Beeps & Bandages - Tales From An Aging Musician

Anything can happen in live performance. As a collaborative pianist, I learned that lesson long ago. I have two stories. The first made me feel darned good about myself. The second came close to ending my career.

It was about 12 years ago. A voice major of the MUN School of Music was delivering her long-planned graduation recital, the culmination of four years of undergraduate studies. She and I got along well and enjoyed fun, productive rehearsals, so we had a great social dynamic in our favour to bring to the stage. She was from Ontario, so I thought the 300-seat performance hall would be nearly empty. It turned out that everyone she knew from her hometown decided to come to Newfoundland for a big party and to celebrate her achievement. The hall was nearly filled to boisterous capacity. In spite of our musical readiness, I was terrified backstage because of this big crowd I wasn’t expecting. The house lights go dark, stage lights are on, the door opens, and we walk on stage grinning ear to ear, looking at each other lovingly, bowing together, she in her long, flowing red gown just dying to sing for her family and friends who had traveled from far away for this one special event, and me in my tux dying for it all to be over.

I sit at the piano, start playing a little stiffly because I’m all bound up with performance anxiety. There’s a solo piano introduction, and then she starts singing. I try to imagine that we’re just in a rehearsal room on a Sunday afternoon and having fun putting it all together. I think I’m playing well, and she’s singing magnificently, even glancing at me now and then with a look that said, “Just look at us! We’re doing SO well!” We loosened up, and the performance was indeed going well. I’m relaxing a bit. It’s almost over. And that’s when it happened.

She was singing this piece by Gabriel Fauré. I forget exactly which one. By the time she got halfway through the second verse she was singing something not at all resembling what was on the page. I glanced up to see her eyes practically popping out of her head, her posture frozen stiff, and this beautiful songstress now completely and utterly lost, making it all up and singing in a language that resembled neither French nor English. She lost her memory, and I had a difficult piano part. Now keep in mind that these graduation recitals are graded. Buried in the audience in the dark are three voice professors who are analysing the performance and assigning a grade. It’s not just a recital. It’s her final exam. She was experiencing a severe memory lapse at the worst possible time. We couldn’t just stop and go back to the beginning, nor could I shout out her words to her. She would get a better grade by figuring out how get off this nightmarish musical merry-go-round and get to the end without stopping. So she kept singing gibberish, until she glanced over her shoulder at me, still singing junk words, and looking like a deer in the headlights. I gave her a big nod of my head, complete with a smile, which to the audience might have read "You're doing great" but which was intended as "Stop singing. Right now." She got the message, finished her made-up phrase, and I managed to find a good place to leap in the music to a short piano solo part. I played that very purposefully and loudly, and delivered her cleanly into the next verse when she heard the familiar accompaniment and returned to form. What lasted about 10 seconds or so felt like hours. The recital ended, the crowd cheered, and she and I averted a public meltdown.

It’s customary for university music school performers to meet their audience backstage. Her family and friends all lined up to shower her with hugs and flowers. Then came the three voice professors who, one after another, said to me, “Nice save, Dave.” Because of that terrifying moment, I unwittingly developed a reputation as a saver. Not the most technically proficient or artistic pianist, but someone who can dig a young performer out of a rut. I ended up with lots of requests the following year to accompany. Voice, trombone, trumpet, bassoon, flute, oboe, violin. So the following fall, I had heaps of work, which for a freelance pianist is a dream. My piano was stacked with wildly varied music and I was spending most of my time at the university in rehearsal. Add to that a lot of choir accompanying, private students, church fill-ins, and festival adjudication, and I was making a decent living without ever having to advertise. I thought I was set for life, never thinking that getting older might get in the way.

..................................................

Three years ago, in the heat of summer and windows open, I rolled over in bed to lay on my right side because that way I couldn’t hear the early-morning traffic outside that was keeping me awake. It was a subconscious act, really. The night before, my wife was coming to bed shortly after me. I told her she forgot to set the motion sensors, which count down for a minute of high-pitched beeps. She stopped and stared at me, saying, “It’s setting now….” I sat up, and then I could hear it. I lay on my right side again, and couldn’t hear it. Turned on my left, and could. Not one to deny the obvious, I made an appointment with an audiologist and it was confirmed: I needed a hearing aid. For a few weeks, I felt like I aged 40 years, turning my head away, or standing or sitting to the left of friends so they couldn’t spot it. But I soon came to terms with it, and realized that it’s no different than wearing glasses, which I’ve done for 30 years already. Not to mention that it’s quite liberating turning on the aid.

But because of it, there was a big readjustment I had to make in my music work. In rehearsals, I was told I wasn’t playing loud enough. That was never a problem for me before. It turned out that I was now underplaying because everything was amplified and I thought I was playing piano much too loudly. So for a while, I had to re-learn to accompany, to rediscover my balance so to speak. There was one other issue creeping into my work at the same time: involuntary cracking knuckles and soreness in my hands. Arthritis. Awesome. Earlier this year, out of one of my knuckles grew this grotesque, incredibly painful arthritic cyst that needed a minor day surgical procedure. Between performance anxiety, hearing loss,  arthritis… and don’t get me started on my progressive lenses and how I can’t seem to pull the piano bookrest close enough to my face… It’s like the gods of music were screaming at me to give it up once and for all and fade into retirement. As if to put a fine point on it, all of those issues converged in one defining moment.

Last spring, I was playing piano for an oboist on her undergraduate final recital. She’s a superb musician and was a delight to play for. Here’s the deal with hearing aids these days. They’re battery-operated miniature computerized amplifiers. They're very discreet and work beautifully, until the battery dies. A battery lasts about a week, and for a few hours before it gives up the ghost, it sends a signal to your eardrum with episodic quick double-beeps to remind you that the battery is dying and needs to be replaced. When the battery finally dies, the signal is different. It’s a series of four quick beeps in descending pitch. The instant those beeps end, the battery is dead and I’m nearly deaf again in my left ear. I don’t mark on a calendar when I put in a new battery. I just wait for the signal or for the battery to die, and it takes a couple of seconds to replace it. There’s nothing to it. Unless you’re on stage in the middle of an oboe recital.

So there we were, flying through a gorgeous one-hour recital. About a third of the way through, I hear the faint “beep-beep” warning signal in my left ear. Pardon the salty language, but I’ll never forget this. I literally thought to myself in mid-performance, “Shit.” I nearly said it out loud. I was distracted for a few seconds, annoyed at myself for forgetting to change my battery, but somewhat relieved that it has enough power to get me through the recital. But about a minute later, another “beep-beep.” That shouldn’t have happened so soon. Uh-oh. Another 30 seconds or so later, the dreaded descending tones…and shut-down. Still more than half of the recital remaining.

Let me tell you, this is far worse than the old lady with the candy wrapper, the guy with the coughing fit, or the cell phone going off. At least everyone on and off stage can hear and sympathize in those moments. What I’m experiencing with those shagging beeps in my left ear in mid-performance is my own private invisible little hell. Remember that Road Runner cartoon where Wile E. Coyote is coated with wet cement, tries to run but he can’t move? 

That’s how I felt in that moment. Like my fingers were stuck to the keys, and it felt worse the more I forced myself to keep moving, wanting to get out of there but couldn't. I guess it didn’t translate that way, because the oboist was playing along and I guess I was keeping up with her. But it was in that moment, in the middle of some crazy difficult piano lick, all the while feeling that annoying bandage on my sore finger, I remember saying to myself on stage, “This is the last student recital I’ll ever accompany. I’m done.” And I was. I felt like standing up then and there to announce this to the audience, leave the stage, and crack open a bottle of wine. But I still had some unfinished business. The recital ended, it was apparently successful, and I couldn’t get out of the building fast enough. Over the next week or so, I finished my few smaller obligations to some other kids at MUN I was accompanying, then sent them each an e-mail to wish them well in their future endeavours.

So I’ve thought long and hard about full-on retirement from music. I had just finished my PhD on musicians’ careers and was experiencing some of the same self-reflection, doubt and ailments many of my research participants spoke of. But right at the moment I was walking away from nearly 20 years of student accompanying — and I don’t know if this is coincidence or not — I ended up in decent demand for fresh choir work, solo gigs and adjudicating again. I even played my long-planned solo recital, but on my own terms, as a private house concert for a select small group of family and friends. And it feels good again being a musician. I’m thankfully back playing as much as I ever have, even turning things down now and then. That’s mighty gratifying. But I am also newly alert to the fragile nature of this work and can now personally relate to some of my research participants, all musicians whose work and income depend not just on how successful they are at self-promotion, but also on keeping their bodies and minds healthy.

I wish I could explain why I keep doing this to myself, like I'm some kind of masochist. It doesn't make sense, does it? The closest analogy I can think of is in sports. The top hitters in baseball have averages of about .300 or so. That means they hit safely around 30% of the time they're at bat. Which means they are unsuccessful 70% of the time. And they keep at it for years and years. They accept their fate  because they've spent their entire lives since and including childhood trying to get better at it, adapting their bodies to the game, and every triumph rises above all of the misses. I guess that's what it is. I've dwelled here on getting older and some perils I've experienced. But reading between the lines, maybe you can see the triumphs manifested in relationships with other musicians, the standing ovations, the "nice saves," and unsolicited compliments after every show from someone in the audience who is in awe of you. I can’t say that I’m exactly embracing my age and these little natural hazards that seem to go along with it. But I’m adapting. I love playing music too much, relishing those little triumphs even more the older I get, to give it up just yet. I just need to remember to keep Tylenol and a spare hearing aid battery in my pocket. To my fellow independent, freelance musicians out there, take good care of yourselves, and see you on stage. 

In Their Words ~ "Never Done"

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. 

In music, when you say you’re a professional, they kind of look at you like “Wow, he’s arrogant to say ‘professional musician’ in the same sentence.” But it’s how I would identify myself and the work that I’ve done. And there is something for standing up for it. It’s one type of work that people can relate to, but when you’re working as a musician, it’s hard for a lot of other people to understand that your work is never done, and that if you take a break it’s almost at personal cost.
— Darrell

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.  

In Their Words ~ Part 5: "I'm starting to like music."

This blog is a thread 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 back up to this latest instalment, and to return for regular additional excerpts in the weeks to come.


A long time ago, I was a manager with a moving company. It’s a bit surreal for me to type those words today. Anyway, a colleague asked me one day over lunch (I don’t remember how this came up), “What do you think is more important – your family or your career?” I answered my family. I would do anything to protect and support my family. Not to mention that years later, I could only have left my miserable accounting career for a more mentally and emotionally satisfying one like music with my wife’s and parents’ endorsement.  He told me I was wrong, that we choose our career first in order to support a family second.  He stressed placing money before family so that the family could be comfortable. Many years later, I believe we were both right, even though we argued in that moment.

Today’s blog is mostly about how family, other relationships, and relationship with oneself intersect with musicians’ career paths. I had planned to write two separate blogs to wrap up this series: this one on family, the final on musicians who exited their music careers. On re-reading the interviews, I decided it isn’t possible to separate the two. So in this final “In Their Words” segment, I will focus on the role of relationships in commitment to music careers.

What do family and relationships mean in the context of my research participants? There are young musicians who have never been in a longterm committed relationship and whose career direction is still very much influenced by their parents. There are married musicians – musicians married to each other, and musicians married to non-musicians – whose most critical career crossroads involved their romantic partner. There are music careers that have ended for the sake of personal relationships, music careers that have been strengthened by relationships, and relationships that have ended in order to continue the music career. No matter the career outcome and no matter the age, experience and style of music, the role of the closest personal relationships is pivotal and abundantly clear.

One-quarter of the musicians I interviewed are married with children. They spoke eloquently about how the support of their spouses and children affirmed their decision to pursue and commit to a career in music and how their self-employment has enabled more time with their families than other careers might.

We just took them along to everything – rehearsals, and on the road. They didn’t even notice it. It was very convenient in that I would have lots of days off when they were young. So I got to spend a lot more time with the kids probably than people who have to go to the office every day.
— Nicolas
I try to get up when I can, around 6:00, to do some kind of musical task before the rest of the family gets up. So whether it’s practising or getting an arrangement finished up, it’s what I’ve been doing a lot lately. Then it’s family time. Getting everyone ready for school and breakfast, and making sure everyone’s okay. I usually have plenty of musical types of things to do in the house. I have a studio in the basement so usually most often arranging or practicing, and whatever chores need to be done in the meantime. If I’m teaching, by the time that’s done, it’s time to pick up the kids, go home, make supper, get them to bed and try to stay awake for another couple of hours to do some musical thing.
— Keith

Other participants, though not altogether leaving the music career, decided they wanted to be in a more comfortable fiscal position to raise a family. They shifted their work balance gradually from music to other music- or non-music fields that would generate more personal income and allow for their performance lives to continue.

I have done a lot of touring, and I just really don’t want to anymore. So I needed to have some kind of an income, but also to have some kind of steadiness to be able to plan. That’s the problem. The inability to plan has had a really negative affect on my personal relationships. So even if year over year you’re making a certain amount of money that would theoretically make you comfortable, what you’re kind of doing is a “feast or famine” thing where you go into debt, you get the big gig, then you pay off the debt, then you go forward. You’re kind of lurching forward all the time but you don’t know what’s coming on the horizon. So, simple things, like you can’t plan a vacation in the summer time. You can’t make long term decisions about paying for a house or a car or kids.
— Gary

Twenty per cent of my participants are in committed relationships and do not have children. For some, deciding whether to have children is weighed alongside the likelihood of an active music career continuing in its present form. Their desire to pursue their music careers without interruption is a significant determining factor. At least one interview was conducted with a musician couple that performs frequently together. They were asked to reflect on their dynamic of working and living together and the ways in which their collective work has affected their professional and personal relationship. Alex spoke openly, while her partner did not respond. Meanwhile, Bobbie is married to a non-musician and is weighing the option of having children in the context of her work as a performer and private music teacher.

