Posted by: Liz Massey | October 17, 2008

Music vs. the day job: I know exactly what you mean

Photo courtesy SXC.

Wow. I read a blog post the other day by Elaine Fine over at Musical Assumptions that really resonated with me. Titled “My Myth of the American Musical Dream”, it talks about Fine’s childhood in a musical family and her search for full-time work as a musician as an adult. Her struggle with making music her primary (or only) day job speaks directly to the struggles of the musicians in my family, as well as my own creative journey and why I’ve become so interested in blogging and presenting on creativity-related topics.

Fine, who is a composer, a violist, a violinist, a recorder player, a CD reviewer, and as a teacher, describes her upbringing this way:

“Growing up as a child of a musicians who came from families of musicians themselves, I always understood the concept of ‘working’ as practicing, playing concerts, and teaching. I knew that my father worked in a lab before he worked as a musician (he was a chemist for what was to become NASA before he started playing in the Boston Symphony), but that was during a time when I was too small to have really noticed. My youngest childhood memories of family life always involved a great deal of music.”

I could say something very similar about my own family. My parents, particularly my father, spent (and still spend) most of their waking hours focusing on music. My father (age 77) is in one weekly church choir and a summer festival choir, plays in a bell choir at church, and composes and arranges choral music, mostly for church but occasionally he sells his work to a small publishing house. He received his degree in music education and taught in Midwestern public schools for the first 11 years of his career, then worked for Social Security for 28 years.

My mother has always sang in various choirs and was the one to introduce me to classic music as a toddler. My oldest sister has been a semi-professional vocalist for the last 25 years, mixing church work and occasional wedding gigs with work as a project manager.

Fine’s post discusses the frustrations of trying to cobble together enough gigs and music-related sources of income to make a living. She successfully taught and played in the New York area at the beginning of her career, then did some international work when gigs in the Big Apple dried up.

Later on, she explored day jobs unrelated to music. She worked as a part-time reader for a blind stockbroker, then learned to type and joined the throng of artists who have put their typing skills to work as temporary office workers.

Office work helped ease her financial woes, but didn’t bring her any closer to her “American Dream” of full-time work as a musician. In fact, the 8-5 grind often made it harder to get weekend gigs, as regular office hours squeezed out valuable practice time.

At that point, she said,

“I realized that the American Dream for musicians is a myth, especially during tough economic times. We work hard, we practice, we write, we arrange, we teach, we reach out to new audiences, we create new and innovative ensembles, we make recordings through improved and cheap technology, and we drive great distances for jobs, but it seems that the idea of an American Dream just isn’t something that could apply to classical musicians anymore.”

It was my observation growing up that my father and my sister dearly wanted much the same thing that Fine wanted: to be full-time musicians. They both found decent paying jobs that had nothing to do with music and poured their creative passion into musical gigs that were clearly voluntary (or done for stipends/honoraria). Has that path made them happy? I think so. Would the economy have allowed them to make different choices and realize their original dream? I just don’t know.

However, watching them grapple with having to find a new route to achieve their musical dreams forged a deep desire in me to develop a relationship with my creative output that transcended the categories of “day job,” “freelance,” or “volunteer” work. I was aware as a teen that I had neither the talent nor the desire to be a professional musician; however, I applied the lessons learned around the family piano to carve out a living as a writer and editor.

Like Fine, I spent years doing office work and trying to find the right mix of freelance/employee writing endeavors that would allow me to support my household. Would I be happy to return to a day job unrelated to the arts and content to write in my spare time? Before gaining full-time work as an editor, I would have definitely said “no.”

Now, I’m not so sure. At this point, my creative output is composed of so many diverse elements, from a full-time editing job to freelance column writing to blogging (for now!) for the love of it, that I have committed myself to my work—whether its on someone else’s payroll, on a contract, or purely speculative—and finding worthy projects that express my creative essence.

Go read Elaine’s post, and see how it hits you. I feel as if she has voiced one of the primary creative tensions of our era, if not all eras.

The questions to you:

Have you struggled to make a living at your art/creative endeavor? How have you resolved that struggle?

What do you think art schools or other creativity nurturers should do to prepare young artists for the economic realities of making a living as an artist?



  1. I learned at a young age to put aside dreams of musical stardom. There is nothing I’d like more than to spend all day creating, but having to take care of a family precludes such luxuries. There is something I found about the whole situation: the more secure I am, in terms of stability and finances, the less compelled I am to create. I think there is truth in the old adage of needing to suffer in order to produce great art.

  2. Nice post! You touched on many tricky things for us musicians & artists; it’s so sad to see people not able to do what they love for a living.

    The end of the month is generally rough for me, ’cause the mortgage is coming and there may or may not be money. And often, certain times of year I simply have to be prepared to be broke! But all the same I can’t say I “struggle”.

    I’ve developed a lot of faith in a Higher Power over the years, and I know that the HP guided me to play trombone for a living. I have a gut feeling that this is what I’m HERE for. So instead of worrying, I try to do the next right thing, keep listening for the next big idea, and the big ideas come. I knew going into my musical career that I might be quite money-less sometimes. But somehow I always have enough to eat, and I’m very happy. 🙂

    I’ve found I have a lot in common with entrepreneurs (AKA – I love freedom and feel utterly suffocated when working for someone else), and so I’ve aligned myself with business owners, and set up a business around my music. That’s what I wish music/art schools would teach–first of all that promoting yourself isn’t “selling out”, and second of all how to manage yourself like a little business without compromising your artistry. Music & art schools should teach you how to look for jobs of course, but they should also teach you how to create your own gigs. It’s totally possible, and makes for some pretty interesting experiences!

    What a great post; you inspired me to write a novel in the comments section ;)!

  3. Thanks for linking to my post Liz! I’m very interested in reading responses to your take on the subject.

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