Articles - 9th January 2019

Getting Started as a Freelance Musician

Words by Holly Patrick
Illustration by Matt Rooney

So you’re a musician looking to get your first bit of paid work – great! For those who want a bit more freedom with their schedules and love performing, freelancing may be the best option. There are a few avenues you can go down – but whatever you’re looking to get into, there are a few tricks you should know before taking the plunge.


If you’re looking to break into the performance side of freelancing, promoters are a good start. Whether you’re trying to build a fan base or want some more live experience, they’re the ones who are in charge of putting on a show and could be your ticket to growing your career.

Your best bet is to keep your eyes peeled in your local area and check out the main promoters around you. Make sure that the shows they’re putting on are aligned to your style, otherwise you may be wasting your time.

Invoices and contracts

Once you’re signed up, make sure to get an agreement of payment in writing – with an invoice and contract – or you could find yourself out of pocket. Although working with promoters is a good way of starting to earn money for your performances, sadly not everyone has the same sense of urgency as freelancers do when it comes to payment.

“Don’t let people mess you around” says Lila Tristram, a freelance tutor and folk musician. “Money is such a hard thing to talk about, but you have to do it. Once a promoter tried to get away with first paying me nothing, then half of what we’d agreed verbally beforehand. I messaged him afterwards and got the rest of my money, but if I hadn’t called him out he wasn’t going to pay me.”

Session musicians

Another route into the industry could be working as a session musician – someone hired on a freelance basis to play on recording sessions or on stage with a performer. They’re extremely valuable to most recording artists, but you need to know your stuff. “Most of it is about who you know, but it’s really important to be a great player too” says Jack Handyside, a freelance guitarist and tutor, “lots of session work requires sight reading and experienced intuition when it comes to being involved in other people’s projects.”

Make sure you familiarise yourself with a wide range of styles so you’ll appeal to a wider range of artists, and be open to meeting different people. But, most of all, being reliable and professional will help you in the long run. “Being reliable is the biggest MUST for anyone wanting to be a top session musician” says Jack. “People hiring you will forgive mistakes in the session or difficulty when performing the music, but your time keeping is your business, so don’t be late ever if you can help it – some of the most brilliant players on the scene have horrendous time keeping, and it really burns you when word of mouth is your method of advertisement.”

Social media

When contacting a promoter, your first thought will probably be social media or email – but sometimes it’s good to go back to basics, and being old school may land you the best jobs. “It’s not just Instagram that gets you gigs” Jack explains. “At the end of the day they’re still found in the old fashioned way, going out and meeting people – I’ve got gigs from people I’ve met in person who have then scouted my Instagram and asked me to play.”

That’s not to say that you should forgo social media completely – it can be an extremely useful tool in the digital age, and a free bit of marketing – if you know how to use it properly. “If you put a video up and expect people to flock towards you, it’s not going to happen, no matter how good you are” says Jack. With business accounts and paid promotions, if you can afford them, social media is a good way of spreading your work further than you perhaps could achieve in person.

Being an online tutor as well as a performer, Jack says that social media has been incredibly important to build up a base of students and contacts. “You have to treat it in the same way as you would with face-to-face lessons and you need to be active in trying to get a repeat purchase” he explains. “Be proactive in branching out and showing people you have a good quality product. Interacting with people on social media seems to be the most cohesive way to market yourself online. It kind of entices people to want to know more about you when they see more about you.”

The legal bits

It’s all well and good booking gigs and finding students, but a written agreement of payment is always a good idea in order to protect yourself. Learn how to create a good invoice and contract detailing when you accepted the work, what your work entails, how much the payment is and when you should receive the money (it should be at least 30 days after your work was delivered).

Even if you’re still waiting on payment, screaming and shouting may not be the best idea (although it may be your first.) “Be careful – if you overreact to a promoter or someone who’s hired you for a gig, someone else may be in the room who wants to hire you” explains Jack. “It’s really uninspiring to finish a great gig and not be paid on time, but screaming won’t help. You have to take a lot of heat as a freelancer and put it aside and just be as level headed as you can.”

If you’re struggling to get someone to pay you, there are people who can help. Organisations such as the Musicians’ Union and the Performing Right Society (who look after royalties) can give you the authoritative backbone you need to kick employers into gear.

Be organised

When you’re your own boss, having a set structure for your days can be a lifesaver. It might seem trivial, but setting aside time to do different tasks can maximise your productivity. It can be as simple as having one day a week to sort out all your admin, such as invoices and taxes. “It can feel like a waste to just sit at home not earning money, but doing admin pays off. You need to constantly keep on top when you’re busy to know that you’ve got a great job lined up next week,” says Charles.

If freelancing isn’t paying the bills, there’s nothing wrong with having a 9-5 to supplement your income, and it’s more common than you think. “Although I can see the benefit of having a corporate job, it would be hard for me to have as much autonomy. I chose freelancing so I wouldn’t have to worry about ‘the man’” says Emily Wolf, a freelance singer-songwriter.  

Looking after yourself

As with any job, looking after your health is important – but that’s easy to say when there’s a HR department to fall back on. For those who have to be their own bosses, time off can be costly. So, pacing yourself, to ensure you don’t fall ill, is something you must be conscious of. Even taking a job, that you know isn’t good, just because it pays can take its toll on your mental wellbeing.

When you’re stuck in a dry period, remember that it’s not permanent. “Even if it’s doing shitty stuff like tickets on the door, people will start owing you favours and that is a valuable commodity in this industry” says Charles Vaughan, a freelance musician, DJ and engineer. “

Your physical health is just as important as your mental health, and when your work dries up they can often affect each other. Many freelance musicians find that exercising and eating well can do wonders for their work – it can be hard when you haven’t got any gigs coming through, but being proactive about your health will be invaluable in the long run.

Remember that you come first. “Always be nice to people, but don’t feel obliged to do something if it doesn’t feel right – there are always more opportunities”, says Emily, “make sure you’re not after a preconceived idea of glamour, otherwise the real grind might shock you!”

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