Singers record albums and perform live with a band. Singer-Songwriters also write their own tracks.
Vocalist, Pop Star
$0 – $170,000,000
How To Become a Singer
Q&A - Quick Answers
A Singer sings the main vocal line of a track. They are the main focus of the performance, in contrast to a band, which has regular members who tour, record, and generally play equal roles in a performance together. Some Singers back themselves up on piano or guitar, whereas some focus more on dancing and performing, and leave the rest to a backing band.
Singers record albums of songs that they have written or that have been written for them by a production team, and then tour to promote the album. Their days are spent in studio, on tour, and practicing vocal, instrumental, or (in some cases) dance skills.
To learn about what it’s really like to build a career as a Singer or Singer-Songwriter, we talked to artists from a variety of genres:
- Grace Davidson
- Violet Skies
- Lainey Wilson
What does a Singer do?
My typical day, if it wasn’t COVID … I would get up in the morning, go on my phone and answer emails from my Manager. Deal with anything that needs to be done. Those would be emails about songs that need approval, because I write for other people. Or an email about gigs that I need to say yes or no to, or tours, stuff like that, and then sometimes, organizing my songwriting sessions during the day.
Then after that, go to the studio for … if it’s in the U.K., 11:00 a.m. or midday. If it’s in the U.S., probably like 2:00 p.m. Write a song all day. Come home. Maybe work on another existing song that needs to be finished. Maybe record some vocals.
If it’s a week when I’ll be playing shows, then during the daytime before shows, if I can avoid it, I try not to do too much so that I’m ready for the show in the evening. I’ll maybe run through my set, turn up to rehearsal to soundcheck at 4:00 p.m. and then play the show later that night. Then if you’re touring, there’s lots of just sitting on buses.
So it can be really, really varied, and there’s no typical day. But seeing as I’m a Songwriter who songwrites for other people and myself pretty much all during the week, my typical day is spent in studios. And anyone who’s not touring is often doing exactly the same: in studios writing songs or recording the songs other people write for you.
I started when I was 10, just singing in school. I think my parents and some Teachers identified that I had some kind of talent, and so I had singing lessons. These were classical singing lessons, and I don’t really believe that you need pop, or classical, or anything specific. You just need someone to make you practice every week. I was singing all the time anyway. Nonstop. But it really gave me some structure and the basics of breathing … and helped me understand that I really loved it.
I entered talent competitions and played shows with my school band. I found friends in school, friends in my GCSE music class, and wrote songs with them. We would write at lunchtime. I was lucky—I went to a school with a music suite.
And then the career side of things … I went to university briefly, but after that, I worked in some studios, and then eventually worked in a studio in London. I met my Manager just before I moved, through some stuff that had been posted online. I was always writing songs, but it wasn’t until I met him that I started putting stuff out as a solo artist, and writing songs in studios with other people, and collaborating.
It took some time … I did GCSE music, but I didn’t do A-level music, didn’t do music at university, and I honestly don’t believe you need those things. I’m sure lots of people will say the same thing.
I think it’s about making sure that you put stuff online these days. Practicing and putting stuff online. People won’t know you exist otherwise, you know? And these days it’s so easy to grab the attention of everybody just by doing that. Some of the stuff I had at the really initial stages of my career happened because I put stuff online.
Salaries for Singers run the gamut. Those just starting out may be getting paid in drinks tickets and free meals while holding down a day job. At the other end of the spectrum are superstars like Kanye West (who raked in $170 million) and Ariana Grande (who raked in $72 million) in 20201. Of course, for top stars, money may not come exclusively from music but from merchandising, licensing, and other streams.
How do Singers make money?
Music is so complicated. I wish someone had explained this to me in really simple terms. There are a couple of ways you make money. One, through your royalties. If you’ve written a song, you’ll earn copyright royalties.
So every time it gets played on the radio, every time it’s streamed, every time it’s played on TV, or every time it’s put in a film, you earn copyright royalties. In the U.S. that’s through ASCAP [American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] or BMI [Broadcast Music, Inc.]. In the U.K., it’s through PPL [Phonographic Performance Limited].
And then you’ve got your performance royalties [for] having your voice on a song. For example, if I sing on something, they might pay me a feature fee. Even if I’ve written it as well, they’d still pay me the feature fee for using my voice, and that’s the same if you’re a Singer and you do backing vocals on something. You’ll be paid in royalties.
Say for example I’ve done backing vocals on a song for the artist Mabel or something, and there are my backing vocals in the chorus, every time she sings that live and my backing vocals get played, or it’s played on the radio, I receive royalties for that.
