Stop playing for free. You're killing the market, and therefore your chance to make money with your music.
But really, stop complaining about not getting paid enough. Stop selling yourself short. Just stop, and think (yeah, a trombonist just told you to think, think about that.) (Second thought, don't think about that, think about your music business.)
If you wish to pursue a career in music, get ready for a long and unforgiving road (to be addressed in a future post on health.) Now, I can understand taking a couple gigs for exposure early on, you do need to have some kind of presence in your region. But that doesn't mean you keep taking freebies a year or so into the game. You are a business. You must conduct yourself in a manner of business. People will take you seriously if you charge professional fees. People will also expect a serious product as well, so if you can't deliver on that, back into the practice room you should go.
But how can I be so cold and business-like? Corporate America already eats people souls, my music is supposed to rejuvenate them!
How is your music going to rejuvenate anyone if you can't even buy instant ramen? Keep your passion for music alive, you just might need to table it for a while as you get your bank account in the positive. Again, balancing making money vs. helping society is a major issue that comes with being a musician. But work diligently, and you'll find yourself in a position to help others sooner than you think.
Along the way, you will run into wonderful people, and unsavory people. Try and reduce your contact with the unsavory people - though some will have gig offers you'll want, so tread carefully. Surround yourself with people who have the same values as yourself. People will associate you with other good folks and you'll fall into musician circles and get recommended to others.
But how do I know how to value myself?
There are several factors. Your travel time and expenses, time actually spent at the gig, and what the gig requires. Also account for what you need to make daily to support yourself. That should start giving you an idea of what you should be valuing yourself monetarily. Knowing when to push for a fair wage with a contractor, or when to just say no to a gig is also important. When you're starting out it is very easy to say yes to each and every single gig that you're offered, but sometimes you have to say no because the money isn't enough. Where the line is to say, "No" is up to each individual, thats a very large grey area. Above all, keep working hard and making good impressions. Any gig you get thats gift wrapped and given to you is a miracle, You're going to have to earn all your work, and those who continue to improve & maintain their craft will rise up the ranks faster than those sitting around waiting for their turn at the big gigs.
What should I do while I try to accumulate enough work to live off of?
Please consider getting a day job. Or convincing your parents to help you out while you figure out being a musician. You'd be surprised at what you can do with a music degree if you know how to sell it. You just spent several years honing a single craft, demonstrating focus and dedication in detail oriented work. What employer wouldn't want that? I have friends from music schools working in various jobs within the tech industry making comfortable salaries, most without any knowledge of coding. I worked at summer camps for many years, so I transitioned into teaching in after school programs and got by on that and gigging. Figure out what you're good at, or interested in, and go look for work. In your spare time, practice your instrument and hopefully you can transition into full time music work in the near future. It isn't easy, but most of us knew that when we decided to chase a career in music.
Look, keep your chin up, this is one of the hardest parts of being a musician. Its also is one of the reasons people stop seeking a career in music. Perseverance and determination will see you through this part of being musician, it's just going to take time.