It’s pretty clear…
The business of being a performing musician is completely unique and pretty tough. Of all the industries I’ve worked in (which is at least a dozen), only one other share the characteristics that make being a performing musician so unique, and so tough.
And that’s before Covid.
So in this second article in a series of six, I’ll spend some time describing a taxonomy of participants in the music performance business, to set the context around why it’s so hard to make a living from it. I want to stress that there is no judgment implied or intended in this taxonomy, and I’m also not making the case for change here. it’s just the facts as I see them. This context will inform the next four articles in the series.
Starting at the top of the pecking order, there are musicians who can pretty much name their price. There are very few other industries (actors being one) where this is the case, and it’s a tiny slice of the total population of musicians. They include high-profile vocalists and bands who record original music that sell at high volume globally, and who perform to stadium-sized crowds.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are musicians who play for free. These include young people just starting out, weekenders who play occasionally, and older people who might have been playing for decades and will still show up for events such as jazz festivals.
In between these two extremes is everyone else. This includes orchestral musicians who are employed under an award; session musicians who command minimum hourly or session rates such as those set by the MEAA; musicians who, for example, perform in large venues with ticketing systems and audience sizes that MAY deliver solid returns to performers. It includes musicians who take gigs where they can get them, at rates of pay ranging between say, the hourly rate equivalent of our wonderful hospo community, through to an hourly rate that professionals in conventional industries (medicine, engineering, accounting) might receive – bearing in mind that professionals typically collect that rate every hour over a 40 (80?) hour week, whereas the musician is usually collecting that rate only for the 1, 2 or 3 hours of each performance.
None of these rates (with the possible exception of full-time musicians on an award) include the hours spent rehearsing and practicing, the money spent on equipment purchase and maintenance, rehearsal room costs, travel costs and time, stage clothing costs, and the list goes on.
This taxonomy can be reduced to four ‘types’ of performing musician:
- Musicians who generate wealth beyond any sense of ‘reliance’ on an income
- Musicians who rely on performance as their primary source of income
- Musicians who don’t rely on performance as their primary source of income
- Musicians who perform for free
Those in the third group include musicians who operate a ‘portfolio’ of musical activity to maintain an income, including but not limited to performance. It is this group that I believe, post-covid, has the best chance of building an achievable and sustainable career in music. The sixth article in this series “Portfolio Theory for Musicians” will take a closer look at this group.
I hasten to say now what you may already be thinking – which is that over the course of time, a performing musician might belong to multiple groups, up to and including all four groups. Those in Group 1 volunteer their time to good causes. Those in Groups 2 and three play for free at the school fete.
It’s simpler again to consider those in Group 1 to be outliers – beyond the curve and comprising a tiny percentage of the whole cohort. By the same token, most musicians that I know would agree with the proposition that they are all, or have all, been members of Groups 1, 2, and 3 at various points in their lives.
But that curve? It’s not a standard distribution. The supply of musicians who will play for free – again, no judgment, and I’ve done it myself often enough – is pretty much endless, especially in a city like Melbourne. I’ll spend some time discussing this reality in the fourth article in this series, “The second-toughest industry I’ve ever worked in”.
The key message for this article is the reality of the performing musician business being such a special case. There is no such typology for accountants, engineers, and doctors.
At the top of the article, I mentioned one other industry, one other economic group in our society that is a much closer match to the performing musician than any type of employee professional. They are, paradoxically, those most likely to be providing opportunities to performing musicians.
That’s people who work for themselves. Small business people. Say, for example, venue owners…
It’s love. Love for what we do. It’s our love for what we do that drives us to do it; regardless of which group we belong to in that taxonomy, on any given day.
And, it’s pretty clear….