Music Industry

Professional Musician vs. Hobby Musician | Which One Are You?

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Some career paths are more linear than others. And those in the arts are often filled with grey areas. Are you a vocalist, beat-maker, rapper, instrumentalist or songwriter and wondering how you fit into the music business?

The creative industries, though renowned for being competitive, make up some of the biggest employers in the world. But there is often crossover in these fields between vocation and profession. So professional musician vs hobby musician – which one are you? 

In this article, we’ll provide definitions for these roles as well as helping you to work out which category you fall into.  

Professional musician vs hobby musician which one are you?

On a basic level, you’re a professional if you get paid. You’re a hobbyist if you operate on an amateur level. This applies to most jobs, although some base professionalism on the completion of formal training. The lines between career and hobby can get blurred in some industries.

It’s usual (although a constant source of controversy) to work for free in the arts at times. Not ongoing and only in certain circumstances, but this is different from other jobs, where this would never be the case. So it can be confusing to identify a professional musician vs hobby musician. 

What makes a musician a professional?

While some professional musicians have studied and gained a qualification, it’s perfectly possible to be a pro in this field, without passing any exams in the subject. This wouldn’t be the case in some other jobs. You couldn’t be classified as a professional lawyer or a doctor, without having degrees in those fields. And many vocations such as these are exclusively professional – you can’t be a hobbyist dentist or optician. 

In that sense, music is so much more inclusive than other industries. Just because you sometimes gig for free does not exclude you from being a professional either. In fact, most professionals will do this. Even famous artists do charity gigs for free or surprise fans by turning up to sing at their weddings unpaid. But if you always work for nothing, or gig without pay most of the time, then you may not fall into this bracket. And your money doesn’t have to come from gigging. It can come from selling your work in the form of tracks, beats, jingles, vocals and more. 

Signs you’re a musician

Usually, to describe yourself as a professional musician, you’ll be doing it full time, albeit on a freelance, gig by gig basis. It used to be the norm to have a salaried job. Professions like acting and music where this wasn’t the case were the exception. However, these days many more industries are embracing the gig economy, making artistic professions less of an anomaly.

That said, some musicians are employed on a salaried basis. If you’re a musician as your main job, you’ll also be mixing with a lot of other musicians. Notice how they term themselves – as a hobbyist or as a professional. You’ll likely find a lot of variation and inconsistencies. 

The characteristics of a musician

To be a musician, you have to have a passion for music. Some musicians do become jaded over time and lose this, but may still work full time in the industry. But as getting started in this career is challenging and competitive, there has to be a real love for it in the first place. 

But there is another facet to the word ‘professional’. As well as referring to your employment status, it references how you conduct yourself in the business. Being professional is about behaving appropriately, sticking to agreements, turning up, being polite, prepared and ready to work.

It would be considered unprofessional, to rock up to a studio late, having not learned your song words and crack open a beer. This is an extreme example, but it’s so important in this industry, to be someone who’s nice and reliable.

Who is considered a musician?

If you create, play or sing music, you are considered to be a musician. It’s an umbrella term that encompasses lots of roles and jobs. Examples of musicians include composers, producers, pianists, rappers, session singers, beat-makers, percussionists, violinists and more. It does not include roles like backup dancers for pop songs, talent scouts, DJs who don’t create new mixes/scratches and lyricists.

However, many of the individuals who carry out these roles connected to music, are also musicians. For example, a DJ may play other people’s tunes, but also create beats. A lyricist may also be a recording artist. And a backup dancer may also provide backing vocals. 

This can cause some debate. If you’re a singer, do you call yourself a musician? The answer is, it’s up to you. If you only sing covers then you’re more likely to call yourself a vocalist or singer, rather than a musician. But if you’re a singer-songwriter or singer-pianist or a multi-instrumentalist, it might be easier to say ‘musician’, than to list the things you do. 

Musician personality and musician mentality

A musician is often a ‘people person’, affable with a friendly persona. Some are outgoing, whereas some are introverted. But all can and do commit to time alone perfecting their art. So while you must be able to get on with and work with others, you have to be ok spending a lot of time by yourself, immersed in your music. And a sense of humour can go a long way too. We’ll reveal more about the kinds of characteristics that’ll make you more likely to succeed in the industry, shortly. 

What is a semi-professional musician?

Of course, there is a halfway house between being a full-blown professional musician, vs hobby musician. This is the semi-professional musician. We’ve talked about musicians who work for free, a lot but not all of the time. There are also musicians who get paid for all or most of their music but don’t do it full time. Both of these fall into this category of a semi-professional musician.