We love it. We love playing together. But we have had some serious arguments about how sometimes we’re just business. We’ve had some serious fights about it, and you can’t say that we haven’t. But I have thought, and so have you, we can’t have children right now. If we had children right now, we would be no more. Not that we want to have children, but it’s definitely been a discussion.
— Alex
I think we both benefit from being a part of the music community here. He really enjoys going to all these concerts and, you know, getting to hear my perspective on music and things like that. We don’t have any kids yet because I can’t take any time off. We would like to have children but I don’t have maternity leave. You know, we might have kids now if I had a paid mat leave, right? Or maybe not. I don’t know. It would be certainly more feasible. I don’t really know when we have children what I’m going to do. I know people who have taken a year off with their teaching and found homes for their students for the year, then have them come back. But that’s disruptive to the students, and you don’t know if the students are going to come back. And it’s hard on your colleagues if they all are taking short-term students.
— Bobbie

As adult professional musicians, it appears just as critical to have the support of their spouse/partner, regardless of whether one or both work in music. In the cases of participants married to non-musicians, their love for their partners was made abundantly clear in the interviews. Music performance often demands considerable time spent away from partners. It is also frequently the case that the non-musician partner is the primary wage earner. Without emotional, moral and practical support, either the relationship or the career risks being sacrificed to save the other.

My wife… She’s my greatest fan when it comes to my music. She wants to be up on stage with me. She just thrives to see that I am in that zone. I couldn’t be happier with that kind of support.
— Charlie
We’re in the exact same boat. We’re just lucky people I guess. It’s never been an issue. I think that the fact that we’re both musicians makes it easier on both of us because we completely understand, for example, what someone’s going through when they’re preparing something or what someone’s feeling when it’s not going the way they want. You really understand what that feels like. You understand the frustration when things are not coming out the way you want them to be. You also understand the pride in something that seems so simple. Even though we’re both freelance musicians and it’s all we do, we appreciate what each other does and we take part in what each other does, but we cover completely different spectrums as well. So there’s never any room for conflict.
— Dale

Half of the musicians interviewed are single and have never been married. It was revealed over the course of the interviews that 16 of those 27 participants are in committed personal relationships. Ten of those sixteen are either seriously considering transitioning away from music towards other careers or have already done so, stating that part of their questioning of their music career commitment had to do with their personal relationship. The main concern was with being able to support a family and home without debt. Not all said they want to eventually have children, but those who did were emphatic that having children is increasingly a priority for them and is the primary cause for reconsidering the career path. All of the other six in committed relationships stated that they have the full support of their partner/spouse in their music pursuits and that they are as committed as ever to their work in music for that reason. It is also worth noting that all six are presently realizing especially fruitful performance careers, with substantial work and prominence within and outside Newfoundland. Eleven other participants of this group of 27 are either not in committed relationships or at least did not mention a romantic partner. Instead, all but one of them spoke of their commitment to music drawing them closer to their parents and siblings. Only one participant of this group spoke of his parents not being supportive of his music career. At the time of our interview, he was seeking jobs in non-music fields. Here are some responses spanning a wide range of personal and professional conditions. Some responses also suggest a strong connection between family and sense of place. Newfoundlanders have long celebrated their devotion to the homeland no matter where they live. Family, place and music converge for many musicians, resulting in deeper commitment to not just the music career in and of itself, but the music career in Newfoundland.

The thing with this job is that it’s never over. It never turns off. You send an email at midnight because you forgot one you needed to send. You’re working into the wee hours either gigging or because you’re on a roll creatively and want to keep going. So you really need to surround yourself with people who get that. And people who get that are shockingly rare. There’s the people who get that at first, like girlfriends.
— Paul
I certainly think about moving somewhere else for a shorter period like a year or two years or something. I don’t think the rest of my family would want to come. I wouldn’t mind going on my own. But because I’m a freelancer, it’s very hard to set yourself somewhere else.
— Denise
I think the disadvantage to being from Newfoundland is that everyone loves it here and it’s hard to leave. I have a close family. Most people I know do. You realize what’s important in life and what isn’t. Yes, I loved being on stage, I loved the applause. I loved music, and I loved the process, and I loved working with people and I loved being creative. And I love being good at something. But I didn’t love being away from my family. And I didn’t love the bullshit that goes along with being a professional musician. And I think living in a bigger city makes you realize you’re this big (placing index finger and thumb close together). No one cares.
— Kim
The longer I’ve been in St. John’s, the more I’ve met more people and worked more places. This is where we’re staying. This is where we’re gonna buy a home, we’re gonna raise children. There’s so much music happening. There’s so much music happening in Halifax and Toronto. But bigger centres… I dunno if they’re for me. I feel like you know the work here. You can capitalize on it more because there are less people.
— Stan

So what is most important to you? Your work or your family? Is it possible to separate the two? Ernest is married, and is emphatic about his professional lifestyle that usually demands substantial time apart from his family.

To make a living, I mean to really make a living as a performing musician, it doesn’t matter if you’re living in St. John’s, or Toronto. If you want to make a real career as a performing musician, you gotta travel. You gotta tour. You need to leave wherever it is you live and you need to get on the road and you need to take your music to as far reaching as you can, to as many audiences as will listen to you. It’s not an easy living. A lot of your time you’re living out of a suitcase. And if you’re looking at having a family at all… I’m in some ways very much trying to settle down and plant roots. But the reality in what I do for a living is I need to spend a lot of time on the road.
— Ernest

At some point, or many points, along the music career spectrum musicians evaluate their station in life in terms of family, money and career growth. What really struck me through all interviews was the modesty of career goals, seemingly self-limited right out of the gate, and with an open door to alternative careers in the not-so-distant future. When I asked them to evaluate their success to date and to speak of their career goals, I began to understand why so very few musicians in this city work professionally in music in middle to later life. Note especially the contrast in responses between Joshua and Ernest.

My goal is very moderate with this. I love small venues and I think there are markets in the States, U.K. and Canada and Europe or Australia where I can visit regularly and play the small shows that I like to play and make plenty of money. I don’t have this world domination idea at all. I’m totally looking at sustenance (laugh). (…) I want to be able to just do a few good tours like that and I want to be able to have it be lucrative enough. So I want it to be able to pay for me so I can live comfortably and just make a living at it. That involves plateauing, quite happily.
— Joshua
The minute you create a plateau for yourself is the minute you stop achieving.
— Ernest
It’s such a “what if,” playing music. But if the possibility was there and I was able to support a family to go through life … It doesn’t even have to be extravagant… Just being able to afford a family, and have enough money to do that from music.
— Cecil
I’m always trying to reinvent myself. I almost tear myself down to nothing and start from scratch every few months it seems. And I feel like if I didn’t do that, I probably wouldn’t be as financially successful a musician… I don’t know. And I think that’s the one thing that’s interesting about this career – it’s the fact that we have to do that. We have to be our own worst critics. We have to reinvent ourselves every so often, or things get stale not only for us but for our audience and our fans.
— Mitchell
I never had to pay for a piano lesson in my life. I was taught for free because somebody said that I had an ability. So that kind of value has always been instilled in me. Why should somebody have to pay for me to enjoy music?
— Percy
That’s up and down, you know? That’s the downside of being a musician because you’re always concerned. You’re always worried. You look at your calendar six months down the road and you start to think, “I don’t have any gigs. Am I losing it? Am I losing my touch?” So you’re always second-guessing yourself.
— Gene
Success to me is being able to accomplish the goals I set out for myself to accomplish. Success to me is being able to achieve those goals, and success doesn’t really have much to do with money for me. I’m not really motivated by money. If I was, I would never be in music (laugh). You just don’t go into music for the money.
— Alexis

The “reinventing”, “up and down”, “tearing down”, “second-guessing”, as well as fairly vague descriptions of success among my study’s highly educated, highly specialized participants reveals their conflict between finding ways to gain and hold an economically viable place on an oversupplied market of self-employed like-minded artists, while striving for the intrinsic rewards of creativity, self-discovery and self-actualization. Participants of this study routinely take stock of their own careers and, therefore, appear to be in a perpetual state of intrinsic enjoyment and love for the work on the one hand and troubling economic uncertainty on the other. I asked if they have thoughts of quitting music. Two-thirds say they think frequently about quitting and pursuing other careers. Here’s what some of the most longtime, best-known musicians in my survey told me.

I was thinking to myself, “Wow, if I had done an education degree, I could probably substitute teach right now.” But because I don’t have that done, I have kind of put all my eggs in the musician basket right now. Because there’s not a lot of funding in those support systems for musicians to get through something like this, I’m realizing how vulnerable we actually are to all this. And I feel like if I had that background or something else that I could fall back on as a safety net, then I wouldn’t be as vulnerable right now. And that’s why I think it’s interesting that you’re choosing to sit down and chat with me about being a musician at this stage of my life. Because although I’ve doubted it many, many times, this is the biggest doubt I’ve ever had.
— Mitchell
I’d say I’m pretty well right in the middle. It’s the sort of thing where I’m kind of entrenched in it now. But I don’t really want to completely commit because I’m not sure if it’s definitely what I want to do, you know, try and make a go of it full time. Because when you grow up around it from a very young age, you certainly see the price. And depending on what parts of industry you’re in, there’s a lot of different costs, and not just in terms of your time and your availability. When you’re dealing with people, you have a very wide social network, but it’s a pretty hollow social network a lot of the time. In a lot of cases, everyone’s congratulatory, patting each other on the back in one breath, and then cursing on so-and-so. They’re usually fairly emotional human beings because it’s required for the art. So if you’re in that situation where you having to be faux-real, faux-emotional so often, that’s gotta be very taxing on a lot of people.
— Sam
It’s tough financially for the time put into it. It takes an immense amount of time to maintain your craft. And then the other sides of music, the business that has nothing to do with playing at all – the emailing, everything, like any job, all the stuff that’s not related to getting to perform music. Every night there’s something I committed myself to do, on top of whatever work I had to do during the day and practice I had to do during the day. And it doesn’t really get reflected in the pay for the vast majority of the time in my experience, and I’m pretty sure for most people’s experiences. So that happens a lot. A lot of times when the work is slow, that’s just as stressful. It doesn’t feel like you’re any less busy. There’s just no work. Usually in the mid winter is when I feel the “what should I be doing? Should I be doing this?” Then when spring comes around I think “Maybe I should go back to school and do my masters in this!” (laugh).
— Keith
I don’t think I’ll ever quit. But the only thing that’s ever made me want to quit is that façade of celebrity. And that’s what drives a lot of youth when it comes to the music and things like that. Even when I was getting exposure or doing what I said I wanted to do. I did it. I put on a list “Form a band. Play in a bar.” I did it. “Form a band. Record some tunes.” I did it. It was like I was still waiting for the next step, the next step, the next step. And I’m even like it now with the album I’m recording. “Get it done!” rather than enjoying the process of actually recording it. So sometimes I think that if I quit, maybe I’d enjoy it more, because it became a job at such a young age. Now it’s like a chore.
— Albert
I don’t encourage anybody to pursue music as a career. In fact I discourage it. There’s no work. I mean, when it comes down to it, what the hell are you gonna do? And people in Newfoundland, like at MUN, doing their degrees… I ask everybody I meet, “What are you doing with this degree?” Because, fine, if you’re a good player at MUN, that’s great. I was the best player at MUN over the course of four or five years. And when I went out into the real world, I’m the crappy one. I can barely hold my own. If someone says to me “I really want to do music”, we need to have a serious chat about this, ‘cause let me tell you about how I’m 30 and barely make enough money to keep myself in food, water, roof over my head kind of thing. It’s scary Do it for fun. Please don’t quit playing. You play in this community band or that group. Please do not pursue this, or seriously consider what your life is gonna look like as a musician, because it’s frightening. And my parents are all the time, “What are you doing? How are you gonna make money? You eventually have to move out and live as a human being. We can’t support you forever.” And I…. I dunno. I have a lot of musician friends, professionals, performers, that are 30 or 32 or whatever, and their parents are still supplementing the bills. And I’m the kind of person that wants to put down roots, have a job, be able to do real adult things. I don’t know how long I’m gonna be able to pursue this unsteady, hurry-up-and-wait, take-a-chance kind of career. It’s really difficult. Especially living here, ‘cause I’m already maxing out on the opportunities.
— Olivia

One-third of participants claim to never have had thoughts of quitting. Several have enjoyed fruitful and lengthy performance careers, and some others have acquired full time teaching posts in university, the public school system, operate a sizeable private teaching studio, and have created their own music performance enterprises including directing choirs, musical theatre, and so on. These tended to be the outliers with by far the highest income of all participants.

 


New Directions

Still threading the family/relationship narrative, I want now to dedicate this space to some of the nine musicians of this research who no longer actively participate in music performance, or in any aspect of music, for the purpose of generating income. Either they are in the process of transitioning to other careers or have already done so, and continue to perform but without need or expectation for remuneration from music.

At the time of our interview, Bruce had exited the music profession and took on a fulltime non-music job. He describes life after he quit the music profession and articulates clearly what it was he missed about music. He has returned to performing on the side. He confessed to feeling too materialistic about music when it was his career, chasing recognition in the form of awards, CD sales, and the like. In his post-music work, he has come to admire musicians who, professionally or not, prioritize the fun of playing music over earning income from it.

I was just spending my days getting high and playing guitar and writing songs. I didn’t have a band to play in, so it was just very lonely. I was really lonely. And I missed all my friends. I missed playing music. I’m separated from a lot the people around here who play music. I wish I was more like them in the way that a lot of my friends who are musicians and people I play with. They don’t look at success as having awards. They don’t look at it as making a lot of money from it. They just do it because, like myself, it’s what they know how to do. Or it’s all they know how to do. And they love to do it. I came from family who have money. So to be at this point in my life and still not have money, um…I always wanted to work in music and make a living by playing music, but I don’t really find that possible right now.
— Bruce

Simon experienced this early in his career, when his regular performances were attended mostly by friends. He quickly recognized that as much as this kind of support was welcome and comfortable for him, it would not be sufficient to financially support his work. He also came to realize that at some point he would have to distinguish himself from – and compete against – some of those friends to establish economic sustainability from music. For Simon, risking friendships for his career clouded his initial passion for the art.
 

In that little bar, there was a group of about fifty or sixty people, who would show up every Monday, and it was a group of friends. And I think that certainly had an expiration date on it. But it was a unique thing in that it was just a bunch of friends who knew each other’s songs, showin’ up every Monday night singin’ each other’s songs. And that was nice, but that’s not something you can do for a career I think. And that overexposure once you are a known entity can really kill ya. Y’know?
— Simon

It is interesting that none of the former career musicians in this study speak of friendships with colleagues in their new careers, but only of retaining and strengthening their musician friendships. Darrell is in the process of transitioning into a non-music careerand seems to have made a concerted effort to distinguish between professional relationships in his newfound work and friendships formed from his past music career.

