How Much I $REALLY$ Make as a Musician

I’m going to get real.

I recently had a conversation (over fatty food) with a friend of mine, another profile artist who has jump-started a respectable and promising career in vocal performance. We were discussing some mutual friends of ours, a married couple, both of whom earned their PhDs in music-related fields. One of them recently accepted a tenure-track position at a university, and the institution gave an adjunct position to the spouse. Fairly standard practice.

The conversation meandered on to earning potential, and my friend said, “I’m going to tell you how much she’s making (meaning the adjunct spouse) and you have to promise not to yell and throw your food…it’s like $40,000.”

As fate would have it, later this very same day, I was clearing out my bookmarks (who uses those anymore?) on my ancient (5-year-old) mac laptop and ran across this post over at musicianwages.com:

How to Actually Make $50,000 a Year as a Musician. 

Which is a very real perspective on how to make a living as a “profile musician,” a term that friend and colleague of mine recently used to describe me, meaning I source my income from various opportunities.

This isn’t necessarily about comparison. My friend’s salary is more than decent for a non-tenure-track position in academia. I’m also fairly sure she’s being groomed for a department position to begin next year. But if we’re going to compare, she’s an apple and I’m an orange. In all fairness, though, $50,000 is about what I’m making in my respective profile career as a musician. Every year around tax hell time, I take stock to determine where and how I’m making my money. I even put it all in a pie chart because I’m a visual person and I enjoy colors. This little exercise is a good reminder for me to prioritize the income that gives me food and shelter, enabling me to not eat Ramen.  It’s really quite simple. Here’s what I do:

  • Lessons: 25-30 students @ $86/mo = $25,800 – $30,960
  • Church music job: $600-700/mo = $7200 – 8000
  • College instruction: 8-10 private students @ $220/semester = $3520-4400
  • College courses: 2-4 courses per year, $2100/course = $4200-8400
  • Musicals: two shows, $500-1000/ea = $1000-2000
  • Weddings: 2-4, $500/ea = $1000-2000
  • Misc (funerals, recitals, concerts, accompanying, workshops, writing, music curriculum consulting, etc): avg. $500 – $3000

Grand total: $43,220 – $56,760

It’s a big range, but respectable (I like to think), given my age (28), especially considering the fact that I probably have not yet maxed out my earning potential in my particular geographic area. There’s still room for growth and other avenues of “profile musicianship” that I have yet to explore, like commissioned composing, self-released albums, and book sales (my five-year plan/dream).

Words to the Wise
This self-made “salary” is only possible with an incredibly supportive spouse who will ride the ebb and flow of the Self-entrepeneurship Rollercoaster. Every time one of us experiences an income dip (like during the summer months, when I make 1/2 to 1/3 of what I make during the school year), the other naturally sort of steps in and supplements, a trait for which each of us really loves and appreciates.

Also, these numbers are specific to my life and area, where the median household income is $40,000 and my entire mortgage for a 3-bedroom/2.5-bath house is about $700 a month. I know other church jobs in town pay more, but I work this specific job knowing the time commitment is less (no bell choir or double services for me), and the tradeoff of having access to a beautiful facility for recitals and other events, plus an incredibly supportive network of people, is well worth it to me. I also know that some other theater companies in town pay their music directors more (and some pay less…ick). I haven’t quite broken into the high-paying circles yet, and perhaps that will happen organically, but until then, I’m content working with directors who honor my schedule and respect my contributions.

The starting salary for first-year teachers in my school district is $34,350, which means I’m making more than I ever did teaching music in public schools, which is not where I’m using my two degrees in music education, ironically. This is NOT to belittle the efforts all of my esteemed and respected mentors, friends, and colleagues who are fighting the good fight. It just isn’t for me and never was.

So that’s the truth, and I’m sticking to it.

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