A Case for the Unemployed Musician

 Since I retired from the academic profession I tell people that my new career is that of an ‘unemployed musician.’ That is by choice and something that I can now afford to do! I know this rubs some of my musician friends the wrong way, since many of them want to be employed. But this is they way I prefer to do my music.

 I have always enjoyed music and have always been involved in making it in one way or another. That began with music lessons at age seven and performing in groups and by myself ever since.

 In high school I was involved in Sea Scouts, and one of the young adult leaders whom I greatly respected was a professional musician. Lloyd was a talented concert oboist who loved classical music. He was a member of the Warner Brothers Studio Orchestra. But playing music for Hollywood movies was not something he enjoyed. He enjoyed playing in classical chamber music groups, but he had to make a living, and the studio orchestra paid him money.

 I knew Lloyd hated his professional music job, and later I learned that he went back to college and became a science librarian. This he enjoyed as it enabled him to pursue music for its pleasure, not for the money and what other people wanted him to do.

 I always had a strong interest in science, but had it not been for that I probably would have considered music as a career. But I guess Lloyd had a significant influence on me and the way I chose to do my music.

 I enjoyed college teaching and research for over 30 years, but I never had enough time for my music. I retired from teaching in Minnesota at age 59 and then spent 4 more years as a research professor at the U. of Washington before I retired again. So now I am a full-time unemployed musician. I am trying to catch up to where I might have been if I had had more time for music before retirement. But I'm enjoying every minute of it. For me retirement is the opportunity to do those things that you never had time for while you were working.

 There are different types of unemployed or semi-employed musicians. Most of my musician friends still have a day job and do music on the side. Some don't like their day jobs or have trouble keeping a day job, and would rather do music full time if they could make enough money. Others have great day jobs, but I suspect would still like more time for music. Then I have another friend who quit his part-time day jobs, and through fortunate circumstances has just enough money to devote full time to his music. He is an extremely talented Irish fiddler, so that is quite fortunate for him (and us), but he could never make it on what he earns as a musician. And there are those who do not have day jobs and are trying to make it as full-time musicians, but barely make ends meet and have no savings to ever retire.

 I’ve talked to some musicians who are performing at a professional level but have still kept their day jobs. Below are some of their comments.

 “In order to ‘make it’ as a musician, I would have had to continue playing weddings, take lots of students, and go on tour regularly. After playing several hundred weddings, we decided we would only do it if they wanted the music we play. No more background Irish tunes or oompah music on the accordion.”

 “One of the big advantages of not depending on music for the income is that I don't have to play music I don't like... But I work hard and have to be creative on [my day] job, and when I get home at night I'm tired and often don't have the energy or creative force left to be really effective at pursuing my craft. I often feel bad because I don't play as well as I would like, or as much as I would like. I have to keep reminding myself that I work more than full time at a complicated job and am lucky that I have something like music in my life, and that I've been able achieve the small successes I've had.”

 “The best thing about being an unpaid musician is that you can play some very enjoyable (and educational) gigs that would be economically impossible if you needed to actually make a living from them.”

 “I agree that trying to make a living as a musician/singer is a rough thing to do. I have gotten some pretty nice gigs and sold a lot of my CDs over the years, but never to the point that I could afford to quit my day job. Most of my friends who are trying to ‘make it’ as a musician are barely scraping by and have no plans for retirement except to keep on gigging until they drop dead.”

 I also hear about big-name full-time musicians who are making gobs of money, but have sold themselves out to the music industry and are not enjoying it like they used to. I guess most of us don't have to worry about that.

 Historically, musicians have always had a hard time pursuing their craft. Charles Ives, one of America’s most famous classical composers, was better known in his lifetime as a successful insurance salesman. Music was a weekend activity, but he must have worked very hard at that. Few of his works were publicly performed before he stopped composing in 1930. In 1947, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his Symphony No. 3.

 In the December, 2004 Victory Review, Don Firth wrote about Troubadours. In the Middle Ages many monks left the monastery to become wandering singer/poets, and also began playing various musical instruments. Some were welcomed in courts and castles where they were treated as honored guests. They composed and performed music for their patrons and enjoyed a privileged status. But most became wandering musicians. This was a career similar to being a professional beggar since they often played for tips at local fairs and other gatherings.

 So are musicians better off now than in the past?  I guess it depends on circumstances and expectations. There’s this line in the film The Commitments: “its much better being an unemployed musician than an unemployed plumber.” 


 Stewart Hendrickson is Chemistry Professor Emeritus – St. Olaf College, Research Professor Emeritus – University of Washington, and in his new career, an unemployed folk musician (voice, fiddle, guitar; ).