Middle Class Musicians

Anointed pop stars, top-selling artists, and major label darlings enjoy a disproportionate share of the public's adulation and entertainment budgets. A lot of music is being made under slick light shows, promoted via even slicker marketing, but what about the local, working musicians playing nightly gigs, running production studios, and handling their own business affairs as members of the middle class?

We gathered some of the many stories that go unsung: the people who through some combination of talent, persistence and marketing savvy, find a way to earn a living wage - and often support a family - working in the music industry.

Chris Robley, keeper of the D.I.Y. Musicians blog at CDBaby, was kind enough to post our call for correspondents. Within minutes, questionnaire responses were rolling in from all over the world.

We heard from church organists, singer/songwriters, farmer/songwriters, music professors, sound technicians, stay-at-home dad/spoken word artists, rock band coaches, trombonists, guitar instructors, an Asian-American dance rock band, vocal coaches, label owners, dance composers, orchestra violinists, and funeral bagpipers.

The told us what they do all day, how they are surviving the economic downturn, and how they define success. Click their names to visit their websites.
A Day in the Life of a Middle Class Musician

A popular stereotype of full-time musicians is that "musician" is code for "layabout." The survey responses we received shatter that notion. Not only is the music itself hard work, but most respondents do much more than just play instruments—they also handle their own cold-calling, management, and marketing.

This line of work is far more difficult than corporate life and many of the things one thinks would be perks aren't. Not having a boss means you must be self motivated, always. You do not get to wear whatever you want. You still dress a part. You don't set your own hours. You go where the gigs are when they are.
Jefferson Montoya, Las Vegas, Nevada
Gigging Guitarist and Music Instructor

I teach guitar in six schools, teach a handful of people privately, teach songwriting workshops at a recording studio during school holidays, write and record my own songs, play open mics. I'm filling in at the moment for the guitarist in a Balkan gypsy wedding band, I'm blogging through all the Beatles songs at Beatles Songwriting Academy and I have four kids and a wife.
Matt Blick, Liverpool, England
Singer/Songwriter and Music Instructor

Up at 6, doing emails, random busywork, checking blogs and music related sites, finding and databasing leads for future use, emailing leads/doing promotion, practicing an instrument for a bit, lunch, working on writing/recording original compositions, teach in the afternoons to early evenings, occasionally a gig at night, and if not, family time. sleep, repeat.
Christopher Bright, Costa Mesa, California
Church Music Director, Relaxation Music Composer, Music Education Blogger

I'm a stay at home dad, so all my duties for the early part of the day revolve around diapers, messes, spills, stressful feeding sessions, and walks to the park with my two kids and our pit bull. During nap-time (2-3 hrs), I spend my time on the computer trying to gain exposure, climb up different charts, update profiles, write songs, make music videos, set up gigs, rehearse for gigs, check correspondence, etc... The world of a musician these days revolves around online exposure. At the end of the work day, my wife gets home, I go off to Jiu-Jitsu, train, return home and relax with the family before the kids go off to bed. Then it's back to the computer, or off to a gig.
Pedro el Poeta, Saint Petersburg, Florida (pictured with son above)
Hip-Hop/Spoken Word Artist

Nobody understands what I do, but people appreciate the end product.
Peter Evans, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Songwriter and Producer

Has the Global Economic Downturn Hurt Working Musicians?

It depends on the person. You have to be more innovative in the way you create a living for yourself. It seems that it used to be you could get away with freelancing, but that work is much less than it once was. I wasn't working during that time, but it's what I've heard from more experienced players. People who are making it now have a multifaceted approach; publishing arrangements, teaching lessons, teaching at the university, playing with a chamber group for weddings/corporate gigs, etc. You can't get by just playing, whereas it seems you used to be able to do just that.
Erin, Las Vegas, Nevada
French Hornist

Different groups of musicians will get more work as trends change, and some will get less. Just as horn players suffered when synth horns and backing tracks became better, Drummers suffer with new volume laws in venues, again backing tracks are easier to control volume wise... [Meanwhile] solo acts and one-person tribute shows are doing very well, always a lot of work available around the world.
Richard Murray, Northern Ireland
Music Instructor, Songwriter, Producer

I'm getting fewer wedding and church gigs. The opera has also cut back on the size of its orchestra for next year's productions, and for one of its productions this year they cut one rehearsal.
—Martha, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Orchestra Violinist

With gas prices on a steady upward swing, the planning of when and where to tour has become even more of a tedious task. Coupled with the fact that people are spending less on entertainment, the economy certainly plays a role in my career. I believe there's a plateau currently... the economy is one reason. The overall number of artists / acts pursuing a career full time is increasing, so the 'success stories' I believe are fewer and far between.
Travis Singleton, Knoxville, Tennessee
Songwriter and Touring Musician

It's getting harder to find jobs as a sound technician all the time. Getting a steady job seems impossible now, and small jobs don't come very often. As a musician I see how venues pay less and book fewer live acts. Where I live in Spain I've also seen how people go to fewer concerts now. I've been at amazing gigs seeing people from all over the world with as few as 5-10 people in the audience.
Jorge Arroyo, Madrid, Spain
Singer, Guitarist, Trumpeter, Sound Technician

How Musicians Adapt to Harsh Economic Times

Despite the economic climate, a number of adventuresome musicians wrote in to report that they've found ways to adapt. During a time when many households are cutting back on such luxuries as live music, some musicians report that they're actually thriving.

Some musicians are able to score more gigs by traveling light and nimble:

The economy slightly lowered the amount of sponsorship dollars received as well as some merchandise sales. However, by becoming even more sharp in targeting our audience and offering additional revenue streams, we've been able to get by.
Simon Tam, Portland, Oregon
Bassist For The Slants, Activist, Music Blogger

Among the musicians who do play in bands, many are playing in several different groups (in some cases, 5 or more) to make ends meet. Some band members are making up for the scarcity of gigs by teaching more students during the day. Others are willing to tighten their belts and go without some luxuries themselves.

