“We are so remise in overvaluing entertainers..and athletes, and undervaluing the people among us who have less obvious gifts” - Bill Withers
The Glory of Being a Musician
At this point we’ve been glorifying musicians for a long time. Since Elvis and The Beatles (or you could argue Mozart and Beethoven) certain musicians have been elevated to the mantle of genius, star, and that ubiquitous term of musical achievement, “Idol”. But any professional musician who has had his feet in the biz for a while has stories of the absurdities and excess that goes along with the success. More importantly, for most working musicians the idea of becoming a star is not at the top of the list. The larger question is, how do I make a sustainable living from the years of practice, performance, recording and schlepping gear? As the perception of the “successful” musician continues to come into sharper contrast with the realities of making a living in music it seems a good time to rethink the larger question what is the role of musician in our culture today?
A Touch Of History
While we spent the majority of the 20th century crowning (and dethroning) the kings and queens of music, the economic winds have certainly shifted. Traditionally the role of the musician has been to administer the rites of passage; marriages, funerals, ceremonies (both spiritual and secular) and to create the musical soundtrack through which daily life progresses. Music has always functioned as a cultures conduit for gathering, praying, protesting, and yes, partying.
The commodification of music on the other hand is a relatively new phenomenon. Since the 1960’s the focus of the musician has shifted to the unrealistic concept of “Making it”. Musicians throw themselves into any situation, sign contracts, sell songs, give their music away for the opportunity to one day get a grand reward that they can sit on. But shouldn’t the ultimate goal to have a sustainable, balanced, and expressive existence? For the musicians that actually tip the scale and become idolized for being musical, the rewards come with a cost (insert any episode of VH1 Behind The Music here).
Honoring The Musician
Yes, its great to be honored for what you do, we all want to feel like we are valued for what we do, but do we really need to create special engagements to honor musicians? Why does the musician need to be honored any more than the Carpenter or the nurse? Because we’re creative? because we make music?
The reality is that while an incredibly small percentage of musicians are hoisted above the rest and admired from afar, the majority of talented professionals find it harder and harder to make a living wage. Moreover, the people shaping the standards adhered to by the music industry are made up primarily of non-musicians (management companies, publishers, labels & lawyers) who have distorted the view of what a musician should look, act, and sound like.
The Narcissistic Musician
But it would be naive and oversimplifying the situation to blame the business. At some point musicians need to look in the mirror and ask themselves, How do I effect the world around me? Having an ego is an essential ingredient in any performance. The performer has to believe to some extent that what they are doing is worth someone else time. This is not necessarily a bad thing. However, the prevailing attitude in the modern day musician is a creeping self importance that disconnects them from and inevitably isolates them from their audience and their community.
Where To Go From Here?
It is essential that musicians today not only reach out to their audience through social media and networking, but also share their skills and perspectives with people around you, specifically to the younger generation. The reality is, if you want a career in music you need to be more than a triple talent threat, you also need to be a successful person. It starts with your music - we must be perpetual students - but we must also have a grasp of the business, social media, education, and the most essential ingredient of all, compassion. In today’s environment it isn’t enough to know how to play the saxophone. You have to have a keen awareness of technology, communication, and basic social skills. Most of all you need to reach out to people around you and share your love of music with other musicians, fans, friends, and family. The mono-directional, rockstar, touring musician is a dying breed - there isn’t the infrastructure to support it. The more we reach out to the world around us, the more opportunity and energy we receive.
Ben Senterfit is a musician and music educator who occasionally writes about music. He live in The Hudson Valley, NY where he runs the Community Music Space and a Production company/label called Cuebro