Get Real about Music Careers

Close-up photo of violinist in orchestra“If your concept of success is restricted to being an international soloist or performing with a major symphony or opera company, then you’re probably headed for difficulties in life.”
-The Musician’s Way,
p. 300

There are ample opportunities for musicians who fill diverse roles in today’s music scene. Problem is, vast numbers of young musicians singlemindedly strive toward careers that are unlikely to exist for them.

Delusional Thinking?
As an illustration, consider these words written to a music advice column:

“I am a violinist with a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree from a major American conservatory. I have won top prizes in some competitions and have always expected that I would be able to attract management and enjoy a solo career. As of late, I have begun to have my doubts about that . . . I have been told that I stand a reasonable chance of winning a concertmaster position with a good level orchestra. I did serve as concertmaster in my conservatory orchestra but I am not sure that experience would suffice to qualify me for a professional concertmaster position.” 
–Letter to the “Ask Edna” blog on (Oct. 2013)

That poor violinist. The chances of attracting management and having a solo career are astronomical, yet the musician “always expected” to be a successful soloist.

Then, with the soloist fantasy fading, the musician replaces it with a new one – becoming a concertmaster, claiming that someone said there was a “reasonable chance” of that happening. Really? Few violinists win section jobs in full-time orchestras; almost none attain concertmaster status.

The violinist points to degrees earned and unnamed competition prizes won, implying that those accomplishments ensure success. They don’t.

Tens of thousands of musicians earn degrees; hundreds win competitions each year. Managers and presenters seldom care about degrees and contests. Neither do audiences. Besides, only the most elite competitions propel music careers and then not for long, unless musicians do what really matters.

Real Music Careers
What really matters? Having a compelling artistic voice, being an artist who connects with people, excelling at your craft.

Elizabeth Sobol, former Managing Director at IMG calls it “the goose-bump factor.” And that factor ignites music careers in performance, teaching, composition, production, and everything else.

I’m not saying that young musicians shouldn’t dream, but that they should dream in the real world. “Dreaming large is fine,” I wrote in The Musician’s Way, “but putting all of your eggs in one career basket isn’t a smart bet for either your livelihood or your happiness.”

Here, then, are 7 strategies that help aspiring musicians get real about building their careers. Links point to other articles on this blog.

7 Career-Building Strategies for Musicians

  1. Forge an artistic vision that’s specific, realistic, and altruistic.
  2. Discover ways that you can create value in society through your music.
  3. Differentiate yourself from others in your genre.
  4. Plan for long-term sustainability.
  5. Identify ways to gain competitive advantages.
  6. Tap multiple income streams.
  7. Grow a professional network.

See The Musician’s Way for guidelines to establish your musical and professional foundations.

7 Music Career Myths
8 Ways to Build Sustainable Music Careers
Differentiate or Disappear

Preparing for Portfolio Careers

© 2013 Gerald Klickstein
Photo © Stokkete, licensed from

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10 Responses to “Get Real about Music Careers”

  1. Mark Wood said:

    Nov 04, 13 at 13:48

    This is great, because if it’s honesty….most every other college degree program addresses the most important message: “can I make a living doing what I love to do??” Shame on our string industry and schools who constantly avoid this all-important topic!!
    Generally what happens is these wonderful talents are so narrowly trained that the tools needed to function in the 21st century ( not the 18th century) are not taught!! Improvising, entrepreneurial skills, working with technology, electric instruments, music education…we are all responsible to empower our future string players!
    Innovation and creativity are interregnal for survival in every career, especially music.

  2. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Nov 04, 13 at 14:48

    Well said, Mark – thanks for reading and contributing. I look forward to the day when all musicians who pursue higher education will be inspired and supported to pursue relevant careers of individual interest instead of being narrowly trained for unlikely roles as international soloists or members of orchestras and opera companies.

    Readers: Visit Mark Wood’s site to learn about his trajectory as a Juilliard-educated violinist who, despite the confines of his conservatory training, went beyond traditional roles and built an expansive career as a pioneering rock performer and instrument manufacturer.

  3. Jon said:

    Nov 07, 13 at 15:22

    Great article, Gerald. It should be compulsory reading for all 1st year performance music majors! Not as a way of crushing dreams, but rather as you put it, helping budding professionals get realistic. I heard of a conversation between 2 double bass players at a conservatory in Stockholm (translated).

    “I’m doing really well this year, I’ll probably land a principal job at {A-orchestra}”

    “Yeah, probably. I’m kind of middle of the road, so I’ll probably only get a tutti job at {B-orchestra}”

    ’nuff said! :)

  4. Michael Hankinson said:

    Nov 07, 13 at 18:16

    One of the things that musicians seem to forget – and which is totally overlooked at most training institutions – is to recognise that they are, in effect, a small business unit that produces a product that needs to be sold. A modicum of business acumen or at the very least some business training is required to optimise the conversion of talent into a financially sustainable career. I believe that doctors now received such training in order to assist them in the running of a general medical practice,is this so dissimilar to a working musician ? Talent is wonderful but does not guarantee success – as I remember from my college days – there were so many amazingly talented people around me – and I wonder how many managed to make a career that was sustainable.

  5. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Nov 07, 13 at 20:49

    Thanks for the insights Jon and Michael – valuable points all.
    I think that a key development in music schools will take place when faculty and students recognize that artistic and career development are in fact one thing. That is, students who understand the actual roles they might fill as professionals are able to match their artistic desires with genuine opportunities that lead to long-term sustainability, artistic growth, and measureless rewards.
    By adopting such a holistic attitude, the practical knowledge and skills that students need is acquired in contexts that are motivated by students’ artistic visions.
    As you both infer, many music schools still cling to antiquated visions of what students will do upon graduation, but there are many forward-thinking institutions that are adapting to new realities, providing much-needed leadership in the process.

  6. Mark H said:

    Nov 13, 13 at 08:01

    Well said! An excellent corollary would be the sports world, where young players believe that they can build their careers solely on talent and make it to the big time. Never mind the fact that there is a LOT of talent out there competing against them, and only a few make it to the top. Perhaps a better approach to education in career development is key. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to follow dreams and to give it your all, but you should never *expect* to just automatically have success. Instead, you should focus on reality and how to find ways to build a career and love what you do.

  7. Larry Weintraub said:

    Dec 13, 13 at 11:29

    Good article. To many musicians think that people are just going to call them up to play. They do not know they have to hustle for everything. Also realize what the market is. As a sax player I love big bands but I know that there are not many big bands out there that offer decent full time gigs. So I became a small group player and teacher. The opportunities are somewhat better.

    Wind players should also consider 2 things. The first is to win a position in a military band. I did that as a 20 yr career and got paid to play, plus I receive a pension and a good medical plan. The second is to do a cruise line gig. Go to for more information.

  8. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Dec 13, 13 at 12:14

    Thanks for contributing, Larry, and for sharing your story and advice.

    Readers will find links to various sites that list jobs for musicians, including cruise and military jobs, on the Music Careers page at

  9. Ashley Davis said:

    Dec 29, 13 at 13:36

    To me this article doesn’t crush dreams at all!! I’ve studied music for years at schools and on my own too. I absolutely enjoy everything about studying music, but when I really think about it I ask myself, what the heck am I going to do with all this knowledge? I feel like this article has really inspired me to go out there and discover what I can really do with my knowledge and talent. Thank you very much for the inspiration!

  10. Gerald Klickstein said:

    Dec 29, 13 at 15:50

    Hi Ashley – Thanks for the enthusiastic comment! I’m pleased to know that you found this post inspiring and helpful. I invite you to comment again in the future and let us know how your artistic & career development are going.