Classical Musicians in the 21st Century: How They are Faring and How They Can Make It

I recently wrote about how musicians today are living in a world of opportunity where the many changes that our culture has experienced in the last 50 years has given rise to new possibilities.

As we gear up for the new academic year, this is a great time to check in on how musicians are faring in this new paradigm and what they can do to create sustainable careers. The short answer is that jobs do exist for musicians, both in traditional and new arenas.  However, in order to create sustainable careers, today’s musicians are advised to take charge of their careers, master business and people skills and boldly adopt the entrepreneurial mindset in order to ride the wave of opportunity.

Let’s take a closer look.

How Are Musicians Faring Today?

Positions in traditional fields like orchestras, chamber ensembles, and education are highly competitive, but the good news is that jobs for classical musicians exist.  While the data is somewhat hard to come by, several surveys give us a snapshot of how musicians are faring today:

  • A 2011 survey of 33,000 self-reporting arts graduates from 66 US institutions conducted by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) at the University of Indiana showed that the unemployment rate among 2011 survey respondents is almost identical to that of other college graduates nationally, about 4%.  Note that the employment data includes artists who are working both in arts and non-arts fields.
  • The 2010 SNAAP survey results (based on responses from over 13,000 self-reporting arts graduates) showed that 47% of music graduates are working in the field as performers, music teachers or K-12 arts teachers.
  • The current SNAAP report indicates that the median salary for musicians and arts educators was $45,000.

According to the 2011 SNAAP report, arts graduates are highly satisfied in their creative endeavors, despite lower earnings than graduates in other fields.  Indeed, the report suggests that earnings are not correlated to job satisfaction.  Musicians and other arts graduates find their satisfaction more from the ability to express creativity in their work, the opportunities to contribute to their communities and the fact that their jobs are a good match with their personalities, interests and values.  This may explain why musicians—and other artists—persist in their craft since the advantages outweigh the lack of job security and lower earnings.

The reality for musicians is that few rely on one source of employment and the majority of musicians juggle multiple roles. .  A 2012 survey of professional musicians conducted by the Future of Music Coalition found that over half of the survey respondents derived revenues from 3 or more roles.  Many musicians work as self-employed freelancers in a variety of jobs.  In fact, according to a study from the National Endowment for the Arts, 44% of professional musicians in the U.S. are self-employed.

Therefore, musicians need to plant a lot of seeds in a lot of different musical “fields” and diversify their sources of work and revenues so that, in the words of Josh Quillen, a member of the successful percussion quartet So Percussion, you are “too small to fail”.

How Musicians Can Navigate The New Paradigm

So in our world of shifting paradigms, what can musicians do to create a successful career in the 21st Century?

1. Connect Your Best Self to What You Do

Start with some self-reflection:

What are you good at? What are your values? What are you passionate about? What other skills do you have? Align your career aspirations with your values, strengths, and passions. This will motivate you to keep going and to project the confidence you need to succeed.

Think about what makes you unique. Connect with your ideal target audience. Not only can this help your confidence and motivation, but it improves your chances of getting yourself noticed and followed.

2. Adopt a Can-Do Attitude

Whether pursuing traditional opportunities or creating new ones, today’s musicians should adopt the entrepreneurial mindset of positivity and possibility. Pursue opportunities; don’t wait for them to come to you. Be flexible and open-minded, and build on your experiences. Commit to your dream, and persevere to make it a reality.

3. Create New Opportunities

Rather than clamoring for a slice of the existing pie, performers and composers can expand the terrain and create something that does not exist.

To create new opportunities, seek out unusual performance venues like bars, churches, community centers, and nursing homes. Create your own ensemble that offers something unique or that doesn’t exist yet. Team up with a composer and commission a new piece. Collaborate with artists in other fields: the visual arts, drama, film, dance. Start your own music studio. Create your own arts organization, start a festival, or curate a new concert series. Look for support from local organizations or corporations. Master the art of speaking about music in order to engage your audiences.

4. Master Business Skills

Moreover, in addition to superb musicianship, today’s musicians need a host of business and entrepreneurial skills: communication (both speaking and writing), goal-setting, project planning, financial management, time management, and marketing skills.

5. Cultivate Relationships:

Personal relationships count in the music world. Nurture those relationships by connecting with people who share common interests. Be a generous colleague: share your information and contacts, and remain in touch with people in your network. Do not hesitate to seek support from trusted friends and advisors.

6. Harness Technology

Harness technology to connect directly with audiences. Record and distribute your own music. Take advantage of new revenue streams, even though these streams have not yet matched what was once available under recording contracts. One caveat: many musicians are building an online presence, so develop a distinctive brand and cultivate your fan base in order to stand out.

The twenty-first century represents a new chapter in the story of classical music. Today’s efforts and experiments will solidify the art form for the future.