18 Real-Life Expectations as a Working Musician

April 21, 2014, 1:15 PM · So you want to be a working musician?

Unless you are a statused musician to a stable employer such as a local Theme Park, Broadway show, symphony, school, studio or anything like these that have actual W-2s, benefits, etc., you can expect the following as a freelance musician (in no particular order):

1. Unstable income. We have feast or famine seasons in the entertainment world. Saving and budgeting are essential to survival.

2. Inconsistent schedule. We work most weekends and holidays. Gigs happen any time during a 24-hour period, and you have to be as well rested as possible between gigs. A regular sleep schedule does not exist for the working musician.

3. Varying equipment needs based on the job. I have to go over a checklist for every event, as each event is unique. Do I have the right books? Music? Instrument? Clothes? Stand/lights? Wireless units? In-ear monitors or stage monitors? Are they providing FOH? Am I playing with others? Am I playing with tracks or a click?

4. Multiple W-9s in January each year. Tax season stinks for musicians and entertainers. It’s tedious and time-consuming. Be sure to pay your taxes quarterly to avoid an annual huge tax bill. Find a good entertainment accountant to help you avoid unnecessary expenses and taxes.

5. Boxes of receipts, mileage logs, and equipment and maintenance expenses. (See previous item.)

6. 20,000 to 40,000 miles driving a year. Be sure to have a working, reliable vehicle for transportation. I strongly suggest AAA membership that covers you the farthest distance from home.

7. Repetitive use injuries to your body. Even on a budget, you have to give your body the proper fuel it needs to do its job; fast food is NOT real food. Get regular physicals and take vitamin supplements. Do the proper stretching before and after each gig and practice session to avoid injury.

8. Countless texts, e-mails and phone calls. Let’s hope you get these as it means you are in demand and working!

9. Temperamental people (especially in the wedding and meeting planner industry.) You have to learn how to roll with the punches and try to be as prepared as possible.

10. Living in your car. Okay, so maybe not “living” in it 24/7, but I have most of my everyday essentials in my car, including extra performance clothes, food, water, toothbrush, first aid kit, etc. All of my electronic devices have charging cables specifically for the car, and I make sure I have AAA in the event of an emergency. I definitely sleep/nap in the car if given the opportunity between sound check and showtime. (See item number 6 above.)

11. A different “office” every day. There is no “desk” or “locker” to keep your stuff. You go to a different location every day. Sometimes, there is a green room with food. Sometimes, you have a great view. Oftentimes, you are changing in the car or bathroom, and your case becomes your “desk” where you keep family photos, mementos, and emergency supplies.

12. “Freebird,” “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Stairway to Heaven,” “Devil Went Down to Georgia,” and other such popular requests from people. Hey, at least they recognize you’re a LIVE person and not pre-recorded BGM! You’re also not a DJ, and your library may or may not include such songs. My advice is to learn at least a little bit of each (a verse and chorus) so that it will satisfy their request and keep them happy. Depending on the situation, you could say that you’ll play it for $20 or something like that. You don’t want to do that in a private event or corporate situation as it is considered soliciting gratuities and that is usually a terminable offense and can ruin your professional reputation. Still, having an extensive repertoire that get used beats playing the exact same music, every day, multiple shows a day for months or years on end. I have always had respect for those musicians in the pits on shows and other regular engagements as they must have the patience to deal with the redundancy of the same music every time. Maybe the sacrifice of artistic freedom is their trade-off for the stable income and hours.

13. Instrument and equipment emergencies. Figure out what problems you may encounter and be prepared for them as best as you can. I often take TWO instruments to a gig, especially when they are expecting the electric violin. In the event of a power/frequency issue, the acoustic will work regardless. It’s the backup plan. I definitely take two bows and extra strings for my violin. I take extra cables, batteries, and a whole list of other extra things as a backup plan. Again, my car often becomes my storage closet while on a gig.

