Side Hustles and Musicians

Dr. David Lee FishGENERALLeave a Comment

We coined the term.

It goes by a couple of different names. Side hustle. Side gig. Both reflect where the concept of part-time employment beyond a person’s main work comes from—the music world. The reason is that side employment is so essential in the lives of so many musicians.

Almost every professional musician I’ve known has had to have a side hustle, at least beyond what I’ve heard referred to as the 2-percenters. Those are the fortunate few who make enough from their musical endeavors that they don’t need a side gig. But if you looked at the career arc of even those elite musicians, you’d likely find they need to hustle on the side on the way up.

A prime example of a side hustle.

I’m going to leave his name out of it, but a top-notch professional guitarist visited the college where I was directing a popular music program to perform with our students. He pulled up to the campus in a 50-foot RV. This is a guy who has been the regular touring guitarist of household-name artists, so I thought this was how he liked to tour with them. In part, it was, but there was another important reason.

As he explained, he has no control over when the artists he works with tour, and he can’t sing on with too many acts, or they start to conflict. Sometimes, he works constantly. Other times, he’s at loose ends and very much in need of a side hustle (Many musicians who back major artists on tour don’t make nearly as much as you’d think. It’s almost scandalous that a headliner is making a million dollars a night and paying his backing musicians next to nothing with no benefits.)

So, this particular guitarist and his wife hit upon a brilliant side-hustle idea. They flip houses. They live in the RV with their young daughter in the driveway when they buy one to fix up. When he receives a call to hit the road, they shut up the house and take off. And he learned how to fix up houses by watching “YouTube University.” A brilliant side hustle indeed.

Side Hustles
“Be prepared to embrace side hustles. It’s very much par for the course.”

Sometimes side is the main.

Sometimes a side hustle or side gig is the main source of income for a musician. Podiatrist by day and a blues harp player by night. That sort of thing. That can be the preferable ratio since it can allow you to remain pure with your musical endeavors. If you don’t have to worry about your music being successful enough to turn a profit, you can sometimes be more accessible in following your muse. (A great example is the wild-man composer XXX.)

When I meet a musician striving to “make it,” they are often embarrassed to mention they have a full-time job doing something else. I try to reassure them with “Welcome to the club.” After all, the same thing applies to my musical career. Yes, I’d like to think I’ve done some cool things in music and performed with some incredible musicians, but my main gig was being a music professor and is now serving as an educational consultant.

A second and third example.

One of the best musicians I’ve ever played with still struggles to achieve the type of success that’d allow him to make music full-time. His solution is to be what I call a “rum runner.” He works for a firm that buys wine and whiskey from estates to resell. We’re talking about the good stuff. Bottles that cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars. When my friend gets a call, he hops in his van to drive to Oregon, Connecticut, or wherever to return the stash.

I know a hot videographer in Nashville who does music videos for many top artists. When I met him, he had a shoot from yesterday’s session with Keith Urban still on the chip in his camera. Some of the folks in the industry also know that he’s a gifted songwriter in a town with too, too many gifted songwriters.

The takeaways.

There are two important takeaways here:

First, as a musician, be prepared to embrace side hustles. It’s very much par for the course.

Second, develop side hustles strategically. Doing something related to music, like graphic design or social media marketing for musicians, can be a great option. You:

  • get the opportunity to network in the industry
  • are in an environment that understands and appreciates you
  • your work schedule is often conducive to your musical pursuits

Tell me about your side hustle

About the Author

Dr. David Lee Fish

Dr. David Lee Fish, Ph.D. is the founder of College Music Major. A veteran figure in music and education whose extensive career spans decades, he's known for his unique approach to music and for sharing his passion with others. His expertise ranges from performance and songwriting to education and private consulting.

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