5 Things No One Tells You About Being a Professional Musician


tate marshall guitarist


It's simple right? You make music, you get signed, the fans come running from all directions wearing your branded t-shirts, you spend your weekends touring in different countries, you wake up when you want to, spend your days in a blur of artistry and your nights partying before collapsing in different hotels.


I am sure you do not think like this. However, this is the story we have been sold. It's why thousands of musicians still audition for talent shows, chase a lucky break, and look to make it big. The big has changed. So has making it, and so has the journey. This is not meant to put people off, in fact, it hopes to do the opposite. To prepare people for a wild and wonderful ride, but a ride they may not expect, one that goes up and down, over and under, throws you back, plummets you forward, spins you around, stops you when you think you are safe, reverses and does it all over again.


5 reality-checkers about seeking music as a profession


1. Long days


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If you enjoy your sleep, you may prefer a normal job. Musicians are, with some exception, self-employed. This means that unless you have parents paying your way, a label or a sugar daddy (or mammy), you only earn while you're producing. The whole process of creating a song can take months, an album can take a year. You have to compose the songs, record the songs, mix the songs, master the songs, then release the songs at least 4 weeks in advance to pitch it to playlists and take pre-orders. It takes time.


It's also likely, at the beginning, that you are doing everything yourself. Outside of writing and recording the music, you are also marketing your music, creating social content, creating and updating a website, designing merch, performing live, and probably, you will need a side job to fund the dream. This means that your days are long and your hours are precious. However, if you have a go-getter attitude, you will make it happen.


2. A whole lotta self-doubt


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Everyone can suffer from doubt, but for musicians it is especially prevalent. Everything about what we do is the perfect cocktail for self-doubt. We put ourselves in vulnerable situations where we may fail, embarrass ourselves and we do it every day. Do you know how most people live their lives? Avoiding failure at all costs while living as cosily and protected as possible. To most, even the thought of hosting a work meeting or giving a speech is frightening. Now consider what musicians do. Put out music that could be rejected. Sing and show emotion to a crowd that could be stone faced. Release an album that no one buys. Sing in videos with open comment sections for random criticism. Reach out to execs and awkwardly try to sell ourselves. People say they would love to be a musician without really understanding the awkwardness and extreme doubt that entails.


Impostor syndrome is another sucker prevalent with musicians. Basically, a feeling of unworthiness or that you have conned your way in. This can happen as you start to succeed. Other unhelpful emotions include: Shame, for not 'contributing to society' in a way most people do. Guilt, for 'thinking about ourselves'. And worry for an uncertain future. The emotional roller coaster is endless. Hopefully, it doesn't happen, rock through it if it does, but now at least you are prepared.


3. Sowing without reaping (yet)


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Although there are some overnight success stories, the majority of musicians work for years before they get exposure and are in a position to monetise their brand. Despite being inundated with stories of YouTube sensations and TikTok stars, for most of us, we have to play the long game. Day by day, building a bigger group of dedicated fans, generating more streams, more sales and more interest over time. One day, if you stick it out, you will reap one hell of a harvest, but for now you might want to have a marathon mentality instead of a sprint.


Tip: Enjoy the small victories. Make a list of minor milestones; 1000 followers, your first album sale (that's not your friend), your first playlist placement, and celebrate them like they're the equivalent of winning a Grammy!


4. Labels don't want you (hint: it's a good thing)


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Gone are the days when talent was enough to get you 'signed', you now have to build your brand as any entrepreneur would build a business. While movies continue to reinforce the idea that the path into music is to be 'discovered' (probably by someone seeing your potential at an open mic night, while performing on the street or at a talent show) this path is not going to get many success stories. It is also one of the reasons why a huge percentage of musicians quit. A lot of artists feel that the only way in is by being discovered.


Here's the truth. Labels don't care about talent. They care about money, momentum and following. A label wants to monetise through you. That means, make money from a following you have already made by yourself. In most cases, you need to have an active fanbase, selling thousands of records or getting hundreds of thousands of streams before you can interest a label. It is not enough to be the most talented singer and instrumentalist. This means that instead of trying to be discovered, musicians should build their music like a business. Learn about marketing, advertisement, sales and finance. Learn about providing value to someone else instead of making music self-centered, learn about influence and email marketing.


Doesn't sound romantic? The musicians who are able to embrace the commercial aspect of music will go further than the musicians relying on luck and talent.

Here's the good part. Today, a musician can access everything that was once exclusive to labels. We can record music independently, distribute music via online systems, and access fans via social media. A label is no longer necessary. Also, labels are some of the worst contracts on the planet. For one thing, you no longer own your music.


Tip: Instead of trying to be discovered, create your own fortune. Manage, market and make yourself.


5. Never was such a lie spoketh as: "Work doing something you love and you'll never work a day in your life."


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You really do have to work. Many people believe that once you follow, or are successful, with your dreams then you are free to live of passion and ease. However, even doing something you love can be frustrating, upsetting, exhausting and lead to burnout. That's right. You can even get burnout doing the thing you love.


There are days when you may have writer's block, days when you feel everything from anger to shame, and days when you want to quit. Anyone can experience burnout from anything.


Tip: Be kinder to yourself, take a day / week off when you're burnt out, make music fun again, and run a marathon not a sprint.


Music can be one of the most exciting and rewarding paths to take, especially if you are passionate. However, believing it will be an easy ride will not serve you when things get tough. Keep your head up and think smart.


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