Thursday, September 20, 2007

Making A Living

I'm a musician. You know - a man with no marketable skills. Civilians sometimes ask me what I do for a living; musicians I run into often ask me what kind of stuff I've been doing lately. These questions always leave me tongue-tied. What on earth DO I do to make ends meet? Sure, I play gigs, I teach, I run my jazz education website. I do Finale copy work... But what does it all amount to and how can I succinctly answer these quesions? After all, if you ask someone in "normal" life what they do they'll say something like "I sell shoes" or "I teach fifth grade" or "I'm a bartender". I have no such pithy response.

My wise friend Sarah says that we belong to the "artist class"; we're not blue collar workers because most of us are highly educated and "professional" yet we're not really white collar either since we don't get a regular paycheck and most of us do not earn six figures (0r anything close to that!). So we occupy some subversive nether world; we have the freedom of a freelance schedule but the burdens of an irregular income, no paid vacations and having to fork over large wads of cash every month if we want to have health insurance.

When I examine the work I do as an instrumentalist I have to laugh. One night I'm playing Louie, Louie with a metaphorical paper bag over my head at someone's wedding; the next night I'm playing a jazz festival. One week I'm subbing on Wicked and earning serious dollars; the next I'm looking for spare change under my rug to buy a cup of coffee. Unless one has a day gig or some kind of steady job (in an orchestra, say, or touring with a name act), this is our reality.

I earn about 20% of my income teaching. Again, though I really enjoy the process and most of my students, it can be very hit or miss. I'll have a week where everyone shows up for their allotted time, followed by two where half my students cancel. There's also a wide variance in both skill and talent level, not to mention the amount of practice time people put in from lesson to lesson.

So, I ask my fellow freelance musicians: What do you do for a living?


oluchi gardens said...

Hi Bill. Thank you for your insight. I have taken the plunge and it is ups and downs. I am looking for a mentor. I play bass currently in Atlanta. Im currently on the down side of being broke. Trust me April showers bring may flowers...april...1 studio session...May 1 really nice studio session and 5 gigs so far. I play on the streets too. Trying to be consistent and always work...

Anyways do you mentor? I need one.

Check me out on instagram as:

Thanks for sharing your wisdom

Bill Harrison said...


Please contact me at to discuss mentoring further. Thanks for your comment.