What Can I Do to Make a Living in Music?

The music industry is often difficult to navigate. The careers and revenue streams are myriad and ever-changing; David and Tim Baskerville identified 42 distinct streams in their book, and it’s not even close to an exhaustive list. Don’t let the “1.1% of musicians make it big” statistic discourage you, there is always money to be made for those who are properly prepared.

A good summary of what it takes to make it in the industry is at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even though the page doesn’t have a long list of possible careers, it provides some good, general insights about the industry. It notes that wage data is difficult to collect since it’s a small industry that’s comprised mostly of people working in multiple positions (and often separate fields entirely). Wages also vary greatly in both contract and salaried positions. For example, a fairly recent Berklee College of Music report found that video game music composers make $18K-$150K, orchestra musicians make $28K-143K, and music therapists make $20K-135K. As a self-employed contractor, pay can vary even more—beginners may take jobs for no pay at all until they have a good enough portfolio and obtain better contacts. Some jobs have a more reasonable low-end salary, but they often take a lot more investment upfront (e.g music attorney, $70K-$150K).

Here’s a shortlist of some of the jobs available in the industry:

Musicians: Live and recording artist, studio musician, orchestra, theater/opera, accompanist. Besides a basic understanding of music technology, these careers benefit greatly from traditional music education, as well as private study on their respective instrument(s).

Music writing and preparation: Songwriter, lyricist, film/game/video composer, library composer, arranger, copyist, transcriptionist. These careers benefit greatly from a comprehensive knowledge of music theory, usually obtained at a traditional college music program. It’s also helpful to find a good mentor and study the best artists and works in each of these fields.

Recording: recording, mixing and mastering engineer, producer, contractor. As with most music jobs, networking is absolutely essential. These careers, in particular, are not only about skill, but also sales and “who you know.” For engineers, there are plenty of places online to learn the craft, and colleges are integrating production more and more into their offerings.

Education: full and part-time teacher, private coach, accompanist, school AV staff, public speaker, instructional designer. Most schools require an advanced degree in the subject area. If you want to jump right in, AV positions are often available at the entry level (with schools, districts, and AV companies).

Artist support: manager, booking agent, music attorney. Managers and agents require networking and industry knowledge. The path to be a legal counsel is the long and pricey road through law school.

Other support: A&R, marketing, distribution, merchandising, sales, business/accounting, publishing. These require varying degrees of skill and/or industry experience. It’s easy to start at the ground level and work your way up if this is where you want to be.

Tour and live support: tour/road manager, AV crew (sound and lighting), DJ, promoter, talent buyer, venue management/arts administration. These jobs mostly require the right mindset and willingness to be on the road. Some degrees help to prepare for these positions, but you can also start at the entry level and work up.

Broadcasting/TV: music supervisor (TV and radio), music editor, radio DJ, podcaster/talk show host, actor, music video crew. A lot of broadcast and TV-related jobs begin with a degree in communications, videography or mass media, and others begin at the entry level.

Medical: music therapist, otolaryngologist, audiologist. All three of these jobs require specific education and licensing, with the audiologist having the lowest barrier of entry.

Acoustics and systems: studio and performance space designer, AV installer/troubleshooter, venue staff. A study of acoustics is helpful, as is getting a job with an AV company or venue.

Gear-related: instrument maker, repairman, sales rep, equipment designer, plugin/software programmer, UI designer, etc . . . Instrument makers are mostly large companies, but small shops often have a moster/apprentice relationship. Repair techs and sales reps are often ladder positions. Creators of plug-ins and software are often programmers, or audio engineers who contract with computer programmers.