Whether you are a professional or a semi-professional musician, it’s a very good idea to join the Musicians’ Union. The organisation helps protect members by providing legal help where necessary and holding the industry to account when it comes to employing musicians.

And if you write or record music, you should consider becoming a part of PRS for Music. PRS will help ensure you get paid any royalties you’re owed. 

Semi-professional musician definition 

It’s not an exact science, but if you spend less than 50% of your working time making or performing music and more than 50% of your time working in another industry, you’re a semi-pro. This is usually best calculated at the end of a year.

As it could be the case that you work full time as a singer for a three-month contract, then barely sing at all for money for the rest of the year. Or it could be you spend 40% of your month working as a session musician and the rest of the week working elsewhere. Both would classify as semi-professional, or possibly professional.

Music as a hobby

You absolutely don’t need to train or get paid to be involved in music. Very many people get lots of joy and satisfaction from making music just for fun. If you never get paid to sing, or get the money very infrequently, such as tips for occasional busking, and just make music in your spare time, you’re a hobbyist musician. This includes members of choirs, orchestras and amateur bands.

Every professional or semi-professional musician starts out as a hobbyist musician but later makes the progression into the industry. 

If you’d like to take up music as a hobby, here are some ideas to get started.

  • Find a local teacher and get lessons. If you’re thinking of an instrument, a ukulele is an easy place to start. Piano and guitar are versatile and useful. But pick whichever one takes your fancy.
  • Enrol in a music school. Many towns and cities have Saturday classes for groups. This can be cheaper than one on one tuition. 
  • Start singing. A vocal coach is a good way to begin. Or follow some of the YouTubers who offer online lessons. 
  • Try your hand at DJing/mixing. You’ll need to invest in some kit, but there’s plenty of second-hand gear available to purchase. And if you lose interest, you can always sell it on. 
  • Join an amateur music group near you, in your school, uni, church or even workplace. 
  • Have a go at writing your own songs, toplines or creating beats. 

Hobby musician tax UK

Those who earn money, from any endeavour in the UK, must pay tax on their earnings. Self-employed people declare their income on an annual tax return, submitted to HMRC. And this includes musicians who are not salaried. So what happens if you do get paid from time to time as a hobbyist musician? Well, it depends on how much you’re making. At the time of writing, anything under £1000 does not have to be declared.

Therefore any earnings below this amount would mean you’re more likely to fall into a hobbyist category. 

Any earnings between £1000 and £12500 in 2020 must be declared, but these earnings won’t be liable for tax payments. You must fill in a tax return and will likely have to pay National Insurance which has it’s own thresholds though. Anything over this amount is taxable.

If you fill in a tax return as a musician, you are definitely either semi or fully professional. But two musicians can earn the same amount in a year and one categorises as professional, while the other is semi-professional. It’s not based on how much you make in a year. 

Professional Musician vs Hobbyist Musician

Signs you should be a musician

Are your friends and family always telling you to go into the music industry or release a record? Here are some of the signs that you should consider it as a career and are likely to succeed:

  1. You love making music more than doing anything else. 
  2. You’ve been singing or playing ever since you can remember.
  3. You feel more yourself when making music, than at any other time.
  4. You dream big and are unafraid to try new things. 
  5. You’re likeable and good to be around (this will get further than those with a diva attitude). 
  6. You have something to say. This particularly applies to singers and songwriters.
  7. You have great contacts in the industry already. 
  8. You’re unlikely to give up easily.
  9. You can take rejection.
  10. You take pride in your work. 

If you think you might have what it takes, read this article to find out how to make it in the music industry.

Has this article helped you to identify which category you fall into? Perhaps you want to make the move from hobby musician to a professional musician (or even vice versa). Hopefully, you now understand what’s involved in switching and having others see you as so. Remember all of the big names started out doing it for nothing and worked their way to the top with hard work, talent, determination and a bit of luck. 

Related Questions

What percentage of musicians are successful?

Various stats and odds are bandied around when it comes to discussing success as a musician. In reality, it’s hard to quantify as it really depends on your definition of success. Even if you’re not a top-selling singer, you can be considered by others to be doing well. It depends on your individual goals. 

Can a musician make a living? 

Absolutely. In fact, if you’re successful, this can be one of the most lucrative jobs in the country. Most won’t hit the big time. But very many earn a decent living as a ‘jobbing’ musician. Or by teaching others. 

Is music a good hobby?

Music is good for cognitive development and mental health. It provides a sense of satisfaction and reward, as well as encouraging creativity. It can even help with maths skills and is a lot of fun. Music is an excellent hobby, especially for young people. 

Are you a professional musician or a hobby musician? How do you define yourself as an artist? Let us know in the comments below.