Should I Go Pro?

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A friend of mine was talking about a leader in town. He said that so and so was proof that you could make a small fortune in music. I responded with all ears. I wanted to hear all about it. He followed up by saying, “yeah, he started with a big one”.

Let’s talk about the financial side of what it means to be a professional trumpet player.

“Should I Go Pro?” Do the Math!

by Eddie Lewis

Have you asked yourself, “Should I go pro?”

I get a lot of students who take lessons with me because they want to eventually become professional trumpet players. I guess it seems like a logical idea. I am a professional player. I haven’t had a day job since 1989 (ish). I own a house and have at least a certain degree of success doing what I do.

The problem is that most students haven’t done the math yet. They haven’t thought the whole music career thing through yet.

When a student tells me that they would like to become full time professional trumpet players, I usually help them with the numbers so they can visualize precisely what it means to make a living as a musician. So let’s take a look at those numbers here, just in case you are considering a career in music.

Eddie Lewis Trumpet
Eddie Lewis playing his Puje 5 on New Years Eve 2019.

How Much Do You Want to Earn?

The average salary in Houston, TX is currently around $75,000 per year. One thing I ask my students with ambitions of going pro is to think about how much money their parents make. Chances are they are making somewhere between $35,000 and $90,000 per year. Most people want at least the same quality of life that their parents have provided for them. It is rare for someone to be happy with less.

So let’s use $75,000 as an average salary for our calculations. You may want to adjust this for your own family background. Ask your parents what their salaries are so you have something tangible to go by.

$75,000 per year, divided by 52 weeks gives you $1,442 per week.

If your parents make more or less than $75,000 per year, then adjust these numbers for your own situation.

Now ask yourself, how many gigs do you think you will have per week?

I can tell you from my own personal experience that the average number of gigs per week, for a successful freelance musician, is typically between three and five. This is an average. It is also rare to have the same number of gigs every week, all year. Music work is seasonal. Some weeks will have more than five gigs, other weeks will have NONE.

So let’s use for our calculations an average of five gigs per week.

$1,442 divided by 5 gigs per week is $288 per gig.

That sounds pretty do-able, right?

Hold On a Second!

Not only are music gigs seasonal, but different days of the week tend to pay different rates. It’s true that SOME gigs pay as much as $300 or $400. But you will only have a limited number of those gigs. Most of them will be on Friday or Saturday night.

For the rest of the week, you can expect to make a lot less than $300 per gig. It’s not unusual for the same exact musicians who make $400 on a Saturday night gig to make as little as $75 on Thursday. This is an extreme example, but it happens. The problem is, if you turn down the $75 gig, then you may not work that night.

Even worse, if you turn down the $75 gig, that band might not hire you for the better paying gigs when they come up.

Now the $1,442 per week is beginning to look a lot less do-able.

Where do you want to live?

where do you want to live
Where do you want to live?

Another thing to consider in this context is where you live. If you want to be a full time professional musician, you don’t get to live just wherever you want. You have to live in a city that has $300 to $400 gigs on the weekends.

When I left El Paso, one of the reasons I left was because I had done this math already. Gigs in El Paso were paying about $50 in the 80’s. I knew that there was no way for me to make a living playing $50 gigs. And the sad fact is that the pay in El Paso hasn’t gone up much in the last thirty years. Last time I spoke to my buddies who stayed in El Paso, they told me most of the gigs there still pay $50.

Let’s do the math backwards now. How many $50 gigs do you have to play per week to make an average salary?

$1,442 divided by $50 is 29 gigs per week.

That’s more than four gigs per day.

Do you see the problem here?

What if I don’t mind living in poverty, Should I Go Pro?

should I go pro
Dennis Dotson, Eddie Lewis, Carol Morgan and Kenny Borak – One of my favorite pictures.

“Should I go pro if I don’t mind being a starving artist, bohemian type?”

Let’s quickly do the same calculation with poverty numbers. Let’s say you want to be a responsible adult who supports your family. The federal guideline for a family of four is $25,750. Let’s look at the numbers:

$25,750 divided by 52 weeks is $495 per week.
(anything less than this is considered poverty in the USA)

Now, that sounds do-able, right? If you are okay living beneath the average salary, willing to be the “starving artist” for the sake of your music, this can work. Right?

Well, maybe.

