Pop/Rock Musician Career

Pop/rock musicians perform in nightclubs, concert halls, on college campuses, and at live events such as festivals and fairs. They also record their music for distribution on CDs, audiocassettes, and the Internet. A pop/rock musi­cian usually performs as a member of a band comprised of instrumentalists and vocalists. The band may perform original music or music composed and recorded by other artists or a combination of both.

Pop/Rock Musician Career History

Pop/Rock Musician CareerSince the term “rock ‘n’ roll” was first coined by radio disc jockey Alan Freed in the 1950s, rock music has been a significant part of teenage culture. Rock music has always been marketed to teens, purchased by teens, and stirred controversy with parents. Though much of rock music has appealed to all ages, it was the teen culture that evolved in the 1950s that brought the doo-wop and boogie-woogie music of the South to audiences all across the country. Teens, for the first time in U.S. history, were spending their own money, and they were spending it on the records they heard spun on the radio. What had previously been music appreciated primarily by black audiences, was brought to white audiences by the success of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino; and then, later, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.

To capitalize on this popularity, recording companies hired songwriters, singers, and musicians to produce rock songs for the masses. Girl groups, such as the Ronettes, were formed in the 1960s. Later that decade, rock took on more diverse sounds, as Motown artists, the Beatles, and other performers experimented with the genre. Though this experimentation led to a variety of musical forms in the 1970s, including folk, heavy metal, disco, and punk, record sales slipped, but not for long. The 1980s saw the huge popularity of the music video and MTV, a cable network that brought music back to the teen culture and revived the music industry.

By the 1990s several networks had followed MTV’s example, broadcasting music videos, concerts, and inter­views with stars, along with other programming focused on music. And, as in the past, musical styles continued to develop. “Grunge,” a sound that drew on classical rock as well as punk music and included an attitude oppos­ing mainstream culture, began with a number of bands mainly from the Seattle area. Nirvana and Pearl Jam eventually became two of the leading groups associated with grunge music that gained national and interna­tional popularity. Rap, a style of music in which rhyming lyrics are said over music, and hip hop, which includes saying lyrics over music in addition to the sounds pro­duced when records are intentionally scratched in certain ways, also became nationally popular during this decade although their roots can be traced back as far as the 1970s. Other music styles popular in the 1990s and 2000s and that began their development in earlier decades include industrial, house, and techno music.

Pop/Rock Musician Job Description

The lives and lifestyles of pop and rock stars—com­plete with limousines, groupies, and multimillion-dollar record deals—are popular subjects for magazines, TV entertainment shows, and even movies. Though most pop and rock musicians do long for this kind of success, many, in reality, have careers that are far less glamor­ous and far less financially rewarding. Nevertheless, for those who are devoted to their music, this work can be extremely fulfilling. Pop and rock musicians don’t need to live in a major city, have international tours, or record top-selling CDs in order to enjoy this career. Opportu­nities for this work exist across the country. According to the Recording Workshop, a school for the recording arts in Ohio, most cities with populations of over 25,000 have at least one audio production studio. These studios cater to the many rock musicians writing songs, perform­ing them, and promoting their music to regional and national audiences. Typically, rock and pop musicians have an interest in music while they are still young. They may learn to play an instrument, to sing, or to write music, and they begin to perform publicly, even if it’s just for the neighborhood block party. Over time, with increasing skills and contacts in the field, they develop lives that involve performing music on a regular basis.

Julia Greenberg is a rock musician in New York who has devoted years to the pursuit of a career in the music industry. Her first CD, Past Your Eyes, received glowing reviews from The New York Times, CMJNew Music Report, Performing Songwriter, and the Village Voice. Greenberg has worked very hard for many years to reach her cur­rent level of success. “I started my own band, using all original music, in 1993,” she says. “I hired musicians and old friends to arrange the songs to play on my first demo. I used the demo to get gigs at clubs.” Her band was very well received, and she has managed to get gigs all around Manhattan ever since. She has played at clubs, such as Mercury Lounge, Fez, and Brownie’s, which are famous for promoting new and established acts. “My music is in the singer/songwriter vein,” she says. “I’m very much focused on the writing. But we’re also a straight-ahead rock band.” Rock’s roots, as well as the more recent music of Blondie and Elvis Costello, with which she grew up, influence her work.

