What is the future of being a professional musician?

March 21, 2021, 7:06 AM · I’m a junior in high school right now and I’m preparing for my college auditions, I’ve noticed a lot of people online are warning students to not major in music because it’s too cutthroat, orchestras have no funding, I’m gonna be poor and other horror stories . I’m not having doubts about majoring in music, I’m just worried what the prospects of musicians are going to be like in the next 20-30 years. Everyone keeps acting like that anyone who becomes a professional musician is miserable and it’s only going to get worse. Since I’m not currently in the professional musician world just yet can anyone provide some real insight on being a musician in the 21st century? And your experiences with orchestras, finance, gigging ect.

Replies (46)

March 21, 2021, 7:54 AM · There are two economies in music, those supported by charity, and those supported by the populace at large.

Classical music is largely a charitable endeavor. It is also supported by educational institutions, and teaching.

Popular music is moving away from acoustic instruments.

I expect classical musicians in the next 25 years to be employed in orchestras, chamber ensembles, ancillary gigs, teaching privately, and teaching in universities. I also expect there to be fewer opportunities in all these areas than there currently are.

Many musicians are supplementing their income from online distribution. The ad rates are abominable. However, you may find a patron who will support the endeavor.

I expect that being a skilled composer or improviser will be important. It will differentiate the performer from the rest of the pack.

March 21, 2021, 8:31 AM · Go for it for what it is, not comparing it to a more standard lifestyle or online "top ten" career lists. You can still survive well, it is just not guaranteed that you will be well-off. If you have misgivings, or not sure to commit to the musical unknown for its inherent value, choose something else that would make you happy.

Wishing you well, whatever you decide. Enjoy your own journey, which is just beginning.

Edited: March 21, 2021, 9:32 AM · All the same doomsday warnings were being said 40 years ago when I was a student. They’re not necessarily wrong but they are incomplete.

Yes, it’s brutally hard to win an orchestra job, even mid-level or lower. Yes, many orchestras experience financial instability with resulting damage to the musicians’ paychecks. Yes, some (not all) professional musicians end up miserable and frustrated.

I do think that there are more people taking auditions than there are people who are likely to win one, and I think it is irresponsible and unethical for teachers of marginal students not to be very clear with their students about their chances (slim to none). Even the better players will suffer if they don’t have a teacher who is willing to be extremely blunt about even the smallest deficiencies in intonation, rhythm, style, etc. Everyone who is serious about taking auditions should arrange to get coaching from a knowledgeable orchestra player who has been through it themselves, preferably someone who actually sits on audition committees.

We violinists are fortunate to play a popular instrument with nearly limitless opportunities for teaching and wedding gigs for those who play “well enough,” are willing to work extremely hard and have a congenial personality. You do need to live in a large enough metropolitan area to make this work though.

40 years after my own student days, I have certainly lived through my share of the doomsday warnings but I have no regrets.

March 21, 2021, 1:06 PM · Take heed and listen to Adalberto and Mary Ellen's sage advice. I allowed the naysayers to dissuade me when I was your age and decided to take a different path. Look, nothing is easy. Regardless of the path you choose, you will encounter difficulties and disappointments, as well as joys and triumphs. Your future self will thank you someday for being true to yourself and making the right choice that honors the unique talents and gifts that God has given you. Don't live with regrets. Thankfully, God does provide second chances, allowing me the joy of teaching violin and playing at churches or special occasions, as well as for the elderly and the sick, while holding a full-time job in the corporate world and raising a family. And though my dream of performing the Beethoven Concerto at the Musikverein never came true, it's ok. I do enjoy playing it as often as I like! Such is life. It's never prefect and we aren't always in control. I wish you wisdom, peace, and good luck!
March 21, 2021, 1:45 PM · It's kind of like having a dream of living in San Francisco.

Some people can move there and end up buying a house and live there until they die. A lot of people can work there and rent for the rest of their lives, with various levels of precarity and quite a bit of stress. And then a bunch of people might be able to subsist for a bit, but are going to find that they have to pack up and find somewhere else to live if they want to survive.

And similarly, it's going to be way easier if you come from money and know you can depend on that.

