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christian howes

Be a Big Fish! Make a Living Doing Music

July 10, 2012 at 1:19 AM

Recently I’ve had the opportunity to perform and teach in Asia, affording a view onto an industry landscape much different from the United States.
I hear American musicians complain often of the lack of opportunity to make a living doing music. The world is a big place with a lot of opportunity if you know how to look for it. You can be a huge fish in many parts of the world if you’re willing to do some research and take the plunge. Can you imagine the kinds of experiences and things you’ll see and do?!

I met American musicians living like KINGS on the other side of the world. Some in the U.S. complain that they make things cheaper in Asia, making it hard for Americans to compete. It hurts our economy and limits the amount we can earn in America, because people work for and make things cheaper everywhere else.  Maybe this has hurt the standard of living in the U.S. for musicians because people are spending less on entertainment, parties, CD’s, etc., due to the overall economic situation. In places like China, where there’s a growing upper class, American musicians can go over and make a killing.

Chinese can copy just about everything we make, but no one can copy American music, and even if they could, an authentically American musician is viewed as an exotic import with premium value (in many places this premium goes up considerably for African American musicians). In fact, the culture of these countries is such that you rarely hear of native musicians training for a career in pop music or jazz. Sure, there are classical career musicians, but in general, there are more gigs than musicians when it comes to functional (party/dance) music and creative music.

In Hong Kong or Shanghai there might be less than 5 players on each instrument who play at a high level in jazz and other popular styles. It’s a very small scene, and players make $300-600 a night doing corporate functions, often working every night of the week, and supplementing with jazz clubs, hotels, restaurants (often on longstanding contracts to play 5 nights or a week at a hotel, for example). In some cases rent is paid, plus overseas flight, but regardless, $50,000 a year in Shanghai is like making $150,000 a year in Chicago.

The musicians I encountered all told me the same story – eat out (the food is awesome in China) every meal, take cabs everywhere, frequent massages, and saving money in the bank. Oh, and they can buy all the equipment they want, dirt cheap. Some of the musicians I worked with were sub-standard to the level of players I would expect to call for gigs in the U.S., but even these players were raking it in.

I’ve seen this before, to a lesser degree,  in places like Madrid, Spain, where there’s a bigger scene and a higher level of musicianship than Hong Kong or Shanghai, but even if relatively developed scenes the standard of American musicianship and professionalism is still seen in the same way. Our musicians are seen as valuable commodities in most places around the world. The musicians I’ve met abroad who happened to land in some foreign city are living at a very high standard and they have their pick of the best gigs in town.

It’s up to you to go out and make the most of all this opportunity.
How? Here are a few ideas:

1) Research musicians in your niche or stylistic interest on google such as “shanghai jazz” or “celtic music, Barcelona” and find some players on MySpace – listen to their stuff, check their schedules online. Contact them via a personalized mass email (or hire someone overseas for cheap to do some of this work for you – you can find a virtual assistant in India or Phillipines for between $2-6 per hour.)? I would let them know that you’re planning on coming over to do some playing and you’re looking for local players that you can hire – everyone’s interested in a gig – or just let them know that you like their music and ask if you can call them to talk about the local music scene. Maybe you can establish a rapport with someone who would even be willing to hire you tentatively to play on some gigs if you were to make it over.

2) Call agencies and tell them you’d like to move there and want to know if they would have interest in booking you.

3) Save some money and just go!  Once you get there, hit the places where musicians play and meet the ex-pats. You’ll quickly get networked if you’ve got the goods musically.

I’m not saying that this is right for everyone, or that you absolutely should do this. But please don’t tell me there isn’t enough opportunity in this world for someone to make a living doing music :) If you’d like my help establishing your international career, feel free to shoot me an email at  It never hurts to network and share ideas, and I’m always fascinated to see people carev out their own paths in the music industry. (As a jazz violinist, I never had the luxury of having a clear path laid out, and the necessity of creating my own path ultimately has led to my having a career which I really enjoy!)

From Paul Deck
Posted on July 10, 2012 at 2:08 PM
A member of our local jazz scene who recently traveled to Shanghai told me the same thing -- I could move there and make an excellent living as a jazz pianist even though I could not do so here in the US. If I was coming right out of college I might consider doing that. Having a little cash in the bank would have made the grad school, postdoc, and pre-tenure years a little more comfy. The one caveat is that you do need to stay healthy. The gigging lifestyle does not ordinarily come with health insurance.
From Joyce Lin
Posted on July 11, 2012 at 10:27 PM
Paul, if you couldn't make it in Asia doing music, you could have at least lived well and saved lots of money teaching English. I know of several people who went to Taiwan fresh out of college, had their student loans paid off, and saved enough for a house down-payment back home within 2-3 years (and BTW, excellent and affordable health care there)...

However, those of Asian descent need not apply, as there is discrimination against Asian-looking native English speakers in the ESL industry in Asia, since somehow many people have gotten this strange idea that only Caucasians can speak English properly...

In short, anyone under 45 (yes, age discrimination is rampant) who is white (black is more acceptable than Asian, but not as favored as white), who is from one of the English speaking countries, has a college degree (this requirement may be ignored by employers in some places), and has a pulse, can pretty much make it in Asia teaching English (if one can survive the culture shock).

From Paul Deck
Posted on July 12, 2012 at 1:49 AM
Well I'm not under 45, but anyway playing jazz gigs sounds a lot more fun than teaching English. LOL.
From Joyce Lin
Posted on July 12, 2012 at 6:30 AM
Forgot to add: I doubt that an Asian American Jazz musician would be a hot commodity there no matter how great and authentically American s/he is, unless s/he also happens to look like a movie star...
From Karis Crawford
Posted on July 12, 2012 at 7:48 AM
I definitely have to agree with the above blog post! I've been living and working in Kenya for the past five years, teaching music, gigging and leading the Nairobi Orchestra. The playing abilities in Kenya are developing, slowly but surely, and I would love to see the day when Kenya's musicians are up to par with the Western world. It's getting there! For now, this is an excellent opportunity for me to learn more about another culture, learn another language, save money, travel and perform more than I would have if I had stayed in the States. I would highly recommend getting outside your comfort zone as a person and a musician and making the leap to try living in another country and making music. It isn't for everyone, but it can be a great life!

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