This will be a bit of a departure from my usual light homepage fare, but I got an email a while back from a recent college grad inquiring as to my thoughts concerning life as a composer in The Real World (tm) as well as applying to grad schools. This seemingly innocuous request prompted me to vomit up a small mountain of surprisingly ranty text, which in turn prompted me to put down in writing thoughts stemming from many experiences and conversations I’ve had over the past few years both in and out of academia.
What will follow is a series of posts trying to sum up my thoughts on life as so-called "professional musician" and “new music composer” in the US, as well as thoughts I've been putting together for a while as to how musicians (but composer/performers in particular, since that’s how I roll) can better participate in their local and not-local scenes, get their music played, and maybe even make a few friends. More after the jump - hold on to your butts.
Part 1 - my ranty preamble to my email response to that unexpecting post-undergrad dude/my general spiel to anyone that asks me if they should try to make a living as a musician
Being a professional musician is a pain in the ass, even though it is (or at least can be) awesome. You will work your ass off (you will need to enjoy doing this), you will make less money than almost all your peers (especially if you went to a liberal arts school like I did), and your most stable career prospects (assuming you're trying to write concert music) are extremely competitive tenure-track jobs or one-in-a-million orchestral commissions. Rock music is not looking much better, especially if you’re trying to do something interesting or different. Ask Future of the Left, or hell, even Pomplamoose.
If you're doing this, you're jumping off the train of the set career path, and there will be a lot of uncertainty. You'll have be driven, passionate, engaging, and aggressive, and you should only try to organize your life around being a professional musician if a) people are already throwing money/awards/kittens at you for it or b) you seriously can't picture yourself being happy doing anything else. I personally have no regrets whatsoever about the life I've chosen for myself, and I don't mean to discourage anyone. But the reality is that it's a tough field to crack into, let alone make a decent living in, and will definitely mean a pretty weird life compared to your peers, and I felt like my undergrad didn't bother giving me a sense of that.
Ok, rant nearly over. It can be daunting, but know that nearly everyone trying to do what you're doing goes through the same bullshit. And if you can stick out the bad times, get really good at it, act like a human being, and get sufficiently lucky, people will maybe sometimes pay you enough money to continue doing it. You do have to be prepared for the fact that it almost certainly won't happen for a while, and may not happen at all. You'll have to weigh what kind of material lifestyle you want to have against how much of your time and energy you can spend on your music.
But on the other hand, you get to do something you're really seriously passionate about, and you get to spend a lot of time with some of the coolest people ever. My friend Doug wrote a great article a few years back on the economics of a touring metal band, and many of the same financial woes and will plague you as a professional musician in any genre. For me though, as with the band profiled in Doug’s article, for me nothing can replace the camaraderie and chemistry of a musical group, the feeling of really nailing music you’ve worked on for ages, of having a crowd really respond and knowing you really communicated something to other people. These are things I know I can’t be happy without, and they're the reason I still do what I do (OK, awards and money have helped too).
If you're still with me, my next post will work through some of the ways I’ve dealt with being a musician/composer/performer out of school, both before and after grad school – paying rent, finding gigs, competitions, getting music played, finding people who get what you’re doing – etc. See you then.