I’ve made a decision that my colleagues now don’t have to be my best friends like they were in music. That’s more for professional considerations, but it’s also because my friends are musicians, and that’s still who I’m hanging out with are my friends from that world. I’ve crossed the line where the majority of my time is not spent on music. I’ve started my new work and that would be my main focus. Music is more or less trying to keep in touch with myself and my friends and that part of me, so I don’t go crazy. If you want to develop relationships and have a personal life and a love life, you need to have nights free to be able to take someone out on a date which, as a working musician, you don’t have, and you need to be able to feel like you have the money to be able to do that. That’s a whole other layer I sacrificed for a lot of years being in music. That was part of the decision to switch the focus. I’m very aware that unless I’d stuck in the school system as a working school teacher with that kind of benefit package and stability, it would have been very hard to have children. And having children is something that’s very important to me moving on. That’s a sacrifice that a lot of musicians make, or braver people than me have children when they’re working as musicians. You take a lot of risk.
— Darrell

After working several years in portfolio employment in mostly music-related work, Darrell is on a path to a career that will eliminate his multiple self-employment jobs and enable a return to music and towards his goal of achieving financial security for his future family. Russell has not yet completed the transition but has made the decision to move in a career direction that will provide him with temporal and financial stability that he has not been able to realize from music alone.

I want a 9-to-5 now. I want to know how much I’ll be making a month, and whether I get paid, and when I get paid. I guess I was tired of working my ass off and not seeing a proportional amount of compensation for that. So I think stability is what I’m after, and with that I’ll make music work for me. And the option is there now for a family, which is great.
— Russell

Jeffrey’s long career as a musician not only soured some of his peer relationships butalso his taste for music. Now several years removed from his music career and economically successful in his new work, he has re-engaged with music, apparently liking it again because of his reconnection with friends.

I’m starting to like music. I met with some friends with the idea of joining the band just to see what it feels like to be on stage again playing music with my friends. It’s kind of like going back, where now money is not an objective anymore. So it’s back to playing music because you want to play music. I’m starting to like music, starting to listen to it again. I don’t work weekends anymore, I don’t work nights anymore. I’ve had kids and I love weekends. And you realize this is “hump day.” (laugh). I get a kick out of hearing myself say “hump day.” I could work 7 days a week if I wanted to, but why would I? I want to see my kids, obviously, because you only get one chance when they’re growing up. It all ties in. The career and family and lifestyle. It’s a package deal, definitely. I know musicians who have young kids and they play George Street ‘til 3:00 in the morning, and I go “Man, I would not want to be at that.” I know how hard it is now. 11:00 at night used to be early for me, and now it’s late.
— Jeffrey

So how do the ex-professional musicians feel about music now that they are experience relatively safeguarded and predictable employment and income? There is a healthy blend of references to self-confidence, freedom to plan more assuredly, and commentaries on the music industry.

What’s really nice right now is I play the gigs I more or less want to play. And I play the gigs that are either fun music or with fun people. It does feel less like work now. I feel very fortunate that I can play what I want to play now. I kind of have a little trifecta of gig making decision. Is it good music? Is it good people? Is it good money? And it needs two of the three. In music, you’re kind of defending that you’re a professional. When you say you’re a professional, it’s not assumed from a lay person that you’re talking to. Even now when I meet people and they want to know what you’ve done before and say I was a professional musician and that’s how I made my living... And they kind of look at you and are like “Wow, he’s arrogant to say ‘professional musician’ in the same sentence.” But it’s how I would identify myself and the work that I’ve done. And there is something for standing up for it. It’s one type of work that people can relate to, but when you’re working as a musician, it’s hard for a lot of other people to understand that your work is never done, and that if you take a break it’s almost at personal cost.
— Darrell
Best taking off of handcuffs ever. If I get a call from someone who says the money is not great, I’m “No thank you. Not interested.” I don’t really want to pursue that career anymore, so it doesn’t matter so much to me. I have no problem turning stuff away. If you get paid for providing a musical service, no matter how much, you are a professional musician, even if that’s once a year. I asked (name redacted) about money. He said Newfoundland is the only place where money is a taboo subject for musicians. No one wants to bring it up, and when you do bring it up people get really awkward. I’ve always experienced that too. It’s so weird… so strange.
— Russell
It’s one of the joys of not being in music. I’ll never have some arsehole in Saskatchewan say that they don’t like my music ever again. Or someone in downtown St. John’s. I’ll never apply for funding again. I’ll never be in a situation where someone will say “no” to me about music ever again. I won’t apply for anything. It hurts more, the older you get. Applying for an award and not getting it, not getting nominated and that kind of
stuff. I know it’s all bullshit, but still… you know… it’s not fair.
— Jeffrey
Well, I really loved music, and I didn’t want to start hating it or start disliking it. And knowing I wasn’t going to perform, I just decided to go a different route. When I wanted to just do performance, there was something I just wasn’t comfortable with. I’m not good at late nights and there’s certain things that just didn’t line up well for me.
— Hannah

Staying exclusively in music performance for a lifetime can risk eliminating other career opportunities because of age and inexperience. Let’s recall that more than 20 participants have university degrees in disciplines other than music, as if they armed themselves early on with alternate skills and knowledge in the event that the music career would come to an end. Here is the experience of one musician who did not follow that route, who does not hold a degree and has quit music.

I always kind of looked at being a musician as a curse because I always thought I could have been an engineer. I look at all my friends who are my age. They’re engineers or whatever. They have their lives together. They have a house to live in. They’re probably married. Even if they’re not married, they still have a place to live. They have money all the time. They have a car. You know? They got their shit sorted out, you know? So I always looked at music as being this curse where it’s like “This is all I know how to do. This is what I’m stuck with.” Had I gone to school, I could have been an engineer, I could have had… I do have friends who are engineers who are also musicians. They just used their money as engineers to afford to be able to do that kind of thing. And I say that to people and then they look at me and they’re like, “But did you have fun (in music)?” And I’d be like, “Well, yeah, I had a great time, but I’m no further ahead than I was eight years ago.” Everyone’s always like, “Oh, I’d give anything to have your talent.” I’m like “No you wouldn’t, man, ‘cause it sucks sometimes... a lot of the times.”
— Jon

It is also true that music itself provides skills that are transferable to other careers. Some of those skills include working independently, managing stress, developing effective professional relationships, and working within limited financial means. Having successfully found new use for those skills, Jeffrey was able to eliminate aspects of his music career that had troubled him for many years, including rejection by audiences, fellow musicians and funding agencies.

If you can survive as a musician, any other career is easy… easy!... by comparison. You got all these skills you didn’t even know you had. When you’re first starting out, that’s when you need the most money. You need money for gear, you need money for rehearsal space, vehicle. You need the money. That’s the time you need a job. And I suggested a parallel career is a great idea. Something that’s flexible. I got my weekends off now. I’m just really happy that I feel like I have a way healthier relationship with music now. It just feels good to like it. And stuff I hear with the industry… I’m just not interested really.
— Jeffrey

I have one more blog to go that is directly related to my thesis. It will appear next week and will wrap up all I’ve revealed here into a relatively concise package. I will add a personal anecdote that happened as I was conducting my research, an experience I won’t ever forget that fueled not only my research but my own commitment to music.

Thank you for reading. 

In Their Words ~ Part 4: "There is no day off."

This blog is a thread 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 back up to this latest instalment, and to return for regular additional excerpts in the weeks to come.


I asked all musicians to estimate their annual earnings from performance. Most said they did not know and offered wide-ranging guesses. Income can vary from gig to gig, and payment type can be by cheque, cash, e-transfer, or favours in kind. So it is understandable that tracking income from performance can be tricky, not to mention that performance often becomes sidelined to other kinds of employment.

We have seen that some participants entered the career with high calibre music skills, but with little knowledge of parlaying their lifelong education and training into employability. Many participants said they could not afford, or were unwilling for other reasons, to start their careers exclusively in performance without other income sources. Of course, they try to stay as close as possible to the music industry by teaching music privately, songwriting, composing/arranging, sound engineering, working in music retail, or music management. Many participants also perform in more than one style and in multiple ensembles to maximize performance opportunities. Here is a snapshot of the income and employment conditions of the musicians of my research. These figures are comparable to data from Statistics Canada and other research on music careers in Australia, Norway and the U.K.

  • Nearly half (48%) of active musicians interviewed said they earn less than $20,000 per year from performance.
  • One-third earn less than $10,000 per year from performance.
  • Most in these lower income ranges boost their total income with employment in non-performance music work and non-music work.
  • For sixteen musicians interviewed, combined annual income from music performance and other work is less than $30,000.
  • The three most common job types across all participants include: performance plus music teaching (most music teachers interviewed teach music privately); performance combined with music teaching and additional jobs; and performance only.
  • Teaching is seen as an attractive alternative because it keeps musicians engaged in the music profession and provides regular employment, strict scheduling and more predictable income.
  • Nine musicians work entirely in performance. Eight of them have been working professionally as musicians for more than ten years. Five perform in more than one group or ensemble. Only one has performed their entire life, never having worked in another occupation within or outside of music. Income for performance-only participants ranged from $20,000 to $65,000 annually.
  • The highest performance-only income-earners have been in their music careers for more than 20 years.
  • Twenty-one participants do not teach but hold down one job in other fields including retail, finance, civil service, marketing, communications, other entertainment (for example, hosting events and acting), and other music (for example, instrument repairs, technical work or production), and retirement income (pension).
  • Nine of those 21 have left the music profession. They still perform, but only casually, generate little or no income from performance, and no longer actively self-promote as professional musicians.

Some musicians say they are glad to work part- or full-time in other work because it allows them to schedule, regulate, and afford their performance work. Some others are working in non-music jobs to make ends meet, hoping to eventually focus entirely on performance careers. Some say they have become so settled into a regular work and pay schedule in their non-music employment that they have grown wary of quitting those jobs to go into music full-time. And others are taking on alternate employment as a means of transitioning out of music altogether towards a new, more income-secure career. St. John’s is rich with musicians trying to carve out their own niches, but there is only so much patronage and money to go around. Whether their undertaking other employment is by choice or not, there is no question among these musicians that working in more stable employment reduces the sense of urgency and pressure of earning a living from performance. Here are some examples from along the wide spectrum of experiences of St. John’s musicians.

I work in a bar usually one day a week. Cut back a bit now, but it’s usually one day a week. Every Saturday. So normal outside-music work week for me is Monday, Tuesday and Thursday I teach usually for about three or four hours at a time. Mostly kids. And then on Wednesdays and Sundays I work in retail. That’s usually seven hours I guess, which is great because I’d just like bring my guitar and hang out because there’s not many people around. Scribble some stuff down on napkins, so I don’t forget it.
— Eamonn
I consider myself an educator, and maybe some day I’ll do my education degree only to be a substitute teacher. I wouldn’t want to be in a school every day. I’ve never had a full time job for more than a month at a time or more than a couple of months at a time. So I think that’s success! (laugh). I really consider myself lucky to be able to have the life where I can think about making music that has a creative integrity for me. I don’t want to have to worry about taking a cover gig, playing in a cover band downtown. Now, occasionally that can be fun. It’s nothing against it. But for me to do that for a living… I played at a regular bi-weekly thing, and I hated it!
— Harry
One leg of a tour might suck, or two of the three nights in a place might be brutal and you’ll feel like you’re being robbed. That’s the nature of going full time. But I’ve waited until I could minimize the number of those gigs as much as possible. The only way I can do that is by keeping a job where the music has been supplementary to a certain degree. Now it (music) pays me more than my day job, which is the ideal goal. But it took a lot of years to get there.
— Joshua
(Non-music day job) is twenty hours a week, and music is the rest (laugh). It’s when I’m not asleep. It’s constant. To the point where I actually just got carpal tunnel and I’ve had to slow down, ‘cause I’ve been playin’ like three gigs a week. I will always devote as much time as humanly possible to this. My dream obviously is to quit my day job, go straight to full time music. I haven’t done that yet. I haven’t thrown all my eggs in one basket yet, for the fear of “Oh my gosh! How am I gonna do this?”
— Alexis
Eventually we all got our jobs, and music kind of went to the back burner. But looking back on it now, it is so deadly, just hanging out with your friends and making music, right? When it comes to us, it’s such a passion that I just love doing. It’s not even a chore.
— Victor
Everybody has other lives. Jobs Monday to Friday. While I’m usually the one saying “no I can’t do it”, it’s comforting to know that within the group we’re kind of all on the same page. And whenever we go, it’s just full-on enjoyment. We have fun, we laugh, we’re good friends. It’s like a holiday. Weekends and evenings, they’re untouchable. And holidays. So that has made the music possible.
— Sophie
It is extremely rare for a musician to make their entire living based on one aspect of that career. Only songwriting or only production, for example, are reserved for folks in the upper echelons. The rest of us have to always be multi-tasking and able to balance several income streams at the same time, nearly all of the time. There is no such thing as a day off.
— Winston

It is important to contextualize musicians’ employment in terms of their home base of St. John’s and how relationships among musicians are cultivated and managed here. The musicians interviewed for this study were very frank about these experiences, which lends a more complete view of the employment/career picture in this city.

80% of musicians I spoke with said that they have experienced competition in St. John’s, but many added that they feel St. John’s has a more supportive music industry than larger cities. Two-thirds said that they have lived in larger cities or plan on doing so, citing relative collegiality and costs of living as reasons for returning or causing hesitation to leave. Several stated that they would rather be a “big fish in a small pond than a small fish in a big pond.”

There’s a delusion that people have here. They’re playing The Ship or something and they start to get a name for themselves in St. John’s. And the bars they play at around here start to fill up. So then they think, “Oh, now we gotta move to Toronto because we’re huge here. We’re obviously gonna be huge in Toronto.” And so many bands think that and they move away. And they’re just a speck. They’re even smaller up there. The band thinks, “Oh man, we’re so different.” And then they get to Toronto and it’s like, “Oh. We’re just like everybody else.”
— Bruce

But in the context of other questions throughout our interviews about building relationships, professionalism, career objectives and success, the theme of competition re-emerged as a strong undercurrent of the local music industry. Several of the musicians I interviewed spoke unkindly about other musicians, some of whom also happen to be participants of this research. 

