Is “Full-Time Musician” Still a Job Description?

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I admit it … since retiring, I have become an unemployed musician living off government checks, exactly how my 1st mother-in-law always said I would end up! Of course, that overlooks the 50+ years of making money playing music, but let’s not let that factoid get in the way of a good old fashioned blanket derogatory statement …

I can’t/won’t make money playing music any longer, for a bunch of reasons:

  1. I won’t work for free
  2. I won’t work for lousy pay … yes, $50 for 3 hours playing is lousy pay
  3. I won’t work in smoke-filled dumps until 2 in the morning
  4. I won’t work in smoke-filled dumps at any time for lousy pay (see #2, above)
  5. I won’t start playing weddings again … that means playing the Hokey-Pokey
  6. I won’t start playing weddings again for lousy money (again, see #2)
  7. I won’t play with bad musicians (subjective, I know, but it’s my list)

All of these reasons, among others not noted, are cause for my current unemployment. Yes, yes … I know I’m retired, but that still leaves me unemployed no matter how you look at it. And because I abjectly refuse to play for next to nothing with bad musicians in crummy places, my gigging opportunities are extremely limited, at best. That doesn’t mean I don’t play music anymore, actually quite the opposite! I play more steadily now than I ever have, but I just don’t inconvenience myself, at all, to do it.

I don’t mean to be obtuse, so let me clarify. On my arrival here in The ATL I did some searching to find out what the music scene was like, only to realize it was as bad as it is in the greater NYC/NJ area. In most major metropolitan areas there are the big guys, the great musicians with all of the connections that have the good paying work all sewn up. The ATL is no different, and in many ways,  much worse due to the presence of a very heavy rap and DJ scene. There are a lot of church opportunities but I’m always hesitant to get involved with religious groups that I, personally, can’t commit to, spiritually. Other than that, it’s a race to the bottom for the bad paying, horrible music jobs.

When I got here I decided, with Sheila’s incredible support, that I was only going to play music if it was fun again … not work, but fun. Granted, it’s easy to take this stance when you’ve had some modicum of success and no longer need the money to pay your bills. It’s also easy when your spouse has your back 100% … I know a lot of musicians don’t have this type of cushion and support, and I appreciate the luxury and luck I do have at this stage of my life.

A lot of music comes from here

With Sheila’s blessing, I set up a really nice “rehearsal” space in our home, fully equipped with quality amps, drums, PA and ancillary equipment. We live in a pretty secluded area so noise is a non-issue (unless you’re a chipmunk, hawk, copperhead or other wildlife type) (I think even the chipmunks like the music, though) (not too sure about the snakes). Because I’m retired/unemployed, day time rehearsals were very acceptable, in addition to night hours. Now I needed to find players who had the same criteria as me.

Turns out, it wasn’t very hard to reach that goal. After a few false starts, I was able to assemble nearly a dozen musicians of varying backgrounds that were looking for what I was providing … a really comfortable setting to play music, with no stress, no judgement, no smoke-filled drunk-patronizing dumps, just music that you can enjoy for the sake of playing with good people. And not everyone is a virtuoso, some are still learning (aren’t we all) and others are venturing into new genres after a lifetime of some alternate music styles. We play straight up jazz, some be-bob, latin, rock, country, a little bit of everything. There are separate “groups” that meet for different purposes, and different reasons, but we all have the same goal … playing good music with super nice people! The only thing missing is the stress …

Of course, that does not cover all aspects. We are also missing getting paid to play, and we don’t have the chance to perform/interact with an audience as frequently as we would like.  But that’ll come in time, on our terms, as we move ahead. Every one of us is fortunate that we can play music when we feel like it, without concern about pay or bookings or any of the myriad things that used to bother us. We are former professional musicians, lawyers, engineers, photographers, professors … the groups are diverse and overlapping, yet we all have that common goal.

Which begs the question posed above; is ‘full-time musician” still a valid job description? When I was young, it was absolutely a viable career opportunity, one that I pursued for most of my life. I did begin supplementing the music income with the dreaded “day gig” at the end of my working life-cycle, but even with that music was still a “full-time” thing. I always considered myself a musician first, listed that as my occupation and treated my music career as the professional level vocation it was. It was possible to do that through the ’60’s, ’70’s, ’80’s and even most of the ’90’s, but at the turn of the century digital music took over and the professional musician field collapsed.

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My main working bass

Every time any one of us listens to Spotify or Pandora or any other music-sharing service we are taking income directly out of the musicians pockets. Musicians used to tour and do concerts to support their album sales … now it’s exactly the opposite, with the concerts (and mechandise selling) becoming the primary income for most “professional” musicians. And yeah, there are players who ARE successful, but it is so rare these days that your odds are about the same as becoming a professional baseball player. New/current performers have the emphasis on performance, not on music, so if you look good and are photogenic you might (big emphasis on MIGHT), maybe, possibly, have some kind of glimmer of hope that you can succeed in music.

I was what was referred to as a journeyman musician, never a big star, nobody important, every now and then with an occasional glimpse of fame but mostly just the equivalent of a working stiff. I was able, along with MANY others at that time, to be in a position to have live music performance afford me a decent lifestyle. I’m afraid that is no longer the case. The music world has changed drastically, and what was once considered a viable career is now viewed as an avocation only, and therefore, not worthy of receiving compensation commensurate with the skill level provided.

At the great majority of local or regional benefits, where tickets are sold to patrons supporting whatever the cause-du-jour may be, pretty much everyone gets paid BUT the musicians. Caterers get paid, the rental hall gets paid, wait staff gets paid, advertising firms get paid, table rentals, lighting, parking … all get paid. Musicians get asked to donate their services in return “for the exposure”, somehow not being worthy of payment for services rendered. What am I going to do with “exposure”? Does that make the mortgage payment or put braces on little Junior or feed the family?

Fortunately, I no longer have these issues, and I no longer have to worry about income (none) or paying bills (still have those), but I do wonder what will become of live performance. I’ve noted that most of the school education systems have eliminated music from their curriculum, except where voluntary or after-school optional programs, so that’s no longer the greatest path to follow. And with the advent of digital sampling, where “real” musicians are digitized and the new format is all digital, live performance is fading quick.

Now, with a beautiful granddaughter studying piano (privately) and doing quite well, I find it heartbreaking that I can’t encourage a career for her. I wish I could tell her, “Study hard, practice, enjoy the music … it’ll be worth it”.

My moments of stardom, fame and fortune are well over (actually, I’m not sure they ever arrived) but music remains just as essential to my existence as it did when I was a young kid. For me, opportunities were laid out in front of me to do with as I saw fit … making right, and many wrong, decisions as I went ahead. But I just don’t see that same opportunity for this new generation, or maybe I have to get with the times and realize that the music is still there, but just not in the form I’m used to seeing … perhaps electronic bites and computer-generated stuff IS the new music.

And if so, the questions still remains: Is full-time musician still a job description?



1 comments on “Is “Full-Time Musician” Still a Job Description?”

  1. I play in a three-piece band with my father and a family friend. They both recently retired and love to announce that they are now “Full-Time” musicians due to their retirement. I am very happy for both of them. I know that it was always a dream of my father’s to be a full time musician. It took a long time, but he did it.


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