The glitz and glamor associated with a performing musician’s life can be alluring – the applause, the stage, the music. But behind the scenes lies a world of hard work, dedication, and significant challenges. Many talented musicians grapple with the question: Is it worth pursuing a career as a performing musician?
Let’s dive into some specifics about potential income, job prospects, and the challenges and rewards of this unique career.
Jazz Pianist: The Beat of Solo Gigs
Jazz pianists, like most musicians, often get paid per gig. The average fee can vary widely depending on the venue, city, and the musician’s reputation. For local or lesser-known pianists, they might earn between $50 to $200 for a small gig. As their reputation grows or for performances in more established venues or festivals, fees can rise to $500 or even $1,000 and up for a single performance. These figures fluctuate tremendously though, and you may need to factor in your agent’s fee.
For a bit of context, please realize that even the most successful jazz musicians still teach private lessons (at least a few), to supplement their income. Other than household names like Kenny G, few musicians are free from teaching entirely.
Playing in an Orchestra
Orchestral jobs are among the most sought-after positions in the music world. A position in a major orchestra, like the New York Philharmonic or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, can come with a salary ranging from $70,000 to $150,000+ annually. However, smaller regional orchestras might offer salaries between $30,000 to $60,000. For reference the Philadelphia Orchestra union is negotiating for a raise to $170K per year, as of november 2023.
But here’s the catch: securing an orchestral job is incredibly competitive. Thousands of highly trained musicians often compete for a single spot. And remember, once someone gets a position in a renowned orchestra, they’re likely to hold onto it for years, if not decades. So, while the pay is decent and the job prestigious, it’s not an easy path. Auditions are blind, and like military band jobs, there is an element of luck involved.
Pursuing a Career as an Academic
Many musicians pursue their MMus or doctorate in hopes of securing cushy university jobs. Adjunct music professors, however, don’t earn as much as their full-time counterparts. On average, adjuncts in the U.S. can expect to make somewhere between $20,000 to $40,000 annually, depending on the institution, location, and number of courses they teach.These positions often don’t come with benefits, and job security can be tenuous. Tenured positions are much more secure, but more often than not, young teachers will need to wait for a tenured professor to retire before a position opens.
Military Band Jobs
LIke orchestra jobs, professional military band positions in one of the leading bands offers an excellent salary and significant benefits. However, hundreds and hundreds of musicians will audition for just a single open chair. You can also enlist in one of the more regional bands, but the prestige isn’t there, the salary is lower, and you won’t be able to focus on only music. You will also need to live near a military base that houses one of these bands (President’s Own, Pershing’s Own, etc.), and most are near Washington DC.
Supplement Your Skill Set
Teaching online courses, creating YouTube tutorials, offering music editing services, or even composing for commercials and films can help earn additional income for musicians. Furthermore, focusing on building your own private teaching practice can do a world of good for musicians – that baseline of monthly income helps you pursue your dream of performing. If you’re a singer in the Manhattan area, for instance, take advantage of the huge demand for voice lessons in NYC. Or if you are a pianist with an entrepreneurial spirit, offer piano lessons or gather a team of teachers and rent a storefront in a nice neighborhood like the Upper West Side near Lincoln center.
So Is a Career as a Performing Musician Worth the Effort?
There is no simple answer to this question. Live music isn’t as necessary as it once was, since most weddings and events are supplemented by DJs, not live bands. Audiences only attend jazz events in small numbers, and orchestra jobs are in incredibly high demand. That said, if music is the only thing you can be happy doing, it’s worth the pursuit.
Please consider, though, that you may be happier maintaining music as a hobby, and making a living doing something else more lucrative. In fact, many musicians burn out because they combine work and pleasure too often.