In order to be truly successful, rock and pop musi­cians need original material to perform. Some regional bands, however, do make careers for themselves by play­ing the music of famous bands, performing at local clubs, dances, wedding receptions, and private parties. They may specialize in a specific period of music, such as music of the 1980s or Motown hits of the 1960s. But A&R (art­ist and repertoire) coordinators for record companies, managers, producers, and other profession­als in the recording industry are looking for musicians who write and perform their own music.

Pop and rock musicians must spend much time practicing their skills away from the stage. They work on writing music and lyr­ics, practicing their instruments, and practicing together as a band. Rehearsal time and commitment to the band are extremely impor­tant to these musicians. In order for the band to sound as good as it possibly can, all the instrumen­talists and vocalists must develop a sense of each other’s talents and styles. In order to promote their band, the members put together a tape (called a “demo”) demon­strating their work and talent, which they then submit to club managers and music producers. When making a demo, or record­ing a CD for a record company, bands record in studios and work with recording professionals. Audio engineers, produc­ers, and mixing engineers help to enhance the band’s performance in order to make their music sound as good as it possibly can.

When booked by a club, the club’s promotional staff may advertise a band’s upcoming appearance. For the most part, however, bands that are not well known must do their own advertising. This can involve distributing flyers, sending press releases to area newspapers and arts weeklies, and sending announcements to those on their mailing list. A band’s mailing list is composed of the names and addresses of people who have attended previ­ous performances and have expressed interest in hearing about future gigs. Many bands also maintain Web sites listing their performance schedule. Of course, very suc­cessful pop and rock musicians have an established fan base, and their record company or promoter handles all the advertising.

On the day of the performance, pop and rock groups arrive early to prepare the stage for their show. This involves setting up instruments and sound systems, checking for sound quality, and becoming familiar with the stage and facility. Together, the band goes over the list of songs to be performed.

The size, mood, and age of the audience will likely affect a group’s performance. If they are playing to a small crowd in a club, they will probably have much more personal experiences (as they see individual audience members and gauge their reactions to songs) than when playing to an auditorium full of hundreds of people. If the audience is enthusiastic about the music, instead of simply waiting for the next band scheduled to appear, the musicians are likely to have a positive experience and perform well. Age of audience members is also a fac­tor, because older crowds may have the opportunity to drink alcohol, which may make them less inhibited about being loud and showing their pleasure or displeasure over a performance. Regardless of the audience, how­ever, professional musicians play each song to the best of their abilities, with the intention of entertaining and enlightening listeners and developing a strong base of devoted fans.

Pop/Rock Musician Career Requirements

High School

High school classes that will help you become a pop or rock musician include English, which will help you hone your writing abilities; business and mathematics, which will teach you basic business principles of budgeting and managing money; and, of course, music, specifically voice or instrument training. Playing in one or more of your high school bands will give you an idea of what it is like to interact with fellow musicians as well as perform in front of an audience.

Postsecondary Training

A college education isn’t necessary for becoming a pop or rock musician, but it can help you learn about music, recording, and writing. In general, you should have a background in music theory and an understanding of a variety of styles of music. Learning to play one or more instruments, such as the piano or guitar, will be especially helpful in writing songs. You can pursue this education at a community college, university, or trade school. There are a number of seminars, conferences, and workshops available that will involve you with songwriting, audio recording, and producing.

Other requirements

You need to be able to work closely with other artists and to have patience with the rehearsal and recording process. You’ll also need persistence to proceed with your ambitions in the face of much rejection. “You have to have a really strong personality,” Julia Green-berg says. “You have to be able to get up on stage and command a room. You have to be really starved for attention!”

Exploring Pop/Rock Musician Career

Talk to your music teachers at school about oppor­tunities in music. Try to attend as many musical per­formances as possible; they don’t all have to be in the pop/rock genre. Many clubs and other concert facilities offer all-ages shows where you can see musi­cal artists perform firsthand. Depending on the size of the venue, you may have a chance to approach a musician after the show to ask a few questions about the field.

The best way to get experience is to learn to play an instrument or take voice lessons. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can get together with friends or classmates and experiment with different musical styles. Don’t for­get the writing aspect of pop/rock music. Keep a jour­nal of your thoughts and ideas. Read the lyrics of your favorite songs and try to figure out what makes them so appealing. Try to create the lyrics to a song of your own by combining this knowledge with your journal entries or other creative writing.


Some pop and rock musicians work for another member of the band who pays them to rehearse and perform. But in most cases, pop and rock musicians work on a free­lance basis, taking on gigs as they come. Bands are hired to play at clubs, concert halls, and for community events. They may also play private gigs, weddings, and other celebrations. Many musicians also maintain flexible “day jobs” that help to support them as they perform on the evenings and weekends.

