This is the final instalment of excerpts from my 2017 Ph.D. thesis, “Price of a Gift: Lives and Work of Professional Musicians in St. John’s, Newfoundland”, based on interviews with 54 musicians whose work is based in St. John's, Newfoundland. If this is your first time visiting, I encourage you to begin by scrolling to the bottom for my first entry and make your way up. My blogs will continue in future with more varied professional and personal anecdotes.
There are as many experiences of working as a musician in St. John’s as there are musicians. But there are two common, closely-related threads that link all 54 of my research participants. First, to a person, they love what they do, and they told me so. There aren’t many other occupations I can think of where the passion for the work is prioritized so far above earning money. The act of making music is central to who musicians are, and that can’t possibly be overstated. When I asked them about their career highlights, successes and goals, their faces would light up, they would lean in and become more engaged in our conversation, their voices would rise and energize, several becoming quite emotional. These responses spoke clearly to the ways in which music is at the core of their identity, much more a lifestyle than a living. The second common thread – and this is where things become complicated – is that none of them can extricate themselves from music performance. Even the nine participants who left music for other careers continue to long for and seek out performance opportunities.
Musicians invest and sacrifice a great deal in their determination to carve out a career in music. Yet all but a few who are fulltime or most-time performers hint at an end game and eventual changes in career balance, if not an altogether new employment direction. This is a narrative that is as present at the start of most music careers as it is for longtime working musicians. Most have compiled a portfolio of work that usually includes music teaching, but also many other jobs that permit them to afford time and costs to continue to perform and tour. We have also seen the sacrifice of family and other personal relationships for the sake of pursuing the career: not getting married, marriages/relationships ending, not having children. Also revealed were numerous instances of conflict among musicians and within themselves, as they struggle to literally and figuratively find their distinguishable voice among a crowd of like-minded musicians all wading through the quiet-yet-strong undercurrent of competition, while continually wrestling with private thoughts and worries having to do with letting go of a lifetime (since early childhood for most) of intensive music engagement and learning. It’s all fine to talk of transferability of music skills to other careers, but not many professional musicians think in those terms with joy in their hearts. Yes, young students can glean much in the way of life skills from learning music. But my research participants seeking to earn a livable wage from their hard-earned expertise became musicians to be musicians, not medical doctors, teachers, lawyers or factory labourers.
Experience and education in this line of work, characterized by extraordinary expertise and talents that are the envy of non-musicians, is not commensurate with pay. Therein lies the source of at least the internal struggle, explaining at least in part why a large majority of the musicians I spoke with, even the most prolific and well-known among them, have ongoing thoughts of quitting the profession and are bracing for what might be an inevitable transition to work that is decidedly less familiar and less pleasurable. Can you imagine spending your whole life concentrating on one field, being recognized for your prowess in that field, then realizing in your 30s, 40s or older that you can’t make ends meet in spite of it all and have to figure out what else to do? I’m not talking about music students who quit partway or soon after a degree and enter another discipline of study. I’m talking about career musicians who know no other life and who risk eliminating career alternatives the older they get. It’s clear from the interviews that this is why so very many musicians diversify, shifting the balance away from the performance lifestyle towards a multiplicity of work that leaves doors open to new paths, or else they risk excluding themselves from the wider labour market.
So what is the takeaway? That children shouldn’t be encouraged to pursue a music career? Certainly not. One other common thread across all of my participants is how they have managed a life of multiple job-holding, scheduling, relationship-building, and self-management. We are living in an occupational culture where the 45-year career in one job may be a thing of the past, where career change, portfolio employment, casual labour and re-education are becoming the norm across all careers. The ways of the employment world in this day and age can be well-informed by the work of musicians who have only ever experienced the kinds of employment conditions that have become much more widespread even in careers once thought to provide set-for-life security.
I am reminded this year that it is the 25th anniversary of MusicNL, Newfoundland and Labrador’s lone musician-dedicated funding agency. Its formation in 1992 happened quietly, in apparent contradiction to trends of outmigration, rampant business closures, and hiking unemployment. While store fronts on Water Street were boarded up and you couldn’t give away downtown housing, it was the music industry that emerged as not just staying the course, but riding against it and rising above it as a strong and necessary example of how to efficiently survive times of austerity and economic restructuring. I recall several of my participants recoiling at being called “talented” or “gifted,” as though their output is effortless, as though anyone can do what they do. The same musicians who nervously laughed when they said things like, “I didn’t get into this for the money” also proclaimed their work regimen, self-discipline, and professionalism, and they want the world to know that they are hard-working members of the general work force and invaluable contributors to economy, culture and well-being.
You aren't a physician, lawyer, dentist, accountant, or plumber without a license to practise. All of the formerly wage-dependant musicians of this research are grateful to participate in a field that invites freedom of entry and re-entry. They all participate in the city's musical culture as much as when they depended on it for a living, alongside their wage-dependent peers, and the "license" to join the field is their own privately-held sense of readiness and confidence to share their skills and contribute as much as they want. This might lend an unwelcome sense of complexity, precariousness, and ambiguity to the work, but it simultaneously illuminates its most treasured features. They have not re-entered the field simply for personal pleasure and volunteer activity. Musicians acquire and retain ownership of their skills and "tools of the trade" throughout their lives, upholding the virtues of professionalism and participating - even in a casual, community, or free capacity - with professional calibre and behaviour, thus challenging classical ideals of what it means to be a professional in the 21st-century.
This series was merely a glimpse into my four-year research into how the lives and work of professional musicians intersect. There were 54 musicians with no two stories exactly alike and all of value. No matter whether you call it work, art, a job, a profession, or a calling – musicians are as expert in their field as anyone of any other occupation and are deserving of respect, admiration and attention.
If you would like access to my full dissertation, get in contact with me anytime.
Thank you for following along.