A lot of very fine people live all over, and might just visit every once in a while without the stress and responsibility.

March 21, 2021, 2:17 PM · Except for the advice originally given in "It's a Wonderful Life" (1946) to go into plastics, there's no such thing as one-size fits all career advice. So many considerations enter into it that it's not really helpful for people just to say "stay out of music" or "go into music." Each person has a road and each road has a lot of twists and turns. There are a lot of costs and rewards, both monetary and non-monetary, that go with every choice. Do what you love and what makes you happy, and do the best you can. The world will have its say in the matter as well, so be flexible and adaptable at each juncture. Also, nothing in career choices is permanent anymore, so you can switch or be switched midstream, and that's fine, too, if you make the best of it.
March 21, 2021, 2:22 PM · A young person should, if possible, think not just about what the future of music holds, but what the future of work holds, period. We're moving to a future where AI will increasingly do the work that is currently done by humans, and where automation in general will continue its two-century march towards eliminating the demand for human labor. We're also shifting towards the gig economy, where fewer of us are employed full-time and more of us scramble for piecework -- even in what has historically been high-skill well-paid professions.

The successful worker of the future will be hard-working, adaptable, flexible, entrepreneurial, self-promoting, business-savvy, technologically adept, quick-learning, and a good communicator.

That applies to musicians, certainly. Musicians have long been part of the gig economy, and a modern young player is more likely to be adept at multistyle playing and teaching so as to have more opportunities. Being charismatic absolutely helps.

Gallup's polling of people worldwide across many cultures indicates that humans are happiest when they work meaningful jobs that let them do what they're best at every day. I encourage you to not think of that in terms of a career field so much as your talents, which are likely to be broadly applicable to many things, even if you're likely to be happiest when they are applied to something that's also of particular interest.

For instance, I enjoy collecting information, analyzing it, and explaining it to people. In a lot of ways, that's not just a thread through my career, but also a significant part of my hobbies -- like writing on forums like this one.

Think about what you're good at, not just what you're passionate about.

March 21, 2021, 2:23 PM · "Plastics, my boy" is from 1967's The Graduate.
March 21, 2021, 4:03 PM · it sure is! but that's an homage
March 21, 2021, 4:11 PM · What if a person is "good for nothing"? (An horrible insult which I do not actually believe in, but some young-and old-people may feel they are not particularly "skilled" at anything in particular. They too deserve a reason to live, and something to strive for.) At least with "passion" you can forge your "not so good" skills into something useful.

Still, I understand the comment, and have no intention to be contrarian.

Edited: March 21, 2021, 6:36 PM · Three words - go for it. Whatever it's like in 20 or 30 years is secondary to where you will be in 20 to 30 years. If you have a dream, an ambition, or a hunger to try something then do it. There will always be people with warnings and doomsday predictions. They were around 20 to 30 years ago, just as much as they are today. In my case, they were around over 50 years ago! Irritating, eh? Frankly, as far as I'm concerned, you have no option. You have to pursue what you hope to find through your music. Will it be what you hope? Who knows? Life doesn't have guarantees, it just has possibilities. If you don't follow those possibilities, the only thing you will have are unanswered questions. Can you live with that? What is important, indeed, what is vital, is when you reach my age - almost 72 - you can say, "I did that" as opposed to, "I wonder what would have happened if. . . ". Who needs that nonsense? I worked as an actor, director, writer, photographer, musician, and teacher. Some of those dreams worked out quite well. Some didn't work out as I'd hoped, but so what? Success is nice, but in a lot of ways, it's secondary. The journey is what life is all about. So, no hesitation. Go for it and go for it with your whole heart and soul. Good luck.
March 21, 2021, 8:00 PM · It's entirely possible there could be a dramatic change in the popular taste and classical musicians may become highly sought after and make a good living! There was a huge uptick when the Clockwork Orange movie came out since it featured a lot of Beethoven, a lot of video games have exposed mass markets to classical music. Twoset violin seems to create new classical fans, or a new composer or performer may come along who has mass market appeal. Unforeseeable events may trigger who knows what? It's just not good to rely on the fringe that comes up with the extreme predictions. Malthus was one of the original 'chicken littles' and none of his dire predictions came to fruition.
March 21, 2021, 8:10 PM · I don't know Tom. The particulars of Malthus' theory of population growth may not have come true, but we will probably only see our self-destruction in hindsight, which is to say, we won't be around to see it if it happens.

