Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Seth Hanes. Seth is a horn player, digital marketing consultant, and the author of the new book, Break into the Scene: A Musician’s Guide to Making Connections, Creating Opportunities, and Launching a Career, which is available now on Amazon.
What is the one thing that just about everyone who has built a successful career in music have in common?
They all have multiple income streams.
This might sound obvious, but it’s amazing how few musicians understand how many options they actually have.
Most people eventually figure it out as they progress in their careers, but some never quite catch on.
It doesn’t matter if you’re the principal player in a major symphony orchestra, a full-time freelancer and private instructor, or a music student who is just starting their career, the more streams of income you have, the more financially successful you will be.
All of the ideas discussed in this article are things that I’ve seen work in my own career or the careers of fellow musicians.
I’ve broken this down into categories of performing, teaching, and miscellaneous types of work so that you can easily navigate the ideas to find different opportunities to pursue or create for yourself.
Ready to dive in?
The first and most common type of freelance work for musicians is performing.
While the opportunities are different depending on your instrument, the ideas below are meant to help expand your thinking about the possibilities.
Some of these ideas are how to look for existing opportunities, while others might require some hustling on your end to create them.
At the end of the day, you’re responsible for drumming up your own work as a freelancer so use these ideas as a jumping off point for what types of performing work you want to be doing.
1. Church concert series
If you live in a city, these probably already exist. If not, they’re a great thing to start yourself. It will give you a venue to perform and it has the added bonus of having an existing audience of church members.
2. Church services
Christmas Eve and Easter are the brass player’s best friend. In addition to those dates, various denominations also have their own big services throughout the year. If you can meet the music director and/or organist, then you might have access to some great gigs throughout the year.
3. Commencement ceremonies
This is usually very competitive work, but they’re usually great gigs if you can get on them. Reach out to the local colleges and universities yourself or try to connect with the groups that usually play those gigs. There’s not a reason that you can’t be a sub if they need one.
4. Community choirs
Sometimes these choirs will perform works that require instrumentalists. Most often this will be around the holidays, but you never know what you might find with a little bit of research.
5. Community theater productions
Most communities have some kind of musical theater program that puts on shows. They don’t always have big budgets like the touring companies or broadway shows do, but they can be a great place to build experience and meet people.
6. Conservatories, colleges, and universities (bands, orchestras, choirs) as a substitute
Whenever music school ensembles play large pieces, they might need to hire subs to fill out certain sections. This is especially true for horn players. I’ve been subbing with the Philadelphia schools for years and am a regular sub with the Curtis Institute of Music where I’ve made great money while playing some incredible works.
7. Cruise ship groups
These gigs can be amazing if you’re someone that doesn’t mind traveling and being away from home for extended periods of time. I have friends that have traveled all over the world while playing a few cocktail hours throughout the week.
8. High school musical productions
These are similar to the community music productions, but just run through the local schools.
9. Holiday caroling groups
Caroling groups can make a killing throughout the month of December if you can get connected with local holiday festivals and anything related to Christmas. This kind of work will take some hustling to get and might not be the most glamorous, but there’s a good amount of money to be made around the holidays with caroling groups.
10. Holiday parties
Similar to caroling groups, holiday parties can be a great market for small groups to target around the holidays. There are tons of holiday events happening throughout the entire month of December at people’s homes, offices, organizations, and everywhere else.
11. Private parties
There’s a whole world out there of private parties where people will pay a lot of money to make an event really stand out. A lot of this work will eventually come from referrals because people that attend these kinds of events are often the type that could potentially be hosting themselves. When you’re starting out, focus on trying to connect with the venues that host these events like country clubs, event spaces, social clubs, etc.
12. Regional orchestras
Getting on the sub lists for regional orchestras in your area is a great way to meet your colleagues around the area. Reach out to the contractors of each ensemble with a short and friendly note letting them know that if they ever need a sub, you’re around and would love to play. Read this article for more about how to do this.
13. Retirement communities
No matter where you live, there are likely a bunch of retirement communities that are always looking for activities and events for their residents. Most of these communities have a person in charge of all activities that you should be reaching out to if you’re interested in this type of work.
This is probably one of the most obvious gig opportunities for most musicians. Remember, people hire for the ceremony, cocktail hour, and full on wedding bands, so there are several angles you can go for when considering wedding gigs. If you want to learn more about the opportunities for weddings, go to sites like Weddingwire.com and Theknot.com to research what the opportunities might be in your area.
15. Wind ensembles
While there are fewer professional wind ensembles out there than orchestras, it’s still worth researching. These ensembles can be great places to meet fellow freelancers in your area.
16. Youth orchestras as a substitute
If you are a younger musician, this could potentially be a good opportunity to pick up an extra gig as a sub. Depending on the size and strength of their sections, sometimes youth orchestras will hire out extra musicians for concerts. If you live in area with a strong youth orchestra program, you might be surprised at the opportunities that are available through those organizations.
If you’re a passionate teacher, then there truly are a wide variety of options when it comes to extra freelance work.
Teaching is great because, in addition to being a lot of fun, you can command a high hourly rate and it works well as either a primary or secondary source of income.
The variety of options can vary a fair amount depending on where you live, but if you’re creative and have a little bit of an entrepreneurial spirit, there are a ton of options available to you.
17. Audition prep coach
This could be orchestral audition, music school, all-state auditions, etc. You don’t have to be a big name in the orchestral world to help students with their various auditions.
18. Create an online course
19. Educational performances
This isn’t work that just anyone can do, but if you can create a program that is appropriate and fun for kids, there could be a lot of opportunities for you. It takes a specific type of person to do this work really well, but if that’s something that appeals to you, you can create your own programs or find an organization in your area that does this work that might need an additional player to fill in on occasion.