What we haven’t mentioned yet is business expenses. The numbers we’ve been working with are gross numbers, not net. Gross is the total amount of money taken in. Net is what’s left over after you’ve subtracted the cost of doing business.

When you get money from a gig, not all of that is considered income. The cost of your instrument and other equipment comes out of that. The cost of your communications comes out of that. You can’t get gigs if people can reach you. The cost of your advertising comes out of that. You can’t get gigs if no one knows you exist. There are a number of expenses that musicians MUST spend money on or they cannot sustain a career as a professional free-lance musician.

The cost of your transportation to the gig also comes out of your gross. The IRS will be allocating 58 cents per mile for the 2019 tax year. This 58 cents is supposed to cover your fuel, wear and tear on the vehicle and your car insurance. While it may be true that you might be able to travel more efficiently than what the IRS is allocating for mileage, you can’t be very far off from the 58 cents.

Living on the south side of Houston, when I travel to The Woodlands for a gig, it’s 50 miles one way. That’s 100 miles of travel for one gig.

100 miles at $0.58 per mile is $58.

Hypothetically, if the gig only pays $100, then it comes out to be less than $40 net when you subtract the various expenses.

And THAT’S the number we are talking about when we do our calculations. Your income as a professional musician is what’s left over after all of your expenses!

How Do-Able Is It Looking Now?

Now that you are looking at it this way, even trying to break through the poverty line doesn’t seem very do-able. Does it?

When you sit and do the math, there is very little appeal in becoming a professional trumpet player. And we haven’t even talked about the other stuff, the non-financial stuff.

For example, a professional musician’s life is basically inverted to all the normal people living normal lives. And yes, that has its perks. I love dining in empty restaurants and shopping in empty stores. What I don’t like is being cut off from my family because I am always working when they have time off, and they are always working when I am off.

Don’t forget that, as a professional musician, you don’t make money when you don’t work. When there’s a wedding in your family that you simply cannot miss, you will go without making money that week. Anything you want to do with the normal people in your life, you will have to sacrifice income to be there with them.

And the worst part of this particular problem is that they will never truly understand this. Normal, non-musician people never understand that you are going an entire week without income to be at their event. Going out of town to be at your brother’s wedding is going to cost you one quarter of your month’s income and if you say anything about it, they will think you are just whining. They will not understand. Not typically.

I Am Blessed

The Forest Club With The Grooves Horns
Paul Peacock, Carl Muller, Martin Langford and Eddie Lewis on a gig with The Grooves from Austin, Texas.

I am blessed in my career because I am not only a professional musician. In fact, over a decade ago, I made the decision to cut back on the number of gigs I take. I don’t take every gig I get called for anymore. I have a minimum price I expect to get paid and will not leave the house unless the gig pays enough to justify the “expense”. Right?

You know, a big part of the problem with the music industry and why things are the way they are is because of supply and demand. The industry is over saturated with musicians who are desperate to play music. It’s like an addiction to them. They HAVE to have it. They HAVE to be on stage, performing music. They need it so badly that they will work for $50.

Supply and demand!

For as long as there are so many musicians desperate to play music, the typical pay will always be less than poverty wages. That’s why these guys get day jobs (or wealthy wives) to “support their music habit”.

I don’t have this same problem. I don’t NEED to be in front of an audience. I don’t even NEED music the way they do. I have never been one of those who says “I have to play music or I will die”. And I am the way I am because of my relationship with Jesus Christ. He is my provider. His is the only approval I need. I don’t need people to praise me. I don’t need the applause. I try to live my life in love for God and in service to my neighbor.

So yeah, this stuff is VERY different for me.

Yes, I’ve been able to make a career in music. But look at the nature of that career. It’s not what most people think when they talk about professional musicians. The path God has set me on has been unique. He made a way for me, not to make a living as a musician, but to become a servant to the people He has placed in my life.

“Should I Go Pro?”

With all this information, “should I go pro?”

Of course, this could also be true for you. You could find a way to make a career in music work for you. I never said it was impossible. But it is ignorant to think that you can just be a great trumpet player and the income will just flow. Do the math! It’s going to take a lot more than just being a great trumpet player.

“Should I go pro?”

Yes, if you treat it like a business!

Don’t let your music addiction ruin your life. If you want to make a living in music, take the business side of it as seriously as you do the music itself, and you might pull it off. This is what I tell all of my students and what I told my son. If you want to be a professional musician, do the business. Don’t just become a great player.

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