Is Music a Viable Career Choice?

Rant of the Day:

Is being a musician actually a viable career choice?

Jazz artists, even famous ones like recording artists Wes Montgomery and Kenny Dorham, at various times in their lives have struggled to make a decent income.   Kenny Dorham, who played with Charlie Parker, and has influenced a vast number of musicians with his playing, had to work in the post office, and then in a music store towards the end of his short life.  Kenny died at the age of 48.  Wes Montgomery, now considered one of the most influential jazz guitar players of all time, had many recordings, but really only came into his own on the Verve label which supported more commercial productions with strings.  Hank Mobley is one of the MOST recorded jazz saxophonists in history, on numerous recordings with the famous Blue Note label, as leader and sideman.  Yet his life was marred by alcohol and excesses, and without proper help, he died without much money at age 55.

Once someone told me, you’re on stage, you’re performing, the audience loves you, you feel exhilarated and then when it’s over you’re back in your hotel room, drained and empty while the audience goes home on a musical high.  Not many people understand on a cosmic level, how much musicians “give” to people who enjoy their art.

But now the market is flooded with people who study jazz NOTES at colleges and music science utililizing the jazz method.  Educated beyond belief with speed and technique that is unworldly; yet many young players are not expressing any soul or reaching people (of course amongst the herd come brilliantly gifted musicians, and I think music schools are great and the best place to study music, but I’m speaking in terms on the industry and art now).  A lot of jazz is calculated brain music, and the people have nothing to grab hold of.  Jazz should have three things, DANCE, MELODY and BLUES.  If you listen closely to Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Don Cherry, and Eric Dolphy, you still will hear these elements in their music at all times.  Jazz is historically a DANCE music, not a sitting and listening music.  As Barry Harris said, they used to listen to Charlie Parker in dance halls, listened to Count Basie in dance halls, heard Duke Ellington in dance halls.

Jazz has not been popular music since the 60’s really, and really started dying in the 50’s when it’s child, Rhythm & Blues was born, and that led to it’s next child, rock and roll.  R & B and rock were dance and party music, and it squashed it’s boring parents, “Jazz”, like a bug.  Soon Jazz had another child.  Funk.  Miles Davis saw Sly and the Family Stone play in front of 8000 screaming people and said in his inimitable scratchy voice “I want to do that…”.  When the Beatles hit the US, and those first concerts happened, the promoters had NEVER seen anything like it before, this single-handedly changed music and the industry forever.  It made the idea of having 50-300 people at a concert obsolete, the promoters said, these guys sold out in thousands!  The Beatles packed 8000 people in the Washington Coliseum in 1964, the old days were over!

Nowadays, we have many well-trained musicians, yet there is no music industry left for them.   No recording industry, no steady wage jobs for the every day musician, no jingles, no radio music, no weddings, no corporate parties, only a few jazz clubs (which pay the same wage from 1979) few TV music jobs in New York or Los Angeles.  For example in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s when The Wrecking Crew, (Carol Kaye told me she hates that name) with Los Angeles musicians: Hal Blaine, Carol Kaye, Glen Campbell, Plas Johnson, Jackie Kelso and others played on every rock, pop, movie, & TV show recording that was made.   Carol Kaye told me the end began in the 70s.  I worked beside Jackie Kelso in the Basie band who shared with me his stories of living in a trailer outside of the studio in Hollywood because there was so much work on recording sessions. Music Union work gave you pensions, insured royalties et al, now basically sits with little power to help the average worker.   Jackie Kelso made millions of dollars as a part of the Wrecking Crew.  And I’ve sat at Plas Johnson’s house, whom most of you know from his tenor sax on the theme from The Pink Panther, as he described working 7 days a week in the “old” days. He said you learned your skills by practicing, transcribing solos and playing jobs until you had your own sound.

Nowadays, record labels are extinct, there won’t be any “Pet Sounds” by The Beach Boys or massive productions like “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by the likes of the Beatles anymore.  No big record deals, no SMALL record deals for that matter- Eric Alexander told me back when he came up all the cats were looking to get “signed” but he said that is over for the new kids. No contracts, no music union gigs, teaching jobs at universities have new positions each year, because teaching is the new performance gig, but what’s interesting is the schools are pushing out trained musicians, onto a market which has made music an extra-curricula activity at 6 am or 4 pm!   A doctorate is the new masters degree.  Many can get a job with a masters of course, but most institutions want that doctorate in music.   Most of us teach other people how to play music, that’s how we financially survive, and then we send them out into the world and the cycle continues!

