Making a living as a freelancer is stressful no matter what field you're in. As a musician, work can be difficult to come by at times, especially when you're first starting out. Waiting next to the phone to get your next gig is definitely going to make things happen slowly for you; you’ve got to live a life of hustling to get gigs.
There are, however, lots of options to diversify your income as a freelance performer besides waiting for sideman or session gigs to come up. The more sources you can pull income from, the more income there will be. Here are five diverse streams of income that can be both lucrative and enjoyable as a freelance performer.
This is a reality that all performers will have to face at some point. Even some of the musicians that tour nationally and have successful careers make a portion of their income by teaching in some capacity. This is a skill that develops independently, and just like practicing your instrument, you should try to develop your teaching skills to the point where you are a competent instructor on your instrument.
The great thing about teaching is that it comes in many forms. Most performers who teach on the side teach one-on-one private lessons to students in their local area. Some also offer lessons in whatever towns they happen to roll through on tour or virtual lessons over Skype or FaceTime. This can be a great income booster, and if you work well in a one-on-one setting, it can be a lot of fun as well.
As an alternative to private lessons, many popular instrumentalists offer clinics or master classes while they're on tour. When they get into town, they head over to a host location (typically a music store, school, or lesson studio) where they'll teach a larger lesson to a group of people (clinic), or a few short private lessons that are observed by a group (master class).
Some instructors simply make instructional videos, and sell them on a website through a package deal or subscription service. Other performers write instructional articles for magazines or blogs (such as what I'm doing at this very moment!). Many performers do some combination of all of these and are able to pull a decent portion of their income from teaching in a way that's enjoyable for them.
Whatever you choose and whatever your comfort level is, there are plenty of options to choose from to add teaching to your income.
2. Learning niche instruments
If you're a freelance performer, you should generally have one or two specialty instruments on which you're as good as you possibly can be on them (unless you're the sort of player that learns a billion different instruments and uses that as your selling point). There are plenty of instruments, however, that are probably similar to yours, and could be picked up fairly quickly, and I would definitely recommend picking them up.
There are some players that are expected to be able to double on a similar instrument. Many woodwind musicians play multiple instruments in the family, for example. As a saxophonist, you're generally expected to also play clarinet or flute, or at least a different horn in the saxophone family. Many professional violinists double on mandolin or viola and vice versa and are able to greatly expand their earnings as a result. Learning uncommon or ethnic instruments can be a great asset as well, as there are fewer people around to play them. For example, I've met pianists that get tons of great gigs on accordion or harpsichord and guitarists that get frequent calls due to their skills on the oud, lute, or sitar.
You don't have to be a consummate master of your second or third instrument, but having a working knowledge will greatly improve your market value. It's much easier for a music director to hire one person to play all of the live woodwind or string parts rather than hiring multiple people to do what one competent doubler could. If you play a popular instrument, look into one or two niche instruments that you could learn as well to help set you apart from the crowd and boost your value.
3. Exploring new styles
Similar to playing multiple instruments, being competent in many different styles of music can also increase your earning potential. It's true that there are many players out there that make a comfortable living as a specialist. But if you're having a hard time finding enough gigs, branching out and exploring work in a new style could help you to open up new markets and expand your gigging potential.
For example, a classically trained violinist that spends some time learning to fiddle is going to have a significantly wider list of opportunities than somebody who only does one or the other. He or she can now play in a small or large classical group for concerts, weddings, or other fancy events by day and in clubs and bars with rock, folk, and bluegrass groups at night. If you're a talented rock guitar player with a lot of technical facility, try exploring solo classical guitar so you can take wedding and background music opportunities. The more styles in which you're competent, the more opportunities that will open up for you.
Just like learning new instruments, this is important to do in moderation. At no point should you spread yourself so thin trying to learn new styles and instruments that you become the kind of person that can do a lot of things at a mediocre level. Be sure to make the distinction between your primary instruments and styles and the ones that are secondary for you.
4. Joining or starting a dance band
People love to dance, and though many venues are hiring DJs a cheaper alternative to a band, lots of people still love to hear live instruments. Depending on where you live, many active dance bands that have been around a while could potentially be gigging in bars twice or more a week with each person in the band making at least $100 a gig. Bands that specialize in weddings, corporate/private events, or casinos often make even more!
If you have room on your schedule for a few different bands, consider making one of them a dance band. These groups typically play covers – a lot of them. If you join up with one of these groups, you'll probably have to learn four or five hours of music, and learn it quickly. It might not be your favorite music or even good music, but if you're able to get in with an active group of friendly, reliable, and competent players, you'll likely still have a good time. It's worth it for the revenue that it could add to your income stream.
5. Learning to record and/or mix
The world of session musicians has been greatly influenced by innovations in modern technology. One of the biggest changes has come in the form of the home studio.
High-quality studio technology is more accessible than it has ever been, both in terms of price and usability. There are plenty of courses on the internet as well as at local community colleges and studios that will teach you enough about recording to start exploring and learning about audio on your own. Due to this, many session musicians are now opting to invest in their own home studio and are able to do sessions anywhere in the world and provide high-quality tracks from the comfort of their own homes.
I would highly recommend investing in quality studio equipment and learning how to use it if you're trying to add new streams of income. This will give you access to recording sessions for artists of all styles and income levels anywhere in the world. That's not the only benefit, however. With enough gear and know-how, you can easily create your own playing samples to be added to a website or SoundCloud without having to head into an expensive studio to make them. This can also translate to making video samples with high-quality audio, another important thing to have on a webpage to display your playing skills. Studio gear and knowledge is an essential tool these days if you're trying to make a living as a freelance performer, and I'd definitely recommend making it a priority if you haven't already.
Looking for even more tips on how to ramp up your income? Check out these articles:
- 5 Not-So-Obvious Revenue Streams for Musicians
- 2 Things You Must Do to Start Making Music Publishing Income From Your Songs
- 14 Ways to Make Money From One Song
- A DIY Guide to Booking House Concerts and Supercharging Tour Revenue
Dylan Welsh is a freelance musician and music journalist, based in Seattle, WA. He currently plays in multiple Seattle bands, interns at Mirror Sound Studio, and writes for the Sonicbids blog. Visit his website for more information.