Whatever type of music you're interested in, you'll need talent, dedication and determination to succeed as a professional musician
As a musician you can be involved in creating and/or performing music in a variety of genres, such as classical, rock, pop, indie, jazz or folk. You could be a composer, instrumentalist and/or a singer performing either in the studio or before a live audience.
You may work on your own, as a freelance artist, in collaboration with others, or as a salaried member of:
- a band;
- a choir;
- a theatrical ensemble;
- an opera company;
- an orchestra.
Competition in the musical field is high and you'll need to dedicate hours of practice to maintain and develop your skills, whatever your preferred style.
As there are many genres of music, some activities will differ depending on your area of expertise. However, you'll typically need to:
- perform at concerts, festivals, theatres and other music venues;
- participate in recording sessions;
- practise regularly;
- prepare for and attend rehearsals;
- prepare for auditions;
- look after your instrument and/or voice;
- set up/tune your instrument and other equipment, and arrange for its transportation, if it is large;
- learn new pieces of music to extend your repertoire;
- compose new songs and music;
- handle the administration of business activities such as promotion, handling accounts, negotiating fees and organising distribution of your recordings both offline and online;
- seek out and liaise with new venues in which to perform;
- arrange gigs and tours either yourself or through a manager or agent;
- deliver educational work in schools, businesses and the wider community.
- Salaries vary enormously depending, for example, on whether you're working freelance or as part of an orchestra.
- According to a recent survey by the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM), almost half of respondents charged a typical performance fee of between £100 and £250. Salaries for solo singers and composers are likely to be higher, for example £150 to £325 for solo singers and £100 to £500 for composers per performance.
- You would normally negotiate gig fees on a case-by-case basis. However, for groups performing on stage (e.g. at outdoor events, concerts and festivals), the Musicians' Union (MU) recommends a minimum rate per musician of £133 to £148 (for a single performance lasting a maximum of three hours) depending on the venue capacity.
Increases in salary will depend on your musical genre, your experience and skill, the type of venue you play in and the general economic environment.
The MU has guidance on rates for employed and self-employed orchestral musicians, gigs and live engagements, session musicians, and musicians working in theatre.
For salaried musicians, extra payments can be made for overtime, concert fees, recordings, porterage of large instruments and travel expenses. In some instances, you may also be paid an additional fee for rehearsal, although this is not typical. Royalties may be additionally paid if the music has been registered with the PPL or PRS for Music.
Salary figures are intended as a guide only.
You won't have a regular Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm existence. Rehearsals usually take place during the day and performances in the evenings, though this can vary.
Studio recordings, for example, can take place late into the evening.
Private practice can take place any time of the day or night.
What to expect
- It takes time, skill, practice and dedication to develop a reputation as a musician and you'll be expected to learn music or an operatic role in your own time.
- Performing and auditioning can be stressful for some musicians, and performance-related psychology can be helpful. Repetitive strain injuries are not uncommon.
- You may need to diversify and branch out into other styles of music in order to enhance your employability. You may also have to take on other work, for example teaching music, either to individual pupils or peripatetic teaching in schools/colleges, in order to enhance your income as a performer.
- It's relatively common to spend time away from home, sometimes for long periods, both in the UK and abroad. This goes hand in hand with touring companies or going on tour with your band. You'll need to be flexible and travel where the work takes you, whether this is freelance or contract work.
- A limited number of orchestral posts are available and tend to be in the larger cities. The number of opera companies is increasing, with strong competition for roles. Globalisation has led to singers and instrumentalists applying to audition throughout Europe and beyond.
Although you don't need a degree in music to become a musician, for some genres, e.g. the classical repertoire, it is highly regarded. Experience and overall musicianship are paramount.
Most musicians start learning an instrument or singing from an early age. This is particularly true of classical musicians, who take graded music exams, including theory, before going on to further training at a conservatoire (music college) or university.
Conservatoires differ from universities as they focus more on performance-led diplomas or degrees, with an emphasis on practical skills. You'll be expected to work a full week with performances and workshops usually held in the evening. You must also be prepared to practise in your own time. Entry is via audition and undergraduate courses last three or four years. There are also postgraduate courses available. See UCAS Conservatoires for information on individual courses and to apply.
There are also many universities offering music degrees - see the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) for details and to apply. Some courses focus more on the academic side of music so do your research to make sure the course matches your career aims.
Relevant qualifications and graded exams are also provided by organisations such as The Associated Board of Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) and Rockschool Music.
Competition is tough in the industry, but a love for your style of music combined with the determination to succeed should improve your chances. Entry to full-time posts in orchestras is particularly competitive and you'll usually need to build a musical career incorporating performance work in a number of different settings and groups, teaching and arranging music.