And then there’s the other way, which is if it’s your music and you own the masters, or even if you’re signed to a label and you own some of the masters, every time it’s streamed or it’s played on the radio or in shops, you make money. I own all my music, so every time it gets played on Spotify and stuff, I make money. So there’s that way of doing it.
There are also your gig fees. If you’re singing at a show, you have to pay a band and you have to pay your touring costs. But you can make money from your merchandise and from being paid for the shows.
Now, be aware that the money is often very small at the start in all of these cases, but once you start to build up a catalog and your gig fees get higher, this is what can happen: if you’re a Session Musician, you’ll be paid by other people to sing in their band, and those fees can really differ across the board.
Most people don’t know how to make money in music. I don’t think they’re necessarily always aware. Especially when it comes to your performance royalties, even for backing vocals and stuff.
That’s why it’s so important to do the research on SoundExchange, PPL [Phonographic Performance Limited], and ASCAP, and all of those companies to try to get your head around it. There’s some really useful information online, but lots of people miss out on hundreds of thousands of pounds every year because they haven’t registered their stuff.
Can anyone be a Singer?
I think anyone can be a Singer. Heck, my mama is the loudest Singer at church. That doesn’t mean she’s good, but she’s singing. On a serious “note……..” I’m a firm believer that if you’re willing to put the correct amount of time, energy, and effort into something, you can do anything.
Singing for fun and singing for a living are two very different paths. Yes, singing is fun and it should be, but it’s going to take some blood, sweat, tears, and years to make it a career.
This is an interesting question because I kind of agree that they can. I think people are like, “Oh, she was born with talent,” but honestly, lots of the musicians I know probably just grew up listening to a lot of music.
I taught singing for a bit after I got my qualification. I taught some students who had really interesting voices but weren’t necessarily singing in tune all the time, so we did loads of ear training. I think one of them went on to do some really cool stuff, actually. So, it’s a mixture of talent, but inevitably loads and loads of hard work and just putting the hours in.
Some people definitely do have special voices, and there’s no way around that. But there are also some people who have brilliant voices who have just really worked hard at it.
Is it hard to become a Singer?
Yes. Becoming a Singer is exceptionally hard but at the end of the day, it’s rewarding. If you try to go after anything with a plan B, plan A is not going to work. You have to be willing to listen to people, take constructive criticism, and grow. Nothing happens overnight. And even though I make a living singing, I am still learning and growing every day.
If you want to be a Session Musician, that’s difficult, most definitely. But there are a lot more paths into it. Singing for other people or being a Backup Singer; singing in a professional chorus; those opportunities truly exist. But being a successful artist, the numbers are so much harder. You’re playing a game against lots of other people who want the same spots as you.
So yeah, it’s really difficult. And I don’t think people understand quite how difficult it is. Because you’ll go for a really long time not being paid in the early years sometimes. If you start early like I did … when I was 15, I was doing shows, and they’d pay you like £10. Or if I was underage and I was in pubs, they would just pay in food.
It’s really hard and you have to really want it. It’s not rocket science, but it requires a large amount of determination, which often, people find hard.
Is singing a good career?
Singing is an amazing career. It is wonderful to earn money from doing something you love, but it is a tough career and there is no protection if you find yourself unable to work as it is generally a completely self-employed status. The highs and lows of being a musician are not for everyone and if it’s stability that you seek, perhaps being a freelance Singer is not an easy choice.
From my personal experience, it has been a good career but it’s hard work and you have to be prepared to work hard and travel around the world doing auditions, performances, and recordings.
How do you start a singing career?
The first time I sang in public was at my kindergarten graduation, I wrote my first song at nine years old, picked up a guitar at eleven, and the rest is history.
In 2001, my hometown was getting a brand new convenience store and they were having their grand opening. The owner of the store, Jerry Cupit (who also was having success in Nashville as a Songwriter/Producer), paid me twenty bucks to come sing a few original songs I had been working on. I guess you could say that was my very first paid gig.
In high school and into college, I impersonated Disney star Hannah Montana. I had a long blonde wig and a portable sound system I toted around with me for five years. Soon after, I started playing three nights a week with a band in Northeast Lousiana.
I knew I wanted to be in Nashville to write songs and really make a career out of singing, so I bought a camper trailer and hauled it to Nashville. I lived in Jerry Cupit’s studio parking lot for three years (same guy who gave me $20 for my first paid gig). Talk about a full-circle moment… Times were rough, but I knew deep in my heart that I was going to figure out how to make a real career out of this.
