All Dressed Up With No Place To Go?

By • June 17, 2008

Valued readers: This is my 50th column. Wow, how time flies. At this occasion, I want to pause, take a big breath, and let you all know how much I appreciate your interest in this magazine/blog and my articles. Special thanks go to all those who have invested further and corresponded with me, either shooting the breeze or asking questions that actually became future column-fodder. Please continue, as I occasionally feel the massed weight of subjects already covered may be painting me into a corner… But to all, again, thanks for sticking around.

It’s graduation time again and some of you may be part of the current horde of practice-room escapees that is being released onto an unsuspecting world. If your school managed to touch on topics like fiscal self-management, rudimentary accounting, and retirement plans, that’s good, as the history of music is littered with talented and supremely-skilled ne’er-do-wells, simply because they didn’t know how to handle the fruits of their art.

However, let me suggest to you that there is another dimension to survival that isn’t common in the curricula: entrepreneurship. If you are reading this, you are probably contemplating joining the world of the commercial freelancer, where survival is not just a confluence of artistic skill and passion, but also the organization and use of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of individual connections in a complex, largely unstructured work environment.

At the beginning of the last century, the average professional musician was a cog in a larger artistic machine. In short, a sideman. His fellow artists were so homogenized that they were essentially interchangeable (within finite, narrow genres), separated almost solely by skill level. Connecting performer with audience was someone else’s marketing job (impresario, orchestra management, broadcaster, record company, etc.) Those not laboring along those lines were teachers of ones who wanted to be. The experience of music itself was almost entirely a human endeavor, from the pianist in the parlor and the choir in the church to the Metropolitan Opera.

For the next hundred years, what we saw in our marketplace evolution was a bumpy, but inexorable consolidation of musical forces due to public tastes and advancing technology. Broadcasting and recording slowly reduced the number of actual musicians performing at any given moment. Popular music (rock & roll and its successors) shrank the basic musical unit from large orchestras and “big bands” to combos. Later, analog and digital synthesis (and sampling that followed) further eroded or replaced traditional jobs for some musicians. Currently, we are living through the breakdown of venerated models of record companies and retail record stores as methods of production and distribution connecting artist with audience. Even the modern musician’s union has shrunk to a tenth of its historic membership levels, as this consolidation made the ratio of sidemen-to-leaders smaller and the perceived need for union organization and representation in each musical unit less. Where it’s going is a topic for another day…

The “fewer-big-winners-getting-rewarded-for-the-efforts-of-many-non-winners” model is already under challenge. While there will always be hugely lucrative rewards for the famous household names, the democratization of production and distribution (what a mouthful!) of music will mean more and more musicians, if they are willing and able to assume the traditional duties of record company and record store and reach their more finite crowds, can survive and do all right. For the live performer, who lives and dies by connection to his audience, it will be the difference between newspaper advertising and targeted guerrilla marketing.

In such a world, the competition to reach more diverse and possibly smaller constituencies will favor those with more than just superior chops and good self-management. Once again, the missing component, not taught in many or any schools, is entrepreneurship.

To the non-musician’s dictionary, it’s the organization or management of any enterprise, especially a business, usually with considerable initiative and risk. To the freelancer, it’s the ability to not just steer the “vehicle” of one’s career, but to draw the map one will follow as well as get out and push, when necessary. When conventional career paths and strategies fail to work for some, the entrepreneurial-savvy among them will find a way to, as Clint Eastwood drilled into his marines in “Heartbreak Ridge,” “Adapt. Improvise. Overcome.” Applied to some freelance careers, it can be more valuable than the best chops.

True entrepreneurship is a spirit and a passion, universal and time-tested. As a compendium of salesmanship, marketing, and creative thinking, finding a good education in it may be a bit complicated, particularly if not taught within the context of your musical training. The trendy tools and specifics of it, however, are not, for what’s “hot” in socio-techno circles can be gotten at any community college and even online.

If conventional career paths should fail you, entrepreneurship, the ability to “adapt, improvise, overcome” may be your ticket to stay in the game. If most freelance careers are “last man standing” marathons, then musicians who are capable of refocusing their abilities and redefining their careers will inevitably survive longer and enjoy the trip more than their one-trick-pony dropout brethren.

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