So where do we go from here? Do we all just turn in our instruments and quit this miserable business? Not me, and not you either, I imagine. We musicians know the value of what we do. We know that our art can change lives, create happiness, inspire greatness in others, and simply make the world a more beautiful place. We would sooner die than give up on this amazing language and means of communication.
But what is happening to this profession? How long can a musician reasonably expect to cobble together a living by playing with six part-time orchestras in four different states, driving 50,000 miles a year, living out of the car, sleeping in rest stops, with no benefits or future prospects and $80,000 in student loans hanging over their heads? This topic was discussed in depth in Part XII (Burnout) of this series.
• Employment in the classical music field necessitates musical study at the collegiate level.
• The cost of higher education has skyrocketed, out pacing even the rise in health care costs.
• Music performance degrees train musicians to do one thing very well.
• The demand for that ‘one thing’ decreases with each year as competition increases.
• Employment prospects: 5%….4%….3%…..2%…….
• Student loans: $50,000…..$60,000……$70,000……
Something has to change.
For starters, we need to change the focus of the music performance degree (as was covered in Part IX of this series) to make it more applicable for contemporary music performance graduates. People no longer train to be telegraph operators or Victrola manufacturers. These businesses evolved. So should we.
In Part IV of this series (Rising Tide, Shrinking Pool), we discussed the ever-greater number of musicians competing for ever-fewer jobs in the orchestral world. Part III of this series (The Rise and Fall of the Full-Time Orchestra) illustrated the reasons why these disappearing jobs are not likely to return in the future. This may be unfortunate—I truly love orchestra playing, and would love to do it full-time in an organization that provided enough compensation to live a reasonable adult life. But those who drive 180 miles for a $70 gig (and more and more music graduates do exactly this every year) are not exactly setting themselves up for a prosperous future.
There’s nothing wrong with paying dues. After all, many professions involve practitioners paying dues before reaping the eventual rewards of their career path. But classical music careers all-too-frequently dead end in that original $70 job. This subject was covered in depth in Part V of this series (Regional Orchestras). You pay dues, only to pay more dues for less money the following year, and even more dues for even less the following year….
Only 5% of music conservatory graduates connect with full-time employment in instrumental performance (and that success rate shrinks with each passing year). What happens to the other 95%?
Many leave the field of music, using their degree as they would any other liberal arts degree (Philosophy, History, or English), entering the 9-to-5 world and pursuing a more traditional career path.
The rest are dumped (like rats in a bucket) into the freelance world, left to fend for themselves with nary a piece of cheese in plain view.
Putting it all Together
I chose this life. I chose to make a career out of music.
I just wish I had known.
I wish I had known how competitive the traditional path to satisfactory employment (a full-time orchestra position) is for the classical musician. Music schools rarely outline realistic employment statistics, prospects, and options for their students, clinging to traditional conservatory education principles from the late nineteenth century. Every other career field changes with and adapts to new circumstances—why not music?
Not adequately preparing music performance students as artist/businessmen is perhaps the greatest crime committed by the music conservatory system.
I wish I had known what I could do besides get a job in a full-time orchestra. There was no formal component in any stage of my musical education (and I went to a well-renowned music school for both of my performance degrees) addressing real options for performing musicians. After years in the freelance business, of course, I can rattle some of them off without batting an eye:
• Full-time orchestral employment (audition circuit)
• Part-time regional orchestra employment (audition circuit)
• Pick-up group orchestral employment (word-of-mouth)
• Church-related employment (contracting or being subcontracted)
• Corporate functions (contracting or being subcontracted)
• Recording work (sessions)
• Educational performance work (in-school performances, children’s concerts)
• University teaching (full-time or adjunct)
• Private teaching (home, music school, within a school system)
• Contracting (orchestras, chamber groups, quartets, quintets, duos, trios)
• Contemporary music ensemble employment
• Summer institute teaching (perform and/or teach at music festival)
• Ballet orchestra employment
• Opera orchestra employment
• Side businesses (reed making, contracting, publishing arrangements, etc.)
These divergent options for generating income as a performer are addressed superficially, if at all, in most academic institutions. I did hear these phrases from time to time during my time as a music student:
“There are recording sessions!”
“There are auditions!”
“You know, sometimes musicians also teach.”
“You should make contacts!”
What is rarely addressed is HOW any of these objectives are accomplished. It’s not rocket science—there ARE clear steps that can be taken to secure employment in any of the aforementioned career sub-paths.
