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20 Alternative Ways To Create A Sustainable Career In Music

As it becomes more evident that the new music industry will in no way resemble the construct of the past, many musicians are left trying to figure out how they can create a sustainable, or even lucrative career in music. Although album sales are on the decline, there is no decline in alternative jobs for musicians.

The idea that any emerging artist can become the next multi-platnum recording artist is null and void. Save for very rare instances, there is just not the level of demand in music that creates the necessary environment for a superstar to develop, and those who do break through at that level either had the connections or the marketing team that was smart enough to mold the musician to look and sound exactly how the labels want them to.  But this is nothing new.

As the DIY Musician movement strengthens, musicians are continually gaining more understanding as to how they can sustain a career in music without the need to sign to a record label and sell over 1 million copies. There is a seemingly limitless way for musicians to use their knowledge of any and all aspects of music to create a sustainable career doing what they love:

Music Licensing

Music licensing is a great opportunity for any aspiring musician to get paid for their recorded works to appear in TV and film. Helen Austin, a musician who has dedicated her career in music to licensing her works has put together a wonderful article on laying out the 4 Steps to Film and TV Placement.

Live Performance

The live performance sector is seen by many as the new focal point of the music industry. Although ticket giant Live Nation reported a drop in ticket sales for the summer of 2010, the live performance scene surrounding the emerging music scene has been flourishing. A new trend for musicians, especially in the upcoming hip-hop scene is to forgo signing with a record label, only to sign with a major booking agency who can effectively act as the liaison between the artist and other, well established artists and venues.

Studio/ Session Musician

There is always a demand for highly trained, highly qualified musicians to step in and add support on an album. This is not limited to any instrument or genre and can range from freelance work to working contractually for a major label. However, as the demand is high, so is the competition - in order to work as a studio/ session musician, you MUST be able to read music at a fluent rate and be able to adjust your playing to suit the needs of the client.

Band Manager

The negotiation skills and industry understanding gained from your own endeavors are the perfect skill set to get you started as a new band manager.

Music Teacher

Teaching music can be done at quite a few different levels of understanding and pay-grade, ranging from private in-home lessons up to collegiate-level music study. While it is certainly an attainable goal to establish a few clients and teach out of your own home without having a degree in music, it is almost guaranteed that you will need to have a degree in music and possibly even teaching in order to teach in any sort of professional setting.

Pit Band For Off-Broadway Productions

Although most broadway productions use classical music and orchestras, there are many off-broadway productions that contain much more contemporary forms of music. National Shows like Cirque De Sole and Blue Man Group, as well as many other smaller performances have scaled down from the orchestra to a smaller, Rock n’ Roll oriented music section.

Instrument Repair Technician

This can be done as either a part-time or full time job, and depending on your level of specialization, it can greatly range in pay-scale. Though you may be able to find work based on understand you’ve gain from your own research, this is one of those jobs that typically requires some sort of apprenticeship before you are fully hired as a professional technician. If this is something you are considering, there are quite a few resources out there, such as NAPBIRT that provide a free exchange of information for instrument repair technicians.

Book Bands For a Local Venue

Booking other music acts for a local venue is a great way to not only learn the inter-workings of the live music industry, but to gain some potentially valuable contacts should you ever decide to give it a go yourself.

Ghost Songwriter

Many musicians and artists have forged especially lucrative careers out of ghost songwriting for singers, performers and pop-stars. It is a fact that while Britney Spears was at the height of her fame, a woman named Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta was writing the songs for her. More recently, Stefani has gone on to become one of the most successful pop stars of all time under the name Lady Gaga.

House Band/ Residency

There are clubs, bars, theaters, restaurants, hotels, resorts and even cruises all over the world that look for groups or solo musicians willing to act as the resident band. These residencies can range from nightly to weekly to monthly and offer a steady stream of income while you take the time needed to write and establish a fan base.

Page Turner

This one seems a little ridiculous, but there is actually a demand for ‘page turners’ who can literally sit and read along with musicians, turning the pages of sheet music at exactly the right moment. Check out this article from NPR that explains how it all works.

Music Transcriber

There are plenty of musicians and singer-songwriters who lack the understanding of music theory to be able to transcribe their music. Many musicians have found freelance work by charing an hourly rate to sit down with other musicians who play back what they’ve written while it is all transcribed on sheet music. Not a bad gig if you enjoy listening to music at an extremely slowed-down rate…

Film/ Video Game Scoring

Similar to music licensing, there is a plethora of major and indie film and/or video game makers looking for musicians to score their work.