Quality of Indie Recordings and Internet Distribution

Indie artists now have access to digital devices that deliver professional-quality audio at a ludicrously low price. Matt Blick from Liverpool writes in to recount what it was like to record on 4-track cassette machines:

When I started the home medium was cassette tape and it was almost impossible to record a releasable product, especially if you wanted to do some serious multitracking. Now the home quality has gone up a lot and the pro quality has gone down a little (I'm talking about mp3s really) so it's a completely level playing field as to product. 10 years ago the average indie muso couldn't record an album at home that could stand up against the big boys but now they can. Getting heard is still really hard, but for different reasons - the rules have changed.
Matt Blick, Liverpool, England (pictured at right)

If you don't have any internet presence, you'll only go about as far as Leroy's on blues jam night.
Jake Lawless, Michigan City, Indiana
Bassist, Producer, Poet, Screamer, Yeller

I'm constantly connected. I rely on the internet to network, market, do booking, collaborate on projects, manage our entire online presence, etc. The internet has provided me with a nearly unlimited number of resources and tools to use. For some other members of the band, it's also provided additional sources of income while we're on the road (for example, web design or other "work from home" type of businesses).
Simon Tam, Portland, Oregon

What Do You Like Most About Your Job?

I love the fact that every day is different. I love the night life and I love being around musicians. I love making music and getting paid for it.
Richard Dole, Indianapolis, Indiana
Trombonist, Composer, Arranger, Music Instructor

It doesn't involve carrying heavy objects around or working outside in the cold!
Stuart Newman, London, England
Indie Recording Artist

I love music... I love playing it, talking about it, listening to it. It's the thing that moves and energizes me, and makes all the hard parts about the job totally worth it. I feel so lucky... I can't imagine retiring, even if I hit it big and had more $ than I knew what to do with.
Christopher Bright, Costa Mesa, California

Being my own boss, being part of my community, working closely with business leaders, providing a service that is both professional and enjoyable. But the most important thing I love about my job is being able to provide for my family.
Travis Vega, Lodi, California
Lead Guitarist, Music Instructor

I enjoy the satisfaction of surpassing my own limitations musically, whether that be learning a piece on short notice and executing it well, or delivering a performance that pleases my colleagues and myself. It mainly comes down to a personal sense of accomplishment, not the accolades of an audience, or the amount of money I am making from it.
Brent Edmondson, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Orchestra Double Bassist and Music Transcriber

I love making people happy with my music. I am totally visually impaired, so I found that music is a great way I can serve my community and country and just give back to society.
Alexandria Davis, Savannah, Georgia
Solo Bagpiper

How Do You Define Success?

Applause, written responses, interesting conversations, new and old friendships, notoriety - probably in that order.
Peter Evans, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Having a personal roadie.
Simon Russell, Brighton, England
Bassist, Double Bassist, Guitarist

I've been wrestling with this question for ever, it seems. and I don't have a decent answer yet. Mastery of the craft is one component, recognition among peers is another, acceptance by the audience yet another, financial security certainly, legacy still another part... no, still cant define it.
Charlie R., Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Bagpiper At Weddings, Funerals, and More

Success to me means that I'm continuing to work and provide for my family. Whatever it takes to do more of that, is what I will do.
Keith Mullins, Coldstream, Nova Scotia (pictured at right)
Drummer, Songwriter, Workshop Leader

To me success comes from inside. If you're happy with what you're doing then that's success. I guess I do want people to hear what I do, but I'm most happy when I write a song I love...
Jorge Arroyo, Madrid, Spain

As an artist, success is making something good and breaking new ground in some way. As a musician, success is playing well. As a music biz person success to me is making a living doing music - even if it is a meager one.
Todd Oats Olsen, Atlanta, Georgia
Freelance Producer and Small Label Startup

As long as bills get paid and children are kept I'm good.
I don't want more than most Americans in their jobs.
Gold records and accolades would be nice but success is performing your best, getting a check, and doing it again.

Jefferson Montoya, Las Vegas, Nevada

I want my music to make it possible for me to pay my band, my bills, and buy my friends a round at the pub. I want people to get my songs stuck in their heads. I want to know that lyrics I poured my heart into, or songs I wrote when I was brokenhearted are making a difference to another human being...
I live my entire life, from what I eat to how I take care of my body, with the idea in mind that when I'm 70, 80, 90, I will still be making music. I will still be on stage. I will still be creating until they lay me in the ground. I want to end my time on this earth with a massive body of work that evolved and grew and changed over time, and I want to stay linked to my friends and colleagues as they do the same. That's my definition of success.

Normandie Wilson, San Diego, California
Singer, Pianist, Composer, Vocal Coach

[Success is] occasionally doing something that your kids aren't annoyed by musically.
Aaron Gayden, Auburn, California
Songwriter and Multi-Instrumentalist

April 24, 2012
More Song Writing

Comments: 2

  • Jonah from Toronto, CanadaMy daughter is a very serious cellist. I'm going to send her this link so she can see for herself what life might be like if she decides to pursue this as a career. I think it's both sobering and inspiring. I remember seeing an interview with a musician who had enjoyed some mid-level success as a recording artist in the past and he discussed how people think you're a failure if you're not still selling a million records. He said he always considered himself a success because he had a nice home and a family, and he still got to make music for a living.
  • Zhivko from Bourgas, BulgariaI can say that those artists pretty much nail it in terms of how musicians do around the world. I guess it's the same everywhere and I am not really surprised by that. However, I am feeling much more happy now -- seeing that i am in a place not much different.
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