Music As a Career, Pt.1

February 12, 2009 Off By Eric Jensen

Over time, professional musicians can lose their spark after years of unexpected challenges in an ever changing and highly competitive industry. The profound love and commitment to the power of music can become tempered by the harsh realities of making a living. There’s an old joke:

Q: How do you get a musician to complain?
A: Give them a gig.

We spend years mastering every page of Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, only to discover a certain lack of relevance in the real world. The reality TV guy is just looking for some ‘wacka-chucka-wacka’ to move the thing along, and if there is any way he can get music for free you are cut out of the deal altogether! Perhaps the initial disappointment is our first ‘day job’. Or, when the glow of supporting ourselves full-time in music begins to wane, we realize that the challenging and lucrative work we seek remains elusive.

The way out of this box is to learn the art of separating your love of music from the realities of building a career and making a living. Musicians have developed many unique and valuable skills that can serve them in a variety of contexts. I had a good run supporting myself composing and playing, well into my forties. My first 9-5 job (not counting the stuff I did as a kid) involved defining, creating and implementation complex, enterprise telecommunications call routing systems. Go figure. I knew nothing about this industry at the time, but was hired because of my experience as a musician, thanks to some very astute managers. The job involved figuring out and troubleshooting complex, proprietary technology, communicating effectively with a diverse array of personality types (uh-huh), synthesizing someone else’s needs and vision into a new entity, and keeping the clients happy. Sounds more than a little like modern day composing doesn’t it? Since then, I have been involved in a number of professional endeavors while continuing to stay active as a musician. In every situation I have drawn on the years of study and hard work that went into my musical development.

If you find yourself in areas of the industry that don’t feel creative anymore, look at it from another angle. Think of yourself as an entrepreneur, building a business. If you are playing, ask yourself if you would be more comfortable booking other people or perhaps teaching. If you are composing for commercial applications and things begin to dry up creatively, consider stepping back into the producer role. There are many young composers that would love to do the leg-work and learn from your experience while you build a successful business.

Above all, don’t lose the connection with your musical muse… No compromises… Whether it’s playing or composing every day, creating your own projects on the side, or teaching and sharing your passion with younger musicians, go back to the well continually. The benefits flow in both directions. Music is a conversation. Remember, nothing stays the same for long. If you can hold both realities in your mind without judgment, you will always be ready when the next opportunity presents itself.