5 Essential Things You Absolutely Need to be a Successful Working Musician

Wilton Elder

If you are a successful working musician, then you are always looking for ways to increase the amount and quality of the work that you attract.

If not, then you will never be successful… in or out of music.

And when I say work, I am referring to a spectrum of opportunities including (but not limited to) booking your own band, performing with other bands, doing recording sessions, selling your songs, producing, studio engineering, running live sound, teaching master classes, and building your base of private lesson students.

On the performance side of that spectrum, I have always preached some essentials to my fellow musicians that are required to attract, maintain, and grow the amount and quality of your gigs. Among those essentials is adopting a mindset that every gig is an audition for another gig.

Here I am going to outline 5 essential things you absolutely need to be a successful working musician.

1. You need to have a beautiful sound (or tone).

Whether you are a vocalist or an instrumentalist, your sound is your everything. It all starts with sound. It all ends with sound. If you don’t have a beautiful sound or tone, then nothing you say (musically) really matters.

You may…

  • Have all the chops in the world
  • Be able to sing higher than any one else in the country
  • Be able to double tongue faster than every other trumpet player
  • Be the loudest rock guitarist to ever strap on a 6-string
  • Have the most well developed harmonic vocabulary of any jazz artist in history


If you don’t have a beautiful sound, it doesn’t really matter what you have to say.

Your sound is everything.

If you are going to be a successful working musician, you need to have a beautiful sound.

2. You need to be able to read music (quickly).

In the world of music, reading is fundamental.

You may know a 1,000 songs by heart. You may be able to play by ear. You may be fantastic at it. However, if your reading skills are low (or non-existent) you are missing out on a lot of opportunities and leaving money on the table as a result.

Whether you are rehearsing in advance, walking on to a gig cold, or heading in to a recording session, being able to read a chart is invaluable and really opens up the opportunities to you.

Being able to navigate the road map on a piece of sheet music is completely mandatory in classical music, pit orchestras, show bands, jazz, music lessons, and anything involving 2 or more horns.

If you are going to be a successful working musician, you need to be able to read music.

3. You need to be able to improvise music (well).

So much music is made on the spot. Without sheet music. Without rehearsal. Without having heard a recording. Without preparation. Without much discussion.

Having a working knowledge of a broad base of music standards is imperative, whether you are playing pop songs or jazz tunes.

Taking it a step further, what’s more important is being able to not only generally improvise on your instrument but specifically create music in the moment on a choice number of chord changes and song forms.

This is certainly true for gaining more and better work in the live performance arena, but it is also true for studio work. I and my close friends who also teach privately also integrate improvisation into the music lessons with our students.

If you are going to be a successful working musician, you need to be able to improvise music.

4. You need to show up (early).

You have got to show up. If you don’t show up for the work you already have, you will never get more work.

One surefire way to supercharge your reputation is to make it a habit of showing up early for all your engagements.

If you’re early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late.

This is one area where it is so easy to help yourself and hurt yourself. A lot of really great players blow it when it comes to timeliness.

Showing up early helps establish you as being dependable. People want to work with other people that are dependable.

And while I am talking about being dependable, one way to certify that people won’t trust you is to tell someone that you will do a gig and then back out. Regardless of the reason, nobody wants to get a call from you saying that you can’t make the gig, especially if it is last minute.

If you can’t commit, don’t say “yes.” This one will destroy your credibility.

If you are going to be a successful working musician, you need to show up and show up early.

5. You need to be a nice guy (or gal).

I can’t tell you how big this one is. It’s so huge.

Now we all have our off days when we can be a little hard to get along with, but overall you should strive to be known as a music professional that is easy to work with.

At the end of the day, it does not matter how good you think you are. If you are a jerk, if you are coarse, if you are hard to get along with, if you have a disagreeable reputation, if you are in a perpetual bad mood, you will not get called.

If you are going to be a successful working musician, you need to be a nice guy that is easy to work with.

In Conclusion

The 5 essential things you absolutely need to be a successful working musician are…

1. You need to have a beautiful sound (or tone).
2. You need to be able to read music (quickly).
3. You need to be able to improvise music (well).
4. You need to show up (early).
5. You need to be a nice guy (or gal).

If you put these things together at the same time, I guarantee you will be well on your way to attracting, maintaining, and growing your amount and quality of work in the music business.


