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're 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 to a live audience.

You may work alone, as a freelance artist, in collaboration with others, or as a salaried member of a:

  • band
  • choir
  • theatrical ensemble
  • opera company
  • orchestra.

Competition in this field is high, so you'll need to dedicate hours of practice to maintain and develop your skills - whatever your preferred style.

Responsibilities

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
  • attend rehearsals
  • prepare for auditions
  • look after your instrument and/or voice
  • set up/tune your instrument and other equipment, arranging for its transportation if required
  • 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 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.

Salary

  • Your income will vary widely depending on, for example, whether you're working freelance or as part of an orchestra, or whether you're performing a gig in a pub or in a concert venue.
  • You would normally negotiate gig fees on a case-by-case basis. However, the Musicians' Union (MU) provides minimum casual stage rates for groups performing on stage (usually in a theatre or concert venue) ranging from £142.50 to £250, as well as a national gig rate for groups performing in pubs, clubs and functions ranging from £121.50 to £162.
  • In orchestras, your salary will depend on the orchestra you work for, your grade and experience. For example, basic salaries for BBC orchestra players can range from £35,766 to £46,719. Rates for casual orchestral concerts can range from £146 to £165.

The MU has guidance on rates for employed and self-employed orchestral musicians, gigs and live engagements, session musicians, and musicians working in theatre.

Increases in income will depend on your genre, experience and skill, the type of venue you play in, your popularity and the general economic climate.

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. Royalties may be additionally paid if the music has been registered with the PPL or PRS for Music.

Figures are intended as a guide only. See the MU and the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) for more information on fees and rates for musicians.

Working hours

You won't have a regular Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm work pattern. Rehearsals usually take place during the day and performances in the evenings, though this can vary.

Studio recordings 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 in your own time.
  • 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.
  • Performing and auditioning can be stressful for some musicians, and performance-related psychology can be helpful. Repetitive strain injuries are not uncommon.
  • 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. There are opportunities for singers and instrumentalists to audition throughout Europe and beyond.

Qualifications

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 - visit 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.

Skills

You'll 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
  • creativity
  • self-discipline and good time management
  • good communication and interpersonal skills
  • patience and understanding, 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.

Work experience

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 to as many musicians as possible, utilise any professional contacts you make 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 - by doing so, you'll build your confidence and professional network and extend your repertoire. Examples of where to gain this experience include:

  • amateur orchestras
  • auditions
  • awards
  • competitions
  • festivals
  • 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 calling 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 BBC Introducing Music for information on how to get started.

Employers

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'll 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, although as there are very few professional choirs 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:

You can also visit the ABO website and search 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.

Professional development

You'll 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:

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 through their Creative Programme.

It's also worth reading the specialist press for your area of music, such as Music Week, to keep up to date with what is happening in the industry.

Career prospects

Establishing a career as a musician can be difficult as it's 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'll need talent, determination and perseverance to succeed.

There isn't 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. You'll receive more work as you build your reputation.

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.