Tips for Success as a Freelance Musician

Have you thought about what it takes to find success as a freelance musician? If you’re fortunate to have gone to school in an area with a strong arts scene, you may be able to launch this aspect of your career right where you are. But often, it will mean moving to a more urban environment after college.

by Nicole Riner

Moving to a new city is difficult if you do not have personal or musical connections there. You will start out in the back of the line behind local professors and their graduate students, recent graduates who stayed in town, important people’s spouses, and those who have been a part of the local scene since you were a toddler.

But don’t lose heart! You will eventually be recognized for your reliability, talent, networking skills, and humble, hard-working attitude as long as you consistently display those qualities whenever you have the opportunity.

Whether you stay where you are or move to new surroundings, the following tips may serve you well:

Be ready to self-promote.

Get your one-page résumé looking as good as it can, and make it easily available. You can carry paper copies with you wherever you go, but paper is becoming a thing of the past. It’s better to also have all the information you want to convey on a website (résumé, bio, performance calendar, teaching philosophy, sound clips, etc.) and get some great-looking business cards made to share your information quickly and easily. Study other websites from people in your field and learn from the best.

Find a web hosting company.

Do some shopping for web hosting. New companies are constantly forming to offer affordable package deals on the domain name along with some pretty professional-looking design help.

Create your website.

Create a website that celebrates your victories while also allowing people to get to know you as a musician. A website filled with bravado and not much else is rather annoying (and ubiquitous, unfortunately). But a website that genuinely represents who you are as a unique individual will always be compelling.

If your goal is to teach through your own studio, a well-written teaching philosophy is important. It allows potential students and their parents to make a connection to you and feel comfortable choosing you as their teacher.

Share your particular interests, areas like classical-jazz crossover music or Latin American folk music, etc. Your website helps you get past the awkward “stranger” phase when people first discover you.

Stay in performance shape.  

The imposed downtime of having no gigs in a new place allows you to be in the best shape of your life. Design an efficient and regular practice schedule for yourself so that you are always ready at a moment’s notice to fill in at a gig. These types of opportunities will most likely be your first calls.

Scales, long tones, orchestral excerpts, and sight reading practice should be priorities. Familiarize yourself with any relevant music you haven’t yet learned. Your goal is to be able to say yes to anything that comes along and to play so well that you get called again.

Make calls.  

Contact local band directors about coming in to teach pull-out or after-school lessons. Call the personnel managers of local part-time orchestras and ask if you can audition for the sub list. If there is a good college or full-time orchestra in your area, contact the professor/principal player and take a lesson. Share your interest in subbing and other side work if you hit it off together. Learn who the contractors in your area are, and email them your press packet –– headshot, résumé, bio, and links to pertinent information on your website. In short, make sure people know where to find you.

Look for a faculty to join.  

Community music schools are great places to meet other active freelancers. Through them, you can learn about gigs, create chamber music groups or jazz trios, and generally learn the lay of the land. And in the meantime, you’ll get paid to teach classes or individual students.

Create performance opportunities.  

Give a recital at a local church, theater, or other music venue. Promote that recital aggressively. Contact local newspapers, classical radio stations, and arts bloggers to announce it and to offer yourself for an interview or review of the show. If it goes well, consider creating a music series.

Say yes to anything.  

Any work even marginally-related to performing could lead to more performing. Do anything you feel capable of doing that will allow you to work with other musicians and let them see you shine. Entry-level arts administration work, sub-contracting for gigs, or just teaching or playing in situations you didn’t imagine for yourself are all fair game.

Consider working for free.  

Performing for free is a painful concept after so many years of playing for free as a student, but you often go back to square one when you move to a new place. If an unpaid gig is likely to lead to more work, consider it an extended audition.

Once You Get the Gig

By the time you start getting calls for gigs, you may have gone through periods of frustration, mild depression, and panic at the thought of having wasted your college years practicing your instrument instead of doing something marketable. Don’t let it show! Whether you are playing beside brilliant musicians or people who seem staid in their performance chops, address everyone as a respected colleague. Show your appreciation after solos at rehearsal (good or bad). Thank the regulars in the ensemble for letting you play with them.

Make direct eye contact, smile, offer your hand and introduce yourself. Act happy to be there, even if it has been a difficult week filled with rejections. There are far more good musicians than there are jobs, so if your ego gets in the way, you won’t be called again.

Treat every rehearsal, no matter how mundane the music, as if it is the most important performance of your life. You are being judged every time you make a sound by people who decide where to put you on the sub list.

Establishing Yourself

It takes time to be recognized for who you are and what you can do. And every area is different. When I lived in the Midwest (during a more robust economy), I had a full studio within three months and was getting calls to play soon after that.  When I moved to the Rocky Mountain region, it took two years before I was really active as a musician.

Every musical community is a small one, and every action and statement you make will follow you. If you consistently present yourself as willing to work, hold yourself to a high standard, and act generously and with kindness in the face of others’ struggles, people will want to work with you.  The longer you remain that excellent colleague, the higher your name will rise on the sub list.

freelance musicianNicole Riner is Visiting Associate Professor of Music at the University of Wyoming. She also maintains a national presence as a soloist, chamber musician, and pedagogue.  She earned a DM from Indiana University Jacobs School of Music and has recorded for Albany and Centaur Records. For more information, please visit

Photo Credit: Ted Brummond


  1. Mike

    As a freelancer, you should be a member of ALL the freelance websites in order to take advantage of having access to people saying, “this is what I want, who can do it for me?” I understand that everything doesn’t necessarily work for everyone, but all things considered, you have to be ready to move with the times.

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