For the time being, yes. I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to live off my music for the last five or six years. I still freelance write for a few outlets, and I’ll occasionally take an odd job if i have a lot of down time with nothing to do. But music is my primary source of income.
I wasn’t originally intending to answer this question, mainly because i don’t like perpetuating the notion that you can make a living playing music. That’s not the reason i started playing in bands, and I would hope it’s not the primary motivator for other people who are just starting to pick up an instrument. But then I started to see this article by a band called Pomplamoose circulating on social media and felt the need to dispel the notion that bands playing sold-out 1000-capacity rooms are losing money.
Pomplamoose basically laid out their accounting for a U.S. tour to show how they failed to turn a profit after a month-long run of sold out shows in larger mid-sized venues. In Pomplamoose’s defense, they weren’t complaining about their debt, nor were they half-assing their production. But at the same time, if their finances were enough of a concern to publish them for public scrutiny, there must be some sort of dissatisfaction with their current lot in life. And as a friend of mine pointed out on Facebook, any band that’s selling out the Fillmore in San Francisco should be turning a profit.
My first real tour was in the summer of 1996. We toured in a van without a trailer. We built a loft in the van and people would either sleep there or on friend’s floors. I lived off of $4 a day on those early tours. We hand-screened our own merch and managed to come home with enough money to pay a month’s worth of rent. Granted, gas was $1 a gallon and my rent was less than $200 a month. But we were also selling shirts for $5, and 7”s for $3. Even a good merch night didn’t equate to more than a couple of tanks of gas. A lot of shows were donation-only, meaning we were stoked if we made $50 off the door. But we made it work. Tour was viewed as an adventure, not a career move.
We eventually built up enough of an audience that we could get more money from ticket sales and sell a little more merch, but that general style of touring continued with my other bands, and for the next 13 years we got by with crashing at people’s houses, limiting our crew to one person, and outsourcing as little work as possible to people outside the band. Some tours made money, some tours broke even, some tours lost money. So it goes.
We can afford to tour a bit more comfortably these days. We’re still in a van, but we have a trailer. We treat ourselves to hotel rooms. We travel with a few more people to help us out. In most instances, we’re playing the same sized clubs my bands played ten years ago, but those clubs are filled instead of at a fraction of the capacity. But we’re very careful not to bite off more than we can chew / not put the cart before the horse / whatever idiom seems most appropriate. We’ve made it work out financially for our level of popularity, and we’re certainly not selling out the Fillmore in San Francisco.
So long story short, yes, i make a living as a touring musician. It can be rough, but if you operate within your means, it’s totally viable that you can eek out a living this way. It just might take you 13 years to get there. And the best way to do it is by jamming econo, not by renting a bunch of unnecessary gear and hiring a shit ton of people to work for you.