Much has been said about how to make a career in music, and I have no intention of proposing a set of guidelines that will miraculously take you from accomplished amateur to consistently earning professional. If you intend to make music your life's work, however, there are certain considerations and realities that must be recognized. Unless you live in one of the remarkable European countries that offer subsidies to artists or have a strong welfare state, you will have to make money. My hope is to outline the three settings in which I have seen musicians survive in our society.
Your division of musical activities (whether you are performing or teaching or selling instruments or running a music store) will often depend on where your career is 'set'. The setting of your work really speaks to the scope of your musical operations. I believe there are basically three 'settings' in which independent musicians work - local, regional (niche) and international.
Local musicians might teach at the local music store (or independently) and junior college, play gigs at weddings and local cafes, and own or help run the local music store, but only occasionally give a recital. When I was growing up, that guy for me was Bob Hughes. Bob was a trumpet player and arranger who owned and operated a music store, taught lessons (all instruments, including guitar) and occasionally performed. He had carved out a life for himself that was based in a single community and revolved around his reputation as a generalist.
For the most part, local players, in order to be successful, must be generalists. Familiarity with different idioms, like jazz, pop, classical is then a must. Generalization dictates the types of people they teach - children, adults and seniors. They must also be generalists in the kinds of gigs they take - wedding, private party, community events, small concerts, cafes, etc. Local players must be generalists because the setting in which they work (a single community) is so restricted in population that in order to obtain money from enough people to survive they must appeal to a broad spectrum of taste. These players must often supplement their income with work that defines them as the community representatives of music (i.e. working in the local music store, selling home-recorded CDs, teaching at the local community college, being leaders or participants in the local music societies) because their success is determined to the degree in which they are perceived as the local authority on 'music.' The maximum income is tied to the community. The local guitar teacher in Beverly Hills is going to make more than the local guitar teacher in Tucson. The economics of the community determine the rates that one can charge, but they also determine expenses; meaning one's net income may suffer in higher-cost areas.
The second setting is that of regional or niche players. These are the specialists. Why are they specialists? Regional and niche players obtain a higher percentage of their income from performance and are usually more defined by what they are performing than by their communities. Since they are performing a more specialized repertoire (classical guitar, baroque music, medieval music) they have a more dispersed audience and thus could not obtain the required income from a single community. They thus travel and obtain their work because of the perception that they are the authority on a specific repertoire or instrument. A wonderful example of this in guitar is Paul Galbraith. The interest in his playing, at least initially, is the novelty of the instrument (9 strings) he plays and how he plays it (like a cello). He has created the niche around his instrument, a niche that could not provide a living in a single community. For one example, since no one else plays his instrument, he can expect no teaching income. Furthermore, he performs in recitals (often several a week) with a frequency that could not be achieved in even the most supportive of communities. Many of his bookings are based on the novelty of the instrument and the arrangements he plays on it. He also sells recordings, but in a single community there is a much more limited number of potential buyers. When he teaches, it is in the masterclass setting. Here, his niche works to his advantage. In the masterclass setting, students can see their music through the prism of Galbraith's instrument and thus see their pieces in a new way. A disadvantage is that in the long run students would have to change completely the way in which they perform, or accept the fact that they would obtain no long-term technical education because of the way in which Galbraith performs. The population of their niche determines the ceiling for compensation for these players and how many gigs they are willing to play in a year.
The final setting is that of the international player. The interesting thing is that at this point the player must become a generalist again. In order to operate as the international player, one must be perceived in the culture as a whole as the authority on the instrument. Let's take Sharon Isbin as an example. The international player, though first and foremost a performer, doesn't perform a niche program. Isbin will play Tan Dunn one night and Aranjuez the next. People go to see her, not because of what she is playing but because of who she is. Oftentimes, one need not actually be the best on the instrument but, rather, be perceived as such. When Segovia dominated the scene, many of the niche players who specialized in baroque performance practice rightly pointed out that he was not the most 'correct' performer of Bach's music. But that wasn't why people went to see him. They went to his concerts because the public perception was that he was 'the greatest guitarist in the world.' That perception and his remarkable ability to control an audience made the performance practice issues raised by less popular, niche players moot. The international player will be more monetarily successful and 'famous' but will always lack the cachet acquired by niche players, who often define their careers by their criticisms. Jazz players hate Kenny G; comedians hate Carrot Top; actors hate Ben Affleck. The international players will often step outside the accepted institutions built around an instrument such as the guitar, and curry favor with more generalized musical performers and institutions. Witness recordings by Parkening with Kathleen Battle and the Assads with Yo-Yo Ma or Grammy nominations for Isbin and the LAGQ. It is events like these that take the 'guitarist' beyond the guitar world and turn the specialist into the international performer. Each of the aforementioned players is known by an epithet instead of a specific type of music they specialize in. Some well-known players are characterized in the following ways:
Parkening is 'the heir to Segovia.'
The Assads are 'the greatest guitar duo in the world.'
Isbin is 'the greatest female guitarist in the world.'
The LAGQ is 'the greatest guitar quartet in the world.'
Attendance at their concerts results from the reputation and trust generated by their musical choices - and all four deliver on that promise.
The key is discovering which one of these lifestyle settings is best for you, depending on your desires for artistic freedom, fame, respect and money. The next step, which will be discussed in the next article in this series, is to cultivate the relationships that will allow you to secure your corner in whichever setting you choose.