Let’s take one example syllabus for a hypothetical class covering music contracting:
1. What is contracting?
2. Who are the major contractors in musical genre x for community y? (bringing in such figures to guest teach a class at this point would be a very good idea)
3. How does one go about setting up a contracting business?
– a. Legal ramifications of contracting/subcontracting
– b. Tax forms and other accounting necessities
– c. AFM union information
– – – i. Scale
– – – ii. Hours
– – – iii. Working conditions
– – – iv. Doubling
– d. Website development
– e. Obtaining engagements
4. Ethics and guidelines for contracting
– a. Establishing a list
– b. Finding dependable players
– c. Dealing with egos
– d. Dealing with subs/cancellations
5. Networking with other contractors
– a. Same city
– b. Different cities
– c. Booking tours
You get the picture.
Some may say that these are practical skills that have no place in music school curriculum. Others may balk at adding more coursework to the already frenetic load taken by undergraduates.
But something has to change.
On Hollywood and Baseball
The current music conservatory system is hopelessly broken when it comes to providing music performance students with the skills to be successful in today’s employment landscape. A system that has an employment success rate of less than 5% is no success at all. The current system provides a rate of success similar to that of professional actors (and lower than professional athletes), yet most university music programs do not mention these odds or (even worse) brag of effective placement for their graduates to incoming students. Studio teachers also unintentionally feed young students disinformation, relating various success stories regarding their former pupils with pride, conveniently forgetting to mention the dozens (if not hundreds) of former students that never landed any meaningful employment after their studies.
If the odds of becoming a full-time orchestra musician are the same as landing on the silver screen and worse than playing professional baseball, fine—just be honest up front. Music conservatories promise one thing and deliver another. Why? Either be honest, or fix the system and equip students with skills relevant to today’s employment landscape. But no one tells actors that there are these giant organizations in each major city, employing 100 actors each and providing a salary, heath care, vacation time, and a pension. This fiction is sold to music students every day, however.
If the goal of music school is to provide a purely theoretical knowledge of the subject matter, then music schools should make that emphasis clear to incoming students. In subjects like philosophy or history, there is an implicit understanding that practical, non-circular (i.e. teaching philosophy or history) career paths do not exist. If that is the orientation that music schools wish to adopt for music performance degrees, then they should make this fact very clear to incoming students.
However, if the goal is to provide the music performance student with the skills necessary to be successful, active, fully employed performers of music, then curriculum change is critical.
Programs in which the above practical and logistical elements of a music performance career are thoroughly addressed, including sessions with contractors, officials in both governmental (NEA, local government officials) and labor (AFM, ICSOM, ROPA) organizations and practical training in setting up a private teaching studio, private music school, or active and viable chamber music organization would go a long way toward making a music performance degree something that is of benefit to both the degree holder and the musical community at large.
Creating a Scene
If I have one major regret regarding my musical education, it is that I wish I had been taught how to create my own opportunities and build my own diversified musical career in a more logical way. Schools need to address how musicians create a performance organization, organize as a not-for-profit, book venues, and develop educational programs. Strategies on taking advantage of grants and programs (both governmental and non-governmental) for securing funding for future projects is of paramount importance.
Learning how to cooperate and collaborate with both musical organizations and artistic organizations outside of music (theater, dance, music stores, art schools and galleries, civic centers) can create exciting new opportunities for interesting projects. When arts organizations work together creatively, they can engage the public in new and exciting ways, helping to strengthen the individual organizations involved in the project.
Educating performers in how to exist as creators of opportunity as well as art has a positive top-down effect on the entire music business as these people graduate and begin their musical careers. More people creating their own performing organizations, educational programs for schools, summer camps, collaborative musical/visual/theatrical/audiovisual projects, youth orchestra programs, and chamber orchestras result in more opportunity for other performers.
Do more organizations competing for audience time and interest result in a more thinly-spread audience? Not if segments of the population that don’t currently engage in classical music activities are targeted. Recent studies indicate that only 3% of the U.S. population would even consider purchasing a ticket for a classical music concert. That leaves 97% of this country’s population untapped. Rather than going after that 3%, find a way to tap the huge numbers that aren’t currently engaged with classical music at all.
Rather than overwhelming audiences and causing cutthroat competition among arts organizations, increased artistic activity in a community can help really musical organizations with a collaborative and flexible bent. When managed in an enlightened fashion, arts thrive on each other, causing the community to become a draw for audiences, a “scene” that is much more powerful than the sum of its parts. People go to New York City for the “scene”, taking in the Metropolitan Opera, Broadway Shows, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, jazz events, performances at Carnegie Hall, and other events as a total New York City artistic experience. Others check out the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Knitting Factory, and some smaller clubs, venues, and art galleries. While any of the aforementioned organizations and venues could probably succeed and prosper outside of New York City, being part of the scene strengthens all of them.
