Advice from Artists, Get a Day Job!

Question from reader : I’m a jazz pianist, nearly 50, and I need to make some real money! I can’t believe how little one makes practicing “America’s only original art form.”

Self will refrain — for the moment — from commenting on above quote, dear blog reader. All she will say for now is that she is in a similar dilemma with regards to her writing, and keeps wondering these days, “What’s it all about?” After decades of sacrificing financial security to stay in measly little part-time positions to preserve her energy for her “art”, she has produced three books that nearly emptied her bank account (because of all the time off without pay she had to take to finish said books) and that have contributed not one penny to the family kitty.

Son’s college education? Entirely paid for by hubby.

Home mortgage? Same.

Property tax? Same.

Good thing self had the foresight to sniff out a Stanford engineer! If not, self would find herself teaching composition full-time and growing prematurely gray-haired from frustration (at not being able to practice her “art”) and from stress (financial).

Without further ado, the article. (Oh, and by the way, the italics at the end are my own.)

* * * *

April 17, 2007 |

Hi, Cary,

I’m approaching 50 years old. I’ve been a jazz pianist for nearly 30 years. I’m not anyone you’ve ever heard of. I’m good but not great. I never thought I would be famous, and that doesn’t bother me. I’ve had lots of hotel and restaurant gigs, accompanied hundreds of lame wannabe singers (and some good ones, too) and done thousands of gigs in jazz clubs, some with incredible musicians and some where nobody was listening. I always thought if I stuck with it, I’d be able to make a living. I think I read somewhere that the average jazz musician these days makes about $17,000 a year. A 50-year-old making that seems pathetic. I do better than that, but not by much. I’ve spent my life climbing this ladder of musical success and found out when I got near the top that the ladder was against the wrong wall. I’m not married and don’t have kids. Never would have been able to afford them. That would have been nice.

How can a person like me change into something different? It seems impossible and I don’t know where to begin.

We always hear heart-warming stories of people who followed their dream and never gave up and so forth, but what of the people who followed their dream and failed? We don’t want to hear about them.

I’m an intelligent person. I have two master’s degrees. One in music, the other in fine arts (another useful degree). Yet I have absolutely no idea about how to go about making money.

Yes, that is what I want. Money. I want health insurance. I want a decent place to live. I want to think maybe I won’t have to be taking lousy gigs at age 80 to buy a meal.

I don’t think I’ve been totally naive. I didn’t strive for fame, à la “American Idol.” I studied hard. I know music theory inside out. I checked out the history of jazz piano from Jelly Roll Morton to Keith Jarrett. I thought being true to your art was satisfaction enough. I guess it’s not. I want the satisfaction of making a decent living. I’m tired of taking every $100 gig that comes my way to play for a tone-deaf singer. After I drive an hour each way, and pay the IRS its cut, and I end up with $50. This is what practitioners of “America’s only original art form” have to deal with.

I really think I could leave it all behind. I could be happy playing the occasional gig for fun. Or playing for myself and friends. I’d like to do some more composing just for self-satisfaction. But I have no idea how to make a living! This revelation just drives me nuts. The thought of starting from scratch at my age is mind-boggling.

I know these questions are very broad. Most people look at me and think I’m lucky, that playing music for a living must be great. Other people in other occupations must feel the same. I’m just barely making a living. Is it possible for me to change?

Musically Frustrated

Carey’s Response:

Dear Musically Frustrated,

I, too, was frustrated this morning when I sat down to answer your letter. Nothing was coming. I went to the regular place where I go to get words and there were no words there. Weird. Am I running out? I had to leave my house and walk around. I went to a meeting of the type I often attend. It was somewhat comforting but did not really help.

Then, standing on the street corner waiting for a train, I noticed a bumper sticker on an old Toyota Camry sedan. It said “Real musicians have day jobs!”

I felt that my prayers had been answered — yours too, actually.

It was a needed reminder: Your music does not have to support you. In fact, your music might be happier if you were supporting it.

You have done the almost impossible by supporting yourself as a jazz pianist all these years. It is a remarkable, heroic and admirable feat. That doesn’t mean that at a certain point you can’t sit out a few sets.

You may find it hard to change; deep down you may feel that what you are is a musician, end of story.

I felt at one time that I was a writer, end of story. But it wasn’t end of story. Was more like beginning of story.

I did not gain freedom to write with fluidity and ease until I stopped believing that I had to be a writer.

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