What is the Employment Outlook for Professional Musicians?

Image of a guitarist for our FAQ on What is the Employment Outlook for Professional Musicians
employment outlook for professional musicians

It’s estimated that only the top one-tenth of 1 percent of athletes make it into one of America’s professional leagues. When it comes to professional orchestra wind musicians, the rules are even more exclusive. Take, for example, the position of principal clarinet. Currently, there are 57 orchestras that pay enough to live on in the United States, according to Phantom Brass. On average, the person who holds the principal’s chair has the position for life unless the person quits or can no longer meet the musical requirements of the position. If a position becomes available for whatever reason, remember that there are more than 8,000 students graduating with degrees in applied performance annually. The chances of landing that job are virtually nil.

Employment Outlook for Professional Musicians

Despite the grim prognosis, there are other avenues for musicians looking to earn a living. Musicians can do the same kind of networking as businessmen and women. They find openings in community theater pits, community bands and orchestras as ringers, or even anonymous session musicians for soundtracks. Even so, session musicians are giving way to electronic gadgets and pitch-correcting gizmos. It would, therefore, be a good idea for any musician to gain an understanding of such electronics. Then so that he or she could administer their use, repair them, or both.

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The Internet is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it undercuts the employment outlook for professional musicians by offering recordings of almost anything and everything for people to seek out and listen to. On the other hand, it provides enterprising musicians the opportunity to create instructional videos. Using Skype™ or FaceTime™, musicians can give lessons to almost anyone in the world. PayPal™ lets those far-flung students easily pay for such lessons. Even if we consider the realm of popular music as a separate entity, the competition is no less fierce. You may think you have “it,” but there are thousands of others who are equal to or better than you. No one can bank on the “big break” anymore. There are so many well-qualified, highly trained, and exceptionally motivated musicians out there. There are quite simply not enough jobs to accommodate them all.

The Other Side of the Podium

There are other avenues to explore, too. Perhaps you might have a knack with the pen. If you can’t play in a symphony orchestra or be the star singing to sold-out stadiums, maybe you can be the one who writes what they perform. If your niche is working with and managing people instead, you can become the next great impresario or record producer. There’s a very old joke in the musical world: “If a musician can’t play, give him two sticks. If that person can’t do that, take one of them away.” The conductors of the world might laugh along with this joke, but it highlights an important point. Ensembles need directors as well as musicians and promoters. Herbert von Karajan,  an exemplary pianist, once remarked that he gave up playing piano, despite his obvious gifts, because he needed an orchestra to deliver, musically, what he wanted to say. You could strive to follow in Karajan’s footsteps!


It’s no sin to have a day job and gig all night. Even if you can’t find playing positions, you can immerse yourself in the world of music and be part of something special. It requires the same creativity to craft a musical career as it does to make the music itself.

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Carrie Sealey-Morris