This essay was first published in October, 2010.
My Personal Music Story
I’ve been thinking about my life as a musician and the challenges of being a professional musician (or painter, sculptor, dancer, poet, or artist of any kind) in today’s society. I’ll start with some details of my personal story, through which many of you will be reminded of your own pursuits of your personal passions.
Being an only child facilitated my beginning to play the clarinet at age eleven. My music practice, as a beginner, was aided by the fact that I didn’t have as many social distractions as may be present in larger families. Perhaps this explains in part why young people in our society are more likely to play sports than to play musical instruments. My parents had exposed me at an early age to classical music in the form of 78rpm records. (I’m dating myself with that last reference.) One of the 78rpm recordings was Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with Jose Iturbi on piano. Perhaps that opening clarinet solo is what initially attracted me to the instrument.
My parents discouraged me from pursuing music as a career. My grandfather and father were both attorneys, and as Oscar Dallas Smith, III, they reasonably hoped and expected that I would follow in their footsteps. I rebelled against their wishes in this any many other ways, though it took me years to establish my music career after living overseas and moving from Georgia to California.
The mid-seventies were a vibrant time in music communities of the San Francisco Bay Area. At the same time, I enrolled in Indian music classes at Ali Akbar College of Music. I learned a lot (and hopefully continue to learn), and had a lot of fun. But let’s shift our attention from the romance, social facilitation, and adrenaline-laced performances, to the financial realities of being a gigging musician in today’s economy (as opposed to being a star on the highest touring and recording level).
There were a few years in the eighties when I practically lived off my royalties. Plus, for a couple of months each in 1982 and 1983 I worked in Bollywood (India’s film industry—the world’s largest) and the music scene in Bombay, where I made more money than I typically earned in California during those years. So I worked as a freelance musician for over a decade, playing for private parties, weddings, divorces, Bar Mitzvas, conferences, conventions, craft fairs, dances, churches, clubs, concerts, and recording sessions. I was also a member of any number of bands, each of which provided occasional sporadic work.
Susan, during those years before we met (in 1984) played her harp at a series of years-long, steady gigs, at hotels in San Francisco and at Lake Tahoe. In both our experiences, the casual gigs that occur in 2010 pay the same dollar amounts as thirty years ago. Meanwhile, all other expenses, such as rent, gasoline prices, etc. have doubled, tripled, or more. In other words, musicians have seen their typical fees diminish in value over the years relative to the increases in other expenses.
The Record Business
Let’s consider the recording side of the music business. During my freelance years I played as a sideman on countless recording sessions, working fee for service. In the early eighties, I recorded and received royalties on several records recorded on the Rising Sun label. (It was through Rising Sun Records that Susan and I first met.) I’ve known of a few select musicians who have made a fortune through having written a hit song. Also, some bands I know of have had some good runs of recording and touring. But 99% of the musicians I know are struggling to make ends meet, because of the insecurity and diminished opportunities to support oneself as a freelance musician (as opposed to school music teachers and major symphony members who earn a living wage at their relatively more secure jobs).
Let’s face it…Having a big hit record is about as likely as breaking into the movie industry and becoming a star. And in both cases, it’s necessary to move to LA (or New York, or Nashville) to be closer to the industry’s career opportunities. It gets more and more difficult, the smaller the city one lives in. San Francisco doesn’t have nearly as many music career opportunities as Los Angeles, but it certainly has much more than Reno. Columbus, Georgia, has even fewer opportunities. And in small town America…forget it!
Somewhere I heard the following analogy: In the year 1900, half of America’s population worked in agriculture, creating food for themselves and the other half of the country not engaged in farming. By 2000, all the food for the whole country was being produced by only 2-3% of the population. The other 97% are simply consumers. It’s the same with music: in 1900, everybody played music at home, at church, for themselves and their immediate circles. By 2000, relatively few people are proficient at music, and all most all the music “consumed” on radio, television, and in concerts as part of the mass entertainment industry. Most of that music is produced by a small number of elite recording musicians living in Los Angeles and Nashville.
Don Lewis’s Story
I recently got to know keyboard artist and singer, Don Lewis. Susan had known Don in San Francisco, and so we caught up on old times when Don visited us recently in Reno. Don Lewis was one of the pioneers of synthesizer networking. Don coordinated/synced a collection of analogue synthesizers into a single controllable ensemble using the control voltage protocol (this was pre-digital interfaces), enabling him to sound like a full orchestra with a backup choir. Don’s expertise led to his being hired as a consultant by Yamaha and Roland, Japan’s (and thus the world’s) two leading synthesizer makers. At the same time, Don performed long-term hotel/lounge engagements, similar to Susan’s.
