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.