14. Upset family members/spouse/significant other. When you are a working musician, you keep crazy hours, travel frequently, meet lots of people (including stalkers), and work most times when your family wants to spend it with you (like holidays and weekends.) This is true especially if those family members have “real” jobs. You are rarely home for a regular bedtime, let alone a regular dinnertime. If you have children, let’s hope your spouse/partner is available to keep them on a regular schedule since you won’t be able to do that.

15. Days off and office hours. As our days off are scattered (let’s hope you’re working that much), people think they can reach you any day, especially during the week. Since Monday through Friday are work days in the “real world,” people think they can contact you anytime during the week between 9am and midnight. They think midnight because they know you are a musician and probably keep late hours anyway. Then they think they can contact you on weekends for the same reason. Basically, if you want a day off, turn off your phone and your computer and take it. Change your voice mail message. Post notice on social media. Whatever works for you. Just remember that contractors tend to go down their lists and will keep calling until they reach someone. It’s a double-edged sword, so tread carefully.

16. Last-minute changes/additions. Again, irregular schedules are the norm. (See items 2 and 9.)

17. Piles of black laundry. Since most musicians wear black clothing for almost every gig, it can be days or even weeks between loads of laundry. Make sure you have enough clean shirts, hose/socks and undies for at least two weeks. Also make sure most everything is washable and does not have to be sent to the cleaners. This is important anyway if you are touring, as you will likely not have time to do wash between shows and travel schedules.

18. Upset neighbors. You are coming and going at all hours of the day and night, and practicing whenever you can. I strongly suggest practice mutes, and remembering not to slam car doors too loudly if not during “normal” hours. It’s important to try to keep peace with your neighbors, especially if you want to ask them kindly to not mow their lawns or use loud machinery before 10am each day.

I know that this list is incomplete, and I encourage you to comment and add your own challenges. Yes, there are a lot of sacrifices we make as freelance, working musicians. But just as freedom isn’t free, freelance does not mean working for free, either. It means more personal responsibility, more dedication, more education (about business, networking, technology, and things other than just music), and even more patience as you try to make it your career. I love my freedom to do what I love every day! And I am so blessed that my family understands, accepts and especially supports these challenges of my career choices. For me, this is my key to happiness. What’s yours?

I encourage you to read more entries about life in the music business at my website vinylinist.com


April 22, 2014 at 01:25 AM · So true!

April 22, 2014 at 05:53 AM · As an amateur violinist who hangs around a lot of professional classically trained musicians in British Columbia. I think what you have described is very true. I just don't know how they did it to juggle so much and to be under so much stress. I am so glad you speak so eloquently for them, as so much truth is not been told to the people who have benefited from them, including some of their students and definitely all the nasty critics.

Nothing can be helped about the critics, but for the students or those who are looking for teachers, your blog should shed significant light, at least I hope so. Too much criticisms have been offered on v.com about bad teachers and they may be valid in many ways, but if students can also see what is likely behind the life of their teacher, they may have more realistic expectation on certain things (such as last minute cancellation, unwillingness of taking certain students, fees, etc.) so that things may work out more smoothly for themselves.

Great blog, Michelle! Brava!

April 22, 2014 at 12:42 PM · Wow! Very impressive. It takes phenomenal dedication and organization to be a working freelance musician. Thank you, Michelle, for sharing this perspective.

April 22, 2014 at 08:34 PM · You forgot "The Wind Beneath My Wings." People will request that, too.

April 28, 2014 at 04:01 PM · This list nails it. It's like you've been spying on my life.

I might add:

19) You will lose all squeamishness about asking for money.

20) You won't be able actually listen to any song on the radio. Instead, you will only hear arrangements.

21) You will become an expert at maximizing the amount of free food (and drink, but be careful!) you sustain yourself and your family on. In fact, the idea of going out somewhere and actually having to pay for your food and drink might be a little hard to stomach.

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