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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.