The existence of competition and disagreeable relationships among fellow musicians provided for a very frank discussion about a challenging scenario made more challenging in St. John’s. This city relative to others is small, and its music scene is concentrated around a few neighbourhoods within short walking distance. Musicians inevitably come across one another in various venues and events, and are obliged to engage in some kind of social exchange. Musicians who do not get along go to great lengths to publicly disguise evidence of not getting long, or else risk losing precious support from others in the music industry as well as patrons.

Competition in St. John’s manifests in numerous ways and can be subtle or overt. Examples include applying for funding, holding similar events on the same evening, ensembles of similar styles vying for membership, seeking patronage from the same fan base, perceptions of industry bias, and professional musicians losing gigs to musicians who are willing and able to work for free. This is an occupation that needs to convey a public perception of a cohesive, all-in-it-together community. But this ideal can conflict with the goal of trying to earn a living. Limited population, number of affordable venues, and a long continuum of career and income objectives can render gigs… and careers… cost-ineffective and unviable. 

You can’t tell somebody who wants to go down and play a set at Erin’s Pub on the weekend for free that they can’t do it. But at the same time, that person is competing with someone who it’s their bread & butter gig.
— Joel
I don’t think the fact that there is so much music in Newfoundland is necessarily a plus for professional musicians because the five-dollar cover is discouraged, and the fact that it can get really, really hard to differentiate between professional and amateur. And the fact that your buddy’s willing to play down the street for five bucks, three sets of covers, is not the same thing as the hours I put in and the money I’ve invested and the creativity I’ve put in.
— Simon
I wish that musicians would stop playing for free, ‘cause it’s really bad for all of us. Whenever we go to get a gig, people just expect us to do community work or do it for the exposure. And I think that’s insane.
— Alexis
If you got a ten-person band and a sound man, the money goes away pretty quickly. Even if you were making a $150 for a service, it’s not gonna be consistent because you’re not always gonna get a hundred people there. And you can only work every couple of weeks doing something like that making that kind of money, given the population base here. The audience doesn’t seem really diverse I find. We’re not a small town. We’re a small city, but there’s a lot of people around. A lot of people with money. But I don’t know that they’re engaged in the musical community and what’s presented. I don’t know where it is or how to build audiences. There’s a lot of competition for people’s entertainment time and money. There’s not anyone malicious trying to run you over for the gig. It’s that there’s too many of us with too many slots, and we’re all sitting there in our pajamas filling out forms hoping that we’re going to get that showcase or festival stage, and clicking the submit button and twenty-five-dollared to death with submission fees. When 46 people apply for five slots, chances are the actual lack of quality will be weeded out at the top, then there’s going to be 25 quality acts for five slots.
— Paul
Well it’s already a problem now. It’s a big problem now. In fact there’s more stuff being generated than the public can support. It’s a point of diminishing return now on it. I’m surprised that the ones that want to stay and graduate at MUN are able to find work to keep them going. Quality brings the audience. Quality brings the sponsor. But you have to have the money to get the quality to do this here.
— Scott

One of the biggest challenges on the local scene is to manage competition or conflictwith grace and respect in order to retain work prospects and preserve a reputation of cooperation. Jealousy and envy can and do happen, but musicians appear to be quite sensitive to their destructive potential. When working closely together, they go to great lengths to ensure that competitive feelings do not interfere with work and that disagreements are quickly resolved.

This place is so small. You’re surrounded. I think it has its advantages and people do find it easy to work with me because I will voice my opinion, say the things I want to say. And there are some instances where I know for a fact that there are musicians in this city who won’t work with me based on that.
— Bruce
For the same reason that you have to get along with all your ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends, exactly the same principle applies. St. John’s is still not a very big place and was even smaller a few years ago. And we’re not even talking about St. John’s at large. We’re talking about three or four streets in downtown St. John’s when you’re talking about rock or Celtic music. So you’re talking about a very, very small population. So you do have to be careful.
— Gary
There are several musicians, and particularly the ones who are in the same musical world as me, who I think are not going about it the right way. And that’s often the point of contention there, that you have two different ways of looking at your own genre. I’ve butted heads to a certain degree, but I realize there are just people I should stay away from.
— Joshua
It’s small enough that you know who’s an arsehole and who’s not. And you know how to talk to them or how to avoid them. And it’s small enough that you can have a falling out with somebody, but it can’t go on for very long because you’re going to be seeing them in a week or two. So you either agree not to talk to each other, or you get over it very fast.
— Shane
There’s always going to be some level of discrimination towards people who, heaven forbid, make it. Even from some people, resentment for people who succeed, who actually do better than the status quo. “You’re too good for the rest of us, now. You’re too big for yourself.” You know what, here’s the thing. That is often not the fault of the person who is succeeding. Often unfortunately that’s attributed to envy, pride, egos who wish that they were doing that – who wish that they were having the success that you’re having.
— Ernest
The musical scene in St. John’s is very complicated. It’s a complex series of relationships and expectations. And the ones who are happiest here seem to be the ones who manage those expectations. I can think of a few who are constantly griping about certain aspects of the scene and then trying to make changes but in a belligerent kind of way. We have this stubbornness, and those are the people are the less happy. So I don’t think you have to be complacent to enjoy yourself in the St. John’s music scene. You have to strive for change, but you have to accept that it’s really complicated. It’s like a family. And you can’t suddenly decide to just start kicking things around and getting things the way you want, because it’s just going to backfire.
— Todd

I previously noted evidence of social cliques that some emerging musicians found difficult and to join. Established musicians are often members of those cliques, having managed to achieve a kind of unofficial membership in an exclusive club that precludes others from gaining lucrative performance opportunities. Musical theatre companies have “their” orchestra directors, choirs have “their” pianists and singers, and festival organizers hire the “biggest” names, all to draw the biggest potential audience, revenue and career longevity. Stan has found his way into a protected professional network, while Joan has decided to leave St. John’s to pursue her music career elsewhere. She feels she has no chance of being considered for gigs in her instrument because someone else who plays the same style and instrument is more familiar and favoured.

I’m friends with quite a few musicians, and it’s not so much competition as it is certain people always get these gigs because it’s their gig. But for some reason if they can’t do it, everybody has their list. “I can’t do it, but here are three names I know who might be able to.” So there’s competition in the sense that you want to make sure you’re on everybody’s list and stay on their list and stay friendly with everybody.
— Stan
The sad part is there are too many (instrument) players in this town unfortunately, who have made the contacts, who are first on the list of people to call. So when I first came here, I was looking for musical theatre to be a part of. As an undergrad, I did lots of playing in pit bands. I loved it so much. In an ideal world if I could get any career I wanted, I would be a pit band musician on Broadway. Absolutely love it. So I came here, and the occasional show that comes through, it’s “Maxine” who’s always first on the list. She has dibs. There’s enough competition here that it’s not something that I can chase after.
— Joan

When I finished my Ph.D., a friend asked me, tongue-in-cheek, “So what did you conclude, other than that musicians are all alcoholics?” I felt personally and professionally offended, and politely corrected my friend on the basis of my own experience and the experiences of my research participants. Professional musicians have strong feelings about the ways in which employment and leisure activity overlap and how they are publicly perceived. Musicians work for the pleasure of their audience. And audiences love to interact with musicians before, during and after performances. All of my participants said they enjoy and appreciate being in an occupation that invites socializing with patrons and fellow musicians. They also recognize that mingling is often as much a part of the career as the music itself. Socializing is an extension of stage work, usually exhausting, and for some outside of their comfort zone. Many musicians have other jobs the next morning, or family commitments. Most participants said that they do not want to socialize after a long day and evening of work but feel it is necessary in order to develop, maintain or improve working relationships with fellow musicians, and remain relevant and visible in a fragile and ambiguous occupation where they can be quickly forgotten otherwise.

I’m really not a night person. I also don’t drink a lot. I don’t hold my alcohol well, so there’s probably an element of the social life that I’m just not involved in. I’ve actually forced myself to go to the Duke after concerts, even when I was tired and wanted to go to bed. I just felt like I need to be there when casual conversations are happening. I know that I don’t come naturally to networking and things like that.
— Rebecca
I still find it’s a struggle for me to include the social aspect into my life with my music, you know. But I’m realizing more and more, the older I get, that that’s more important than practising.
— Mitchell
Do you have to drink? No. But you do have to go out. If you’re not out and you’re not seen around, the people don’t know you’re in town. And if people don’t see you, you’re not getting booked for gigs, right? I would say half if not more of the gigs that you book are through seeing people when you go out. They’re like “I got a gig coming up in three weeks. Are you free that night?” And that’s how it’ll happen. You’ll work up work by going out.
— Shane
I think that was actually a huge attraction for me back in the day. The fact that I could do that work and have that kind of fun and party, and it was all considered part of the same thing. I still do the partying. So it is my social life. I can’t extricate it from the work.
— Betty
People are doing it for the love of it. They’re coming because they want to do that for
themselves and it’s their out. And a part of that out, especially with singing… but I’m sure that an instrumentalist would say the same thing…. is the interaction with the other individual. So if you’re not keen on socialization, then you had better take up something else and stay home.
— Rodney

The simple economic supply-and-demand formula applies to the work of musicians. The abundance of music in Newfoundland and Labrador is wonderful for audiences but can belie struggle for those trying to earn a living from their music. Geography, population size, limited funding, venue availability and a preference for familiarity collectively foster varying degrees of both competition and collaboration among musicians. Being a musician demands careful handling of delicate intraprofessional relationships to preserve the industry’s “community” reputation while working to advance their own career success and longevity.

I have two thesis-related blogs remaining. The next will highlight musicians’ personal lives and how their family and other personal relationships influence their work in music. The final blog soon to follow will bring attention to the nine participants who have exited professional music in favour of other careers and the ways in which they have adapted music to their new careers.

In Their Words ~ Part 3: "Paying to Play."

Many research participants described two big challenges confronting them at the start of their music careers: paying down costs and getting paying gigs. The two clearly go hand in hand. Startup costs include: student loans (for those who attended university/college music schools); purchasing, renting, and maintaining instruments and gear; and recording and touring. After all those childhood/adolescent years of lessons, instruments, Kiwanis competitions and school concerts, their parents are close at hand at the start of the new career, some demonstrating continuing unqualified support, others showing signs of reticence.

Most of my family are of the blue collar realm. There are a lot of labourers and a lot of workers. My Dad was a construction worker but he had his own company. Yeah, my parents have been supportive in a way, but they’ve really been pushing a kind of more stable job. My parents weren’t too pleased that I chose to do a performance degree and not an education degree, because they thought “What are you gonna do with a performance degree?” And they were right. What have I done with that? I mean, I really haven’t done anything with it (laugh).
— Mitchell
I remember my parents holding the same reservations that pretty much any parent would, rooted in just wanting the best for your kid and not wanting your kid to live a hard life. They heard all the things about how you can’t make a living. But they very quickly came around and were supporting me from the get-go, so that helped a lot in the early hard days.
— Paul
I think they were fearful that I wouldn’t be able to support myself, which is an absolutely correct fear. But I’m also resourceful enough that I was going to figure out a way to do it. But if I had a child and they told me they were going into music, I would tear my hair out and say “no you’re not!”
— Kim

The cost burden in the early career days was eased by one or more of parents, pay from other employment, scholarships, support from funding agencies, income from performances, and financing arrangements. New classical instruments are especially expensive. In the most extreme instance in this study, one classical musician acquired two instruments totaling nearly fifty-thousand dollars afforded through university scholarships and financial assistance from parents. Another was gifted an expensive instrument by his parents, then began earning income by teaching privately allowing him to afford additional instruments and gear. But as shown in previous blogs in this series, most musicians were not raised in wealthy homes, and expensive instruments were bought used, or were rented or leased.

My last blog revealed that a vast majority of my participants hold at least one university degree, 30 of them with music degrees. Many felt that higher education in music would increase employability in music. First gigs and university music studies often overlap, and tuition thus is component at the start of the career. Twenty-four (44%) participants credit their parents with helping pay university tuition and other initial career startup costs.

I’ve been pretty lucky. As an undergrad, my parents paid for everything and my job was to do well academically.
— Joan
My darling parents, yeah. And whatever work I do over the summer mostly helps. Every year I do a SWASP program, so I always have a tuition voucher. Normally I pay for my first semester and my Dad pays for my second semester. That’s from a savings plan they set up before I was born. (SWASP – Student Wage and Service Program – a Government of Newfoundland and Labrador program that subsidizes employers of university students and offers tuition vouchers to students)
— Charlene

But not all parents are able or willing to assist financially. The student debt burden on top of other startup costs causes some young musicians to shift their focus away from performance and toward alternate employment almost immediately.

When you’re a young musician coming out of school… I had two degrees in hand, and I had $56,000 in debt. I will never wish that on a young musician. It impacts every decision that they can make. So I can’t be a full time artist. I can’t. I can’t ever afford it. I have to pay back my loan.
— Steph

Several musicians spoke of feeling conflicted between their desire to demonstrate the full capacity of their creativity and producing music that most reliably will attract an audience. Residents of St. John’s are generally highly supportive of local musicians but there is a tendency for most support to go towards music that is familiar and fun. For patrons, music is leisure. For musicians, music is work. These well-educated and talented musicians have bills to pay, careers to launch and audiences to build. For some musicians in this research, delivering what audiences want to hear is sometimes at the expense of their own creative potential.