Note to self: Malthus would be a pretty rad name for a pet.

March 21, 2021, 9:11 PM · My 2 cents as a current music student: the situation seems pretty dire if you expect to have a job lined up for you out of school. The best my university has to offer is (paraphrased): "you can supplement your gig income with teaching and then you'll scrape by". Compare and contrast to my buddy who's in a bigshot computer science program and who's got $30/hour co-ops practically flooding out of every nook and cranny. If you want to live a decent life in music it will take a lot of vigilance---you're trying to fill a job market that's already overfull.

You definitely have to take a good look at how hard and how consistently you can work, and whether you start to hate creative pursuits once they become a job. Me personally, I'm changing to a chemistry major because I fall into that latter camp. Some of my classmates seem very comfortable with the way of things and already run studios, while others prefer to ignore the economics, and some seem totally hopeless. Overall your happiness and success depend on your attitude going in, by the looks of it.

March 21, 2021, 10:08 PM · My mom and I used to have a running joke “there’s always law school” when I’d get overwhelmed with my music studies (she’s an attorney, I’m a musician). The point being that it is never too late to change careers. Most people don’t work in the field they majored in. If you absolutely have a passion for music and pursue it in college and it ends up that you can’t get a job or don’t enjoy the lifestyle you can always pursue a different career or job later. Music is a much harder path than most to pursue later in life (although I have a couple of colleagues (oddly they are both flute players) who have done it successfully) so I would say pursue music first with the understanding that if your plans don’t work out or you change your mind you have options. (My mom incidentally graduated law school in her 40s after an English degree/marriage/kids etc.).
Edited: March 21, 2021, 10:25 PM · greetings,
A few years back I would’ve been in the camp that said stressed having a backup plan and not necessarily going all out for your one-shot because it’s more practical and you are likely to be happier.
These days, I I think there is a particularly grim factor which we might need to be taking more and more into account. I don’t hear people saying it so much, and rarely to the extreme I am saying it now, but honestly speaking if we follow the newspaper accounts of environmental destruction, I mean really follow them, and then add in the complete and total failed response of governments worldwide and the fact that most people are on a deep level so completely terrified they put their head in the sand, there may not actually be much of a future for even this young man’s generation. It’s not unrealistic anymore to argue that the end of the world in terms of humanity as we know it is coming to an end pretty soonThat being the case, one might be advised to get the maximum enjoyment out of what little time is left by following ones passion to the nth degree.
Yours in pessimism.
March 22, 2021, 2:18 AM · And there was I thinking the Alexander Technique taught optimism!
The minority of people who go to college use their degree for their work. On the positive side, the degree just shows motivation and the ability to apply oneself. If you are a musician, then you are probably slightly more likely to use your degree for work, but don't assume that it's compulsory (you might even grow to dislike it).

If you end up as a high-ranking civil servant who leads a community orchestra, then your luck ain't so tough.(or, like someone said, there's law or accountancy).

The future for orchestral violinists is being replaced by synthesisers.
If I'd slogged my guts out with the oboe before college, during college and in an orchestra after college, I'd be worse off than I am now.

