Playing Music Full Time

Close up of a musician playing a guitar

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Taking the plunge and deciding to play music full time is exciting—and terrifying. How do you know when the time is right? Will you be able to pay your bills while playing gigs? There are a lot of questions to consider.

Of course, if you're ever REALLY going to make it as a musician, this is a step you're going to have to take someday. Some people might get lucky and walk straight from their day job into musical riches, but don't count on it working that way for you. Most likely, your decision to go full time in music is going to be a calculated gamble, and there's going to have to be a little bit of "cross your fingers and hope for the best" involved. That is the reality.

Things to Consider Before Becoming a Full-Time Musician

It's also the reality that you can make it as a full-time musician. You need to plan carefully and honestly evaluate the situation. For our purposes here, let's assume that there is no label or big advance in place and that you are going to be making the move independently. Weigh these factors before you make your decision:

What Are Your Priorities?

Realistically, going full time as a musician usually requires sacrifices, at least in the early stages. Are you willing to make them? In other words, for the sake of your music career, are you willing to skip some nights out to save some cash? Forgo a new pair of shoes? Maybe live with roommates to cut down on living expenses? Many people make a comfortable living at music—and many more people accept a lower standard of living than they might ideally like to have to devote time and cash to get their careers off the ground. Are you willing to make those kinds of trades in hopes of making it in music? If not, going full time might not be right for you.

Remember that if you're not just making plans for yourself—say, if you have four other mouths to feed—that this isn't just a decision you're making for yourself. Is everyone else ready to pitch in and toe the line? You're going to need some support, both moral support and maybe even some financial support. It is time to make sure your priorities are on the same page as your family's priorities. Things could get rocky otherwise.

Are You Already Making Money At Music?

What kind of earning potential do you have as a musician? If you've never had a paying gig, you should dip your toes in the water a little bit as a part-time musician before you jump into full-time musician mode. Not only will you need a good cadre of contacts for booking gigs and such that you build up over time, but you'll also need a realistic idea of how much money you get paid to play. Which brings us to our next point.

Can You Make Enough As a Musician In Your Town?

Not every town lends itself to supporting full-time musicians. What is the going rate for gigs in your area? Are there enough venues to keep you going? Touring is an option, of course, but in the absence of tour support and the ability to demand high guarantees for your show, touring is more likely to cost you money than cushion your bank account. You need to be within easy reach of enough music establishments to keep the ball rolling, or you need to consider relocating to someplace more practical.

You Know It's a Job, Right?

Becoming your boss and becoming a full-time musician sounds great. Then, 560 hours of Judge Judy later, you realize you haven't accomplished much. Make no mistake about it—going full time as a musician is a full-time job like any other.

Do You Have a Financial Cushion?

Even if you have a steady flow of gigs coming in, there's likely to be an earning lag. Make sure you can manage your finances as you make the transition. Sure, it's not very fun, but here's what happens if you don't take this concern seriously: you quit the job that is letting you get some music time in, you spend a few months falling into debt, and then you frantically have to take any job you can to make up the shortfall - probably one that leaves you less time for music than you had to begin with. That's a drag. Be realistic about the timing, so you don't end up one step back from where you started.

OK, that's the harsh reality out of the way. Now the pep talk: this is a chance worth taking for many musicians. Much of what separates the people who do music full time from the people who don't is that the full-timers finally just crossed their fingers and gave it a shot. Give yourself the best chance possible with careful planning, then when you're ready, cross your fingers, and do the same.