20. El Sistema-inspired programs
Use El Sistema USA’s website to find out if there are programs near you. These organizations are sprouting up all over the place and they usually offer pretty consistent teaching opportunities to those that are a good fit for their type of work.
21. Group lessons
I have a friend that works for a music school and created several chamber ensembles that he coaches. The students only pay $20/each and he gets a much higher hourly rate. If you have access to a pool of enthusiastic students, this could be a great opportunity for you to look into.
22. Lead sectionals
This could be anything from local schools, to youth orchestras, or even college ensembles. As long as you have something valuable to offer the group you work with, it doesn’t matter how much professional experience you have.
23. Local music schools
Most areas have at least one local music school. If you can get on their roster of teachers, it could be a great way to funnel some students to your teaching studio. I know plenty of people that make their entire living from large studios of student that they have built through local music schools.
24. Music theory classes
Think about how many music students are taking theory placement exams at the beginning of every school year. If you are a music theory whiz then you could do tutoring or even teach classes at a local music school.
25. Private lessons
You know what this is. 🙂
26. Skype lessons
Check out Lauren Pierce’s site if you want to see someone that really knows how to drum up Skype students. You can teach anywhere in the world with an internet connection. This is getting a little bit more creative, but it’s totally possible and surprisingly few people do this.
27. Teaching artist work for local nonprofits
This is different than just doing outreach performances and there are great opportunities out there for those that do it well. A lot of orchestras employ teaching artists and it’s great work if you can get it. You can learn more about this niche of the music industry in The Music Teaching Artist’s Bible by Eric Booth.
28. Work with marching bands
If you have a background and interest in marching band, then this could be a great source of additional income. Marching bands often hire a staff to assist throughout their season for rehearsals and competitions. This was one of my earliest experiences teaching and it was great way to develop my teaching skills while also making some money.
This last section is all about ideas that don’t necessarily have anything to do with performing or teaching.
Many musicians don’t consider the other ways that they can be utilizing their skills to earn income.
There are many ways to diversify your income with freelance work and I highly encourage you to use these ideas to get your creative juices flowing and think about what other skills you might have that could be monetized.
29. Audio engineer
If you have the experience and access to the equipment to help others create recordings then you can pick up some of this work. Every fall and spring, tons of musicians all over the world are recording for auditions, festivals, schools, and many other things. With an ear for quality results and a little bit of hustling, you could have a great little side business on your hands.
30. Build and manage websites for other musicians
In our digital world everyone is trying to create an online presence and if you can help people create their own sites, then you’ll be positioning yourself to make some great money on the side. You don’t even need to learn coding when you use the drag-and-drop services online. I recommend Strikingly for anyone who wants to get started building sites. I started learning about web design a few years back. With no formal training, I’ve been able to create a sizable income for myself each year creating websites and have even gotten to build websites for several principal players in The Philadelphia Orchestra.
31. Compose your own arrangements
Creating your own arrangements isn’t just a fun hobby. You can actually make some money by selling them online. If you want to learn more about this then I highly recommend you check out Dennis Tobenski’s website and his Music Publishing Podcast.
32. Contract ensembles
There’s no better way to build your network than to be the person doing the hiring. If you ever have the opportunity to do any contracting work for a good gig then you should jump all over it. You get extra money and you can also hire all of the people you’ve been wanting to meet.
33. Input parts into Finale or Sibelius
Younger musicians might not realize this, but there are still a lot of people out there who are writing music by hand and need people to create digital versions of their music. One of my first ever side gigs was inputting parts for my teacher’s church orchestra that he had handwritten and wanted to have proper parts made for.
34. Librarian work
Anyone who has ever done any library work knows how much work this is. Anytime an ensemble shows up anywhere, somebody had to get that music together. If you have a great attention to detail and are interested in learning the ropes of librarian work, you can start working for ensembles that need help.
35. Repair instruments
Please don’t do any work on someone else’s instrument if you don’t know what you’re doing. However, if you do know what you’re doing and have the proper tools, this is a great way to earn some additional money. A friend of mine turned his entire apartment in grad school into a repair shop and by the time he left Philadelphia, he had worked on many instruments of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s brass section.
36. Stagehand service
If there are any small organizations or concert series around your area, there might be an opportunity to pick up a little stagehand work. This can be something as simple as moving chairs and stands around or something as complex as setting up expensive audio equipment. If this appeals to you, just focus on reaching out to the smaller organizations in town to get yourself started.
37. Transcribe scores
See number 31
38. Transpose parts for different ensembles
Anyone with access to Finale or Sibelius can do this very easily and sell those transposed version of music to various ensembles. There are entire websites out there that only sell a few arrangements, but have them available for all kinds of ensembles. If you’ve got the skill and interest in building a platform to distribute your work, this might be a good fit for you.
39. Tune pianos
Just like number 35, please don’t do this if you don’t know what you’re doing. However, if you do know what you’re doing, then this could be a great side gig to start to earn some extra cash. Garrett Hope of the Portfolio Composer Podcast did this and has turned it into a business.
40. Write grants
Every nonprofit in the world could use more grants to fund their activities. If you are a savvy fundraiser and know how to research and write grants, you could definitely drum up some business for yourself. I have met people that make their living just helping organizations secure more grants.
Remember, these ideas are just a starting point.
If you are creative and don’t mind a little hard work, you can come up with all sorts of different ways to diversify your income with freelance work.
Do you have any other ideas?
Share them in the comments below!