March 22, 2021, 2:34 AM · not really. AT just Teaches you to use your body in the most efficient way while building your bunker.
March 22, 2021, 5:11 AM · Stephen I share your deep deep worries about the environment. People don't understand that the natural environment is also *our* environment, and are ignoring the signals. In one place there is drought, in another place there are floodings, but in both places there is no clean drinking water, for example.
March 22, 2021, 7:15 AM · If you can do a quality undergrad degree without crippling debt (parental help or scholarship), I would tell my kid to follow their dreams. The death of classical music has been forecast throughout the 20th century and now this one, yet never seems to arrive. My wife teaches in an art school, an affordable one, and many of the graduates will not make their living as artists. But the skills, intellectually and technically, translate to other things. There is always Grad school, and have heard it said somewhere that high preforming musicians do well in med school applications- memorization, work ethic, etc.. 21 or 22 at the end of undergrad, so young still......
If the future is as grim as Stephen forecasts, all the more reason to follow your passion.
I will say that one of the most powerful things, for me, in making a life as a craftsman artist has been avoiding debt. It is something that can truly limit your freedom.
That and marrying well.:) In a better world, there would be a base of universal health care, and universal income. This would also serve to take on big business, facilitate small business and start ups. Oh, and just make for a humane country.
March 22, 2021, 1:22 PM · Quite a few composers and instrumentalists have wound up taking second degrees in the law. The former head of a society of investment analysts I am in was a conservatory graduate. I'm not quite sure how he wiggled onto the buy side, but that is true of many more conventionally-trained candidates.
Even medical school doesn't require a ton of extra undergraduate work, as long as you can find the time to fit in organic chemistry and a few other juicy electives. For cases like that, some colleges offer post-bac years to get transcripts ready for medical school applications. Bryn Mawr was one, there might be others.
March 22, 2021, 2:41 PM · My musician friends who play other genres are actually doing much better financially than the ones who have performance degrees but only studied classical, who almost all have other careers with subbing/playing in regional orchestras/special events. A lot of the people I went to college with are doing music adjacent careers at non-profits. Weird jazz trios, folk bands, pop quartets- all get regular well paying gigs if they hustle and have a good reputation. However, they also teach and work part-time day jobs.

For example, one friend works a lunch shift waitressing at a local restaurant, then teaches from 3-7 evenings and has occasional students on Saturday and does a suzuki class. Friday, Saturdays, Sundays, gigs at bars, restaurants, events within a couple of hundred mile radius. If you're wondering, yes that's a very busy and hectic life. She likes it, but she's also 27, boyfriend she gigs with, and no kids. I honestly don't know that this is sustainable for her long term though.

Edited: March 22, 2021, 5:22 PM · IIRC, the average college student changes majors twice (declares three different majors) before graduating, and only 25-30% of college graduates work in a field closely related to their undergrad degree. This is true even of more "practical" fields. And even if you do work in the same field as your undergrad degree, over the last several decades hiring practices have changed to where a majority of people now change careers in their 30s or 40s.
March 22, 2021, 5:24 PM · If I could miraculously start over right now I would do a six month apprenticeship as a plumber and then use all that cash to indulge myself in expensive instruments, lessons etc.
March 22, 2021, 5:28 PM · --Julie O., --My experience supports your entry. I played Mariachi Violin on weekends to pay for the classical music degree. I remember that at one point I was making about the same as the Junior faculty.
March 22, 2021, 9:20 PM · Buri's got a really good point. Plumbing and carpentry pay pretty well and you can start work right out of high school. No high-dollar college debt. To work in a skilled trade, however, you do need to be skilled, so that's something to plan for. One caution, though, if you're a violinist -- protect your hands on the job.

There are unemployed people coming out of law school too.

What I've learned (partly through various failures throughout my career) is that no matter what you're doing right now, you should apply yourself to it very keenly -- not just effort but also intellect -- and you should try to find enjoyment in it, unless it's truly wretched work. By doing so you will train yourself to do the next thing a little better than you would have otherwise, regardless what it is, and you will train yourself to find enjoyment in a wider array of tasks. Every sort of work will develop some kind of lasting skills and you want to capture those and learn to apply them in other contexts.

March 23, 2021, 7:18 AM · It seems to me that upcoming violinists are still fed the idea that it's classical soloist/orchestral player or bust. That's really becoming more and more niche in the world of music making.
Edited: March 23, 2021, 7:48 AM · My plumber graduated in ballet from the Australian Ballet School!

"classical soloist/orchestral player or bust"
Orchestras worldwide employ a LOT of people (although admittedly probably a tiny number compared with how many musicians the schools are churning out), but soloists? It never fails to amaze me how many people a) declare they want to be one, b) imagine they've got it in them. Disconnected.from.reality!
Although, true, there are those soloists who do matinees in church halls in places like Wet Sleeve Nebraska. If you want to be one of them...