I just can’t do it. Someone of my experience and training, to pay me a few hundred bucks for a week’s worth of rehearsals and a weekend of shows, I just can’t do it. Sweatin’ my ass off, trying to get to rehearsals, bringing thousands of dollars of musical equipment, and years and thousands of dollars of practise and training to get paid like five bucks an hour. If I’m just going to make music, I’d rather have something creatively and artistically pushing my boundaries and making me think, and maybe making the audience think, and maybe make nothing… rather than, you know, playing some musical theatre for some money.
— Harry
In this city, you pretty much have to work for free. If you play a show, you never know what the crowd is gonna be like. You have to accept that fact that you’re probably gonna be playing for ten or fifteen people, you know? You’re not going to make anything. In fact you’re probably going to end up paying to play, because you’re probably gonna have to get a cab down, you’re probably gonna have a couple of drinks. The only one solid way to make money playing music in this city is if you want to play covers. Other people’s songs.
— Bruce

Many musicians, especially emerging artists, rely on agencies for career services and funding. In Newfoundland, MusicNL provides funding support for musician projects that include performing, recording and touring. A prerequisite to MusicNL project funding is paid membership to the organization. Another organization, The Canadian Federation of Musicians (CFM), has a St. John’s local office and offers contractual insurance, pension and royalty advice and other services to musicians. Its mandate is to assist member musicians with services that include legally-binding employment contracts, international travel visas, liability insurance, health insurance, and retirement pensions. Many musicians are encouraged to register for membership with one or both organizations. Membership fees are not substantial in the big scheme of things, but can represent a substantial cost for young musicians trying to get a foothold in the industry. We see in Simon’s experience the importance of continuing support of parents and family, as well as hints early in the career about its viability as a fulltime and long-term profession. There is plenty of evidence throughout my research of musicians struggling to manage the day-to-day administration of self-employment and freelancing from the beginning and well into their careers.

When you’re the guy standing in front with the mike in your face, everybody else gets their money before you do. The sound guy has to get paid. The venue has to get paid. The door guy has to get paid. You know? I usually had two or three guys on stage with me and everybody made fifteen or twenty per cent, whatever it was. The insurance on the band had to be paid every month. Every year the MusicNL fee and the CFM fee. But it was paying for itself because I was living with my parents. But then there got to a point where it wasn’t, and where I would be at home on EI (employment insurance) the winter, and EI was making the band payment and the insurance payment every month.
— Simon
It’s awful what musicians have to go through in terms of government. It should not be that difficult, but it is. I have to pay Workers’ Comp for myself. If I got injured, say, on the stage, it would cover. But I’m not sure if I’m covered driving to and from. I’m not sure if I’m covered in my house if I trip up. I don’t know, and you can’t get a straight answer. And so I don’t know what I’m paying for really. They don’t understand. And talk about gas. The tax person will tell you, “Okay, well you can only claim what you’re doing going to and from work, or this, that and the other thing.” But everything that you do... I mean, me driving down here today is work. If I drive anywhere, it’s work. If I go out to Gander, if I meet somebody and talk about work, surely that’s work. It’s work-related. It’s a really misunderstood idea that musicians are just, you know… when you’re up there (pointing to the stage) that’s it.
— Gene

Several participants said that the St. John’s music industry is characterized by social cliques that are often difficult to break through. Some explained that established musicians, while generally mutually supportive, are also careful to safeguard their carefully cultivated social networks and audience base. Mitchell is from outside of St. John’s and describes his experience of starting out here.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that St. John’s is very, very cliquey, and I found that my biggest challenge here. So I quickly realized that if I didn’t put more emphasis on socializing, then my career would actually suffer. But I still found it really hard to break into these circles. So then my approach was to write music. And I came to realize that if I write music and I have a product that I need people to play, that people would come to play it.
— Jimmy
St. John’s is weird. Musicians in St. John’s love to throw around the word “scene.” They love talking about how we have such a good “scene.” “We’re all best friends and everybody plays with everybody else.” It’s a big crock of shit. It really is. While they think they live in this great scene, musicians are the reason it’s not a great scene because they’re being very insular and very incestuous with who they play with. I happen to see lots of them.
— Winston

I want to remind that these blogs are not exhaustive of my research, but do point to the most  common and prominent themes throughout my findings that began to emerge early in the interviews. Discussion points that at first glance may seem to address separate issues will be seen to come into much sharper focus, as intersections across a web of experiences that collectively cause a musicians to continue, alter or exit from the music career. My next blog will summarize employment and income statistics among my participants and compare these to the latest available national figures for musicians and to the findings of other research.

In Their Words ~ Part 2: "It's not the livelihood first and then the music. It's the other way around."

A principle theme of this week's blog is the experience of many research participants in higher (university, college, or conservatory) education in music, an unexpected but informative discussion that emerged from a question early in the interviews asking musicians to describe the beginnings of their music careers. The conversations also delved into other issues in the early career stage, but it was difficult to not relate those conditions to the choice that most participants made at the start of their careers - to pursue higher education. Nearly all (52 out of 54) of the musicians I interviewed for this study have at least some college or university education, with 46 having completed at least one degree – 30 of those in university or college music programs, most at the MUN School of Music. Many participants said they acquired a university music degree as a step towards teaching in a school or university as their primary career in order to afford to continue performing, as well as a means of justifying a higher rate of pay as self-employed performing and teaching musicians.

I really wanted to go to another level of teaching. So I do feel like it’s a different rate. It should be. I really wanted to go teach at MUN.
— Karen
One thing I always knew… You are nothing unless you have an education. Even through hard times, I kept at school. I knew I had to get an undergrad. Have to, or it’s not gonna happen.
— Beverley

Other participants said that their university music education empowers them with validity, professionalism and stability in their work. Stability in particular is in the form of relatively secure classroom teaching employment that would enable greater affordability and freedom of choice in performing and touring. 

I can still keep performing, but at least I won’t have to be living out of a suitcase. For me that was just too terrifying. I get an amazing salary, so I have no problem delivering free lessons or performing for free.
— Katherine
Going here and there, I knew I didn’t want that. I knew I didn’t want that career of being away, alone, doing that kind of solitary lifestyle. I know you get a big payoff on the stage. But that kind of life of being away from home, being away from family, I knew I didn’t want that. So at the point I said I knew I didn’t want that, I just turned the page and did something else musically.
— Frances
Hopefully a DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts). It would be ideal if I was able to play in an orchestra even part time. But I’m aware that orchestra doesn’t pay the bills. So once I’ve got my tenure I’ve made it.
— Joan

My previous blog summarized some of the recollections my participants had of their music educators from childhood, and nearly all were fond, richly descriptive memories. When recalling their time as young adults in a university or college music program, however, only 11 mentioned their professors and instructors at all, and only four favourably. Several commented on differences between their learning experiences and career goals. This is especially so with participants who attended a classical music degree program while planning for a non-classical performance career.

I did feel an overriding sense of disapproval from many other professors in the music faculty, but the voice teachers were just worried about my best interests. I could be a better classical musician, but I wouldn’t be nearly the well-rounded musician that I am. I don’t regret taking time from one to improve the other. I didn’t have the time to study or practise as hard as some of my colleagues, but I think I’m a lot happier with my four years, and I made the degree and time work for what I wanted. I think any resentment came from the fact that I was happy and busy and thriving where they may have felt stuck. Again, I worked hard in my own way, but many just saw it as slacking off. From some views, it was self-indulgent. For me, it is a job, a networking opportunity, and experience. It’s a joke for others.
— Charlene
When they (professors) didn’t want me to go downtown, they had a good reason. ‘I don’t want you to go downtown, get drunk, scream through a microphone and lose your voice.’ Which I wouldn’t do anyway. I can see if you’re not involved in that world having reservations and being scared of it. But at the same time, you need to have the conversation. ‘Where do you see yourself in 3 months, 6 months, or a year, or two years? Why are you here? What is it you want to get out of this?’ I honestly think you would get people there for the right reasons… and maybe a lot of people would leave after having the chat.
— Eamon
I saw something greater than just being a classical singer. I wasn’t content to be a one-trick pony. I wasn’t content to just pursue a career as a classical singer. I loved too many styles of music. I loved too many outlets in music, in terms of singing and instruments. I loved music too much to be in a box. To be a classical singer, that’s a box.
— Ernest

Several participants were blunt in their assessment of university music schools, specifically their experience with the MUN School of Music, describing what they perceived as incompleteness of information, or even misinformation, with respect to transferring artistic ability into employment sustainability. 

I saw this with so many of my peers going through music school. A lot of them have no grasp on what kind of work is out there, or they have a misinformed grasp of what kind of work is out there. You can be playing every single weekend if you wanted to. You can be making thirty or forty grand a year. But people don’t realize the opportunities that are in this city for music. It results because there are three or four institutions and they don’t talk to each other, and everyone has a different idea of what kind of work there is.
— Russell
I think we have this false idea that everything we do is fantastic. No it’s not. Everything is a competition. So the sooner kids learn that, I think the better it is for them. And that’s the problem you have in university music schools today. ‘Oh, we’re all great.’ No you’re not. Everyone is told they’re special. And the truth is everyone is expendable. Everyone. And they don’t get that. And that’s a problem for a lot of up-and coming musicians. When it doesn’t happen, they don’t believe it. It’s somebody else’s fault.
— Kim
I put hundreds or thousands of hours into practise. By the university guidelines, I’m not allowed to charge money for anyone to come (to a student recital). Back then, I wasn’t like ‘I want to charge a fee.’ But now that I reflect on it… We’re not allowed to charge a fee? So is that already an idea that’s being engrained in our heads? Think about paid work terms. Others like engineering are getting paid. So for us, what would be unreasonable about donation by the door? Even as music students, we are expected to attend however many concerts. I do think that there are certain things from my education at a post-secondary level that encouraged me to be generous with my time, and in no other program would they teach that. Pharmacy program wouldn’t be ‘give your time away,’ whereas in music, that is encouraged. That was part of the course.
— Michelle

In the absence of sustainable performance income, the fallback for most participants who do not seek school or university teaching careers is private teaching, a type of self-employment for which a university degree is not required, which musicians who feel they have enough skill, experience and confidence can undertake regardless of age and education. Mitchell describes an unintended consequence of generating revenue from a more reliable source of employment in order to afford to continue to perform. His newfound income stream eventually displaced the work it was intended to support.

I was just trying to acquire the financial stability that I needed to pay rent and to do things that I didn’t have student loans for. I ended up teaching close to seventy students a week. I did that for two years, and I made more in those two years than I’ve probably made since (laugh). But what ended up happening was I looked at my life and realized that I hadn’t written much music in those two years. I was playing some shows but not a lot. And I quickly realized, ‘Hey! I’m not a musician right now. I’m a music teacher.’ And I didn’t want to do that.
— Mitchell
People have to make a living. I just think MUN is still locked into this traditional thing of ‘We’ll tell you what you want, and then you go do what you think you want to do.’ And I think that’s ass-backwards. It has to do with budgets and money and all that, but I just think at this stage that they’ve got to spread out a little bit. What’s available in Newfoundland besides graduating after four years and private teaching? Do you need four years of university to private teach on your instrument? So that’s a problem that I have with this whole business of ‘what are people gonna be doing after university.’ I just think we’re shortchanging the students. Some of the best performers, the first thing they do is get out of here and teach.
— Lucas

Other participants noted static performance income at odds with their increasing education, experience, and age. The result for some is reevaluation of the music career path and possible reprioritization, at least temporarily, of performance among their skills portfolio.

When you’re 16 or 17, you’re making deadly money. And then all of a sudden, you know, you’re in your 20s with a masters degree, and you’re like ‘I’m still making the same money.’ The main thing I’ve been trying to build up is the teaching because it’s a bit more regular. It’s a bit more structured. You can actually make plans with people, which is nice. Then it’s like, ‘Okay, I know my hours are this.’ Gonna be in a little bit more in control. If you’re constantly gigging all the time, unless you’re doing a steady weekend circuit, the late nights downtown can definitely wear on you after a while. If you’re just touring on the road and stuff, if you’re gone for months and stuff, it’s really hard to keep in good touch with anybody at all.
— Sam
One leg of a tour might suck, or two of the three nights in a place might be brutal and you’ll feel like you’re being robbed. That’s the nature of going full time. But I’ve waited until I could minimize the number of those gigs as much as possible. The only way I can do that is by keeping a job where the music has been supplementary to a certain degree. Now it pays me more than my day job, which is the ideal goal. But it took a lot of years to get there.
— Joshua

For the purpose of my research, I distinguished between professional and amateur musicians on the basis of whether musicians actively seek to promote their performance work to earn income. How musicians themselves distinguish between amateur and professional status will be discussed in more depth in a future post. However, for the purpose of this discussion on the early stage of their careers, musicians described various personal thoughts and circumstances that they feel defined or disqualified their identities as professionals and even as musicians. Mitchell (above) said that his work as a private music teacher came at the expense of his self-identity as a musician. Barb feels that not having a university music degree, in spite of her highly active income-earning performance work, disqualifies her as a professional musician. Sophie feels that engaging in music, whether as professional or amateur, is so inherently human and built into local culture that everyone has the capacity at some point to be called "musician." It will later be seen that this all points to ambiguity about the work that tends to carry through the career.

I think that’s why I never offered to be part of your study before, because I don’t call myself a professional musician at all. I refer to myself as a community player. But I guess rationally a professional is someone who makes a living by playing and making music, which is actually what I’ve done… which I’ve always done. My main source of income is music and not from my work in business (laugh). But I don’t feel like one (a professional musician). Because I never finished a university program, I never felt validated as a professional. Although I’m learning now that I’ve made more money than most professionals (laugh).
— Barb
I find it strange calling myself a musician because I never chose to engage in it. It’s something I always did, but I never thought ‘This is what I’m gonna do.’ I feel like, especially being in St. John’s, it just sort of happens. So it’s not like ‘I’m a musician.’ Everybody is a musician!
— Sophie

Early in their careers, professional musicians recognize the challenge of distinguishing their work from their non-income-seeking fellow musicians while respecting each other’s efforts and abilities. When musicians of this study began seeking income for their performances, many said they found it necessary to perform for free to develop an audience base. However, they were careful to avoid a reputation of performing for low or no pay without seeming ungenerous or ungrateful to hiring parties, or disrespectful to fellow musicians.

