What do you want to become?
Alternate Career Titles:
Vocalist, Pop Star
Career Overview: A Singer performs the lead vocals of a song. Although he or she may have a backing band, the Singer is the star of the show.
Average Annual Earnings: $46,571
General Earnings Range: $17,680 – $40,000,000
Become a Singer
A Singer sings the main vocal line of a track. He or she is 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 dance skills.
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Advancement in this career means making more money and performing in front of bigger crowds—so basically progressing from having a small local following to becoming a star.
Even Grammy winners start small. Singers can play their local club circuit, perform on cruise ships, and hold residencies at lounges or clubs. It’s an extremely competitive field, but there are opportunities for the creative Singer to find work, and to get his or her name out there to attract possible management or labels.
Education & Training
Further education isn’t a requirement for a singing career, although it can lead to better opportunities through training and networking, and vocal performance majors are available at many colleges. Carly Rae Jepsen honed her skills at an arts college in Canada (1) and John Mayer attended Berklee College of Music, where he discovered his strengths as a Songwriter after initially enrolling to further his skills as a Guitar Player (2).
Of course, music education is essential. Not every Singer has taken years of voice lessons, but to further a career, make one’s voice stand out, and to keep vocal abilities strong, lessons are a must. A Singer can also benefit from learning a musical instrument and honing dance skills.
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Experience & Skills
Experience performing and writing one’s own songs is essential. Before she was famous, Katy Perry performed at open mic nights (3). Justin Bieber performed at local singing competitions, and his mom uploaded his videos to YouTube (4). Carly Rae Jepsen fronted a local swing band and ran an open mic for Singer/Songwriters at the coffee shop where she worked (1).
Skill-wise, in addition to being able to write catchy, beautiful songs and sing well, a singer must be able to market herself. Charli XCX originally posted her music to MySpace, which caught the attention of a rave Promoter who asked her to perform at one of his parties, and in turn led to more opportunities to perform live (5). Lorde’s hit “Royals” attracted worldwide attention after she posted it on her SoundCloud page as part of a free download of her Love Club EP (6). Since many Singers are considered to be all-around entertainers, dance skills can also be helpful.
A Singer must be adaptable and able to handle some uncertainty. Building a career is challenging and requires sacrifice. Katy Perry told Seventeen magazine that “It was five years of living in L.A. with no money, writing bad checks, selling my clothes to make rent, [and] borrowing money” while writing tracks and trying to get a record company to sign her (7). Above all, a Singer must be perseverant and passionate about their career. Even top performers spend extremely long days in the studio and rehearsing for tour. And whether they’re touring in minivans or private jets, a Singer must be flexible enough to handle life on the road, an experience that can be as grueling as it can be exciting.
The lifestyle of a Singer varies widely. For those just starting off, singing at open mics and talent competitions, income can be very limited. Most of these Singers do not earn the majority of their income from performance and instead supplement their earnings with a part or full-time job. Obviously, on the other end of the spectrum are stars like Taylor Swift, who earned $40 million in 2013 (8). Across the board, however, Singers work hard. They spend time writing songs, rehearsing songs, and working on their performance abilities. Touring takes a lot of time and energy, and can mean that the Singer is on the road more than he or she is at home. Most Singers perform at night, so staying up late is par for the course.
Like many careers in the music industry, getting work as a Singer is all about who you know. Networking is important; other Singers can invite you to perform on a bill with them or can spread the word about open mics. Sometimes a fellow Musician will know of a band or a Producer looking for a Vocalist.
It doesn’t matter if an aspiring Singer has a label backing her or if she’s just starting out; the most important element of having a successful singing career is building an audience. Without an audience, there’s no draw for a Booker to sign the Singer and search for gigs, or for a label to sign the Singer.
When a Singer is just starting out, most gigs won’t be paid, and if they are, they won’t be paid very much. Start by playing open mics and talent contests and contacting local Bookers to see if you can open up for another Band/Singer or be added to a bill. It’s important to have an online presence, whether it’s YouTube videos or a SoundCloud page, so that the Talent Buyer can check out your work and decide if you’ll be a good fit.
In general, a Singer is paid per event. Clubs will give the Singer a percentage of the door fee. Other Singers have contracts to play certain venues or to tour.
The majority of a Singer’s income comes from touring and performing. Selling merchandise is a secondary source.
Making money off of albums is difficult, even for big names. The label will pay for Songwriters, star Producers, marketing efforts, promotion, etc., and the Singer will only start making money him or herself once the label has recouped their initial investment.
Unions, Groups, Social Media, and Associations
Resources for Singers include the American Federation of Musicians and the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. Some Singers are eligible to join the Screen Actors’ Guild/American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA). The New York Singers Collective lists Singers online so that anyone looking for a Singer can easily search for the right fit for their project.
- Get experience and build connections by performing at open mics, joining a choir, joining a band or entering talent contests.
- Get an online presence so people can access your music. A SoundCloud or MySpace page is essential. YouTube videos can also generate a buzz.
- Take voice lessons regularly, and consider learning an instrument.
- Develop your own unique image so that you stand out from the pack.
- Build and stay in touch with your audience through social media, newsletters, etc.
(1) Greene, Andy (2012, June 10). Carly Rae Jepsen: ‘I Want to Do Justin Bieber Proud.’ Retrieved from www.rollingstone.com
(2) Small, Mark. (2011, September 18). John Mayer ’98: Running with the Big Dogs. Retrieved from www.berklee.edu
(3) Seventeen Magazine. (2013, February 15). Katy Perry’s Advice on Getting in the Music Biz. [Video file]. Retrieved from www.youtube.com
(4) Greene, Amanda. (2010). 10 YouTube Success Stories. Retrieved from www.womansday.com
(5) Nostro, Lauren. (2013, March 6). Interview: Charli XCX Talks Debut Album, Internet Haters, and Writing Icona Pop’s “I Love It.” Retrieved from www.complex.com
(6) Weber, Lindsey. (2013, August 19). Lorde 101: Who Is This 16-Year-Old New Zealand Singer Everyone’s Talking About? Retrieved from www.vulture.com
(7) Biography.com. (2010). Katy Perry Biography. Retrieved from
(8) Pallotta, Frank. (2014, March 10). Taylor Swift Tops Billboard’s Highest-Paid Singers. Retrieved from www.businessinsider.com