Starting Out

Many bands form when a group of friends get together to collaborate on the writing and performing of origi­nal songs. However, openings for band members are frequently advertised in the classifieds of local and college newspapers and arts weeklies. You may have to audition for many bands before you find one with which you fit, or you may have to put together your own group of musicians. If part of a new band, you’ll have to put a lot of time into rehearsal, as well as gaining a following. This may involve playing a lot of shows for free until a club owner can rely on you to bring in a crowd.


The sky’s the limit when it comes to advancing in the music industry. Once musicians have made the right connections, they may find themselves with record deals, national concert dates, awards, and a great deal of media attention. Julia Greenberg dreams of success that will allow her to perform and write music full time. Through the help of independent investors, Greenberg has been able to finance a new demo. “I’m shopping the CD to industry people, and putting the CD out myself,” she says. “A lot of people are doing this these days. Industry people are looking for artists who can get their own following.”


Even professionals with regular club dates have difficulty predicting how much money they will earn from one year to the next. And for those just starting out, many will earn nothing as they play clubs and events for free in order to establish themselves on the music scene. Their goal may be simply to get paying shows where they can earn enough money to cover their expenses (for exam­ple, for travel and promotion). As groups become better known and can be relied on to draw an audience, they may be paid a percentage of a club’s cover charge or drink receipts.

When playing for special occasions such as weddings, birthday parties, and bar mitzvahs, pop and rock groups can earn anything from a token amount, such as $25, to $1,000 or more once they have become well known in an area. While $1,000 might sound like a lot of money for a few hours of stage work, in reality the sum each musi­cian gets will be much less. For example, if there are four members in the group, each will only receive $250—but this is before expenses and taxes. Once these have been figured in, each member may end up making less than $200. Now assume these musicians have fairly steady work and perform once almost every week for the year. At that rate, they would each be earning approximately $9,000 to $10,000 annually. Obviously this is not enough to live on, which is why so many musicians work at a second job.

Musicians who are able to come up with the “right” sound and make the right contacts in the industry may begin touring on a national level, increase their fan base, and sell recordings of their music. Those who are able to do this on a steady basis may have earnings in the $20,000 to $30,000 range. At the very top of the business, a few groups have earnings into the millions for one year. Even then, however, this money must be divided among the group members, backup singers, agents, and others.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor (USDL), in 2005 musicians and singers earned an average of $17.90 per hour (about $37,232 annually). The lowest paid 10 percent earned $6.80 per hour (about $14,144 annually) or less while the highest paid 10 percent earned $52.78 per hour (about $109,782) or more.

Most pop and rock musicians are freelancers, moving from one performance to the next and getting paid by various clients. Because of this, they have no employer that provides benefits such as health insurance and paid vacation time. Therefore these musicians must provide their own benefits.

Work Environment

Creative people can be a temperamental bunch, and some musicians can be difficult to get along with. Working closely with such people can at times create a tense or unpleas­ant environment. On the other hand, the opportunity to perform with talented musicians can be inspiring and offer opportunities to learn new things about music. Rehearsing requires a great deal of time and late hours, but can result in excellent work. Pop and rock musicians may perform in dark, smoky bars, in large hotel dining rooms, or in open-air auditoriums. They must be prepared to work in a variety of settings, some of which may not have the best acoustics or the proper amount of space for all the instruments and band members. The professional musician learns to adapt to the performance area, making adjustments with sound systems, the music to be played, or even the instruments used. Travel is a part of this work. Even those musicians who only perform in one or two towns must get to and from dif­ferent performance sites with their equipment in order to work. And any pop or rock musician who wants to advance his or her career should be prepared to be on the road a great deal of the time.

Pop/Rock Musician Career Outlook

There will always be thousands more rock and pop musi­cians than there are record contracts. But there will also always be opportunities for new performers with record companies and clubs. Record companies are always on the lookout for original sounds and talents. Even with a record deal, however, there are no guarantees of suc­cess. The music industry and the CD-buying public have fickle tastes. Often rock musicians are dropped by their label when record sales fail to meet expectations.

With recording studios becoming more sophisti­cated, artists can more effectively promote themselves with quality CDs. Record companies will be paying close attention to these independently produced CDs when scouting for new talent. The USDL expects employment opportunities for musicians and singers to grow about as fast as the average through 2014.

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