Making Music: How I’ve made a Living as a Musician

I’m so lucky to do what I love. The notion of a “starving artist” is definitely still out there, but I believe there’s always room in this world for musicians to express their genre of art. Making a living as a classical guitar player is always going to be different than, let’s say, being a drummer in a metal band. Having said that, there are a few things that I believe are universal and apply across the board. I’ve made my living as a musician for the last 30 years and have found that at the end of the day, like in all walks of life, it comes down to relationships.

Here is a bit of my story from a “getting paid to play” perspective. As a teenager, I studied with a concert player in Rome, and subsequently began teaching at age 16.

When I was 17, I started giving concerts and playing gigs. My first paid gig was a birthday party and I made about $100. That was 1979, and sadly, that is the going rate that many musicians are still offered for a night of work. But it’s really not “just a night of work” when you factor travel time, expenses and talent into the equation. At the time, my program was very classical, formal music. I still remember the host asking me to play something that people knew, some pop tune they could sing along with…

That same year, I created a job for myself. I approached two nursing homes with the intention of offering music to the residents. I worked mornings at one nursing home and afternoons at the other for minimum wage. I went around to the rooms of the elderly and sat with them, talked about life, and played songs. I heard some amazing life stories and I hope that I left them with even an ounce of lingering joy.

My next professional endeavor was teaching. When I was 19 I started attending Whitworth University. After six months of studying in the guitar program, the head of the department offered me a teaching assistant position. Six months later he retired and they offered me the main teaching job. I headed the guitar departments at Whitworth and North Idaho College for four years. So, getting paid to teach what I love to like-minded students… not bad.

My introduction to working in Seattle happened when I played a Bastille Day event in Prosser, Washington. While playing, I met the Director of the Colombia Tower Club, who invited me to perform there for a week. He also recommended that I talk to Carmine at Il Terrazzo, one of Seattle’s best high-end Italian restaurants (very popular in the 1980s and 1990s).

I went to Carmine looking for just one day a week. But after hearing my music, he said “I want my customers to enjoy your music all the time. Can you play five nights a week?”

For almost 13 years, I played at this venue exclusively. Doing so allowed me to meet people from all over Seattle and the United States. Many performance invitations followed.

I left the security of the five-night-a week gig to pursue stage concerts. I felt the restaurant setting kept me in the background, and I wanted to share my music in a wider array of settings.

Since I took the risk over a decade ago to leave a steady music paycheck, I have played concert halls around the world. At the same time, I moved closer to my goal of being able to be very selective about the venues where I perform.

For me, the meaning of life has to do with how you spend your time. As you get older you realize how precious time is—you want to spend each moment of the day in alignment with pursuits that are close to your heart. Learning how to say no to work that rubs against your soul, plus having the courage to charge what you feel you’re worth, are critical to professional self respect.

As I said earlier, life is about relationships. Over the years when I have approached new theaters, agents and industry people who don’t know me, they rarely got back to me. I’ve had to be persistent, continually trying to establish a report. This demands endless amounts of energy that does not always generate a response. Most of my work comes because someone is looking for what I do. It’s “their idea” or a recommendation from a friend. Again, reputation and relationships.

Since age 16, I knew music was my destiny. It was almost like I didn’t have a choice. In all my years as a working guitarist, I always knew things would work out financially. Money has been just a side note to my life passion and it always will be. I hold this thought in my heart and mind: I will never do anything else for my livelihood except what I love, and that is playing the guitar.