Taking your dreams from karaoke king to a singing career requires more than just talent. Anyone who has seen any of the singing competition breakout television series like American Idol, The Voice and America’s Got Talent know that competition is fierce; and the standards to become a famous singer require a big package. Yet, it’s a frequently asked question, “How can I become a singer and make money at it?”
You don’t necessarily need to be a famous singer or star to achieve a rewarding music career. This guide will walk you through your career options and what it takes to make a living with your voice.
Let’s start with some semantics because it allows us to speak the lingo of professionals. Speaking the lingo means you converse with the pros without coming across as an amateur. Professional singers are generally referred to as vocalists. A vocalist’s career might consist of live performances, recorded tracks or both.
Many famous singers start as backup or background singers then later have the opportunity to perform as an opening act or lead singer.
While some professional singers might find a niche such as being a fulltime session singer, others have a healthy mix of performance venues.
Develop a realistic understanding of where money opportunities for singing exist. There are dozens of local bands that need singers. Singing with a band is important for exposure, development and even making some money. Successful cover bands often do very well both in local venues and on the road. Playing other musicians’ popular hits well is a great way to hone your vocal skills, get exposure and improve stage presence.
Keep in mind that not everyone is destined for live performing. Some singers have stage fright and can’t sing in front of crowds. This takes us to studio professionals.
One studio opportunity to make money as a professional singer is performing jingles for local ad agencies. It isn’t the most glamorous of singing careers and certainly isn’t becoming a rock star overnight, but it does label you as a professional rather than a hobbyist and opens up many doors in the career track.
There are also show singers who may play the mix of host, DJ, and singer at live events such as weddings, bar mitzvahs, and corporate events. Once again, these are ways to develop a career as a singer while keeping those vocal chops tuned for success.
Aside from these actual vocalist gigs, there are other ways that pave the way to a professional singing career.
Becoming a professional singer doesn’t always start with belting out pop songs or even singing at all. Many singers consider themselves songwriters, also known as lyricists. Just like vocalists, songwriters make a professional living in many ways in the music industry.
These include writing songs for other singers as well as looking for opportunities to write songs for musical theater shows, television, movies and commercials. Moreover, like a star singer, top lyricists can earn royalties on their work.
Even megastar Meghan Trainor began her career as a songwriter. The road to professional singing isn’t always directly from voice lessons to signing a contract. Don’t be afraid to look at the various ways that get your foot in the door, including being a background musician.
This might include playing an instrument in a band or as backup. Anything you have an affinity for in the music industry can open a door for you to a professional singing career.
How does getting in the door help if you aren’t singing or performing?
• Start Networking – When you get in the door, you develop contacts and relationships. This is above and beyond keeping your creative skills and vocal abilities sharp.
• Consider an Agent – You’ll need an agent to start singing commercial jingles, for instance. Agents must be connected in order to do their jobs properly. The bigger your network and group of people advocating for you, the better your chance of getting bigger gigs with greater exposure.
• Be Professional – Show up for all gigs with a professional demeanor, meaning don’t act like Mariah Carey expecting a dressing room with glitter and gold everywhere. Do your job professionally and with a good attitude. Today’s commercial director might be tomorrow’s A-list movie director working with stars on soundtracks.
• Create a Good Reputation – Develop a reputation as the person who everyone wants to work with because you’re good, fun and reliable. Sometimes that is as important as talent in the music business. There are a lot of untalented people who make a great deal of money because people wanted to work with them and help them.
• Branch Out – Be that great singer or songwriter but develop your other skills to be the best of both worlds: a professional that a music producer wants to work with and a talented vocalist people enjoy hearing.
• Get Out There – Of course, don’t hesitate to get into a talent contest, small or large, to catapult your career. Just remember that there is only one winner; and, if it isn’t you, be sure you have a plan to use the exposure to help get you to the next step.
While a college education won’t hurt you, a bachelor degree in music is not required to become a professional singer. As you can see by now, becoming a famous singer compared to a professional singer or musician are not one-in-the-same. As such, your professional toolbox is imperative.
First and foremost, have an open mind. Legendary pop star, Cindi Lauper didn’t write Girls Just Wanna Have Fun and actually turned down her producer’s recommendation to record it, claiming that it just didn’t feel like her style and “wasn’t good for women.” With a little creative coaxing, Lauper recorded the song that became her breakout hit.
As an artist, keeping your creative juices flowing means also listening to trusted mentors and advisors.
