Be a Big Fish! Make a Living Doing Music

Recently I’ve had the opportunity to perform and teach in Asia, affording a view into the music industry landscape much different from the United States.

I hear American musicians complain often of the lack of opportunity to make a living doing music. The world is a big place with a lot of opportunity if you know how to look for it. You can be a huge fish in many parts of the world if you’re willing to do some research and take the plunge. Can you imagine the kinds of experiences and things you’ll see and do?!

I met American musicians living like KINGS on the other side of the world. Some in the U.S. complain that they make things cheaper in Asia, making it hard for Americans to compete. It hurts our economy and limits the amount we can earn in America, because people work for and make things cheaper everywhere else.  Maybe this has hurt the standard of living in the U.S. for musicians because people are spending less on entertainment, parties, CDs, etc., due to the overall economic situation.

In places like China, where there’s a growing upper class, American musicians can go over and make a killing. Chinese can copy just about everything we make, but no one can copy American music, and even if they could, an authentically American musician is viewed as an exotic import with premium value (in many places this premium goes up considerably for African American musicians). In fact, the culture of these countries is such that you rarely hear of native musicians training for a career in pop music or jazz. Sure, there are classical career musicians, but in general, there are more gigs than musicians when it comes to functional (party/dance) music and creative music.

In Hong Kong or Shanghai there might be less than 5 players on each instrument who play at a high level in jazz and other popular styles. It’s a very small scene, and players make $300-600 a night doing corporate functions, often working every night of the week, and supplementing with jazz clubs, hotels, restaurants (often on longstanding contracts to play 5 nights or a week at a hotel, for example). In some cases rent is paid, plus overseas flight, but regardless, $50,000 a year in Shanghai is like making $150,000 a year in Chicago.

The musicians I encountered all told me the same story – eat out (the food is awesome in China) every meal, take cabs everywhere, frequent massages, and saving money in the bank. Oh, and they can buy all the equipment they want, dirt cheap. Some of the musicians I worked with were sub-standard to the level of players I would expect to call for gigs in the U.S., but even these players were raking it in. They truly were surviving in the music biz, and doing it well!

Christian Howes teaches jazz violin in Japan

Tokyo jazz violin workshops and performance.

I’ve seen this before, to a lesser degree, in places like Madrid, Spain, where there’s a bigger scene and a higher level of musicianship than Hong Kong or Shanghai, but even if relatively developed scenes the standard of American musicianship and professionalism is still seen in the same way. Our musicians are seen as valuable commodities in most places around the world, which is how they make it in the music industry. The musicians I’ve met abroad who happened to land in some foreign city are living at a very high standard and they have their pick of the best gigs in town.

It’s up to you to go out and make the most of all this opportunity.

How? Here are a few ideas:

1) Research musicians in your niche or stylistic interest on google such as “shanghai jazz” or “celtic music, Barcelona” and find some players on MySpace – listen to their stuff, check their schedules online. Contact them via a personalized mass email(or hire someone overseas for cheap to do some of this work for you. You can find a virtual assistant in India or Phillipines for between $2-6 per hour.

I would let them know that you’re planning on coming over to do some playing and you’re looking for local players that you can hire – everyone’s interested in a gig – or just let them know that you like their music and ask if you can call them to talk about the local music scene. Maybe you can establish a rapport with someone who would even be willing to hire you tentatively to play on some gigs if you were to make it over.

2) Call agencies and tell them you’d like to move there and want to know if they would have interest in booking you.

3) Save some money and just go!  Once you get there, hit the places where musicians play and meet the ex-pats. You’ll quickly get networked if you’ve got the goods musically.

I’m not saying that this is right for everyone, or that you absolutely should do this, but please don’t tell me there isn’t enough opportunity in this world for someone to make a living doing music. If you’d like my help establishing your international career, feel free to shoot me an email at [email protected]. It never hurts to network and share ideas, and I’m always fascinated to see people carve out their own paths in the music industry. As a jazz violinist, I never had the luxury of having a clear path laid out, and the necessity of creating my own path ultimately has led to my having a career which I really enjoy!

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