Building a Career in Music

  • 09/14/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC
Every guitarist dreams of growing up and becoming a famous touring musician but very few can actually manage to make a living off of music, let alone acquire true wealth and fame. The dream will come to a fortunate few, but how can the rest of us make music our career and avoid shackling ourselves to a boring desk job?

I will start by giving you a story of a young boy who acquired a guitar at age 13 and practiced diligently until he received recognition for his talents through friends and family. His dream was of playing guitar as a career. The real problem was that he lived in a small village called Standish, Lancashire, in the north west of England which was not exactly a hot bed of musical culture. At 16 he made the decision to move down to London. Moving 300 miles south as a lone teenager was a daunting feat, but the love of music and his dream propelled him onwards. That boy was me, and let me tell you, it hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing! I have since moved to the United States and things are going great for me now, but it was no easy journey!

Here are some tips for the aspiring musicians out there:

First of all, learn to be persistent and never take "no" for an answer. This is the largest and most powerful tip you can receive, and applies to all walks of life and not just a career musician. The only breaks you will receive in this world are the ones you create for yourself.

The music industry is competitive and can even be mean spirited at times. You cannot expect to always make a full living from playing gigs exclusively. While possible, it most certainly is not always sustainable. Putting all of your eggs in this basket, especially as a starting musician, is a recipe for financial disaster.

It is of paramount importance that you have your fingers in as many pies as humanly possible. In my career as a musician I have not only played gigs in nearly every musical genre (even ones I don't care for!), I have also written for guitar magazines, taught kids in schools, universities and colleges. I have also taught on the internet, produced albums, written music, transcribed music and much more! A career musician truly cannot afford to be picky if you want to earn a sustainable and stable income. You can always do your own music projects (as I do with “Nick Kellie Band”), but it is imperative to do a variety of other things to keep the money rolling in. Playing genres of music you don't care for, such as country or jazz, may not seem like a lot of fun, but the more robust your playing experience the more gigs that can be procured.

Never underestimate the importance of “word of mouth.” You never know who you are talking to in this business, so it is far better to be nice to everyone and generally be “around.” I have scored gigs with someone that I didn’t know simply because he liked my playing and thought I was a “nice guy.” Had I been “not such a nice guy,” the person might have not remembered me, or worse still, spread the news about the unsavory character he just met. Word spreads fast, so if you present yourself as a professional, fun person with good manners you will likely find your phone ringing more often.

But, how will they call you if you don’t have business cards or other ways to contact you? First of all get some business cards printed out and carry the with you everywhere. It would also be beneficial to get a website and accounts with Facebook, Myspace and Twitter. This might seem like a silly thing to do, but people might forget about you without access to those tools. Spreading your name and keeping it out there is important! I received a call from a gentleman that was in my Facebook friends who needed a guitar player for a gig – they liked me so much I worked with them right up until I left the UK (for about 2 years).

Stage Presentation
It is very important to look good on stage and present an image of enjoyment and professionalism. Don’t go on stage looking like a hobo! You need to be engaged in the music and present yourself in a way that shows the audience your passion for the music. Try not to look bored or contemptuous. If you want the audience to enjoy your performance then you need to enjoy the performance yourself.

Contact People
Some of the best advice I have ever heard came from a couple of guitar masters, Steve Vai and Frank Gambale. They basically encourage all individual to really go for your dreams and never surrender. If you really love a certain artist and would like to be the guitarist in their band, or to be on their record label, then write them and send in a copy of your CD! You would be surprised how many individuals never even attempt to live out their dreams because failure and defeat is a foregone conclusion in their mind. After-all, the only way to fail with absolute certainty is to not try at all. Fear is often the key factor which stops people from fully putting themselves out there and trying, and ultimately holds them back from achieving their dreams. It is easy to sit and dream, but ultimately, action needs to be taken in order to attain your goals.

Have Fun!!
The most important aspect you need to focus on at all times is to enjoy the music! It's very easy to caught up in the stress of trying to make music your career that you ultimately equate your instrument with stress and start to lose the enjoyment that your instrument brings you. Don't ever forget the reason you first picked up the guitar, that feeling of wonderment and excitement! If you start to feel burned out then take a break for a while. It is very important that you always love playing music!

Making a living from music is not for everyone, but I for one wouldn’t change it for the world!