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The Top Five Employers of Musicians – And What the Economic Recovery Means for Us

Two years ago, I wrote an article about finding work in the midst of the recession. Part of the advice I gave was to focus on building clients at schools and churches, as they seemed to be the only institutions surviving the financial crisis.

It’s time for some new advice.

Now, certainly, I’m no economist. I took one, required, econ class in my whole life and I spent most of it looking pretty glassy-eyed. I can only tell you what I’m seeing in my own career and you can tell me in the comments below if you are seeing the same.

The Five Employers of Musicians

There are 5 basic employers for musicians.

  1. For-profits (i.e. corporate gigs, cruise ships)
  2. Non-profits (ballets, symphonies)
  3. Individuals (weddings, parties)
  4. Education (schools, universities)
  5. Churches/synagogues

As soon as the recession hit in 2007 (it came early in the arts), the first three on that list took a big hit. In 2008 I was working a sweet guest performer gig on a big ‘ol cruise ship in Hawaii. Then one day the act got canned and replaced by a juggler. They said one juggler was cheaper than the seven of us. That’s showbiz for you.

Once the recession came in earnest in 2008 non-profits in the arts started closing up shop. Famous theaters from California to Akron to New York closed their doors for good between 2008 and 2010. Nearly every symphony orchestra in the country took a pay cut, including untouchables like the Chicago Symphony and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. The Honolulu Symphony folded altogether and the Charleston Symphony was nearly turned into a community band. Eleven Broadway shows closed in late 2008, taking 150 musician jobs with them.

It got pretty ugly. I’m sure you remember.

Run and Hide

Many of us, myself included, retreated into academics and churches. They seemed to be the only organizations hiring musicians at the time. Before the recession hit I’d never played a church organ in my life, but when a church gig opened up in the Bronx in 2008 – you bet I learned!

I also landed an accompanying gig at NYU. It was a great gig and NYU – a university as big as a municipality – seemed too large to be impacted by the recession.

As I said, I’m no economist.

In late 2009 it was clear that universities were losing the value of their endowments at an alarming rate. Eventually this loss of equity began to impact the number of accompanist positions as well. See? Trickle down works.

Churches held on much longer, but eventually they have also felt the hit. The Archdiocese of New York recently announced the closing of 32 schools, and a list of church closings is bound to follow.

The Recovery

The end of the recession was announced last year by people smarter than me, so I suppose we should believe them. The guys on Wall Street are certainly back to making money.

Economic indicators, like the recent increase in consumer confidence, seem to suggest that we’re in the middle of the recovery, even if unemployment is still at 9%. Obama is prodding the private sector to start hiring again (they’ll need to make up for all the public sector jobs that are about to be liquidated with the new budget…).


So what does this mean for working musicians? Here’s my updated advice:

  • With the slash in the federal budget that’s almost certainly going to come out of our new congress, I suspect we’ll see more cuts to arts funding in public schools. Couple that with the school closings that churches are facing, and we have a looming arts education crisis.

    My prediction, though, is that the private sector will take up (some of) the slack here. If schools decrease or lose their arts programs, after-school programs, arts camps and private teachers will see an increase in business. In my work I’ve already seen an increase in teaching gigs for these kinds of supplemental arts education programs.

  • Did you see that consumer confidence is at a three-year high? Christmas sales at the big retailers did pretty well, too. That’s good for us.

    For this reason, and the one I just mentioned above, now is the time to start building your teaching studio back up to where it was before the recession. Read our article on starting your teaching business. Greg wrote some great advice in that article, and I suspect your hard work will get more traction this year than it did in the last 3 years.

  • Remember the 5 employers I mentioned above? I think the first 3 are starting to come back (for-profits, non-profits and individuals). Here’s the thing though – they are coming back, but different.

    My grandparents lived through the Great Depression. Like many that lived through that time, they had an amazing talent for saving money and planning for the future. Their lives were forever colored by the difficulties of the Great Depression.

    The Great Recession has taught our generation lessons as well (topics like: What is a subprime mortgage and how can it ruin your life?). I think the post-Recession costumer is going to be more savvy and receptive to added value.

    So whatever your product is – your new album, lessons, a new concert series, etc. – I think you’ll get a lot more interest if you are able to raise it’s perceived worth with some kind of incentive. Try quantity discounts, hand-made packaging or access to members only content – or maybe something no one has thought of yet?

  • I think jobs with for-profit corporations are on their way back. Cruise gigs, tours, corporate gigs – I can’t prove it, but I think we’ll slowly see these gigs creep back into our lives over the next two years (right in time for the 2012 elections, how about that?). I know that I’ve started to get calls for the kinds of gigs I thought had gone extinct entirely: concerts, tours, new musicals, etc.

  • The arts were one of the first sectors of the economy hit by the recession, and I think we’ll be one of the last to recover. I can’t help but feel that non-profits will take the longest to recover, as they are privy to the financial support, and whims, of both private and public funding.

    May the NEA and it’s (soon to be cut) budget save our ballets, symphonies and operas. Amen.

There’s Still a Long Way To Go

Again, the arts will be one of the last industries to recover fully, so while I think we can feel positive about our future – I know we’ll also have to wait patiently for it’s arrival.

I do think, though, that we should be using this time to build our businesses, careers and brands so that when the recovery does finally hit us – we’re ready to ride it as far as it will take us.


David J. Hahn is a music director, pianist and songwriter in New York City.  He is the co-founder of, a career website for working musicians, where this article originally appeared.

References (1)

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Reader Comments (2)

I want to become a musician and tried from a long time but can’t get any good results. So, I am here to know some information about indie songs that if I can sing this kind of songs then I get a good flat form?

July 4 | Unregistered Commenterindie songs

Another very useful article for musicians. Finding a job in the music business is getting harder and harder as the music business has shrunk over the last few years.

Some interesting predictions too. There is indeed a small but uncertain rise in for-profits work for musicians but it's still uncertain. rates have dropped and the jobs themselves tend to be for shorter contracts.

There seems to be an increase in the number of gigs too, but at the lower end of the market there are still too many small venues that want to charge bands to play. Time musicians took a stand together and draw the line in what is acceptable.

Thanks for your article.

August 29 | Unregistered CommenterSongwriter John

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