional role in local communities, most people don’t get to see the role that the cover acts fill.  Corporate parties, regular repeated appearances at certain venues (because they happen to be a huge local draw) like bars or clubs.  And they often play other special events locally like festivals, weddings parties and other private parties (which, consequently, many classical musicians do as well–though not usually as a member of the orchestra).

While the working cover band may almost seem like a freelancer in the range and type of appearances they make, they usually function as a unit when taking these engagements and aren’t often incorporated into a larger ensemble.  Like Orchestras, they are stand alone and economically self contained units.

3) Freelancers –this is probably a group of musicians that doesn’t require explanation.

Freelancers are the jack of all trades musicians functionally speaking.  They fill in roles that are not permanent, and may do so in local to international contexts.  Many of them will be in bands or orchestras that aren’t full time ensembles but will fill out their plates by doing session work, solo gigs, or special events (like the weddings and parties mentioned above) and often do so with other freelancers.  Sometimes they will be subs with one of the full-time working ensembles mentioned above as well.  Those that are doing this full time have to constantly secure gigs in whatever way they can and using skills that aren’t necessarily the same as what you would find in the full-time ensemble since they may have to play in genres or styles of music that will be wildly disparate.

4) All the rest –this is, by far, the largest group of musicians.

Many aren’t professionals, and many only occasionally play shows.  For most of them the goal isn’t to make a living but only to supplement their day job.  Or to do a favor for a friend or family (play a wedding).  Many may have played music while in school but never pursued it as a profession.

Some of these musicians may be trying to work themselves into some sort of selfsustaining musical living–i.e. most local original bands–but as there is no real permanent function for what they do, the road is a long and hard one to navigate as they often seem intent on getting to that superstar level where only a few original bands and musicians will ever be.  Some are on the road to creating a full-time working band or may be orchestral musicians working a day job until they win that coveted position in a full-time orchestra maybe playing in a local and regional part-time orchestra to keep up their chops.

Others just aren’t interested in playing music full-time and just do it for the pleasure it brings them.  Open mic nights, parties, showcase bills at a club, a church service and other similar events are often populated by these musicians.

Most will never make it to one of the three levels mentioned above, and most just aren’t interested in doing that.

Rather than looking at the superstars and seeing the model for being a musician (or a set of criteria for a ‘failed’ musician) I think there are far more useful ways of looking at the type of work musicians do–and these different functions musicians have go across genres and styles.

Until we’re able to understand that, then we’ll constantly be arguing the relative merits of the marketing, relevance, sustainability and other aspects of successful musicians in a particular field and assuming they stand in for the field as a whole (thereby making that idiosyncratic model for that artist or field stand in for the only successful model to emulate).

I’ve explored the idea of sustainability found in popular culture in a couple of previous posts here and here.


8 thoughts on “Most musicians don’t make money

  1. Why do composers feel the need to make so much money from their music? Unless a composer has a Masters degree in music, s/he should not expect to make a reasonable living at music.

    I think the idea of having a long-term career in the music industry is a pipe dream. We can make music for fun and continue at our respective day jobs to pay the bills.

    Music should be about fun and passion, never about work and business.


    1. So wait, composers should only get paid a living wage if they have a Masters degree in music (even if the Masters degree isn’t in composition?). But music should be about fun and passion, never [sic] about work and business?

      How exactly is that supposed to work?


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