Everybody who works as a freelancer in any industry understands the hustle. It's hard to live a life where you have next-to-no job security and where the money you make isn't necessarily comparable to the actual number of hours you spend working. For many people, however, the hustle is completely worth it to be able to do what they love for a living. If you've got the skills, it's totally possible to make your living as a freelance musician. You just need a little business sense, a good attitude, and tons upon tons of patience. I'm still getting off the ground as a freelancer, but here's some advice I can offer that has worked well for me so far.
Treat it like the business it is
The most important thing to remember when starting to freelance is that you're essentially starting a small business with your skills as the product. That means you need customers. Not only do you want customers (i.e., the people who hire you for your skills), but you also want to make sure your customers are happy and keep returning (i.e., they continue to hire you over the years). In order to do this, you need to start by producing really high quality work, always. Every gig you’re given, no matter how small, should be thought of as a chance to demonstrate just how high quality your work is.
When customers come to a business, they expect good service to accompany a high-quality product. So, be nice! Oftentimes, my favorite shops and business have come to be my favorites not only due to the quality of the product, but from the warm attitude of the employees that allow me to build personal relationships with them and feel like more than just "customer #465." They remember my name, they remember my usual order, and they chat with me and take an interest in me as a person. Try to do the same with anybody you work with! Be easy to work with, friendly, and willing to accept criticism when you could be doing something better. If you do that along with putting out high-quality work, then there's no reason that somebody shouldn't want to hire you again and again.
One way or another, music is a service industry. Period. You're providing a service to any musicians or business owners who hire you, or serving your own soul and fans by making and playing your original music, but remember that as musicians, we have a very special job to do in society that nobody else can.
Define your skills
So what "products" can you offer to prospective "customers"? These come down to your skills. For example, my primary skill (product) is playing guitar. I can offer this skill to clients in a number of different ways (as I'll talk about below), all of which I can monetize. Your primary skill should be the one that you can offer at the highest quality consistently. Hopefully it's what you enjoy doing the most as well!
However, if you go into a coffee shop, other products besides the primary one – coffee – are likely for sale, too, such as food, pastries, and other types of beverages. These are any additional skills that you can offer prospective clients that can be used to make your business unique. For me, this includes skills such as arranging, composing, and audio engineering, as well as a few other instruments that I can double on at a competent level. If you're primarily a composer, are you able to conduct? Play piano? Write songs? If you're primarily a mix engineer, do you do live sound? Program electronic music and MIDI? There are lots of options, and it just comes down to what you've developed over the years or would want to develop in the future.
Your secondary skills might not be as developed as your primary skill, but that's fine as long as you can still offer them at a high enough quality to augment whatever project is asking for them. The last thing you want to do is offer somebody a skill that you aren't developed enough in (yet) and end up being a detriment to the project. For example, I used to take tons of gigs on the viola, but have since stopped offering that service almost entirely as it's caused me a lot of physical pain, and I haven’t been able to keep up with practicing it.
Of course, remember that you can always spend time developing and practicing these secondary skills until you can offer them confidently, or even learn new ones as the years go on.
Monetize your skills as services
Once you've laid out your skill set, you have to figure out how you can specifically offer those skills to others. I've seen plenty of wesites that offer little more than to tell me that the site owner "plays piano." But what does that actually mean? Does he teach? Do session work? Is he available to tour? Can he read music?
Be specific. What can you do for others using your skills? For example, with my arranging service, I'm often hired by songwriters to help them write lead sheets for their music. However, there are lots of songwriters, especially ones just getting started, who don't even realize that people offer this kind of skill. But because I have it laid out clearly on my website, they realize that they can make use of that service.
Once you've started breaking your skills down, you need to start thinking about actual dollar amounts. How much do you charge for each of these services? For example, have a different price for doing session work vs. playing live, and even different prices between doing session work in-studio vs. doing it remotely from your own studio. I have all of these skills and prices organized in a tidy Excel document, which I break out anytime I need to give somebody a quote. A lot of the time, the person hiring you will simply offer you a flat rate for whatever services they want to hire you for, but there will be times when somebody asks you for a price. Be ready with clear numbers.
