Tips for Surviving as a Musician in New York City
For most artists, living in New York is the only place where they can have a legitimate shot at making a living doing what they love. Unfortunately, a good deal of those people leave empty handed and the ones who stay either struggle to get by or find some other field to make a living. There are always exceptions, so being prepared can make a big difference when you’re going for broke.
There are a lot of things that I had to learn on my own when I first moved to New York City in 2005. I had some things going for me, but I could have set myself up for greater success if I had a heads up about what to expect and how to approach making a name for myself in the big city.
Setting Yourself Up for Success
First of all, if you’re fresh out of college and are eager to hit the ground running, rethink an immediate move to New York City. If you think it’s all shedding (practicing) during the day and gigging at night, think again. It’s actually quite the opposite.
I would suggest moving to New York with a substantial amount of savings. This way, if you run up against hard times you will have a safety net.
In my case, I worked on a cruise ship for a year and a half saving up enough money so that I wouldn’t have to find a day job right away.
I also moved to New York for graduate school. This to me was an easy transition. It allowed me to be in New York but not feel like I had to make it on my own without any contacts. My professors were some of the top jazz musicians in New York City and the other students in my class were experienced players who were already making a name for themselves. For me it was all about making connections and practicing. Having a day job didn’t fit into my schedule. But when school was out, I worked.
Paying the Bills
If you have to have a job to pay your bills, try to keep it in music.
Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of private teaching opportunities in New York City like you would think, at least for certain instruments. Arts programs are always being cut and wind instruments are first on the list. Plus, these kids have their pick of any professional in New York, so why would they go with a newcomer?
What there is an abundant supply of are piano and guitar students. Being able to play one or both instruments fairly well will more than likely lead to private teaching gigs. Parents independently want their children involved in some form of the arts, especially when it is not a part of the general school curriculum.
If you are a talented pianist and have experience accompanying vocalists, you can find work as a musical theater or opera vocal accompanist. If you like working with very young kids, there are opportunities to work as a toddler day care music specialist. These jobs usually require you to play guitar and sing. It may not be playing at Birdland, but it beats sitting at a desk answering phones all day.
If you don’t have the skill set to play piano or guitar, make sure you have your office skills in top shape. Temping is one way that most artists make a living between big gigs. These jobs are usually in offices that need receptionists who can type fast and direct calls. There’s not a lot to it, but you are required to know the basics of Microsoft Office: Word, Excel, Power Point, and Access. The more you are familiar with these programs, the better your pay will be. These jobs usually pay $15-$20/hour.
The good thing about temp jobs is that you can leave the job whenever you have a gig or tour coming up and usually come back to it when you are available. And they generally occur during regular office hours: 8am-5pm, so it doesn’t interfere with practicing/gigs. The downside is that it is what is: temporary. Some jobs are long-term and can be flexible enough with your schedule to make it work for you. Other jobs are short-term and are only booked for a certain amount of time.
There is a good deal of money to be made in the food service industry, but those jobs don’t allow for the freedom to gig. Especially on last minute sub calls.
So you’ve got your job taken care of, now how do you get gigs?
First and foremost it’s all about contacts, especially on your own instrument. If you’re moving to New York City without any contacts in music, the best place to start is by going to jam sessions and meeting other musicians. If jazz isn’t your thing, then find out where a lot of musicians who play your style hang out. There are certain bars in midtown, for example, where a lot of Broadway players hang before or after a show. Craigslist is another good place to start.
Be prepared to play and rehearse for free. Remember, you’re trying to make a name for yourself and this is one way to do it. Taking a couple of non-paying gigs or joining a band that is just starting up is a great way to make contacts that can lead to other gigs.
My first gig in New York was playing with an Afro-beat band that I found off of Craigslist. I wasn’t really into the music or the band but I did make one contact (a saxophonist) that I have used on numerous occasions and became good friends with. This led to other gigs and got me into playing around the city. I also joined a jump swing and blues band that rehearsed about once a week for six months without a gig in sight. Once we finally played our first gig, we were booked every week at a club in midtown. This again led to other work from members of the band. Another good outlet for gigs is taking private lessons. Once a player becomes familiar with your playing, they may call on you to sub for them in the future. This happens quite often so it’s worth the investment.
Here’s the bottom line: living in New York is expensive and is not easy on musicians or artists of any kind. Having a heads up on what to expect before moving here can help you deal with the struggle of being a starving artist. A good number of musicians leave and come back multiple times before they feel like they can handle it. They say that this is a seven year town, meaning that it takes about seven years before you start to see any real work. So if you’ve got the patience and the determination, it will probably pay off in the long run.