Edited: March 23, 2021, 8:16 AM · Christopher - true.

But I suspect most of these upcoming violinists are motivated to work so hard because they dream of playing classical music professionally, as a soloist, chamber musician, or orchestral player. How many violinists would pursue a conservatory training because their first preference is a career playing backup to pop artists or teaching privately?

March 23, 2021, 9:48 AM · Gordon, I hired a carpenter with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. His life was ruined by alcohol. He was DUI and killed a well-known local business owner, and he did a dime for manslaughter. Sad story, but it's the most beautiful set of oak basements stairs you can imagine.

Yes it's a grind to get a professional orchestra job, and maybe young students are being misled about their chances. But I have to say that I'm glad there are still people working toward that, because I enjoy hearing orchestra music and I hope that in 20 years there will only be recordings and AI/synthesizer renditions of the orchestral literature. You can't really have it both ways.

March 23, 2021, 10:14 AM · To Frieda's point, this is a problem across all of the arts. How many students go to art school with the hopes of getting a job laying out marketing newsletters, or teaching finger-painting to kindergarteners? How many students go to drama school (or to opera/musical theatre programs) hoping to teach four-year-olds how to sing songs from Frozen, or to be a background character in community-theater productions? (I have in-laws in both situations, I will note.)

The truth is that the primary money-earning path for graduates in the arts is teaching arts to the next generation. (My husband jokingly calls this the pyramid scheme.) And people with arts degrees don't starve, even if many of them eventually make their primary income doing something else.

March 23, 2021, 1:43 PM · One of the most brilliant people I have ever met made his living doing "handyman" work. And quite a good living it was. But his success did rely on clients who could recognize the difference between what he could do, and what the average "handyman" could do. The weird thing is that he could often pull off superior work in less time, and at lower cost, than the duffers whose work ended up being problematic.
March 23, 2021, 7:31 PM · Frieda. There is a lot more than that!
March 23, 2021, 8:43 PM · There are absolutely people out there who feel like their life's calling is teaching, and they are happily in music ed programs. But a lot of people (including the ones in the music ed track) are really in it for the performance.
March 24, 2021, 11:43 AM · I couldn't agree more with Lydia Leong here. When I was in school, too many people were on the performance track who were never really going to make it out in the cold cruel world of classical music. But at the same time, so many people were directed into the music ed route primarily because they "weren't good enough." This is a terrible way to select for teachers, which is probably why there were so many bad ones.

Doing an undergraduate degree for its own sake with no real intention of continuing in that direction later is fine by me whether performance or the ed track (not enough talent for performance, or no desire for becoming an educator). But I do think there should be more honesty in the whole process by the faculty and also by the students with themselves.

March 24, 2021, 11:43 AM · I couldn't agree more with Lydia Leong here. When I was in school, too many people were on the performance track who were never really going to make it out in the cold cruel world of classical music. But at the same time, so many people were directed into the music ed route primarily because they "weren't good enough." This is a terrible way to select for teachers, which is probably why there were so many bad ones.

Doing an undergraduate degree for its own sake with no real intention of continuing in that direction later is fine by me whether performance or the ed track (not enough talent for performance, or no desire for becoming an educator). But I do think there should be more honesty in the whole process by the faculty and also by the students with themselves.

March 24, 2021, 11:43 AM · I couldn't agree more with Lydia Leong here. When I was in school, too many people were on the performance track who were never really going to make it out in the cold cruel world of classical music. But at the same time, so many people were directed into the music ed route primarily because they "weren't good enough." This is a terrible way to select for teachers, which is probably why there were so many bad ones.

Doing an undergraduate degree for its own sake with no real intention of continuing in that direction later is fine by me whether performance or the ed track (not enough talent for performance, or no desire for becoming an educator). But I do think there should be more honesty in the whole process by the faculty and also by the students with themselves.

March 24, 2021, 8:42 PM · One of my earliest managers in corporate said the same that training as a plumber would be his do-over career. Offices can be downsized, jobs relocated, arts deprioritized, but people will always have home repair needs.