I was in Nashville for seven years writing songs every day before I was offered a publishing deal with Sony/ATV. Soon after, I landed a record deal with BMG/Broken Bow. I was on cloud nine because my dreams were finally coming to fruition and I found a team of people who believed in me with everything they had. But I knew that along with those huge opportunities and milestones, the hard work was really just beginning.
All that to say, it’s been hard and it’s been work but it’s never felt like a job. I love what I do and even though I’ve been singing my whole life, I’ll always feel like I’m just getting started.
What do Singers need to know about starting a career?
Don’t rush. I think loads of people are obsessed with seeing really young artists doing super well, super quickly. And that definitely exists, but it means that lots of young people end up signing really bad deals early on.
These days it pays to be independent. It pays to try and learn to record your own music. It pays to work with your friends, and it pays to wait. You don’t need to sign anything. Managers who pressure you to sign things are wrong, and it’s exactly the same with publishers and labels. When you sign a publishing deal or a record label deal, that’s how you make money. But that shouldn’t be your sole focus for income because often that’s just money they pay you as an advance.
I think it’s really important not to rush anything, not to stress about that stuff, and to focus first and foremost on making sure your voice is as good as it can be, that you’re building up your own fan base, and you’re writing. Try to write songs as well because that’s where the stability and the lifelong career comes from. I wish I’d been told it when I was 18.
How do Singers get noticed in the music industry?
I think the biggest key to getting noticed in the music industry is focusing on being one-of-a-kind, unique, and bringing something to the table that no one else can. When you own what you do, the passion shows, and people take notice.
These days, TikTok, if I’m being super honest. I know it doesn’t sound like the answer that people want, but it kind of is. Or Instagram.
I came from a tiny little village in Wales … It seemed to me that people were doing music, and I didn’t know how I could be in those rooms. I didn’t know how I could be at those festivals and those stages. I think what it takes is for a Manager or a label or a Publisher to recognize your talent.
So, it’s putting stuff online. Going to gigs. Joining music clubs. Even if you’re young like 15, there are all sorts of youth jazz orchestras, youth pop writing courses, or summer camps that you can do.
You need to meet as many musical people as you can and someone will eventually recognize you from that. I’ve written a bit with Bülow and she was found at summer camp, I think in Canada. Other people were found at youth music groups and all sorts of stuff.
Get out there and play with your band at open mic nights. You’re less likely to be spotted at something like that because that’s not necessarily where industry people are. But just put yourself in the spaces where the kind of music artists you love are—these days, you can go online to find them.
It took me a long time to figure some of this stuff out, and I kind of wish someone had been around when I was 15 to explain that … there’s no shortcut. You have to put the hours in.
I think you kind of have to put your pride aside and don’t expect someone to come find you. Put yourself out there. Sometimes it can be almost embarrassing because you feel like you’re promoting yourself. But you just have to do it because everybody is, and there’s so much noise online. But real talent really does cut through. You see it time and time again.
Experience & Skills
What skills do you need to be a Singer?
Aside from the practical skills of having a decent voice to start with … a good sense of rhythm and pitch is the core foundation. That underlies everything. And being able to really listen to music and having an innate musicality that you can build on. But also perseverance. The ability to consistently take knock-backs in the industry and be able to be okay with it, because I’ve had maybe one “yes” for every 100 “no”s. That’s just a given.
And practice. The 10,000 hours thing that gets thrown around is probably true. I’ve definitely, definitely done my 10,000 hours, even just in my teenage years. I probably did that with the amount of singing that I did.
It comes to a point where if you’re turning down hanging out with friends to sit in your bedroom and write songs, or to practice for your next singing exam, or just learn songs, then you’re probably on to something. If you’re not willing to give up some of that stuff, then you probably don’t want it as much as you think you do.
So think. It has to be something that you feel like you’d miss a massive birthday party with all your friends for if someone told you that you needed to be singing at this other event. I missed a lot of that stuff for sure.
I feel like the amount of time spent on perfecting and crafting your art are the only qualifications you need. If you want to get technical, then I’m technically not qualified. I’ve never had a voice lesson. I learned to sing in the back of the truck and at the kitchen table. But I have put in the hours and I think that makes me kind of “qualified.”
Is singing more of a talent or a skill?
Singing is a combination of talent and skill. Everyone has a voice and some people are able to sing with natural talent to an extent, but if they are able to have lessons and learn singing technique, that can also enhance their singing voice.
Education & Training
What kind of training do Singers need?
I think if you can afford singing lessons, get one-on-one time with somebody. I was really lucky that my parents identified that I loved singing, and [put me through lessons] as long as I kept up my side of the bargain, which was I was practicing, and I did my exams.
