This post is a response to an eloquent series of posts at Jason Heath's blog called This Crazy Music Business. While not a prerequisite for understanding this piece I highly recommend taking the time to read through what he has to say. As someone who has been around professional musicians, actors, dancers, comedians and performers of all other stripes for well over thirty years, I can tell you that Jason's observations and conclusions are quite savvy and articulate.
There's an old joke in the biz: Q: "How do you make a musician complain?" A: "Give him a job." That is as succinct an assessment as I can imagine about this rather subversive business of making art. Even though we love to play we are constantly struggling with the practicalities of making a living doing this. Just a few of the inconvenient truths are: the unpredictability of a freelance income (never knowing when or how much you will work, how much you will be paid and when those checks might arrive); dealing with incompetent and/or arrogant conductors, band leaders, contractors and fellow sidemen; traveling to or finding the venue, parking and unloading unwieldy instruments, amps, etc; competition for gigs from other players of one's instrument and on and on.
And so the question must be asked: Why do we do it?
Performing artists spend inordinate amounts of time, energy and sustained effort to become proficient at our crafts. The investments we make involve the kind of personal commitment that only exist outside of the arts in the most rarefied professions, such as health care and politics. The level of psychic, spiritual and emotional (what Heath calls "affective") effort required goes way beyond the requirements of most other fields of endeavor.
It is this commitment in addition to the "addictive" quality of performing that keeps most of us hacking away at it for the better part of our lives. It is indeed rare to see a highly skilled musician walk away from this world voluntarily and permanently. I can think of several performers who have lives or careers of note (forgive the unconscionable pun if you will) in addition to their involvement in music. Jazz pianist Denny Zeitlin has a second life as a psychiatrist. The late bassist Art Davis was also a therapist. Many of us are involved in teaching in a variety of ways (more on this in a minute). There are people who are proficient in more than one area of performance: Steve Martin, for example, is a helluva banjo player. Yo Yo Ma can really break dance (just kidding). The pop music world is full of folks who have crossed over into acting careers and vice versa. The penicillin of economic reality and rationality has no effect on this performance bug, at least for most of us.
One of my favorite personal aphorisms about this business is: "I'm a musician, you know, a man with no marketable skills." The whopping majority of musicians, actors, dancers et al gave little or no thought to the "business" part of being a performer when we started studying, practicing and becoming addicted to expressing ourselves in these ways. I did not, for example, learn how to play all the modes, triads, seventh chords, pentatonics and so on in all twelve keys so that I could play Louie, Louie at weddings. I gave no thought to the commercial or practical aspects of playing music when I was playing original compositions and tunes by the likes of Wayne Shorter, Charles Mingus and Chick Corea in tiny jazz dives in the late 1970's. I did it because I loved the music and the way it felt to create a literal and figurative groove with my band mates. I worked hard because I wanted to do it well and to (as Mingus would put it) "get it in my soul."
So what is this addictive quality that Jason describes so well? He focuses on the performance aspect itself which is, of course, important. We like connecting with an audience, getting that feedback in the form of applause or, for the most part in my niche of the biz, the occasional positive comment like "It probably doesn't seem like we were listening, but you guys were great". Comedian Lenny Bruce summed up the motivation for performing by equating it with the psychological need for attention: "Everything we do is: Look at me, ma!" But I'm more "addicted" to the feeling I alluded to a moment ago. For lack of a better term I'll appropriate one from sports: it is this being in "the zone" that keeps me coming back for more, whether I consciously want to do so or not.
The "zone" in playing music (I've also experienced it as an actor) is poorly suited to a verbal description, but I'll give it a go: It is the feeling of being wholly in the present moment, of being connected viscerally to the other players, of being subsumed as an individual into the temporary collective mind, of being outside of chronological time and free of bodily sensation. It looks really kooky on paper, but this is where the analytical/rational/linear part of the human mind fails to serve. For a few linear moments at a time (and it may not last long) I can re-connect with that feeling of living only in the present, without concern for the mundane, for what happened five minutes ago or for what will happen five minutes hence. None of that counts for a hill of beans when I'm in the "zone".
Rather than quit, many of us diversify. The field of music encompasses not only the act of performing but other potentially remunerative endeavors as well. We can compose or arrange or copy music. We can become conductors, music directors or band leaders. We can go into music history, music theory, music therapy, arts administration. We can teach privately and at every academic level from kindergarten to graduate school.
All of these ancillary fields can serve as ways to augment our performance income or as primary careers. If you are skilled and lucky enough to have a job in a major orchestra or as a member of a major rock or pop act then you probably don't need a second job. But many of us blue collar musicians have to have multiple income streams to satisfy the performing jones.
There is no substitute for the experience of performing in the "zone", which is why I continue to do this crazy thing.