Let’s throw into the mix the iPhone and other devices with streaming services (where artists little checks for a thousands of streams, for example, in amounts like a $1.80 to $11.80 for the use of their recordings), and downloads, sharing and youtube, Mp3s etc, a musician now will never sell 20 million records like Michael Jackson again.  David Sanborn has had a great career, but he said the days of him selling 1 million jazz records are finished.  Artist make 1 to 5 points on the dollar with record label deals that is they get 5 cents on a every dollar sold.  Ray Charles made a great deal like that AND he said I want to OWN my music, recordings which was UNHEARD OF PREVIOUSLY.  The label gave in and said yes.  Of course he was Ray Charles and we are not.

Most artists for Motown became broke, no money, no good contracts, no residuals, that’s the reason they worked the rest of their life.  One artist, vocalist Darlene Love, had Number one hit records, and ended up working as a maid!

“Darlene also vividly recalls the period in her life when she disappeared from the music scene and fell on hard times. One day, while working as a maid in Beverly Hills, she heard herself on the radio and vowed to make a comeback, and so she has, with appearances in all four Lethal Weapon movies, starring roles on Broadway and headlining concert tours worldwide.” 

 Maybe you remember seeing her on The David Letterman Show, he loved her voice so much he had her on his show every December singing the hit song, “Christmas”.

David Sanborn: let’s say he sold a million records back in 1981, he got a dollar per record-that’s a million dollars for him, but now even Sanborn can’t do that now.  So where does that leave the rest of us?  He lives off his residuals and tours with his band makes him money.  And he is one the THE most important pop jazz artists of history.

YouTube is one way people try to become famous, and now a lot musicians are independent, using their own money to record, promote, make a website in hopes to be discovered or get rich. YouTube is now flooded with individuals hoping to get a piece of the pie.  The monetization system on YouTube has been changed, making it more difficult for the average person to make a profit.  It seems to me that everyone is using music and making money on music except the people who are actually playingthe music.  Music is played in stores, banks, restaurants, TV shows and everywhere but the average salary for a musician in the US is $21,00 a year.

One musician told me he started with Count Basie in 1970 for $300 a week and it was difficult because Basie made them pay for their own hotel rooms on the road and you maintain an apartment also for in between tours. I pointed out that $300 in 1970 in 2018 dollars would be $1950 and few musicians make $1950 a week in 2019, in addition Mr. Basie was working about 40 weeks a year then.  Musicians still work in major cities for $75-100 for a jazz gig.  People play big band gigs in NYC on 46th St and get $20 each, I know, I got a call like that just last November!  Better to be a waiter at that club in Manhattan than play music!

It is said that is takes 10,000 hours to master a craft. 

After 9/11 the decline in music continued even a faster downward spiral, Society Jobs became nil, weddings decreased and one of the most famous Wedding agencies of New York, Stephen Scott Music, closed it’s doors.  In New York, you saw the best of the best playing weddings and privates, Bob Mintzer and others.  At one time in 1988 – 1999 I was able to supplement my career with 100 weddings a year, yet now the remaining bands have 25 live band weddings a year, all the rest are DJ.

In the past, the artist had support from the record company, studio time, advertising, radio airplay etc.  That’s over, except for those who make a “big break”.  TV shows make it appear that anyone can get lucky and make a big “break”, but that is TV fantasy.  Bands which seemed like an overnight sensation actually had years of preparation and practice to reach success.  Including the Beatles themselves!  I love The Beatles.   Their accomplishments were only possible because of financial support from big record companies.  Charlie Parker with Strings, and Miles Davis recordings in the 60s had large financial support!  Try paying for the Philharmonic to play on your self produced CD!

Well, things will continue to get worse, because now people can’t tell that the music they hear is more watered down, and not as culturally relevant as it was in the past.  A lot of pop music is manufactured in the studio to make money as a “hit”, with someone singing  who has a “look”, and has nothing to do with making a relevant piece of music.  Snarky Puppy is a good, funky band, but so many people are not aware of the path to that led to Snarky Puppy via Tower of Power, James Brown, Parliament, The Brothers Johnson, The Brecker Brothers, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis’s Electric band etc etc.  Awareness of music history makes it more interesting and understandable.

Chicago, Earth wind and Fire, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Yes, Sly and The Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Genesis, The Beatles, Lionel Richie–once people had to sit at the piano or with a guitar in their hand and learn chords and write songs, now you have artificial musicians using computers and stuff to “write “ music.  Melody. What happened to that novel idea.  Beatles.  Carole King.  Dolly Parton.  Holland-Dozier-Holland.  Song writers.  Where is the music now?  And where is the concept that we as a society love music so much, that we will pay a musician or artist a living wage?  Well, even Mozart died poor.

Music is one of the most important aspects of any great civilization and music historically has been used for Dancing, Singing, Spirituality and Communication.   It’s an embarrassment that artists have such a difficult time making a decent wage.

Me: “I’m a musician……”  Reply: “Yes, but what do you really do, what’s your job?”

Rant off.

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