I try to get paid for the most part, but I also know the reality of trying to get people to do stuff. So sometimes I don’t ask about the pay. If something’s coming up and it seems like something that might be a self-funded project and it’s someone I really respect artistically… But I do try to get paid as much as possible because everything takes so much time.
— Keith
A free gig is a precedent every time. Free gigs don’t get you anywhere. Fairly early on when I started to get into more of it being part of my income, I got pretty hung up on the idea of not giving it away.
— Joshua
I would never suggest that there should not be an outlet for people that want to get together and jam, because I think that’s ridiculous. But sometimes that can really muddy the waters between the ‘weekend warriors’ and those who are trying to structure it and trying to do it and pursue it.
— Simon
I know teachers in the city who play in a pit band. They’re great players. And they’ll play for whatever because they’re already a teacher, so they don’t really need the money. Music in this city has a lot to compete with in that you have scads of people who do it for fun and don’t need the money. And then you have an entire industry built on feeding people a certain type of music. That’s a big, huge thing to contend with. So I think those are the kinds of things that make me question some of my gigs.
— Harry

Quite early into these interviews, it became clear that musicians – even the most prolific, prominent and formally-educated among them – are challenged by the conflicting objectives of presenting their performance work as a professional endeavour worthy of remuneration yet as an art form in a field that bears no restriction to when other musicians can enter as full-time, part-time, professional or amateur. Several of my research participants attempted to relate to other occupations in terms of pay, but in the same breath realized the contrast.  

You don’t call a plumber up to come over to your house and negotiate their wage or decide what they should be paid based on the work that you want them to do for you that day. The plumber would walk out. It’s so grey because it depends on where you’re at in your career. If you’re starting out and trying to fill a portfolio to get your name out there, it’s pretty hard to just turn down a gig, to turn down work, even if the pay isn’t great. But at the same time, if you’re early in your career, chances are the pay isn’t gonna be so great because you don’t have the experience to demand the higher wage.
— Ernest
Pipe-fitting is a job. You wouldn’t be doing it if you weren’t getting paid. That’s the difference with music. It’s art versus trade. Musicians, it is their life. No one is doing it for a job, so we would be happy to spend all day and night just making music. Usually the limits come from external factors. So it’s not something that we’re doing to get paid. It’s something that we’re doing anyway, and then people can realize that you can also still pursue that and find a way to earn a livelihood from that. So it’s not the livelihood first and then the music. It’s the other way around.
— Fred

All of the quotes above are from participants with extensive university music education. How do the experiences of the 46 university-educated musicians of this research compare or contrast with the eight who do not hold university or college degrees? Of those eight, five perform part time while holding down other part- or full-time jobs, two work entirely as performing musicians, and one is a former professional musician who has changed careers. As ratios, the outcomes are comparable among musicians with or without university degrees.

Sixteen participants, while working as professional musicians, hold non-music degrees and many of those indeed have partitioned their employment portfolio between music and non-music work. As participants recounted their first steps into the music career, there are hints early on of an open door to shifting balance between performance and other various kinds of music work and, for some, towards non-music employment. The next blog will discuss two other significant issues that emerging professional musicians face as they tried to gain a foothold in the local music industry. These will including managing startup costs and establishing relationships among fellow musicians. Future posts will soon follow that will address employment, income, competition, and what happens when and if musicians come to a career crossroad. 

In Their Words ~ Part 1: "What else Do You Do?"

Starting with this post, I will reveal some of the findings of my research into the work of 54 performing musicians (23 rock, 21 classical, 10 traditional) based in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and the ways in which their lives and careers intersect to impact their work. My previous posts (see below) lent some context to my research. It's now time to give voice to my participants, who were first asked to describe their earliest memories with music, especially those that would come to shape their future work in music. Names and incidental details have been altered to guard confidentiality. 

More than two-thirds (69%) described events from before the age of 9, and 80% said their earliest recollections were from before age 12. Almost all recollections (91%) involved their parents. Many fondly described a musical tradition in the household. Examples include having musician parents, house parties with instruments and dancing, or simply a general appreciation for music in the home regardless of whether there were other musicians in the family. Invariably, their voices and gazes would trail off, some became emotional, and many speaking on at considerable length of extraordinary detail from decades ago. Here's a few excerpts. 

I was very young. Probably three or four years old and standing on one of those big, old record players. Those long brown record players with the LP on one side, and the other side would have a radio. And standing up and holding on to that. It was definitely a folk song or something. Most likely, knowing my Mom, it was (singing) “Oh Mary, This London’s a wonderful sight.” That’s the first song I ever remember, and that was my Mom’s favourite song.
— Tracey
My grandfather played the fiddle. And he would love to tell you the story that he sat me up on his knee and taught me to play my first fiddle tune.
— Darrell
When we were growing up there was always parties and everybody would have a party piece. My mother and father I remember used to sing, (singing) “Juanita, Juanita…” And my party piece with all the family, with all the adults… I used to play “Für Elise.
— Gene

Many musicians referred to their music lessons. There were signs of their unwillingness to participate in music in the beginning, but they would grow to enjoy and appreciate music, largely because of the relationship with their teacher. A lot of participants said they were “put into” or “made to” or “forced to” take lessons, with little or no discussion with their parents. Meanwhile, music for many became the only career option, even at a very young age, many years before they would begin to understand what a music career might involve.

I don’t think I considered it as a career until I started playing when I was, like, six. I was kind of forced into piano lessons. My sister was also doing piano lessons at the time. And I just kept going with that.
— Bruce
In terms of actually choosing to pursue it as a career, I never really sat down and said, “I’m gonna do this for a living.” At no point did I really decide that. I mean, I didn’t really be the one to choose to play music. I was kinda shuffled into piano at three years old.
— Sam
We always had to take piano. I was in piano forever and hated it. I cried all the time. I hated it! I only got into voice because I made a deal with mom that I would quit piano and take voice and keep up music.
— Beverley
My mom signed me up for an audition without telling me, and I was freaking out. I didn’t like to sing in front of other people. I went and was more nervous than anything. I hated it. Hated it! Apparently my mom tells me that I sang a lot as a child, and then as soon as I started school I became really introverted and wouldn’t sing in front of anybody. So then being forced to sing was very terrifying. But then I got in, and that really changed everything.
— Sheila

24 participants (44%) stated that they have never considered a career alternative to music, many saying that they “always knew” even from early childhood that music was what they wanted to do for a living. Various timing of commitment to an occupation is not unique to music, but the pairing of career commitment and years-long methodical learning usually starting in childhood does set music apart from most other occupations. It would be extremely difficult for an adult without any musical knowledge, training, or experience to decide to become a professional musician, no matter how much they have dreamed about it.

I don’t know that I can even… I just, like, grew in. I did ‘Music for Young Children,’ and then piano lessons, and started trumpet in Grade 5, and flute in Grade 7. It was just… What else do you do?
— Cindy
I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t involved in music. From the time I was four, I remember being involved. My earliest recollections are involved with music, so I suppose to some degree it was just always a part of absolutely everything I did... everything we did... as a family.
— Rodney

For 50% of the musicians, their private music teachers were most influential in fostering their music career interests. Parents featured prominently in these recollections too because, after all, parents invest a lot of their time and money in instruments and lessons for their children, initiating the relationship with the teacher. However, the closeness many participants experienced with their childhood educators cannot be overstated. It is a mentorship that took root at an early age and stayed with them for a lifetime. Some said they loved their teachers like family, became and remain friends with them, and wanted to emulate them.

I was always told my parents saw me with a real interest in music. At the age of 6, Mom took me to Vera’s. I started voice with her at her mother’s house. I was her first student. I knew right away that I loved her and I loved that house. Their house is just really interesting texture-wise, and really cool. So I was very happy there and loved her right away, and we’re still very good friends.
— Karen
It’s always been music, honest to God. That seed was planted in Grade Six. I had this wonderful teacher. I just think that the idea was always there. He taught us all to play guitar, and he used to take me and record. He loved playing guitar and he’d make me sing all the folk songs of the day. And, just that an adult loved my voice! I thought, “Oh, this is good!”
— Katherine
I had a really great teacher, and she was like… I just wanted to be like her. She was so amazing.
— Janice

The later in life musicians of this research considered pursuing music as a career, the less influential were their parents and private teachers, and the more influential were peers. Among participants who expressed their first interest in a music career at high school age, there was a tendency for their parents to show reluctance in lending support.

I remember saying to my parents, “Yeah, I think I’m gonna go to music school.” And they were like, “What? You don’t really play that much.” You know, I was like “Yeah, I’m gonna work on that. Figure it out.” So I had no idea about a career in music. All I knew was that I enjoyed playing music.
— Mitchell
My parents were very supportive of me playing music, but not pursuing it professionally.
— Hannah
They were supportive, Mom especially. Dad was a bit more reserved… not unsupportive, but a bit more guarded and a bit more realistic with it all.
— Ernest

Twelve of the musicians interviewed are self-taught, all specializing in rock or traditional music. Self-taught musicians describe learning and developing their skills and interests methodically in their personalized ways and with the support of some combination of family, teachers and friends. But their friends especially played a much greater role in supporting their music interests than musicians who were taught music more formally and who began at an earlier age.

When I was in high school, I met a couple of guys. One guy, he had all the gear and said that he would sell me the bass, and his buddy the drums, and we would form a band. So we did. And it kind of became what we did. We took that and moved into St. John’s, and then at 17 started playing the bars downtown.
— Albert
I started playing music really late. I was in Grade 11 when I started playing with a hip-hop artist. We put together this little project. As we started to perform around the school a bit, my high school, we started to get other people that were interested in joining us. Just friends that were like, “I play guitar. I play drums.” Before we knew it, we had a little project happening. I was self-taught. I was just listening to our records trying to learn what this guitar player was playing and just trying to learn exactly the parts so we could keep playing the music. I started talking to my high school music teacher, and it just really went from there.
— Jake

Early on, my research identified the significance of a social network in cultivating a music career. The following two recollections decisively coalesce a wide variety of individual experiences around this general theme that emerged from this very first interview question and discussion. Their recollections especially represent much that is special and distinctive about music as a form of work and source of employment and revenue. Music is all at once fun and serious, casual and professional, play and work, free and disciplined. These juxtapositions speak to the appeal of music, where its practitioners bear a sense of control and expertise over their creativity honed over a lifetime, free of employment in the classic sense, yet filled with challenge to improve and remain relevant, feeling no less professional in their field than anyone else in theirs. Through it all, though, make no mistake about the central role of family.

I grew up in a house where playing music was not unusual. There was always kind of a sense that this was a completely legitimate enterprise, that you would go and you would work and this was a job that people did. I got to see that up close and personal. A lot of band rehearsals at my house. On Saturdays, generally two bands rehearsing at the same time. Yeah (laughing). Poor Mom and Dad. They were great. Mom and Dad were great, tolerant, wonderful people.
— Gary
I was lucky to have grown up in a family where music was just the rule. So I was surrounded by it right from out of the womb. Dad was a performer, and was still doing that quite heavily when I was born. Mom was a singer, so they were singing all the time. Whenever they got together with friends all of those gatherings, if they didn’t start with a few songs, they ended up with a few songs. That became so normal for me. Really lucky to have been born into an organic and authentic singing tradition. I look at that as a blissful time because it didn’t have any implications for money or finance.
— Joshua

Joshua’s last comment would factor significantly through many of the experiences that follow. Commitment to music seems to often happen with little or no consideration of how exactly to earn a living from it. Most participants “just knew” they wanted to do it. Furthermore, commitment to music early on does not appear to be weighted in favour of those born into wealthy families. Many of the research participants made a point of telling me that they were not born into material wealth, but experienced a different kind of richness where artistic expression was welcomed and made available, often with used, borrowed or handed down instruments. While a few spoke of material wealth in terms of parents purchasing expensive new instruments and hiring prestigious teachers, commitment to learning and the eventual career appeared to be neither adversely nor favourably impacted by material wealth. The most important factors with respect to commitment to music as a career venture include the consistent support of family, music educators and friends. Later, we will see what happens when support from one or more of those links in a musician’s social network, especially family, is altered - either strengthened, weakened or withdrawn.

Next: Starting Out– from student to employment

Music for a Living.

Try to imagine shopping, exercising, driving, dancing, worshipping, drinking, Christmas, mourning, or marrying without music. Try giving up listening to music for Lent. You can’t. Either you will seek it out or it will find you, like that tune you can’t get out of your head when you’re not even looking for it. The challenge for career-minded musicians is that there is so much of it and so many of them, that they have to work like dogs for their song to be the one you can’t get out of your head, or the song you should buy, or the musician you should hire for your next event. The sometimes fickle and leisurely tastes of music patrons, and for musicians the consequent employment unpredictability and disproportionate income and costs, have caused me to wonder for years what leads a musician to choose to live a life trying to be seen and heard above everyone else and – harder still – to sustain the attention of audiences who primarily use music to satisfy their passing interests, activities, moods and budgets.

I know plenty of people who rarely if ever will take the time to see a local singer/songwriter or a great choir for $20 or less in a cozy, up-close setting but who won’t bat an eyelash at spending $100 or more in a stadium to see someone with star power. When a new neighbour recently asked me in my driveway what I did for a living, I told him I’ve been working as a pianist for nearly two decades. He asked me what bands I’m in and if I play stuff from the 70s. I said I don’t play in bands, but play in other kinds of ensembles, and yes I do play music from the 70s. The 1770s, the 1870s and occasionally the 1970s. His eyes glazed over when I told him that I have classical and gospel albums and have worked for several choirs. I also dropped the names of several prolific local singer/songwriter friends. He hadn’t heard of any of them, but tried hard to connect with me by telling me about a recent trip he and his family took to New York to see Billy Joel and the band America. A great trip and a fabulous musical experience to be sure. But a patron of the local music scene he is not. That’s not at all a critical commentary on his tastes. My neighbour chooses to spend his time and a good bit of money on a particular kind of music away from here. More power to him. I have chosen to make a career out of trying to sell another kind of music in which he has no interest, here. Less power to me.

……..

My Research

It’s often said that Newfoundland has a “rich” musical and artistic culture. That’s a valid statement. Music here is incredibly diverse, producing something to satisfy every taste. What is much less known are the lives of local musicians and how they feel about their music as work. How do they feel about spending a big chunk of their adult lives trying to balance their artistic creativity with the nuts & bolts of self-employment? What attracts them to a career that fiscally speaking is anything but rich and often needs to be backed up by other jobs to make ends meet, in a field where there is plenty of mutual support and an air of a music “community” or “scene,” but also plenty of evidence of professional and social cliques where friends and colleagues are sometimes strategically selected to safeguard and advance one’s niche in the crowded marketplace? Standing not far into the background are parents, spouses/partners, and music educators, some combination of whom usually have a profound influence throughout musicians' careers. 

