Is Being a Musician Stable?

A top question I’m asked by students and strangers alike is the question of stability. Is being a musician a stable way to make an income? This is the wrong question to ask, of course. The better question to ask is “Is this musician stable?” or “Are you a stable musician?”

They’re asking if I’m scraping by monetarily or living comfortably. Again, this can’t be a blanket question for the whole career of music-making. It’s too broad. Each musician has a different career, a different set of income sources, a different set of abilities, and a different money history as well.

I’d like to present some questions that a freelancer in any capacity (not just music) could ask themselves or be asked to determine if they’re stable or not.

None of these are end-alls. For each of these I could point to a musician who’s making a good stable living but doesn’t have the “right” answer to a few of these. These are more like individual metrics that add up to “stability.” The more of each of these someone has in their favor the more stable they would be.

So here we go:

1. Are they well connected? – The size of a person’s network means a larger pool to pull work from. The more people aware of a person’s talent and to which a person’s talent is applicable, the more opportunity will come their way in the way of referrals and bookings.

2. Do they have a low overhead? – Car payments, mortgages, student loan debt, and high monthly expenses while not inherently dangerous, can become precarious when they start to add up. Someone who’s doing their best to keep these kinds of expenses manageable based on their income is less likely to get in money trouble.

3. Are they saving for “True Expenses” and rainy days? – The idea of a “True Expense” as far as I know was coined by the folks at YNAB, the budgeting software that I happily use. We should expect that our 6 month car insurance payment will be coming every 6 months, that Christmas will come every year, and that our cars will breakdown and will be expensive to fix. If we expect those and save for them now we won’t be caught off guard when the time comes. Stability is when sudden changes don’t catch you off guard. The better prepared a person is for True Expenses the more stable they are. Most emergencies and surprises don’t need to be.

4. Are their talents diverse? – The more abilities a musician has the more work they can accept. Musicians that can play almost any style of music authentically and can read music are best equipped to be successful. Being a good educator, being able to repair instruments, and being able to write and arrange music are just more strengths increase stability.

5. Are they well liked? – People want to work with their homies. It’s an assumption that we’re good at what we’re doing. After that, it’s all about being enjoyable to be around. I love working for and with people who have warm auras, friendly smiles and good quality hugs. Drunk people, loud people, egotistical people, and selfish people are not enjoyable to make music with. Actually, they’re just not enjoyable. Music is a people occupation just like most of the other arts. Good people skills lead to stability. Bad ones take away from stability, there’s only so much people are willing to put up with.

6. Are they professional? – Things like dressing appropriately, showing up on time, learning the music, playing the music appropriately and selflessly, answering the phone etc. keep band leaders happy and thus add stability.

7. Are their gigs diverse? – Similar to number 4, it’s good to work for a lot of different people. No gig lasts forever – this is the best assumption to work from. New musicians move into town, venues close, economies ebb and flow, and relationships get strained. It helps to not be too dependent on any particular gig. “What would happen if this gig ended?” is a good question to ask. If “not much” were the answer, that’s more stability. In this regard, a lot of musicians have more stability than “normal folks.”

8. Is there debt? – Debt is a crippling, paralyzing, anchoring nightmare of a monster. Simply put the more debt, the less stability.

In my own career I’ve made these 8 things a top priority. The result has been a stable living. At this moment I’m the drummer for two very busy bands, serve as the house drummer of a weekly jam session, occasionally play at Busch Gardens and Adventure Islands, teach 7 private lessons per week, and teach/write percussion arrangements for two schools. In between those regular weekly, monthly and seasonal gigs I sub for lots of drummers in the area, play musicals, freelance all around Florida and teach percussion and jazz classes in schools all around the county.

As I have the opportunity I’m cognizant of expanding my network and skill set. Practicing good money habits, especially aggressive budgeting (get YNAB!) and saving.

I use these 8 metrics to determine the stability of my career. Keeping my skills, network and jobs diverse, remaining professional and managing money well is all it takes to be a stable freelancer.

With a little bit of planning and effort its absolutely possible to be a stable musician.

What are your thoughts or questions on freelancing and stability? I want to hear from my readers, send me an email!