Can I make enough money as a full time musician?

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Answered by: Steve, An Expert in the Be a Musician Category
A life of luxury and rock star indulgence is the dream of musicians worldwide. Local musicians struggle in the trenches, scraping by; most long to quit the day job and become a full time musician.

Jim Shaneberger has been a full-time musician for the last two years in West Michigan, primarily as a bassist for the Greg Nagy Band, Lynn Thompson Band and the Hot Pockets. Gigging four to five times a week, Shaneberger makes about $100 a night. He also supplements that income with freelance studio work. While the transition was difficult, he gets paid to do what he loves.

"I came to a point where my day job was getting in the way of my goal," said Shaneberger. "I made the decision to stop working. It was a major pay cut, but it allowed me the time to set myself up as a full-time professional musician."

The first obstacle for an aspiring full-timer is finding venues to perform. The second obstacle is making enough money to pay the bills. The musician needs to consider genre, location and the live music schedule of the venues.

Billy's Lounge is one of few venues that regularly offer live music on the weekdays. Founders Brewery has live music on Thursdays and Saturdays. Founders' does not make money from staging live music, which directly impacts the funds available to pay the musicians. They will pay returning musicians more than first time performers.

The Mixtape Cafe pays local bands a percentage of the tickets sold. "If it's a local show usually a band has to sell at least 30 tickets and then, they would make a percentage," said booking agent JR Renusson. The Mixtape Cafe currently stages up to six shows a week, but soon they are switching to Thursday-Sunday only. There is a limited demographic that reduces the cafe's attendance.

""We have a lot of younger bands play that bring out the parents and grandparents," said Renusson. "It's an all age venue, so it's sad to say some people won't come out to a show even if it's a band they like, because we don't sell alcohol."

Paying the bills is the priority, so there are several local musicians who have to work a day job to get by. Tory Peterson, the guitarist for Simien the Whale, currently works in home remodeling. Peterson plans to become a full-time musician in the future.

"It's up to the artist to adapt, streamline and make themselves profitable," said Peterson. "I'm trying to do just that. We're trying to set up our business and marketing end to be able to make a successful launch of our first proper release later this year."

When the musical style clashes with the local scene, booking becomes even more difficult. This is the case for Grand Rapids band, The Full Catastrophe.

"West Michigan is difficult to book because there is so much competition and the type of music we do doesn't quite fit," said vocalist Lauren Thomas. "There's a huge Indie scene and Christian music scene around here. We're electronic/dance/hip-hop/folk. When we do play shows, we play covers, but we're happier when we can perform our own material for real fans."

A success story from the West Michigan music scene is Drew Nelson, who has been a full time musician for the last 12 years. As a solo performer, Nelson does have one advantage in his career of choice; he doesn't have to split the paycheck with other members of the band. The disadvantage is he plays all the roles - booking agent, publicist, driver and performer. With the exception of private shows or corporate functions, Nelson plays few shows in Grand Rapids and performs 180 shows a year around the world.

"I do earn more per gig outside of town than I do playing in G.R.," said Nelson. "That being said, I don't play in G.R. very often anymore." Nelson contends there's a strategy to local booking, stressing the importance of creating a demand for the performance.

"If you're playing around too much, you're not special anymore," he explains. "I'd rather play one really great show, like a CD release party where lots of people come, than a bunch of little things around home."

Grand Rapids has a wealth of musical talent and venues to house performances. Local performers searching for their "Rock N' Roll Fantasy" know that simply playing is not enough. When the desire is to write and perform original material, marketing and booking strategies are essential. Find the demographic that fits the musical style. Find venues all over West Michigan. Avoid saturation in any location. Create and maintain the demand. The competition is tough. At the end of the line, your dream job awaits.

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