The artist, the businessman and the spiritually fulfilled – Making a living out of music by Mike Relf

This is a guest post: by Mike Relf. Freelance guitarist, guitar teacher and more Mike is a regular deputy for many bands. He is well known as a sideman to many and enjoys a reputation as a versatile & musical freelance guitar player along with that of an experienced and inspiring teacher.  More about him @

It’s been a while since I was at college but I still remember taking a range of different classes including subjects like composition, production, music business and sound engineering. These were lessons that left my guitar still in its case despite me trying to become a better player. I mean, that’s why I was there right?

Of course I have learnt a lot since those days and my main maxim nowadays is to spread myself amongst a few different activities to best ensure my long term success at this career. Let’s set one thing straight first of all though… It’s not going to happen for you. There are positive steps that you can take (we’ll get onto those later) but the main thing is to look at what you have versus what you want and then look at what you will need to do in order to match those two things together. I have seen so many times (especially for some reason with musicians!) that the ideas are there but there seems little energy or drive to get on the case and put some energy in. Let’s get started.

What do you have to offer? Personally, I try to cover as much ground as possible. I can play a number of instruments, sing, lead a band, play session, offer deputy cover, engineer a mix, produce a record, teach most of these things and more. Even if your skills aren’t that broad, you can look at a few areas to get you going and ensure that when one thing quietens down, there is still plenty left to do. They say that the key to good business is to be an effective middleman. For me, it’s purely about getting organised. Some time ago, I split my own potential into a few areas and was surprised that only about 50% related to actually playing the guitar. Try it. Make a pie chart and prioritise your skills as a percentage. Include everything that you can think of. Now look at your diary. Does it fit? Right now I probably have more than 50% of my income coming from playing gigs. That means that there’s a deficit in another area. If the gigging suddenly stopped (I could break my wrist), I’d be a little exposed and my ‘business’ could fail.

pie chart

Get organised and have a plan! – I know that from May to August is perfect wedding season so I try to run a function band of my own as well as offering background stuff for mealtimes and keeping on the deps (stand ins) list for other bands that might need me at this time. There’s good money in this so learn a repertoire of pop songs even if you‘re not too into it. You can make at least 2 or 3 times the pay of a pub gig which will free up more time for the things that you do want to do. During the same summer period, teaching can be on a decline as peoples priorities change so build up your numbers over the winter months by getting onto an online registry or two (you’ll find me on a few). Put some thought into your lessons and your students will soon mount up. If you have some qualifications or decent experience, spend a little time on the phone to schools and register your interest by sending a CV. Peripatetic teaching is hard to come by (dead mans shoes!) but it is out there and can offer even more consistency when the gigs are less around January/Feb. You’ll want some more consistency as well and, whilst not huge payers, local bars and restaurants will offer something in the way of good regular work if you are persistent enough and can show them a good product. Duo’s are good money and this is also a good way to pick up potential party and function customers. There’s always the opportunity for some session work too so keep your ears open even if it’s just playing on another bands demo, you could make a few bucks. I also engineer for a band or two on occasion so think about this if you can work a pa. Of course there are other alternatives much as production or song writing and these can earn you good money if you find yourself in the right place. Even on a small scale, if you have some recording gear you could charge for cutting a band demo or two. Can you set a guitar up? Shops charge a mint for this service so make sure your students know that you can do it too. These are a few thoughts about how to get it together. How’s your pie chart looking?

Ok so here it is… you’re not alone. For all kinds of reasons, there are millions of people the world over that want a piece of what we’re doing. You may struggle if you don’t want to play covers music (even on the side?!) so if you feel that you ‘have’ to play function stuff, make sure that you are also working on creative projects such as your own album of music. You are an artist first so remember that. Try and remember why you started playing in the first place. Just don’t sit around waiting for the phone to ring. You’ll have to make some sacrifices (at first at least) in order to make it work and it will take just that… work.

As an advocate of balance I also need to say that all artists should be equipped with adequate business skills. If you get a booking, send a contract. Don’t undervalue your services so check out how much the other acts might be getting. Set up contracts for your students to help protect yourself from cancellations. Be professional and prompt to gigs and don’t be scared to ask for numbers or hand out cards. You alone are responsible for your publicity so do a good job of it!! Reputations are fickle things and the local circuit is smaller than you think. To be honest, the international circuit is probably smaller than you might think! You won’t want to think of yourself as a brand but it can help when you’re designing a website or sending out an invoice.

So it’s turbulent and a bit scary but making a living from your chosen instrument is both exciting and fulfilling. Remember that there are specific organisations out there to help make it easier for you and building your own support system of local musicians is crucial too. After all, most of the time you can’t gig it alone. Having a trade to offer is a very old institution and goes right back to the days of carpentry and street entertainers. Often when I’m loading up the car after a crap gig and wondering why I bothered turning up, I remember the stories of the old kung fu masters who would practice their craft on the street (busking) to earn money by showing off tricks like balancing on a spear or breaking boards (very little to do with the art itself) just in order to continue to be able to practice more of the art they were devoted to. Makes you think…

Some positive steps.

Get a website. If you have a product, are a teacher or have anything to promote, get it done! Mine is a resource for a few things such as promoting demos for duo acts or simply having a place for people to find me. It also helps me visualise how my ‘brand’ is looking.

Network – Jams nights are a good way to play with new guys and also an excuse to get out of the area and into some new venues so see what’s happening in your area. See your friends play to get some perspective on your own projects and you can use things like Facebook to stay in touch. Generally, we all work on the same nights so it’s hard to get out to see people sometimes. Make the effort!

Increase your skills – Get a teacher (no matter what standard you feel you are), keep a diary of practice if you can and put the work in. You will have a better career if you are a better player.

Join Relevant Membership affiliations – Such as the Musicians Union. It’s a good route for insurances too. If you’re teaching, you should also get a CRB check done. Protect your own interests where you can.

Accounting – Keep the best possible records of mileage info, gigs, expenses etc. Also it’s handy to keep a folder on your pc with stuff like invoice templates. Having a printed invoice to give to a venue looks 100 times better than hand writing one on the night. Be as professional as you can be. Also on this note, keep your equipment in good working order. There’s enough to worry about without having to repair stuff on the gig!

Save money – You don’t always need a pension plan (especially in today’s shaky climate) but it is an up and down industry. Make sure you have provisions for the quieter months and don’t overspend during the peaks! A sudden car repair bill can be quite a shock if you’re not ready.

Be positive – You’re doing this because you chose to. No good complaining at the gig even if it’s not your bag. Keep things moving forward and changing and you won’t be left stagnant doing the things that you don’t want to do.

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