Be ready to scale these numbers depending on the project budget as well. Especially when you're first starting out, you're likely to be working with people on a small budget. Be willing to negotiate with these clients (remember what I said about customer service?), and it's likely that they'll turn into repeat customers and offer you more work once the project is complete (and once they start building their budget).
Combine skills to stand out
So, let's say you're ready to start your career. You've got your services defined, laid out, and appropriately priced. You pack your bags and head off for whatever big music city you've decided to run off to. Now you run into the problem that's most often encountered by musicians everywhere.
Have you been walking around an urban area and seen a Starbucks across the street from another freaking Starbucks? Have you ever walked around a high-class part of town and found three jewelry stores and four art galleries on the same mile-long stretch of a street? This is oversaturation, and this is what musicians have to compete with constantly.
How does your cafe stand out vs. the three other cafes down the street? In other words, how do you stand out and find clients as "NYC Piano Player #34985234"? Well, as long as your coffee (aka, your piano playing) is just as good as theirs, you need to find a way to leverage your other skills to make you unique. I've found that one of the best ways to do this is to combine your skills into one big package. And since everybody's set of primary and secondary skills will be different, you'll be able to create a unique identity through combining them.
For example, as I mentioned above, I work with a lot of songwriters. So I try to offer them all of my services as one big bundle. First, I help them flesh out their songs and write lead sheets for them. Then, if they don't already have a demo of the song, I can help them record a nice-sounding one. After that, I'll take the song and arrange it for whatever instrumentation they want on the final recording (whether it be rhythm section, strings, whatever). From there, I'll go into the studio with them, record whatever parts I'm capable of recording, and refer them to friends of mine who can flesh out the rest of the instruments. Finally, I'll offer them my live performance services, accompanying them when they go out to gig. This is comparable to walking into a coffee shop that's warm, inviting, and has a ton of high-quality products. So, you decide to grab a drink, a salad that comes with soup, and maybe a big ol' pastry as well.
I can't tell you how to combine your skills because every person will have a unique toolbox that they’ve developed over the years. Get creative! I find that I have the most fun on a project when I get to work all of my skills simultaneously, and you might enjoy it just as much!
Now, run your business
As a final point, I want to mention some things all businesses need to keep up with. For starters, make sure that you're keeping track of your income and expenses. This is important for all sorts of reasons (taxes are probably the biggest), but also because it's nice to see how your income is changing and (hopefully) growing as time goes by. At the end of the year when you're tallying up your totals, also make totals for each of your skills. This way, you'll be able to see which of your skills has brought you the most income, and may help you to strategize your marketing in the future.
Speaking of marketing, though much of your work as a musician will come through referrals and word-of-mouth, throwing up a couple of ads every now and again doesn't hurt. Especially for services such as private lessons where much of your target customer demographic will be amateur, aspiring, or non-musicians, putting up physical flyers around town in local businesses and community hang-out spots might at least get your name into the minds of people walking by, even if they don't call you for your service right away. Be sure that your website is frequently updated, looks awesome, and that you've spent time setting up some strong SEO for it (or have hired somebody else to do it). Notice I haven't said, "If you have a website." That's not optional. It's 2015, folks. Get a damn website, already!
I recommend reading up on a couple of business books, or even taking a business course at a local community college if you can. Whether you like it or not, music is a business, and if you want to make it your career, you've got to treat it as such.
Learn more about marketing yourself as a musician:
- Marketing Like Macklemore: 5 Tips to Help You Stand Out and Succeed
- 10 Free (Or Insanely Cheap) Marketing Strategies Your Band Should Use
- Top 10 Marketing Mistakes That Musicians Make
- 5 Marketing Methods That All Musicians Who Want to Succeed Should Be Using
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.