I'm happily ensconced in private teaching: satisfied with my workload, stable book of clients, autonomy, meaningful interactions, sufficient creative and analytical outlets, minimal politics to navigate, yet I needed the experience of my unrelated degree and first career to gain the necessary skills and drive. There is drudgery at times but what line of work doesn't? There was/is uncertainty and contraction from the pandemic but many industries have that and there could also be any number of yet-to-be-known surprises looming. I had to reinvent in unconventional ways because "if you are standing still, you get left behind".

I think you make the best (or good enough) decisions and plans with the information you have, then when you get new information, it's on you to see about adapting.

March 25, 2021, 11:26 AM · Some other thoughts on the future of music-- used to promote a line of pianos, but somewhat relevant to many string players...


Edited: March 25, 2021, 3:50 PM · I wasn't too impressed with the sound of the Cunningham piano in the YouTube clip, but maybe it's just the video. In fact I did buy my own piano (a Yamaha U3 upright) at that store (Cunningham Piano Company). Shipping and delivery to Blacksburg (an eight-hour drive) was $500. That was a little over 20 years ago when the store was in the Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia -- my inlaws were familiar with that area and recommended that store -- but the showroom has now relocated to King of Prussia, a large Philadelphia suburb. I remember when I was trying pianos in the showroom I was particularly taken by the 9-foot Estonia. The selection and service at Cunningham are both great. If I were buying a piano for my living room now, I would get one of the higher-end Yamaha Clavinova digital pianos.
March 25, 2021, 4:03 PM · I've seen and heard a lot from that firm on another site. Seems to be a very high-quality bunch.

As for the bad sound, remember it is a SCHOOL for recording technique. Possibly one of the students was still learning how it all works? :) I have heard other Cunninghams sound much better on video.

March 25, 2021, 7:51 PM · I've known pro musos who are happy and not, and people who decided to choose a different career who are happy and not with that decision. I can think of a few who abandoned an artistic career in preference to an office-related career and later in life looked longingly at artists, wishing they had persisted. Sometimes this was their choice, sometimes due to pressure from family etc.

And the reverse is true, of course. Those who chose a musical life and became bitter as their love for it dimmed among the politics and competition and lack of opportunity and stability.

The OP's query related more to the future of the profession, and while I'm not a doomsayer, there are certainly more challenges than ever to be a musician. Weirdly, there are also more opportunities if you are versatile and driven. But it is harder to lock in a permanent role these days, and while that's becoming more rare in most professions, I would argue the life of a musician (esp. if you are on the 'fringes' of the ability required in a decent orchestra) is much more uncertain.

March 26, 2021, 10:39 AM · I think there's an enormous difference between the artists who abandon their art for an office career, and the artists who embark on a money-making career as their "day job" but continue to pursue their art at a serious level.

Many of my friends who went to conservatory have abandoned their art. When they decided they weren't going to make it as professionals, they put down their instruments with the intent to never pick them up again.

Many of the non-pro folks that I play music with now, or whom I see at concerts, also went to conservatory. When they realized that they weren't satisfied with their professional musical lives, they pivoted to other careers, but they did not permanently abandon their art. They continue to practice and perform; some gig and teach as well. The balance between "day job", music, and family life changes throughout their adulthood, though.

A lot of freelance pros have "day jobs", too. It's just that because they regard those day jobs are distinctively secondary, they tend to be more subsistence level -- low-level admin jobs, retail jobs, service industry (waitering, etc.), and other things that aren't a career path per se. If you're going to be in the position of requiring a nonmusical day job to pay the bills, it's arguably better to aim for a career with advancement so you can at least make decent money for the hours you spend.

March 27, 2021, 6:51 PM · Agree 100% Lydia.

I guess the main thing is trying to make decisions actively wherever possible. Most of the people I know who have regrets (either having chosen music or not), let life slide along, or were forced into making decisions they didn’t fully own or could control. Sometimes things happen that are completely out of our control of course.

March 27, 2021, 7:57 PM · Sturgeon's Law is a crucial thing to bear in mind for decisions like this. If you can cope with, or even enjoy, the 90% that bugs everyone else, you have a leg up on the problem.

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