Are You A Professional Musician?

This is a guest post by top rated session drummer Luke O’Kelley.

This article is a reflection on some of the labels used to categorize working musicians, as well as some of the assumptions we make unconsciously about what they mean. It comes directly out of my journey as a drummer and engineer.

Ever since I was in elementary school, I dreamt of being a “professional drummer.” The phrase had certain meanings that I got from music videos and magazines. As I continued to play drums, the details of being a professional drummer remained about as complete as: join a band that makes it big.

Despite my lack of clarity, by 2019 I found myself making most of my income from playing music. But the reality of making an income in music seems only distantly related to my childhood fantasies of fire shooting out of stages, mohawks, and leather clothing.

While we can hopefully agree that these descriptions of musician life are not all encompassing, it leads us to the evasive questions: what is a professional musician, and what is a great musician, and how are those two things related? Also, how are we measuring our own musical success and the success of others?

I’d like to discuss these questions and some misleading things we believe about musicianship, and why they aren’t helpful to us. Here they are:

1) Talent = Notoriety

Some of the most talented musicians I know are not very well known, and some of the most well known musicians aren’t necessarily the most talented. In fact, many extremely talented musicians aren’t interested in playing music that’s marketable on a mass scale. Most great jazz musicians aren’t focused on playing for Justin Beiber, and he didn’t gain his notoriety because he’s a “studied” jazz player with a great ear for improvisation.

According to Rockonomics, the average musician earns around $20,000 a year. Many earn their income mainly from teaching, or from playing in church. There are tons of mind bogglingly talented and hardworking musicians that we will never hear of, and that might not even want to try and make their income from playing music.

Putting too much stock in notoriety can lead you to make one of these mistakes:

  • Giving up on something simply because it hasn’t gained you notoriety, or isn’t likely to in the future
  • Pursuing a musical path simply because it has gotten you notoriety, or is likely to
  • Judging the value of your musical achievements or someone elses based on notoriety

As the saying goes: fame is a fickle friend. Your musical ability isn’t affected by your notoriety.

2) The music industry is one industry

When people talk about “the music industry” they like to make it sound like one thing. In reality, the music industry is made up of dozens of different industries, some of them relate only vaguely. Here are some of the various industries that make up “the music industry”:

  • Music education – Even within this industry you have lots of disjointed industries: music programs at liberal arts colleges, conservatories, private instructors, highschool band directors, world touring clinicians, etc.
  • Music retail – online musical equipment dealers, used gear sellers, record stores.
  • The recorded music industry – this has been located almost exclusively in Nashville, LA, New York, and London
  • The touring industry – This can be split up even further into regional acts, national acts, and international acts, and by genre as each genre has its own systems for touring acts
  • The jazz industry – Most cities have a local jazz scene. The musicians in these scenes rarely form a jazz band and tour the world, most of them are mostly active in their respective city’s local scene.
  • The singer songwriter industry – this industry is related to the recorded music industry, and the touring industry, but is different. A songwriter can play acoustic house shows, writers rounds, and other events and venues relegated to acoustic acts, and sell their songs. They can also get publishing deals and get paid to write songs.
  • The corporate and wedding music industry – There are many wedding and corporate bands. Some of them are local and some of them tour regionally, nationally, and internationally.
  • Tribute bands – There is a growing market for bands that pay tribute to another legendary band from U2 to Guns N’ Roses.
  • Social media personalities – there is a growing industry of social media musicians that make money from posting their playing, lessons, and thoughts online
  • Church music – There are musicians that make their living primarily by playing in churches on Sunday mornings

Depending on what genre(s) you work in, what instrument you play, how talented and hard working you are, and a range of other factors, you can fall into one or multiple of these industries. Certain industries feed into each other, and some operate independently. For example, someone who makes a living as a social media musician has no guarantee of being accepted at their local jazz jam. Similarly, a great songwriter might not be able to cut it as a worship leader in a big church or vice versa.

Seeing the music industry as one thing can lead you to make one of these mistakes:

  • Being overconfident in your understanding of and ability in an industry because of your success in a different one
  • Being under confident in your musical ability because
    of your failure at one or more of the music industries you want to be a part of
  • Not working in a different industry if you aren’t experiencing success in one, because you think that it’s all there is

The music industry is like a big tree that has lots of branches. If you aren’t experiencing the success you want in one branch, there’s other ones out there.

3) Pros are more talented than semi-pros

There are millions of musicians in the world, all with different temperaments, familial goals, geographical proximity to the music industry, and musical tastes. While talent and hard work help you have a better chance at making a living in music, they aren’t the only factors. There are non-pro musicians that may be more talented and hard working than “pro” musicians.