My previous four blog posts (below) hinted of some of the key issues that emerged from my interviews by recounting real-life anecdotes spanning several career phases: a child’s first introduction to music, a teenager’s tentative first steps towards the career, the two longtime musicians who remain passionate about creating music but are challenged and frustrated with music as a career, and a discussion of the long and complicated course of transitioning one’s love for music-making into a financially viable living. While there is plenty of general media attention on musicians, there is little scholarly coverage of the entire trajectory of a music career that takes into account personal and professional circumstances that intersect and effect career commitment. The kind of study that traces a musician’s involvement in music from early childhood to the present day could go a long way towards illuminating an extraordinarily complex occupation.

One of my interviewees wryly said to me, moments before I pressed the button to record our interview, “No one will want to be a musician after reading this thesis, will they… “ This research is intended to neither deter from nor attract to the music career. Rather, it aims to fill in gaps in sociological literature on a type of work that is not thoroughly understood and appreciated, and can also inform young musicians and their families about the rewards and pitfalls of a career in music and how to prepare accordingly depending on their career goals.

My research uses St. John’s Newfoundland as a case study of the entire working, musical lives of 54 performing musicians whose careers are based here. These are the general research questions I set out to answer:

1. What roles do parents, other family members, private and classroom music educators, and peers play in musical development and pursuit of a music career?

2. What conditions lead musicians to think about career alternatives, and how are those conditions different from those experienced by musicians who commit to their music careers over the long term?

3. How do musicians navigate the uncertainty and precarity of their chosen occupation?

Here’s a little insight into my methodology. In my role as a musician and researcher from St. John’s, the likelihood was high from the start that I would personally and/or professionally know some of my interviewees. So to minimize bias, I issued a general call for participation through the Music Industry Association of Newfoundland and Labrador (MusicNL), the Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra, the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Arts Society, and by placing posters throughout the city in live venues and other public spaces. I sought representation of the broad genres of classical, folk, and rock music. Some of the participants perform full-time, while most perform part-time and are engaged in several other kinds of work within and outside of music. In any case, it is the income-seeking/earning, career-oriented performing musician that is of interest in this study. My calls for participation were answered very quickly, a researcher’s dream, so that nearly all of my participants had contacted me within a couple of weeks. Here’s the final breakdown:

-       32 men, 22 women

-       23 rock, 21 classical, 10 traditional (Research participants were asked to self-identify one of these categories as their primary professional identity even if they perform in multiple styles.)

-       Ages ranged from 19 to 72 years. Average age was 36. Three-quarters (41) were under 45 years of age. Four were in their 60s and 70s. 

-       45 were active, income-earning/seeking performers at the time of our interviews. 9 others had left music for alternative careers and were deliberately recruited to explore those experiences.

Sure enough, some participants were well known to me and I to them. I asked all participants identical open-ended questions. The musicians did not know the questions in advance. The first question, asking them to recount their earliest involvement with music, proved to be an effective icebreaker that established a good comfort level and laid the foundation for some incredibly poignant, richly detailed experiences that shaped their lives and work. The questions that followed approximated a chronological order through their lives to the date of our interviews.

It’s useful to remind that this is an occupation that is unlicensed, where contracts range from casual and verbal to signed and legally binding, where anyone – amateur or professional - can enter, exit and return regardless of education, age or experience. Early in my research, I arrived at one wholly nonacademic conclusion: the musicians I interviewed are tough as nails and are among the most thoughtful, honest, insightful, resourceful, intelligent and ambitious people I have ever known.

Starting with the next blog post, I will take a back seat to these fine participants whose words will hopefully steer you towards a deeper understanding of and appreciation for their lives and work. They reveal much about working in music that is pleasing, rewarding and worth the pursuit, and much besides that reaches into the corners and shadows not often seen or talked about publicly but - with my assurances of confidentiality - were revealed openly and frankly and will not be sugar-coated here. This is their story, it's real life, and I hope you enjoy. In the meantime, I invite you to read my preceding blogs below and to follow me on Twitter where I can alert you to updates. Thank you for reading. 

Price of a Gift

Ten years ago I recorded my first album. It landed me my first award, a nice bit of publicity, decent album sales, and awesome media attention. It’s an album of piano arrangements of old-time, well-known church hymns. It struck a chord with a lot more people than I thought it would, so I followed it up with another album a year later. I didn’t receive funding for either project. Both were entirely paid out pocket. Before I knew it, I was being asked to perform in benefit concerts, and even co-produced a couple of church benefit shows without pay. I confess to not being completely altruistic. I was just trying to get my name out there, doing what I could, including working for free, to establish my career by building my very own audience base. In the process, I created a reputation for myself as a musician who works for nothing. Transitioning into a pianist for hire was difficult and sometimes resulted in uncomfortable conversations.   

One day around that same period, I received a phone call from the organizer of a church fundraiser in a town about an hour’s drive away from my home. He was looking for someone to produce and perform in a benefit concert. He told me he asked another musician first but rejected her because she insisted on a fee of $300. She was quite prominent, and $300 would have been a steal. In our chat, he complained about her unwillingness to negotiate downward, given that it’s for a church. So he asked me to perform for free. I declined, politely telling him that a fee would be expected and that I would charge the same as the musician he first contacted. He tried to negotiate with me, saying that I could have my CDs for sale in the church foyer as a form of compensation, and that the real payoff would be audience exposure. When I reminded him that I play piano for a living and that developing, rehearsing, travelling to/from, and performing such a show would demand a massive amount of my time, he responded by lecturing me on professionalism. I was asking for a nominal fee that would equate to way under minimum wage. He, a lawyer, tried to argue that professional behaviour for a musician would be to graciously accept this non-paying gig as an “opportunity.” The more we talked, the deeper the impasse. So I ended the call. 

……..

About 15 Sunday mornings every year, I can be found playing church service music in my capacity as a freelance musician, subbing in for the regular music directors when they are away. I enjoy doing it, I think I’m pretty good at it, and I’m paid every time. I got into a mildly heated discussion once with a fellow church musician who saw a problem with my taking money from a church. He argued that our music is a “gift from God” that we are offering back in thanks. I argued that my “gift” was something for which I’ve been working my ass off since I was 8 years old. There I was at another very different impasse. Two musicians who earn part of our livings from performing but who had decidedly differing views on when it is appropriate to work for free. I think this discrepancy is an outcome of the idea of individuality that is baked into music-making. Sometimes when I sub in on Sunday mornings, I invite a musician colleague to perform with me. Usually, the church offers a monetary token to my guest. Sometimes the musician declines the pay. Most times they take it. That’s up to them, but it sure makes for a hazy area, blurring the line between personal and professional conviction and speaking to inconsistency in musicians’ work and pay.

So how about an example from outside the grey area of churches and charities? Like the time I recorded my second album, a duets album, where each of my ten duet partners commanded a different fee ranging from zero to several hundred dollars, even though they each participated equally in terms of time commitment. One partner said, “I get lots of gigs. You don’t need to pay me anything.” Another partner, a close personal friend, requested a substantial fee. And still another declined pay on the promise that I would do the same for him on a recording project of his - a barter system of sorts. The costs of this album were as varied as the lives of the musicians who participated. Ever since then, several years before even thinking about my research, I’ve thought a lot about that scenario, the careers we’ve chosen, and how we manage them. In my work as a pianist, I teach, accompany students, accompany choirs, play Sunday morning church services, weddings, funerals, and perform solo occasionally. My fee for each of those tasks is different, different from other pianists, and sometimes I vary them depending on whether I know the person, or on the budget of the hiring party just so I can land the gig and keep playing.

The love for performing and creating music is undeniable across everyone I interviewed for my research. Things get complicated when musicians try to reconcile music as passion with music as commerce. Almost to a person, every musician I interviewed for my research commented in their own way that they didn’t take up a music career to get rich, and many of them entered the career with an exit strategy that was usually closely connected to dealing with age, money, competition and family. It’s as if some of us accept or brace for a career of low pay and an early expiry date before it even starts. My last blog post referenced a few summer jobs I held when I was about 19 and a university flunk-out. It was the music gig, the lowest paying and least certain of them all, that appealed to me the most and which I tried to turn into a career. So from the start, it was the fun, dynamism, and love of making music that took precedence over fiscal common sense. Not to mention that I am a professional trying to exist in an occupation where anyone with or without formal music training can enter, exit and return to the field freely at anytime, at any age, and where fees thus vary from one musician to another based not only on how much a particular audience feels they’re worth but also on how much musicians feel their own work is worth in a particular performance context. I can’t think of another career like it.

………………………………………………..

I’ve written a lot about myself over the past few blog posts, trying to take care to write in the context of my research findings and preview some of the bigger issues that emerged from my interviews. My thesis, “Price of a Gift: Lives and Work of Professional Musicians in St. John's, Newfoundland”, recounts my interviews with 54 musicians who rely on performance for at least part of their annual income. Starting with the next post, I will introduce you in more detail to my interviewees including how they came to be part of my research. In subsequent posts I will share with you some interesting outcomes from our discussions that traced their lives in music from childhood to the day of our interviews. Key discussion points have to do with the roles their families and peers played on their music career path, the impact on their work of music educators, how musicians cope with competition and conflict with fellow musicians, and the conditions that lead some musicians to quit their music careers and others to commit to it for a lifetime.  

At it for so long.

If this is your first time here, I’ve been posting items that point to my recently-completed doctoral research on musicians’ lives and work. I suggest you scroll down to the bottom and read your way to the top.

Today, I’ll share two casual conversations I’ve recently had with two musician friends. Names and a few other minor details are changed to protect their identities. I'm posting two conversations here because they are with musicians of different backgrounds, specialties, and age, but who happened to utter the same phrase about their work.  

Mike

Mike is in his late-20s, doesn’t yet have a university degree, and has been working hard to realize a viable career as a singer/songwriter and instrumentalist. I try to catch his performances whenever I can, but his shows are usually long past my bedtime. So I follow his progress online, and we message back and forth pretty often. Best of all, we catch up a few times a year over a leisurely downtown brunch. I haven’t known a musician who works harder and loves being a musician more than Mike. Over the past ten years to make ends meet, he’s worked numerous part-time jobs for extra revenue to help offset some of his music costs. 

At the end of a recent long Canadian tour, Mike performed a show downtown at a reasonable hour that wasn’t past my bedtime. The venue could accommodate close to 200 people. There may have been 125 or so in attendance. It was an enthusiastic crowd, mostly of his family and fellow musician friends. I’m not sure how many new audience members were there. The show was amazing and energetic. Partway through the show he briefly recounted his tour, ending the tale with how he returned home with less money than when he started and how he had to take a job as an after-hours janitor to offset some of his tour debt. Then he sang a song about it. His honesty was striking to me. He seemed humbled by either the janitor job, or his financial troubles, or something… there was just something in what he was saying to his audience that conveyed feelings of his perceived non-success in music. Yet there he was performing better than ever, promising future shows, albums, upcoming tours, with the crowd going wild.

A 20-something-year-old musician is still young, but it doesn’t feel young if you’ve been trying to gain a foothold in that scene for a decade and you’re up to your ears in debt. Over lunch, he says, “I can only be at this for so long.” Tired of the part-time jobs he has to take on for the chase of a music career he feels he hasn’t yet been able to grab hold of, he’s thinking about going back to school to learn an employable trade. He’s caught between a rock and a hard place. He can’t afford to move to a bigger city to make a go of his music career someplace else, nor does he feel he can he afford to stay in St. John’s working full-time as a musician. But for all that, Mike soldiers on, posting online nearly every day new things about his music.    

Pete

Pete has much in common with Mike, except he’s about twenty years older. Pete is in his late-40s, and has been working as a composer and performer for about 25 years. He left St. John’s a while back to live in a bigger city to see if he could realize a better living from his music.  Not long ago, he returned to St. John’s for a short visit and contacted me to re-connect over dinner. I was excited to catch up with him. But when we met in the restaurant, he was a mere shadow of his former self. He seemed troubled, a little agitated, sad, and he looked exhausted. Pete said he was still doing as much writing and gigging as possible, and still trying to peddle his recordings. But whatever he was seeking in a bigger city had not yet materialized musically. And he was lamenting his current job in a warehouse. He said, “I'm a forklift driver... I can only be at this for so long." After we parted ways that night, I wondered what he regretted most: the warehouse job itself, or that this job he couldn't afford to quit was displacing his many years of trying to establish a music career. Nevertheless, Pete did make it clear in our chat that quitting music was not an option. 

...........

When I was 19, the year I flunked out of university, I entered the labour force with four part-time summer jobs: stocking shelves at a liquor store, serving customers at a shoe store, building a house, and playing piano at a restaurant. The one that paid the least was the music job.  All four collectively taught me more about social interaction, time management and life choices than anything I’ve learned in a classroom. In a single summer, I worked with food servers, salespeople, carpenters, electricians, warehouse workers and truck drivers. I remember not enjoying that summer in the moment because I was feeling down about having flunked out of school and having no other choice but to either stay home or go to work. The former was not an option in my family. In retrospect, however, the experience was priceless and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, school failure and all. 

But even though I made heaps of money that summer, I decided that I didn’t want to live the next 40 or 50 years of my life doing any one or more of those jobs. So back to school I went, eventually graduating with a degree in commerce, and going to work for several years in accounting. I made decent money but felt unfulfilled in other ways, I left my accounting work to go back to school and shoot for a career in music. Way back in that fateful summer, the job that paid the least and was the most nerve-wrecking was my piano-restaurant gig. And this is what I left accounting for…? Where’s the sense in that?

Pete and Mike represent a big proportion of my research participants – all active income-earning musicians who love making music but who also tell me they think frequently about quitting music as employment and going in new career directions. Most of them haven’t yet. Here’s the thing: Pete and Mike are happiest… profoundly happy… when they are making music. When they talk to me about their performances and the creative process, they just light up. Yes they get discouraged about the imbalance between their years of experience and the money they earn. But to them the act of making music transcends the idea of music as a job, a career, or a profession. It’s not an overstatement to say that music is who they are. They, and I, have been participating in learning, studying, and developing our skills as musicians since we were little kids. Mike for over ten years, Pete for nearly three decades, me for more than 40 years.

