November 22

Music Career as a Concept

One nagging trend that has continued on in discussions of aspiring musicians is the notion of “career”, with much literature and marketing implicitly suggesting that “success” means having a “career” where having a “career” in turn means being financially self-sufficient on one’s music.

The focus on financial self-sufficiency has, in turn, generated a variety of behaviors as aspiring musicians have attempted to prove themselves to be musicians by merely proving that they are self-sufficient on their music – all behaviors that have silent trade-offs that we would rather not focus too much light on.

For instance, some people claim to be self-sufficient based on their making money largely on creative-adjacent work (such as teaching music or doing studio or gig work), despite their previous claimed aspirations for success based on their original music. Some people claim to be self-sufficient based on bad accounting, where they live largely off of the dime of a trust fund or gifted property, something which they conveniently leave out in their descriptions of success.

The “fake it til you make it” posture towards self-sufficiency is, no doubt, related to a similar rise in “imposter syndrome” worries. Because nothing feeds the idea of being an imposter more than endorsing a strategy of literally faking it.

What I wanted to suggest, however, is not that “success” should not be considered separate from “career” but rather that “career” has never necessarily meant “financial self-sufficiency”. Take for instance, the following common language usage of the term “career”.’

“James eventually retired after a long and distinguished career in public service.”

As it happens, we commonly use the term “career” for long stints in unpaid public service. We commonly use the term “career” for long stints in part-time work. If someone spent their entire life volunteering as a crossing guard for an elementary school, we would say that they had a long “career” as a volunteer.

My suggestion here isn’t that a “music career” can’t include someone working a self-sufficient job performing their original music. Rather, I think the term “career” is actually much more expansive than that, and informs what we take to be success as a musician, in informative ways.

I think a good start for a definition of a “career” is: A life-pursuit where success corresponds to the quality of one’s pursuit.

So, for instance, we would say that a crossing guard has had a successful career if they made volunteering at that job a substantial portion of their life, and they have had a record of no children being run over. Roger Federer had a successful career as a tennis player, not because he managed to become self-sufficient with his tennis winnings, but because he made tennis a big part of his life for a long period of time, and won many grand slam tournaments. The mayor of a small town might have a successful career as mayor if he made mayor his life-long passion, and helped the town build a library – even if the job of mayor was a part-time job (which it oftentimes is).

We would not say that someone has had a career as an accountant, if they only were an accountant for 3 years – even if they made enough money to survive on their accountant salary. Even if they made enough in those three years to support them for the rest of their lives.

I think this is a good way to think about music careers as well. If you take on music as a life pursuit – not merely a hobby that you dabble in, even over a long period of time, but something you make a part of your life – then you have a music career. If you worked as a musician and were self-sufficient at it for a few years – maybe you even got a song into a movie that people heard of – and then you quit to do other things, then you probably did not have a music career.

The tradeoff here is that success will not simply be an easy measure of whether one has been financially self-sufficient off their music. So a person may become financially self-sufficient off of gaming the Spotify algorithm over their entire life, and not be considered particularly successful as a musician. Whereas a musician who has not been particularly financially successful, but who has advanced the art of song craft in interesting and meaningful ways, can be so considered.

Another way to get at this conception of success is simply to think about what it is that will appeal to a perfect stranger. Most people when asked to listen to a piece of music, will not care that the creator was able to be self-sufficient with their music. What they will care about is if the music is any good.