Related Post

Knowing the Right Songs Is Just as Important as Knowing How to Play Your Instrument

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8 thoughts on “5 Essential Things You Absolutely Need to be a Successful Working Musician

  1. Melony Reply

    Great article! I totally agree with all points, but I would add that networking is an invaluable tool as well. Almost all of my jobs/gigs have been attained through successful networking (and establishing myself as reliable). And now that I think about it, one more thing that has been especially helpful for me is being as diverse as possible. Not to say that you should try to get gigs by doing something in which you are not as strong…..or stretching yourself so thin that you don’t do ANYTHING well. But if you can develop strong skills in more than one area/style, you will be more successful in gaining more work.

    • wilton Post authorReply

      Thank you for your kind words, Melony. I agree that networking and diverse skills are important parts of growing a successful music business as a sole proprietor. There is no doubt about that.

      My only response to your comment is that these 5 things are the essentials, not the only. Certainly there are other things you can do to grow your business like networking and diversifying. However, if you can’t successfully put these 5 things together, networking and diversifying will not compensate. In other words, this is the foundation and from there networking and diversifying your skill set will enhance your already-laid foundation.

      Thank you again, Melony, for your thoughtful comment, and I am happy to hear that your music business is successful and growing in TN! Cheers!

  2. Sam Favata Reply

    All of this is true.

    Having these qualities will not guarantee that you will have success on some kind of superstar level (still so much luck involved with that).


    NOT having these qualities WILL guarantee failure, or at the very least, keep you in that ‘barely above broke’ limbo in which so many (often talented) musicians perpetually live.

    Most people who are in a position to hire us expect us to be total scrubs. And musicians are very often total scrubs, so it makes sense. That’s why you will stand out when you develop these actually-very-basic habits of professional behavior.

    Get paid!

    • wilton Post authorReply

      I agree, Sam. Well said.

      The expectation of musicians (by many) is sadly very low. So, it is not hard to stand out from the pack by taking these 5 essentials and making them a part of you.

      Guarantees of superstardom are not guaranteed. Success is subjectively defined by each his own. And superstardom has much more to it than most blue collar musicians have at their disposal.

      However, anybody can put these 5 things together and increase their amount and quality of work in the music business.

      Thank you for contributing here, Sam. God bless you, my friend!

  3. Dru Richman Reply

    Unfortunately, even if you do adhere to ALL of the essentials, you still may not find or even get work.

    The fact of the matter is there’s one more essential that’s missing— cultivating a relationship with the venue owner or manager. While people (and bands) get hired for a variety of reason—good sounds, great improvisation, economics, location, content, etc—if you don’t have a good relationship with the hiring person, no matter how good you are, you probably won’t get hired.

    One other thing I always ask is, “What’s the value proposition?”, i.e., What’s In It For Me? (WII-FM). The venue owner/manager doesn’t really care how good your band is if you can generate a profit for him. If you’re Madonna, or Will.i.am, or Garth Brooks, and you can’t generate a profit for the venue, then he doesn’t want you. Remember, for the venue owner/manager, music is a means to and end and not necessarily an end into itself.

  4. wilton Post authorReply

    Thank you for reading and responding, Dru! I completely understanding where you are coming from.

    Firstly I will point you to my reply to Melony’s comment above.

    Secondly it is my opinion that if music pros would spend more time improving themselves and their product, then the emphasis on networking would not be as great. I believe there is an over emphasis on networking.

    The problem with the networking emphasis and developing relationships with venue owners is that… if you don’t have a beautiful tone, if you can’t read music, if you can’t improvise, if you don’t show up early, if you are not easy to work with, then all the networking in the world and the best relationship with the venue owner won’t matter.

  5. ken mullin Reply


    I had a notion that this would be a great contribution, and it was! Thank You.

    I particularly enjoyed your mention of every gig is a potential audition.

    I would add, that you never want to be the cat that the rhythm section defers to because you don’t know tunes….

    Become a Tunesmith!

    In today’s climate, it is always good to be well versed in the motown..seventies, as well, signature horn lines, if that is your ax. So many gig’s today don’t have books and tpt/sax are expected to know these lines,..you WILL work if you can step into a band and nail these hits even if the keys are non-traditional.

    Thanks Wilton!

    • wilton Post authorReply

      So good to hear from you, Ken! Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

      It’s been a while since we have shared the stage, but I relish all the things I have learned from you about being a gigging musician since our first meeting at CofC.

      The timing of your comment about being a tunesmith (I love that phrasing by the way) is ironic considering that I just started working on a new article last night that speaks to that very issue. You and I are on the same wave apparently. I will certainly let you know when I’m done and welcome your comments on that piece as well.

      Thank you for all that you do, my friend. I wish you all the best in 2012!

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