Chicago, Illinois has a thriving theater scene, with small companies like the Lookingglass Theater and the Neo-Futurarium serving up offerings alongside larger organizations and venues like the Goodman Theatre and the Steppenwolf Theatre. Are these organizations competing for the same eyeballs? Well, yes and no—it depends on how you look at it. What cannot be disputed is that, whether competing or cooperating, these multiple organizations create a Chicago theater scene, a tangible attraction that can draw tourists, folks from the suburbs, and city dwellers of all tastes and income brackets.
In the end, what is most important is not the particular organization but the SCENE surrounding it. A scene that is highly active is perceived as having vitality. A scene with vitality becomes an attraction for tourists, suburbanites, and city dwellers (i.e. potential audience members). A vital artistic city scene enhances other artistic and cultural aspects of that city. Ideally, a more vibrant and diverse concert scene breeds art galleries, which breed fine restaurants, which breed museums, which breed theatres, which breed more concerts. The reputation and draw of a city therefore improves, attracting tourism and business to the area, bringing in conventions (again for the scene), development, and all the other things that most municipalities desire.
Great—so why are the arts either dying or on life support in so many communities?
For most government officials, legislating and budgeting to develop such an artistic scene is like growing orchids in the Arctic—very tricky. Enlightened local leaders may be well aware of the benefits (both economic and cultural) that the arts bring to a community, but setting up the infrastructure for artistic revitalization can be costly and a very hard sell to voters, with no guaranteed return of investment. If the choice is between revitalizing a downtown district to attempt to foster cultural activity in a city or sign off on and zone land for a new casino or big box store, the latter choices almost always win out. Casino gaming brings in quick and easy money for a city. So does sprawling commercial development. Benefits from the arts are only realized over time, and in much more intangible ways than the cold hard cash infusion provided by the aforementioned quick and easy methods.
So how do we artists influence change in our own communities and develop our own artistically vibrant scenes? How can we convince municipalities to invest in the long term high road rather than the quick and dirty low road?
Education and Affecting Change
When was the last time you were in an elementary school general music classroom? Kids love music just as much as they love sports at an early age. Banging enthusiastically on boomwhackers and Orff xylophones, young kids are musical sponges, open and receptive to all sorts of different styles of music.
Over time, however, many kids move on to other activities, and art music becomes, like ballet, a ‘cultural event’ experienced rarely and with great reluctance by the general public.
Perhaps this transformation from starry-eyed youth to uninterested adult is inevitable. Is it possible for 100% of the population to become classical music fans? Probably not. Nothing in this world is loved by 100% of the population, after all. But we can certainly do better than 3% of the population! Increasing the classical music audience size to 6% of the population would double the number of bodies in seats, donors contributing, and people buying albums.
Music performers can affect change by making their art a vital part of the lives of all young people. Most orchestras and chamber ensembles already do youth concerts and participate in the schools, but more needs to be done. Many countries (Venezuela is a prime example) involve students in orchestra programs, making it a point of national pride. We need to do the same.
The Orchestral Employment System is Vanishing
Orchestral music isn’t going anywhere, but its viability in providing a stable income to musicians shrinks with each passing year. Perhaps this is inevitable. After all, this system of full-time orchestra musician employment is a relatively recent development in classical music, having effectively existed for only 50 years. Classical musicians are likely as time passes to assemble their performance careers from many divergent organizations, with only an elite few musicians having a stable, single source of performance income.
I want to see this art form continue to prosper (as, I’m sure, do you). Music opens new avenues of communication between people, avenues that can never be replicated on print, in words, in visual art, or on celluloid.
In order for music to prosper, we have to be willing to let it evolve, and we keep the art form alive and moving forward by always having art happening all around us. Music majors need to go out and create, invent, innovate! They don’t need to be practicing the same stale excerpts for six, seven, or eight hours a day, drilling twenty arbitrary passages from select works of Beethoven and Brahms into the ground, spending their life savings and bankrupting themselves financially, emotionally, creatively, and spiritually for a pie-in-the-sky lie sold to them by the music conservatory system.
The lifestyle and employment prospects for the majority professional classical musicians will resemble those currently found jazz, rock, and other musical styles. No jazz musician (in their right mind) expects a full-time job when graduating from music school these days. They are aware of the challenges and pitfalls of their musical landscape, and they take action accordingly, working hard to make connections, develop their own niche in the market, and start their own projects (albums, club dates, tours, and the like). The same can be said for rock musicians.
This is the way things are headed for the majority of classical musicians as well. If hustling to create your own opportunities is a distasteful prospect for you, then you are entering the wrong profession. As was previously discussed in Part III (The Rise and Fall of the Full-Time Orchestra) of this series, this is the way things were for classical musicians pre-1960, and it is becoming the norm again with each passing year.