Freelance Music Journalism

There is no one with more potential to become a freelance music journalist than a musician. The understanding of music theory and the music industry as whole can be just the qualifications needed to write insightful reviews of albums or live performances or maybe even essays for about the current trends or state of the music industry.

Music Production

Of course, with the DIY music movement becoming so contagious, many musicians have begun to take the many aspects of music production into their own hands. Ranging from recording to mixing to mastering, many musicians have created sustainable careers in the field of Music Production, allowing them to then later fund their own projects with their own money and experience.

These are just a few of the many, many ways to use your love for music to establish a sustainable career. While not all of the possibilities are glamorous or even all that lucrative, meaning it may take a few different revenue streams to make this music-filled lifestyle sustainable, you can at least rest assured knowing that your life is fueled by what you love… Music.


Written by Jonathan Ostrow (@miccontrol); he is the co-founder of MicControl, a music blogging network based on a social networking platform. This article originally appeared on the MicControl Blog on Sept. 21, 2010.

How have you used music to create a sustainable career?

Reader Comments (11)

Thanks for this article. Most of these sound like the standard ways musicians have sustained themselves for decades.

The idea that a "musician" is someone who is chasing down becoming "Superstar" is pretty silly and in no way is an appropriate measure for the health of the music industry (Young or old).

It's no more difficult to make a living in music then during "the good old days." ...whenever that was..

October 7 | Unregistered CommenterRob Michael

Agreed Rob, none of these are all that groundbreaking or even unusual, I just wanted to spotlight some other areas that musicians have found work in the past as a way for new musicians to see just how many options there really are. This is more of a 'dont let anyone or anything stop you from pursuing your goals' article than anything else. But thanks for the feedback!


October 7 | Registered CommenterJonathan Ostrow

You might want to add "Music Promotion", "Publishing" and "Social/Street-Worker" (the latter is quite common in Germany).

Also, for many purely electronic music based producers, DJing is probably the most promising method to generate regular income.

Finally, many of the people who previously earned their money running a studio or were employed in a big label actually opened up countless questionable "music schools" - anyhow, it's a solid way to make a living, dreams sell well.

October 7 | Unregistered CommenterFabien

Good article. Nothing groundbreaking, as Rob pointed out, but definitely a nice refresher for artists who've lost focus on the many routes available to them.


October 7 | Unregistered CommenterJarret

@Great additions Fabien, thanks for contributing to the list!

@@Jarret - thank you, im glad you enjoyed the article. It is meant to be more of a jumping off point than a definitive statement.

October 7 | Registered CommenterJonathan Ostrow

Once again an article to get the creative juices flowing. Actually Just what I needed right now - a little focus. Thx Jon.

October 7 | Unregistered Commenterebmartin

Solid, straightforward article, Jon. It keeps the upbeat vibe without getting over-the-top idealistic. While I welcome idealism, it helps to have it grounded in some form or another. The page turner job really shows that not all jobs that involve music are glamourous.

October 8 | Unregistered CommenterMark D

Great reminder article Jon. It's good to have this kind of reminder. Funny how we often find what we need when we "need" it.

I too, would like to add a couple of suggestions:

House of Worship band: (could be related to your "Resident Band" category.
Worship Leader could also be an option under live "performance"
School Assemblies would also be an option for an artist who can bring a particular cultural or themed presentation,
Holiday shows could also be a lucrative subset of the "Live Performance" section as well.
Entertainment Director for a Festival/Large-scale event could be an option under "booking bands for a local venue"

Thanks for getting my juices flowing,


October 8 | Unregistered CommenterJamaicaBob

Living with musicians and other creative folk, i have wrote down 9 of the above i have been a part of, have thought of doing, about to commence or a friend already does.

Incorporate individual business models for each with the ever evolving plethora of music services and tools and all of these together or even just a couple could answer the question, what it takes to be a DIY Musician in today's age and earn a living.

Thanks for this, i love being reminded about things i am yet to write down. Jusices flowing here too JamaicaBob!

Damn, i love Music Think Tank!

October 8 | Registered CommenterMartin Toole

Here's a similar post I made about this idea

October 9 | Registered CommenterElliott Fienberg

I'm surprised this didn't make the list since it's a big one. The music products industry is huge. Whether you're on the retail side or working for the manufacturer. There are many job positions that require talent and knowledge related to an instrument or many instruments.

October 25 | Unregistered CommenterBen O'Brien Smith

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