If you are making lots of money in music, there are no guarantees that that will continue. The amount of money that you earn from playing will most likely vary greatly throughout your life. The monetary value of music is impossible to determine – this is something that virtually everyone agrees on, but that we all try to do.

Whatever musical situation you are in, there are:

  • People with more talent that didn’t have to work as hard as you to get to a similar level because of their greater natural talent
  • People with less talent than you that worked much harder than you did to get to a similar level
  • People with greater talent than you that still had to work harder than you to get to a similar level, because of the lack of opportunities around them
  • People with less talent than you that still didn’t have to work as hard as you to get to a similar level because of the abundant opportunities around them

If you believe that pro musicians are always better than non-pro, then it can lead you to make one of the following mistakes:

  • Undervaluing the talent you have because you aren’t “professional”
  • Idolizing pro’s because they’ve “made it”
  • If you make a living in music, then undervaluing the musical contributions of those who aren’t making their living in music
  • If you make a living in music, then having an imposter syndrome if you aren’t much better than you were before you were “pro.” Or, that there are non pros that are better than you.
  • Getting upset that people around you aren’t valuing your music because you are a “professional”

There were and are many guitarists that are “more pro” in many ways than Paul McCartney and John Lennon, but that doesn’t mean that the Beatles weren’t a great band. Likewise, the Beatles being a great band doesn’t mean they were all the best musicians.

4) There are leagues of musicians

There aren’t really leagues in the music business, as much as there are cliques. Talent and hard work are just one aspect of any musical clique. There are lots of factors that contribute to a group of musicians meshing musically and socially that will be elusive to you if you are trying to figure out what league you and the musicians around you are in.

Even among the most talented musicians someone might not be considered the “right kind of jazz player,” to “have good tone,” to “support the song,” or to “be a good hang.” Every genre of music requires different skills and instruments to perform, and every group of people requires a different personality to hang with.

Believing that musicians all fit into certain leagues can lead you to the following misconceptions:

  • Undervaluing relationships because you think that you’ve entered a league based on achievement and now don’t need to worry about maintaining and developing relationships anymore
  • Devaluing your musical ability because you haven’t made it into a certain clique and seeing that clique as being “out of your league”
  • Failing to find or establish your own clique of people that value and respect each other because you are always waiting for acceptance from certain exclusive clique(s)
  • Looking down on musicians because you think they aren’t in your league, when they just aren’t in your clique

Music is best when it’s done in community. Categorizing musicians into leagues can lead you to devaluing the people around you, but finding your musical clique will help you to enjoy music more, grow as a musician, and hopefully establish lifelong relationships.

5) Music is either good or bad

Growing up, everyone gravitates towards some music and away from others. The music that we gravitate towards we call “good” and the music we steer clear of we call “bad.” This simple system for evaluating music is not the most effective tool for evaluating music as a professional musician.

The more kinds of music you can learn to enjoy and learn to play, the better off you will be as a musician; both as far as the different gigs you will be able to play and how much you will enjoy playing music in general. If you only have two categories for music: good and bad music, it will keep you from learning positive lessons from music you aren’t naturally drawn to, and can make you a one dimensional musician.

Music isn’t created in a vacuum. Every genre, artist, and song draws inspiration from other music. Therefore learning more about lots of genres of music will help you to make better decisions when it comes to creating and performing whatever genre(s) you want to focus on.

Some genres of music aren’t going to be built around catchy hooks, some aren’t going to have shredder guitar solos, some may not have lyrics that speak to your soul, some may not utilize the latest and greatest pop production software, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t valuable musical expressions.

If you are a rock musician, opening yourself up to jazz will improve your ear and your understanding of music. If you are a jazz musician, opening yourself up to rock and pop will teach you valuable lessons if you ever want/need to play something other than jazz.

When you hear music, try not to focus purely on making judgements about the whole piece. Learn to listen to music that you don’t love and pick things out that you can appreciate and learn from. This will make you a better musician, and help you enjoy all music more.


I once took a lesson from a drummer that I really respect. He has a degree from one of the best music schools, is a distinguished jazz player, composer, and also plays with some well known CCM artists. I told him that I was trying to become a full-time musician and he said that he had never simply played drums for a living – he had a side business, as well as teaching students. He also told me that if you talk to lots of the older well known drummers, they will admit to working day jobs at times to pay the bills.

Music can pay the bills, but its main purpose is to express the human experience. Terms like “pro musician” “semi-pro musician” “weekend warrior” and the like, are less about music, and more about categorizing people. There is no sure fire litmus test for measuring musical success and ability, and that’s not the point of making music. No matter where you fall on the spectrum of monetary gain, notoriety, or proficiency in music, we all have something to offer, and we all should enjoy the process of growing.

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