In the U.K., my Grade 8 contributed to my university degree by helping me get into university, so it added up to something. It wasn’t just me singing on the weekends; I had a bit of structure. So if you can, have one-on-one lessons with somebody and find the right Teacher.
Try a few if you feel like someone doesn’t quite understand your voice or your style of singing. I would recommend that. I did music up until the age of 15, 16, but I did no formal training past that whatsoever. I don’t think it’s necessary. But lots of people who study at music college, who are incredible musicians, it really does help them, especially with networking.
You’ll look at a lot of really famous musicians and loads of them didn’t do anything. I think a lot of it is: Are you playing your instrument every day? Are you singing every day? Are you collaborating with people every day? Sometimes you don’t need school for that. But if you’re trying to be an Opera Singer, yeah, you should probably go and do that professionally at a proper school.
How can someone improve their singing voice?
Having regular singing lessons will improve your voice. Good vocal hygiene, drinking lots of water, and avoiding too many spicy foods and dairy foods will also help. Listening to artists live and in recordings that you admire can be a positive thing, too.
Grace Davidson is a British soprano who specializes first and foremost in the performance and recording of Baroque music. Grace grew up in a house whose hallway was entirely filled by a grand piano which was being stored for a friend of the family–music was physically unavoidable. She learned the piano and the violin but it was singing that she loved best.
Taken to Cats when she was three years old she sang along throughout or, rather, whenever her mother’s hand wasn’t clamped over her mouth. And it was her singing that won her a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music where she won the Early Music Prize. Since then she has worked as a soloist with leading Baroque ensembles, under the batons of Sir John Eliot Gardner, Paul McCreesh, Philippe Herreweghe and Harry Christophers.
Her discography includes a decade of recordings with The Sixteen, many of which feature her as soloist–Handel’s Jeptha (as Angel), Dixit Dominus, Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610, Pianto della Madonna, Acis and Galatea (as Galatea) and the Lutheran Masses of Bach. On Radio Three’s Building a Library, her singing in Fauré’s Requiem (with the London Symphony Orchestra and Tenebrae, Nigel Short conducting) was reviewed by Richard Morrison quite simply: “Grace Davidson’s Pie Jesu is matchless.”
Grace’s purity of tone has attracted many of the leading contemporary composers to write for her, most notably Max Richter, who chose her as the solo singer for many of his works, such as Sleep. This piece–lasting all night–has now been performed all over the world, including a performance in 2019 on the Great Wall of China. Recent solo recordings for Signum Records are Vivaldi & Handel, a disc of sacred solo cantatas with the Academy of Ancient Music, and John Dowland: First Booke of Songes Or Ayres with lutenist David Miller.
You’ll be familiar with Violet Skies without realising it. Having spent the last few years writing for other artists around the world, as well as founding sheWrites, a global series of female-only writing camps, Violet Skies is setting up her stall alongside her artist peers; a Welsh Singer-Songwriter with ambition as big as her voice.
Growing up in a village in Wales, UK, she’s a self-confessed nerd, perfectionist and has known since the age of 4 that music was her future. Violet Skies, (adopting her grandmother’s name) writes “pop with teeth” and co-produces all her music; a combination of searingly emotional vocals, uncomfortably honest lyrics about her relationships, and infectious melodies.
The resulting output walks a fine line between making you cry about an ex you thought you were over–and laugh about the one you’re glad got away.
If it’s not already clear, she’s not content with the definitions of what it is to be a female Singer-Songwriter. She’s somewhere between Adele and Robyn; a product of her parents’ eclectic musical tastes and a 90’s childhood.
Pinned as an “Artist to Watch” in 2020 by Pandora, The Boot, and Sounds Like Nashville and included in CMT’s “Next Women of Country” program, Wilson kicked off the year by making her Grand Ole Opry debut—a dream come true for the Baskin, Louisiana native.
Hailing from the small farming community, Wilson moved to Nashville in a bumper-pull camper trailer to pursue a career in music and has been carving her own unique place in the country music landscape ever since, garnering praise for her “unabashedly down-home and unflappably worldly” (NPR) style and exhibiting “just enough scars and pragmatism to write great, universal country songs” (Taste of Country).
Produced by GRAMMY Award-winning mastermind Jay Joyce, Wilson’s music has had multiple TV placements with Paramount’s hit series Yellowstone and her current single “Things A Man Oughta Know” continues to gain traction across radio and streaming platforms alike, garnering over 15 million streams to date and repeatedly landing on SXMTheHighway’s Hot 30 Countdown.