Of course, your toolbox requires vocal practice and regular training. You can even take advantage of online vocal training resources expanding your range and fine-tuning your talents. However, that goes well beyond just singing. Working on various music genres and tinkering with different instruments was part of John Lennon’s genius. Play with favorite songs and try them in new, different ways.
You aren’t just a Friday night karaoke queen; you’re a professional. And, like a professional actor who can say the same line with 15 different intonations as requested by a director, you can take any song and change up the delivery. That might be changing up the tempo, going acapella, or harmonizing with a friend.
Challenge yourself in every way. You never know when you’ll find something with a fresh new sound that becomes an unsuspecting hit.
Professionals rarely do it alone. Just like professional athletes that have a team of coaches, agents, dieticians, trainers and support systems, a professional vocalist needs a team too.
The closer you are to pop star status, the larger your team or entourage will be. Taylor Swift has a huge entourage working and traveling with her. Even so, a professional commercial jingle vocalist has a team, although it may be small. The team is the group of people designated to help you obtain paying work, develop your craft and help you navigate the industry.
At the very least, most creative vocal artists have an agent and a vocal coach. People often confuse the role of an agent versus a manager. Here’s a quick breakdown: an agent serves as the person who gets job notices and pitches you as the perfect artist. A manager is looking at more significant, longer-term goals.
With career progression and success, a manager works with an agent establishing the next step in the big picture career path. However, don’t expect your team to do everything. Some members of the team, like an agent and manager, work for a percentage of your earnings. They have a financial stake in your success.
Others, who get paid for services, should be vetted out to ensure you are paying someone who can add value to your career.
Remember your reputation is paramount to being the singer that people want to work with and listen to. Using social media and the many avenues available online give aspiring music stars avenues previous generations didn’t have.
Start social media fan pages and let your audience know where to find you or invite them to check out a rough track of a new song. In the early stages of a career, most of this work is done by the artist themselves. Over time, your team may expand to getting a publicist or social media manager.
Before Kelly Clarkson won the first season of American Idol, she was already working with a producer and was laying tracks. She has considered several album deals over the years. She had already put a ton of time and resources into her future success.
When she hit the stage on American Idol, she wasn’t immediately seen as the front-runner for the premiere season. Her singing was good, but many asked if her singing career was destined for rock star status?
Even after years of training and professional work, she still had a lot to learn. Her growth through the course of the season proved that being open to feedback is important and that even those destined for stardom are not overnight stars.
It’s the work put in before the opportunity arises that allows you to capitalize on any new opportunity. Don’t be lulled into complacency during slow periods. Continue to do the work and seek out success.
Of course, winning an internationally recognized talent search show helps catapult exposure and opportunities; but, remember, there are a lot of winners that don’t have the work ethic to sustain success after winning.
Treat your singing career as a business from day one. This means more than just keeping your skills sharp.
• Make a Business Plan and Goals – Establish a business plan with goals that take you from your present status to a five or ten-year plan. Break down the goals into smaller action plans.
• Set Up Bookkeeping Procedures – Establish bookkeeping systems and routines that help you track expenses and determine your profit. Not only does this help at tax time, but it also gives you something tangible to review and determine if what you are doing is working.
• Take It Seriously – While performing may be fun, make sure you approach it as your job, taking care of your body – particularly your voice. If something happens and you can’t sing, your career hopes become nothing more than fantasy.
Even with the most supportive base, you probably are already well aware of the fact that not everyone will become a famous singer. Also, if all the right work is put in, there is no guarantee. There is no real equation for success because, like any artistic pursuit, success is contingent on audience reception, which is entirely subjective.
But if you look at famous singers, you’ll notice a few common things.
1. Musical talent – This is a pre-requisite.
2. Charisma – Both on and off the stage. These are people you see at a party and want to talk to, be friends with. They simply attract people.
3. An Edge – They have an edge, something that makes them different.
Vocal talent can be cultivated and built, though there is usually a natural foundation to it. Charisma is very much a gift. You can teach someone to improve this innate characteristic; but, simply put, not everyone is charismatic.
When it comes to developing an edge, this can be a double edge sword.
The edge ultimately becomes the base of the brand and should be crafted and managed as masterfully as a Coca Cola holiday campaign. Being in the music business requires resilience. How to become a professional singer versus becoming a famous singer are contingent on you doing the work and building your overall persona one step at a time.