How to make money as a musician: listening audiences and guaranteed paychecks

What’s a good-paying gig for you these days? I’m always amazed when local musicians in my area talk about $100/person as some kind of gold standard.

Sure, a “Benjamin” for several hours’ work was pretty good thirty years ago, and if you can live on that today, more power to you. I can’t though. I’m now charging $400 locally for a 45-60 minute solo show, and $600-1500 when I travel.

You may have guessed that I’m not playing bars, coffeehouses, and other for-profit establishments very much. I mainly perform at venues with outside sources of funding – arts centers, libraries, schools, performing arts series, museums, community concerts, arts councils, historical societies – and you could do this too.

Perform…tell the audience an interesting story…perform another song…talk a little more…play…make them laugh…repeat.

If this sounds like what you do already (I’m thinking of folk musicians and others who play for listening audiences), it shouldn’t be too difficult to “package” your music around a theme or title that would appeal to these not-for-profit venues.

But maybe your typical gig involves banging out some great tunes while people party, talk, dance, and have fun with the music. There’s plenty of room for you at the table too.

Here’s The Deal

Most of these not-for-profit organizations have missions that include educating and entertaining their communities. While they are certainly not flush with piles of cash to hire musicians, most of them present some programming for the public (or in the case of schools, for their students) every year, and some of them do a whole lot of it.

In fact, many non-profits have gotten quite good at writing grants to various arts councils and community foundations to pay for a series of programs, and we can help with that too by pointing them to sources of grant funding for concerts that they might not be aware of.

What’s The Key?

After doing these gigs for 21 years, I’d have to say that finding a “hook” is your very best bet for getting this kind of work.

For me, that hook is history and culture. When I market my three-piece string band to these venues, I play up the fact that we do quirky, forgotten old American music – authentic stuff collected from cowboys and mountain people and canallers and lake sailors and old field recordings. There’s a storyline there much greater than us and how well we can play or sing.

(We also do original material and whatever else we want to, really, but that’s not as easy to “sell” to these venues, so we surprise them with that material once we’re there.)

I also book myself as a solo act, with about ten different themed shows that I offer. Some are specifically for kids, some for adult audiences, and some for the entire community. Again, all the shows have a theme of some kind, ranging from something as simple as “Fun Songs for Kids” to thoroughly-researched programs of Erie Canal songs and music from the War of 1812.

Your Hook Doesn’t Need to be Complicated

Blues band? How about calling it “America’s music” and telling a few stories about how the blues came to be, and the migration of the music from country to city. Bam!

Singer songwriter? How about a song cycle about your favorite topic, or based on stories from your region, or anything else you’re passionate about.

Themed shows check all the boxes for these non-profits: they engage, they entertain, and they inform the community, and because of that, they’re valuable.

Wrapping Up  

The hours are great. The work is rewarding. The audiences are built in, and so is the funding to make it all happen. Sometimes the room is full of adults; other times it’s kids. There might be anywhere from 2 people in the audience (it’s happened!) to 200 or so – the paycheck is guaranteed either way.

Do you play these venues? Got an idea for a theme? Let’s talk about it in the Comment section below.