What a Waste
In 2006, I took an audition for the Minnesota Orchestra. 150 other double bassists took this audition. Haggard, antsy, nervous, and twitchy, lugging giant white flight cases out of van cabs and into hotel elevators, these bassists came from all corners of the country on their own dime for a shot at playing in a double bass section. Now, I love Minneapolis, but if one were to pull a person over on the street and ask them what city would be their dream town to live in, Minneapolis would not make the cut (I grew up a few hours outside of this city, so I speak from personal experience). Cold frozen plains stretch out for miles in every direction from this northern city.
I started to do the audition math in my head, calculating all of the hours each person spent practicing for this audition, taking lessons, listening to recordings, and all of the money out of their own pocket (no expense account for this line of work, right?) spent on plane tickets, lodging, car rentals, and the like, then multiplying it all by 150.
Think about it:
Activity – Hours or $ Spent x 150 = Total
Practicing – 200 hrs (20 hours/wk for 10 weeks) x 150 = 30,000 hrs
Travel & audition – 72 hrs x 150= 10,800 hrs
Lessons/coaching – $300 (6 coachings at $50/hr) x 150 = $45,000
Plane tickets – $450 ($300 ticket + $150 excess baggage) x 150 = $67,500
Hotel – $450 ($150/night for downtown Minneapolis) x 150 = $67,500
Car rental – $300 x 150 = $45,000
Food – $200 x 150 = $30,000
TOTAL: 40,800 hours (1700 days) and $255,000
A quarter million dollars straight out of everybody’s pocket and 1700 days of time (over 4 ½ years total) spent by these ambitious bass players. Guess how many went home empty-handed?
Cities should hold auditions more often—we’re a massive boon to the food, beverage, hotel, and transportation industry!
Think what creative endeavors could have been accomplished by that quarter million dollars and those 4 ½ years! What sort of new projects could have been started, what kind of new opportunities could those 150 musicians have generated with that kind financial and personal resource expenditure?
We’ll never know.
I took that audition. I spent my hundreds of dollars and countless hours preparing. I played for five minutes. I got cut.
That’s fine—I wasn’t qualified for the job, or for the other 25 auditions I’ve unsuccessfully taken in all corners of the country.. I just wish that my training had prepared me for this reality.
Now let’s see what kind of a toll the audition scene has taken on me—a depressing prospect if ever there was one. Keep in mind that even though 25 auditions seems like a lot, musicians frequently take twice or even three times as many as this before connecting with full-time employment:
Activity – Hours or $ spent x 25 = Total
Practicing – 200 hrs (20 hrs/wk for 10 weeks) x 25 = 5000 hrs
Travel & audition – 72 hrs x 25 = 1800 hrs
Lessons/coaching – $300 (6 coachings at $50/hr) x 25 = $7500
Plane tickets – $450 ($300 ticket + $150 excess baggage) x 25 = $11,250
Hotel – $450 ($150/night) x 25 = $11,250
Car rental – $300 x 25 = $7500
Food – $200 x 25 = $5000
Total: $42,500 and 6800 hours (283 days)
This excludes, of course, the cost of my instruments, bows, and tuition for my two performance degrees, as well as all of the non-audition practicing I have done.
In what other area of life is almost a year of one’s life spent traveling and $42,000 out of pocket for a 0% rate of return acceptable?
Art is always evolving. More artists creating help to create new opportunities and paths to employment for everyone. Artists collaborating and creating in close proximity help to establish a ‘scene’, drawing audiences and creating opportunity for everybody.
The audition circuit is a financial vacuum cleaner, sucking musicians dry and leaving them without the means or creative energy to innovate. 95% of musicians on the audition scene never connect with full time employment, and the massive expense of both music school and the audition circuit can spell permanent financial ruin for the unsuspecting music performance graduate.
One path is uncertain but artistically compelling, with a bright but still undetermined future.
The other path is crystal clear. It just doesn’t lead anywhere for the vast majority except the madhouse and the poorhouse.
The choice is yours.
Read the complete series:
- Part I – Adjunct University Teaching
- Part II – Realities of Professional Freelancing
- Part III – The Rise and Fall of the Full-Time Orchestra
- Part IV – Rising Tide, Shrinking Pool
- Part V – Regional Orchestras
- Part VI – The Vicious Cycle
- Part VII – Private Teaching
- Part VIII – Burnout
- Part IX – Rethinking Music Performance Degrees
- Part X – Refocusing (Musical Entrepreneurship)
Bass News Right To Your Inbox!
Subscribe to get our weekly newsletter covering the double bass world.