Performing Musician / Singer Careers

Music is a universal form of self-expression. Musicians and Singers convey a culture’s musical traditions and create new forms as well. An ear, or talent, for music often shows up early in life. While vocal training for singers usually begins in later teen years when the voice matures, musicians can start learning an instrument even sooner. For those who specialize in classical or jazz music, it’s typical to take formal instruction, such as studying with a "master" or earning a bachelors or master’s degree in music. Many musicians working in popular music genres, like hip hop, rock, and folk, are self-taught. Musicians and singers need a great deal of skill, tenacity and sometimes luck -- to earn a living from music. While they may find work through competitive auditions, most need to promote themselves to find consistent work. Gigs, or performances, are often scheduled in the evenings, weekends or holidays and can require travel away from home. Musicians and singers often teach, or hold another “day job” to support a performing career. Offering lessons and performing for different venues is a form of self-employment. Financial and business experience or classes can be helpful for managing the business side of a self-employed music career. While a music career isn’t an easy one, for many, the joy of performing more than makes up for the sacrifices the art demands.

Performing musicians and singers entertain audiences with music.

They may play instruments or sing; some perform alone, while others play with a group of musicians fulfilling different roles. Performing musicians can be featured instrumentalists, backup singers, band members, singer-songwriters, chorus members, performance artists, soloists, rappers, live set DJs, and more. From pop stars to drum circle leaders, musicians find all kinds of avenues to share their talent with an audience.

The work life of a performing musician relies largely on the type of work they do. Singers may compose their own material, have songs written for them, or perform renditions of well-known pieces. Some singers play an instrument, such as the piano or guitar, that they can use to accompany themselves; others work with bands, accompanists, or ensembles when they want a fuller sound, or even pre-record multi-layered tracks in a studio that they can then sing along with. Instrumental musicians may band together to create complex music in different genres. Many performers have something called a set list, which is a pre-determined list of songs they will perform on a specific date. With the exception of improvisational musicians, the first step to a successful performance is knowing what you're going to perform and practicing extensively in preparation.

Work as a performing musician may include...

  • Playing music and/or singing in front of audiences
  • Recording tracks, demos, and live shows
  • Rehearsing prior to shows
  • Developing, composing, or arranging music to play
  • Connecting with venue managers, other musicians, and fans

Finding work as a performing musician often relies on initiative and networking. Some musicians play wherever they can, building a following of appreciative audience members. Working as a street musician can be lucrative in busy areas, and aspiring performers should familiarize themselves with local busking laws, which typically require a permit to use amplified sound. Another avenue is playing in local businesses; sometimes, bars, restaurants, galleries, or coffee shops will have musicians play in their spaces, which can be a paid gig or an opportunity to collect tips. Forming a good relationship with a venue can lead to repeat or regular gigs there, which is a steady source of income for many musicians. Sometimes musicians will be hired to perform at events like weddings, graduations, and art openings; these types of gigs vary, since every event will want to cultivate a different vibe. Some musicians tour, playing at venues across the country and around the world. Those working in theatrical productions typically have a set rehearsal period leading up to a run of performances for each show. In general, finding work relies on timing, luck, persistence, and who you know; a committed performer can always find someone to listen, even if it means using unconventional methods to get heard.

The path to a career in performance is different for every musician. Some recognize their affinity for music during childhood; others begin writing songs as young adults and soon begin performing in local venues; others may find music later in life and begin to share it. Musicians can be self-taught, formally trained, or just in the right place at the right time. Many pick up music in family or community settings, developing their skills with encouragement from others. In recent years, a number of musicians have posted their performances on various social media sites, which can be a great way to garner attention and interact with fans. It's important for musicians to rehearse constantly in order to maintain their skills and master new performance material, so aspiring musicians should set aside plenty of time to continually practice their craft.

If you want to share your music with the world, a career as a performing musician might be the thing to do.

AFM is the largest union of musicians in the world, working to make the music industry work for musicians.

Touring Career Workshop provides touring professionals with education, connection, and mental health resources.

Nashville Song Writers is a trade association that offers a variety of services to professional and aspiring songwriters.

The Songwriters Guild fights to protect songwriters, the music they create and their ability to earn a living for themselves and their families.