Yet there’s so much about trying to earn a living in music would seem enough in just about any other occupation to send you in another more promising direction. Think about any job you’ve held that you didn’t enjoy, maybe because of the people you worked with, lack of growth potential, low pay, bad scheduling, and so on. Did you cry when you talked about leaving that job because you knew you’d miss it? Have you ever felt drawn back to that job since you left it? So what is the attraction to music as work, as a source of employment and revenue, that is so attractive or – as several of my research participants referred to it – addictive? There’s something about music as a career pursuit that draws us in and keeps us there, and draws back in some who tried to quit. Why can’t we just walk away when it makes perfect sense to do so in any other occupational world? Are Pete and Mike just plain stubborn, doggedly determined, foolish, irrational… or is there something much more to it than that?

Spoiler alert: the path to a music career is complicated, and the pursuit is rational. To be continued.

The next post will recount one more conversation before I start taking you through some of my research findings.

Thanks for stopping by.    

"But there's a Beemer in your driveway..."

The next few posts will recount unexpected, casual and revealing conversations I’ve had with musicians outside of my research over the past few years. Think of these conversations as preludes to my research findings that I will be revealing here soon. Let’s begin.  

Barry

A few years ago, I had a piano student who, at age 16, was thinking beyond his high school years and had already decided he would audition for university classical music schools, including Memorial University of Newfoundland's music school here in St. John's. Barry (not his real name), from a small town in Newfoundland, had another teacher for several years before asking me to work with him when he was 14. He asked me to continue his learning and to help him prepare for his university auditions. Usually, Barry would leave at the end of our scheduled lesson time. This time, though, his father came to my studio door and asked to come in to have a chat with me. I invited him in, and the two clearly had something on their minds. Both seated facing me, the Dad said, “Barry wants to be a concert pianist just like you! So we would like to know how to make that happen.” Barry was silent, staring at me, not blinking, apparently excited, maybe nervous.

I asked Barry, “Do you want to stay in Newfoundland?” When he answered yes, I didn’t even give myself a chance to gather my thoughts. I hastily let them know that I’m not actually a concert pianist. I told them I’m classically trained, but the last recital I gave was in 2008, not very many people showed up, and I barely broke even. I said that I make my living from private teaching, accompanying kids at the university, accompanying some choirs, playing in church on Sundays, playing for weddings, funerals, private parties, and the scattered conference as background music. And it’s competitive. There are lots of pianists around. I added that to make a living here as a pianist, I need to play lots of music other than classical. If the bride and groom want you to play Michael Jackson, then that’s what you do, because they’re paying you to play Michael Jackson.

I realized in the moment that I may have come off as a little too blunt, if not a tad bitter. Barry and his Dad seemed dumbfounded. The Dad said, motioning in the direction of my driveway, “But there's a Beemer in your driveway, and you have this big house!” I responded, “The Beemer is my wife’s, not mine. She’s a doctor. If I weren’t married to her, I’d need to teach a whole lot more students and take on at least another job to get by, and I definitely wouldn’t be able to afford to live in this house.” Barry’s Dad, with a little nervous laughter, responded with, “…. I see….Okay...”  Barry didn’t say a word. They left politely, quietly.

Did I just shatter Barry’s dreams? I didn’t mean to. I felt terrible.

I realized during my rapid-fire, no-filter responses to the lad and his Dad that I was feeling guilty, annoyed with myself, for not having this conversation sooner with Barry, or with my other career-minded students who have passed through my studio over the years. My blog last week (see below) recounted my time with my two childhood piano teachers. As much as I respected them in different ways, and as much as I ultimately credit them for nurturing my eventual career path, I didn’t have a clue what a music career involved. Of course I wouldn’t have expected Mr. Whitten to talk to me about a music career when I was 10 years old. But it dawned on me years after I quit taking lessons that, unlike Barry and his father, I never once thought, or had the courage, to ask anyone about how to make a living in music. And no one told me about it. So I came into the career with no knowledge about writing grant proposals, fiscal management, self-employment, self-promotion, hobbling together and balancing gigs and other work, and adapting my playing to the tastes of people who hire me. Even through all six years of my university music education there was not as much as a breath uttered about how to parlay music knowledge into meaningful, sustainable income. I had no musician friends, and no one in my family pursued a music career. So, good on Barry and his Dad for gamely having the conversation with me.

So what became of Barry? I remember thinking after he left that day, “Well, so much for his music career.” I thought for sure he’d quit because of what I said. But… he continued to coming back for lessons for a few more years, more determined than ever, and was successful in all of his university music school auditions. He’s now a university undergraduate piano major with his sights squarely set on a performance career.

It so happened that on the day of this piano lesson with Barry, I was just out of the starting gate with my Ph.D. and struggling with my research direction. This unexpected conversation with a young pianist and his father, and my unfiltered response to it, gave me the direction I needed. Depending on the family or the young musician, my experience in music could turn some kids away from a career in music, or draw them to it. For Barry, my description of my everyday lifted the veil off of a career that he imagined was very different and may have helped keep him on his musical path. His Dad opened the conversation by saying that his son wanted a career like mine. I responded with a dose of reality. But this was just my reality. So I began to imagine what an entire thesis of musician lives and work experiences would look like.

Check in again soon for another conversation.

Thanks for stopping by.    

Mendelssohn and Mr. Whitten: How I Became a Musician

Today, I want to give some background about me, and how I landed in a music career. In so doing, I’m also answering the first question I put to all of my doctoral research participants. I asked 54 St. John’s musicians who regularly earn income from performance to describe their earliest memories of having music in their lives, and to trace those recollections up to the time when they began to think seriously about pursuing a career in music. I'll get to their responses to that and all of my questions in a future post soon. For now, I just want to give you some context as to my place in the research. If you’re a working musician, I invite you to share your story of your earliest memories of music and how these shaped you as a musician and as a person. If you’re not a career musician but took/take music lessons, share your experiences in learning to sing or play an instrument.

Between my sisters, Dad, and my earliest memories, I’m able to patch together a story that goes like this. I was two years old when my oldest sister started taking piano lessons at age seven. Money was tight. We were three very young kids, and Dad was not yet 30 burning the candle at both ends as a young accountant. He bought a used Mendelssohn piano from a blind piano tuner in Topsail for about $200. To us it was luxurious. My earliest memory is of piano music coming from the dining room when my sisters were practicing, or when my grandfather dropped over and played folk songs. He could never have afforded lessons and couldn’t read music, but could he ever play. Mom tells me to this day that years before taking lessons, I went to the piano whenever it was free to try and make sense of it...which I’m still trying to do.

By the time I was eight, my oldest sister stopped taking lessons, and mine began. The $200 used Mendelssohn was soon traded in for a new $600 Baldwin (1970s prices). My love for piano in those earliest days runs so deep, I remember every single detail. I remember the piano was dark brown, and there was a crack in the drywall next to it. I remember my piano teacher Clarence Whitten’s house, about the same size as ours, and his piano – also a low upright like ours – tucked in a corner of his living room. And that’s where he taught me. My lessons were around Mr. Whitten’s suppertime, so there was always a smell of fresh cooked food, and Mrs. Whitten clattering dishes in the kitchen a few feet away. There was a student before me, so my parents would drop me off a few minutes early and I’d sit on the green sofa right behind the piano bench and watch the end of the preceding lesson. 

No one made me take lessons or had to remind me to practise. I just did, and I loved it. Mr. Whitten was incredibly engaged in our lessons. He sat on the piano bench with me, demonstrating, or making up an accompaniment as I played. I remember all of his knuckles swollen with arthritis, but it didn’t seem to slow him down. He was a great player and an amazing teacher. Lessons were fun, and I left every Tuesday night feeling accomplishment and that this all had a purpose. Years later, Dad told me Mr. Whitten wasn’t a career musician. Teaching piano was something he did at night and on weekends for a little extra cash. His “real” job was as a bookkeeper for Browning Harvey, a bottling company in St. John’s.

When I was 14, our family moved to another neighbourhood only about 15 minutes away, but it meant a new piano teacher. I wished I could have stayed with Mr. Whitten, but I remember him telling my parents that he had taught me as much as he could. My new teacher, Andreas Barban, had a wide reputation as an accomplished private piano teacher, performer and recording artist. Unlike Mr. Whitten, he was a full-time musician and educator. You had to audition to be taught by him. So this was my first taste having to prove my worth as a musician. The next week I was in his studio, a far more serious environment than I was used to. He rarely smiled at me, and I don’t have any clear memory of him telling me that I played well. He was never mean. He wasn’t unpleasant. At times he was sort of funny, usually in a mildly sarcastic way that would sometimes go over the head of this teenager. But encouragement just wasn’t a thing. So the message, as I interpreted it, was that my time as a pianist had an expiry date. About a year after entering university, I stopped taking lessons. Years later, Mom told me that he phoned her quite upset that I was quitting. I wish he told me that.

Mr. Whitten was a part-time piano teacher who seemed to utterly thrive on that work. Playing along with me, laughing, making me a part of his home life. Everything was so inviting and memorable: the green sofa, the shag carpeting, the sounds and smells of his supper cooking. It’s speculative, but I can imagine that his piano teacher life was a welcome, enjoyable release from his day job. I felt a closeness to him and his work. He loved to teach and I loved being taught. After my audition, I never again saw the upstairs of Dr. Barban’s house. Our lessons were in his basement studio, darkly furnished, dimly lit, cluttered with an old record player, walls of records, books and music scores, and his window sills filled with plants that seemed to block most of what little natural light could peak through. His waiting area was a tiny space outside the closed door of his studio, with a couple of hard chairs and file cabinets. I progressed as a pianist with him. He was a fantastic musician. But there was distance and separation in our work together that left me uninspired.

I wasn’t a great university student when I was starting out. That's an understatement. Sparing you the ugly details, let’s just say that I took a very circuitous route to my eventual Bachelor of Commerce degree. Even though my grades weren’t great, and it wasn’t music, I did enjoy the social networking part. I made a bunch of new friends, and the program included three employment semesters where students were left to our own devices to land a job in a professional commerce environment. So there I was in my early 20s working for big accounting firms. I was comfortable socializing with people far more experienced and older than I was, and settled into the idea that accounting would be my career. But seven years after graduation of bouncing around from one employer to another didn’t exactly motivate me to do this for the rest of my life. But I felt I gained some important non-musical skills to help me take a shot at a music career. One conversation with my wife was all I needed to go to Memorial University’s School of Music, line up an audition, and see where that would get me. The last time I auditioned was 18 years earlier for Dr. Barban. At 32, even with no musician friends and no professional musicians in my family, it felt much more purposeful this time for some reason I can't explain. 

Six weeks later, I was accepted, quit my accounting job, and went on to earn my Masters degree, taught by the amazing Kristina Szutor. Along the way, I was picking up private students, adopting a teaching style that was shaped by my previous work experiences and, I believe, by Mr. Whitten. Alongside teaching, I recorded a few albums, performed, got lots of work accompanying choirs and MUN music students, and was working in my living room at my piano, where I belong. I wonder if my parents saw this coming when they bought the Mendelssohn and introduced me to music through an unassuming, kindly bookeeper who taught piano on the side. 

My next post will be about how and why I ended up doing a Ph.D. in sociology studying the work and lives of St. John’s musicians. Here’s a hint. It’s ultimately the result of an unexpected conversation I had with a piano student of mine and his father. I'll share that with you next time. Following that, I will tell you about a few recent conversations I have had with other musician friends and colleagues. That will be my way of introducing you to some of the key themes in my study. I hope you check back in again soon.

Thanks for stopping by.

Welcome to DavidChafe.com

Hello, welcome, and thank you for stopping by. If you have been a visitor to the predecessor DavidChafe.ca, you can make this your new place to find out what I’m up to and going on about.

The new DavidChafe.com is very different in appearance and content from my old site. I've tried to make it easier to navigate and will keep it much more up to date. You’ll see a performance schedule (most of my performance work is with choirs and student recitals), recent photos of my goings-on, my five main album recordings and listening samples, my live Twitter feed (I invite you to follow me @davidchafe), and a new and hopefully more engaging blog.

This blog page is the biggest change. I recently finished my Ph.D. in Sociology (Memorial University of Newfoundland, 2017) tracing the work and lives of 54 rock, classical and traditional musicians who work in St. John’s, Newfoundland and who depend on income from performance for at least part of their annual income. My interest was in understanding what sorts of conditions lead musicians into a music career and, as the case was with several musicians I interviewed, what conditions cause them to exit the music career and head down an entirely different career path. For example: what roles do family members, friends, teachers, and money play in a musician’s decision to persevere or quit? My full dissertation is available for not-so-light bedtime reading. But for the purpose of these posts, I want to dispense with academic jargon and start what I think are some really important conversations to be had about music careers in St. John’s, music work generally, and the musicians who inhabit them. Here, I'll be sharing some everyday conversations I've had with musicians, as well as excerpts of interviews with my research participants. Needless to say, there are many fabulous, highly attractive qualities of the music career, along with some not-so-pleasant realities that are ever present but rarely discussed. These blogs, informed by musicians themselves, are intended to provide fodder for conversations among musicians, music patrons, and prospective career musicians who might appreciate a little more insight into the work before they begin.

For starters, my next post will be up later this week and will give some context as to my life as a musician. The following few posts will be a series of short conversations I've had recently with fellow musicians. Along the way, I'll pepper my writings with relevant findings from my research. I'm interested in and curious about lots of topics other than music too. So I will sometimes bring up other observations of interest to me and hopefully to you. 

If you have a Twitter account, follow me there and you will see announcements of fresh blog posts, which I plan to post regularly, sometimes picking up where previous posts leave off. Old blogs will remain on the site. You’ll also see an opportunity for you to leave your comments and questions for me or among one another. If you comment there, please keep the conversation polite. Sensitive to the possibility that my students and other young people will be reading, I will not permit any comments containing foul language or that could be considered offensive. But if you have experiences or thoughts similar to or that differ from my own of those of my research participants, by all means let me know. If you’re not comfortable sharing publicly but have something meaningful to share, you can email me privately.

Of course, feel free to leave comments on anything else you see on this site. I may not respond to every comment, but will read and appreciate your thoughts. 

Come back and share as often as you would like. See you again soon, and thank you for visiting.