You will need to show:
- motivation, determination and perseverance;
- confidence in performing before an audience;
- stamina and dedication to continue practising every day;
- reliability and flexibility as you'll need to work long and irregular hours;
- the ability to work well as part of a team;
- self-discipline and good time management;
- good communication and interpersonal skills;
- patience and understanding in order to take on board criticism and accept rejection;
- attention to detail.
You'll also need business and marketing skills as many musicians work on a self-employed or freelance basis.
Whatever your genre of music, you'll need to get practical experience. Get involved with relevant orchestras, choirs, music societies, bands and solo musicians at university and in your local area. Introduce yourself as much as possible, making the most of your professional contacts and keep up with social media to promote yourself.
Networking is vital as opportunities are often discovered via word-of-mouth, and personal recommendations can sometimes lead to auditions. Take any opportunity that arises to gain experience; you will build your confidence and professional network and extend your repertoire. Examples of where to gain this experience include:
- amateur orchestras;
- student society music groups.
Entry is usually through an audition. Where appropriate, keep a record of when different organisations audition by closely following their website or call them in person. For example, some orchestras and opera houses hold auditions on a yearly basis, while others only audition when a current member leaves.
See the BBC Introducing Music for information on how to get started in music.
Many professional musicians, regardless of their genre, are self-employed, with the exception of some classical musicians, who are occasionally employed as a full or part-time member of a specific orchestra.
There is a great variety of orchestras and ensembles in the UK and they differ in terms of size, style, location and repertoire. Employers include ballet, symphony, opera and chamber orchestras, some of which will be large enough to employ musicians on full-time contracts. For a list of member orchestras and ensembles see the Association of British Orchestras (ABO).
As a popular musician you could form part of a band, a backing group or be a solo performer. You will generally need to work in another role and play part time until you become successful.
The most common employers of classical singers are opera companies, as there are very few professional choirs, though opportunities can be limited. Some of the larger choral societies employ opera singers for solo and oratorio work.
There is also occasional work offered by independent fixers for recording sessions and outdoor performances. Freelance musicians or permanent staff can take on this ad-hoc work.
Organists are attached to a specific cathedral or church and their full-time post may also include the role of choirmaster and director of music. The majority of organists will work part time and combine their role with teaching at an associated school or conducting a local choral society.
Other employers of musicians include holiday camps, cruise ships, theatre companies and the Corps of Army Music (military music for the British Army).
Look for job vacancies at:
- Association of British Orchestras (ABO)
- Musical Chairs (classical music jobs).
- Music Match
- The Stage - for singing opportunities with UK theatre, entertainment and performing arts industry.
- Individual orchestral and opera company websites.
Although some jobs and auditions are advertised in the music and entertainment press, one of the most common ways to learn of vacancies is via word of mouth and networking.
It's also possible to find work through an agent or manager.
You could also produce a demo CD, DVD or MP3 of your music to send to recording companies.
You will need to continue training to improve your performance and professional development throughout your working life. This is achieved through practising every day and performing, as well as by taking lessons with private music teachers.
Further training and support is available from a range of organisations and professional bodies related to your genre of music, for example:
- Association of British Orchestras (ABO) - represents professional orchestras, youth ensembles and the wider classical music industry;
- Royal College of Organists;
- some of the larger opera companies, for example the Royal Opera House and the National Opera Studio;
- Rockschool Music (popular music).
These organisations provide a range of professional development opportunities such as training courses, qualifications and seminars, as well as access to advice, awards and bursaries.
The ISM and the MU provide members with access to careers and business advice on issues such as fees and contracts, as well as networking and professional development opportunities.
Funding and grants may be available to help further develop your skills. See Help Musicians UK for information on funding opportunities, as well as their Talent Programme and Music Student Health Scheme for emerging musicians.
It's also worth reading the specialist press for your area of music, for example Music Week, to keep up to date with what is happening in the industry.
Establishing a career as a musician can be difficult as it is a very competitive area of work. It's not always possible to work full time as a musician, particularly at the start of your career, and you will need talent, determination and perseverance to succeed.
There is not a great deal of movement within the orchestral profession, so bottlenecks do occur and progression can be slow. Movement to another orchestra may be the only way to advance in this situation. With experience you may be able to progress to principal player or section leader. This is likely to involve extra duties such as organising a section of the orchestra, editing the music and discussing options with conductors.
Solo performers may start their career within an orchestra or amateur choir and then progress to become a soloist, but very often they start their career from day one as a solo performer with a mixture of freelance solo work and teaching. As your reputation builds, you will receive more work.
Once you've gained experience in the popular music industry, you may decide to move into the business side as a producer or manager or to work for a record company.
It's also possible to develop your career as a composer or conductor, start your own ensemble or move into related areas of work such as music education, administration or community arts work.