Don’s performing career suffered for almost a decade, based on harassment by the musicians’ union. The musicians’ union opposed all synthesizers (and drum machines) for years, ostracizing any synthesizer artists, no matter how brilliant, under the assumption that synthesizers were taking work away from musicians. (Computer-created music was still in its infancy.) Union representatives approached the hotel management where Don was working, and complained that a room of that size should employ at least four or more musicians. Performing as a soloist with his awesome synthesizer rig, Don had an established public following, including a six-thousand person mailing list (this in the pre-computer age). The musicians’ union went so far as to picket the hotel/lounge against Don, leading to Don’s contracts not being renewed. Basically, Don was unable to work in the Bay Area for years, based on the threat of a union picket line showing up to harass him at any potential gigs.
Don’s revenge came after seven or eight years, when he received notification by mail that his complaint against the union for unjustified interference in his “right to work” had been confirmed by the National Labor Relations Board. This ruling enabled Don to sue the union for lost wages during the time he was prevented from working, and he was awarded considerable damages, which he had to split with the law firm that represented him on contingency. The union was unfortunately on the wrong side of history. It was misplaced energy for the union to harass a brilliant musician, rather than preparing its membership to embrace the new technologies that revolutionized the music business. I show my age, though it seems amazing to realize, that when I first started out in the music business, there were only electric guitars…no synthesizers.
To conclude this discussion of the music business, Susan and I count our blessings daily, that we have our company, Healing HealthCare Systems, which provides us with more financial security in our work in the healthcare industry, than we could have ever achieved in the music business. We get to use our music in our business, providing a 24-hour healing environment channel for patients. We still play occasional gigs both in Reno and out of town. But we don’t have to depend on them to cover our basic expenses. Thank goodness!
The times, they are a-changin’…
Any discussion of the music business would be incomplete without recognizing the effects that downloading music (both for free and for a fee) have had on the industry. Music file-sharing has drastically reduced the sales of CD’s and music DVD’s. The traditional record companies have suffered the most. Yet, based on their tradition of exploiting the artists, most musicians have had not sympathy for those traditional record companies. Thus many record labels have gone out of business. The internet has broken the “strangle-hold” on the market that the major labels enjoyed for so many years, on deciding who would receive the promotion necessary to become a star and who wouldn’t. So the internet has had a democratizing effect by allowing independent artists to sell their music directly to consumers. Nonetheless, the financial pie is much smaller than it used to be, based on the common habit of young people sharing their music files without consideration of any payment to the artists who produce and live off their music.
In a more general sense, the trend within modern society is to take the arts for granted. This makes it hard for musicians to get paid for their work, whether locally at the corner bar/restaurant, or through the sales of their songs through internal sales conduits such as ITunes. Just like “fast food” (the largest segment of the restaurant market), music is regarded as cheap and disposable…generic and easily replaced. Music is less and less regarded as an expression of high art, but rather as entertainment or an adjunct factor in facilitating the sale of some product or service. Has there ever been a commercial that moved anyone to tears, unless they were tears of rage at the blasphemy of misused music?
Back to my personal experience of music…
I’m still moved to tears in a positive sense by music that I hear. There’s the professional hazard that one can become “burned out” or otherwise jaded by the personal experience of having to produce/play music that one doesn’t love…perhaps similar to how the sex trade ruins the private sexual experience for prostitutes and exploited sex slaves. If I can still be moved to tears, it means that music still holds the magical power that attracted me to it in the first place.
For example, yesterday I was moved to tears by the beautiful playing in a concert by my friend, pianist/composer Joanne Grauer. A few days ago, I was moved to tears by a Beethoven piano concerto that I had first heard as a teenager still in high school, played by the lady who directed the church choir that I sang in, and who became my accompanist when I auditioned for a scholarship to Brevard Music Camp. Yet another instance in recent memory that brought me to tears was the viewing of a concert in Berlin by the Venezuelan Youth Orchestra. They played like their lives depended on it. This inspiring ensemble is the result of “la sistema”, the classical music educational network that is perhaps the best in the world. It’s most famous exponent is the brilliant new conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, Gustavo Dudemel. He’s phenomenal!
At a music workshop, I heard a wise saying from saxophone star Ernie Watts, who said, “You can’t expect to live the lifestyle of Michael Jackson playing the music of Miles Davis.” It’s funny how life offers us choices. I suppose I always had other choices…but it never occurred to me not to play the music I loved, rather than to focus on the music that is most commercial. In the seventies, that was rock and roll; in the eighties, it was disco. Then came heavy metal and rap. Now hip-hop is the biggest thing. I heard on a 60 Minutes report that hip-hop artist Eminem has sold at least eighty million CD’s. On a lesser scale, guitarist George Benson had a million-seller with his album Breezin’. When we complimented him on our favorite, his “Tenderly” album, he answered that it was a blight on his career, because “it only sold three hundred thousand copies.” I don’t know exactly how many copies of the albums sold that I received royalties from, but I know it wasn’t anywhere close to even three hundred thousand.
It’s necessary to confront the reality that, unlike hip-hop, rock and roll, and country music, both jazz and classical music styles are connoisseur music, like McDonalds food compared to “fine dining”. And so, any musician who chooses to pursue a career in jazz or classical music, does so to a great degree out of love for the art forms, not because a music career promises wealth or fame.