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Music Career Checklist

Is music an important part of your life and you are thinking about developing a career in music? Perhaps this article can help you discover what will work best for you.


  • Introduction
  • Some Typical Musical Roles
    • Student Musician
    • Hobbyist
    • Creative Songwriter
    • Professional Songwriter
    • Singer-Songwriter
    • Dance Band Member
    • Recording Group Member
    • Orchestral Musician
    • Orchestral Conductor
    • Composer
    • Arranger
    • More ...
  • The Artist's Unique Expression

Don't Give Up

"Just don't give up trying to do what you really want to do. Where there is love and inspiration, I don't think you can go wrong."

- Ella Fitzgerald


This document provides an overview and set of checklists for consideration when deciding what sort of musical path is best for you. What is presented here is based on personal experience, observation of the creative process for visual and performing artists, observation and analysis of the music industry, and advice and insight from people pursuing music careers. Some may use different labels and descriptions, and some will dispute some of the analysis and suggestions expressed here. The intention is for you to use this document to help clarify goals and choices.

Some Typical Musical Roles

Here are some typical roles of musicians and groups. You may at times participate in more than one role, but one or two will seem to you fit you better than others.

Student Musician

We all start as students. The general goals are:

  • Learn the fundamentals of music
  • Learn your instrument or voice
  • Learn to participate on making music on your own or with others
  • Learn to use music as a creative expression

Most of the best musicians never stop being students. One of the great things about music is there is an endless list of musical things to explore and perfect.


The hobbyist is someone who learns music on their own or with groups mostly for personal satisfaction and recreation. The general goals are:

  • Learn one or more instruments because you love music
  • Play for recreation or relaxation
  • Play or sing with other musicians for fun or an excuse to socialize
  • Perform in front of audiences for fun

Creative Songwriter

A creative songwriter is someone compelled to write songs, much like an artist is inspired to create art or a writer is compelled to write poetry, stories, plays, or books. General goals include:

  • Fill an urge to express thoughts, ideas, and emotions musically
  • Share their creative ideas through various media. In this context, usually words and music, though video is now a large part of our experience of music.
  • Explore forms and techniques of writing.

Professional Songwriter

The professional songwriter is someone who writes songs intended for recording, often by other artists. Likely all professional songwriters start as creative songwriters and many of the best will maintain many of the values of the creative songwriter. The general goals include:

  • Write songs that will have popular appeal
  • Write songs that fit a certain recording artist, genre, or target audience
  • Write songs to sell

Some singer-songwriters like Eddie Rabbit, Barry Manilow, and Tom T. Hall began as song-writers and did not necessarily intend to have performing careers.


The singer-songwriter is someone who likes to write and perform his or her own material. Examples include Sarah McLachlan, Stan Rogers, Billy Joel, Bruce Cockburn, Pat Metheny, and most of what we understand to be popular music.

Personal goals include:

  • Create music for personal satisfaction
  • Share with others through music

Professional goals could include:

  • Establish a musical career. The ideal is to make a living doing something you would do anyway.
  • Perfect your craft to help move your music to progressively higher levels, including:
    • Better artistry
    • Larger audiences (both through performance and recording distribution)
    • Recognition in the form of critical acclaim, recognition of peers, support of fans, and perhaps even fame and money if that is important to you.

Dance Band Member

A dance band typically plays cover tunes that the band members like to play and that they think an audience will want to listen to or dance to.

Personal goals include:

  • Improve musicianship
  • Participate in making music as a social activity
  • Share with audiences in an entertaining way

Professional goals could include:

  • Improve musicianship and presentation
  • Get regular paying gigs
  • Make a living

Recording Group Member

A recording group primarily makes music to distribute and market through mainstream or alternative distribution channels.

Personal goals could include:

  • Perfect musicianship, arrangement, and recording production to achieve the best recording possible
  • Share creative vision to the largest possible audience
  • Achieve fame and fortune (if these are important to you)

Professional goals could include:

  • Achieve large distribution through sales
  • Establish audience for live performances (not all recording artists tour)
  • Achieve critical recognition from peers

Orchestral Musician

Instrumentalists cover a huge range of instruments and groupings, including ensembles, orchestras, bands, and symphonies.

Personal goals could include:

  • Perfect musicianship and performance
  • Help perform classical and contemporary compositions
  • Mentor other musicians

Professional Goals could include:

  • Earn a living playing music
  • Achieve high standard of excellence and recognition

Orchestral Conductor

Conductors help musicians at all levels perform compositions.

Goals could include:

  • Mentoring musicians of all ages
  • Guiding orchestras to create great music
  • Earning a living through music


Composers write music for one or more musicians to perform.

Goals could include:

  • Exploring specific music forms
  • Communicating ideas and emotions through musical compositions
  • Providing musicians something to play :-)


Arrangers adapt compositions for a specific group of musicians to perform.

Goals could include:

  • Mastering musical theory
  • Bringing a wide range of musical compositions to different musicians and audiences
  • Making a living working with musical compositions

More ...

There are many more roles that a musician may consider that we will leave for future discussion.

The Artist's Unique Expression

Often the artists who have the most success over the long haul are the artists who follow their own path while understanding the choices that other successful artists have made. The challenge is to understand the various musical paths to help create a musical path that will work for a particular group or artist.