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By simple definition music is the blending of sounds—instrumental and/or voice—in an orderly sequence to create a composition that is pleasing or interesting to hear. For most of history, all music was performed live, often in association with religious ceremonies and celebrations. Technological advances, however, have allowed recorded music to be shared widely and made it possible for musicians to experience the work of other musicians throughout the world and to reach a broader audience of listeners with their music.

Music industry workers fill a variety of positions, but some of the largest categories include musicians who perform music live for audiences or for recordings. Performers include instrumentalists, who play many kinds of instruments from drums and pianos to trumpets, flutes, and guitars; singers who use their voices to make music; and conductors who direct orchestras, choirs, or other ensembles. In general, blues, folk, rock, pop, world music, and country performers make money by playing in clubs, at concerts, at festivals, and by doing studio work. They also make and sell recordings, which is a major source of income.

Behind the scenes are composers and songwriters who create original music or arrangements for performers. Some recording artists are also composers. Songwriters are composers who specialize in the song form of music. Songwriters who do not write lyrics work with a lyricist, who provides the words. Arranging and orchestrating are very closely related, and many professionals perform both tasks. Arrangers create a musical background for a preexisting melody; an orchestrator takes a piece of music and assigns the parts to specific instruments in the orchestra or other ensemble.

Education is an important branch of the music industry. Music teachers may work full time in colleges, conservatories, high schools, and grade schools, or teach private lessons part time or run their own small teaching studios. The industry also includes those who make and repair musical instruments, publish music, and manage venues for live performances.

During the shift to digital platforms—downloading music online versus buying physical media, such as CDs—commercial music suffered a decline and growth in the industry slowed. However, the lasting popularity of digital music downloads has led to some improvement with good growth in both digital album sales and sales of digital singles sales. In addition, advances in technology have made it possible for musicians to buy or rent at a relatively low price the equipment they need to produce their own recordings. Many artists now sell their own recordings by direct mail and through the Internet, avoiding large record companies. Self-production ensures that artists can make their own creative decisions and pocket a higher percentage of their earnings than they would receive if they worked with record companies—although they often don't enjoy the wide distribution and marketing muscle of a large company.

Competition is extremely intense in virtually all fields of music. Although extremely talented musicians have a better chance than others do of becoming successful, even those musicians have no guarantee of success. People skills, business knowledge, a knack for self-promotion, and a true passion for music are all essential to success.