Pandemic survival strategies for working musicians

Times are tough if you're trying to make a living through music right now, but there are ways you can keep yourself going without having to leave the house.

To say things have gotten completely weird in the last few weeks would be putting it mildly. The COVID-19 pandemic has put a third of the world’s population in self-isolation and forced people of all professions to think outside of the box to keep working.

This is especially true of working musicians who rely on gigs and sessions to pay the bills – if you’re one of those, no doubt your current and future earnings have taken a major hit in the last few weeks, and you might be wondering how you’re going to cope.

The good news is that if you’ve taken the career-musician path, chances are you’re a pretty tough cookie already. You’ve had to stay ahead of the curve, you’ve almost certainly struggled financially, hit bottom, and hit bottom again, you’ve found your bootstraps (whatever bootstraps are) and tugged yourself up more times than you can probably count, you’ve had to get creative, and luckily, creativity is one of your greatest strengths.

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Yes, we are working with different parameters and yes, there are challenges as yet unseen, but the brave musicians of the world have kept showing up for their craft even in the bleakest of times, and they’ll do it again. We imagine you’ve already begun to think about your next steps, smarties that you are, but here are some suggestions to get you started for the weeks ahead.

Someone recording some acoustic guitar playing with their phone.
Image: Milan Markovic / Getty Images

Busk on a live feed

Music is one of our greatest sources of comfort and healing, and everybody is currently in need of both. Go live on Facebook, YouTube or Instagram and play some crowd favourites for your social media followers.

Make your PayPal or Venmo prominently visible on the stream, and let your viewers know (repeatedly) that tips can be sent there. Improve your tips by taking requests. You’ll be brightening your online community’s day, and you’ll likely come away with some extra money for all that toilet paper you’re stockpiling.

Give lessons online

All of a sudden, everybody has a lot more time on their hands. There are bound to be some folks who are taking this as an opportunity to finally start playing that guitar they’ve had hanging around for the last few years. Hell, we’d imagine plenty of guitar-shaped boxes have been winging their way to bored, isolated people all over the world in the last few weeks too.

In addition, parents are looking for ways to keep their kids occupied and stimulated, and that means we’re likely to see an uptick in children taking proper music lessons in a virtual setting. Starting an account on an online teaching platform will give you access to eager students all over the world, and is a side-hustle a lot of musicians already swear by. We hear particularly good things about TakeLessons.

Start a Patreon

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Patreon lets users subscribe to artists they are interested in and wish to support financially for a small monthly fee. In return for their investment, the creators make content specifically for their subscribers, with different perks for different tiers of payment. Not only is this a feasible way to generate extra income, but it can also expand your fanbase, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Someone recording guitar in a home studio.
Image: aywan88 / Getty Images

Don’t give up on session work

While responsible social distancing means that in-person session work is off the table for the time being (unless you’re in some sort of Partridge Family-style living situation in which case, keep on keeping on), those of us with even a simple home studio can still participate in recording, and given that all artists will be in the same boat, there’ll be plenty of people looking to collaborate.

Have your collaborators send you a high-quality version of the music they need you to play or sing on, and lay down the tracks in the comfort of your own home. If you aren’t yet equipped to record at home, check out our recommendations for home recording essentials.

Embrace the singing telegram

A lot of people are holding online gatherings and parties in lieu of the real thing right now – virtual pubs, virtual quizzes, virtual games nights, the whole shebang – and what better way to brighten the mood than with music?

Imagine playing a couple’s favourite song for them at their virtual engagement party, or performing a mini-set for somebody’s birthday who is quarantined alone. Take to social media to market your talents as a virtual singing telegram, and charge by the song or for a full set.

Someone playing guitar in front of their laptop.
Image: visualspace / Getty

Book an online benefit concert – for yourself

A lot of people need help right now and it can feel a bit presumptuous to ask for help ourselves, especially when so many people are rightly busy trying to raise funds for the myriad worthy causes that need our support in this difficult time.

That being said, within your community, there are people that can and want to help artists. Furthermore, we argue that music is going to be crucial in getting us through this without totally losing our minds. We’ve already witnessed the power of song in locked-down Italy, and other parts of the world, where well-loved melodies filled the air from the balconies of those in isolation.

Get to practising a stellar setlist and invite your community in for a virtual performance. You can sell tickets online and stream your concert through a private content delivery network such as Vimeo. Or, have people PayPal or Venmo you the ticket price, then add them to a private group on Facebook and stream live from there.

Keep looking ahead

While composing, songwriting, and recording your own tracks isn’t guaranteed to make you money immediately, this cloud will pass eventually – life will return to normal, and when it does, you could potentially have a whole new library of work to try and monetise.

There is an opportunity here to delve into the projects you’ve been putting off while working for hire has occupied the majority of your time. Think about the long term possibilities that this moment of space and stillness provides, and keep giving love to your dreams.

We know this is incredibly difficult for us all in so many ways, but we believe in music, and we believe in you. To all the tunes we’ve yet to sing, and to better days ahead.

If you’re a musician struggling because of the current crisis, here are some resources and organisations that may be able to help:

Sweet Relief Musicians Fund
Providing assistance to musicians in the US and Canada

Recording Academy MusicCares
MusicCares supports musicians during the COVID-19 pandemic, natural disasters, and addiction recovery.

Help Musicians
An independent UK charity that is offering advice and financial aid.

International Federation of Musicians
Reports from musicians’ unions, resources, and a wealth of information.

COVID-19 and Freelance Artists
A growing collection of free resources for musicians and other freelance artists.

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