Many students, aspiring musicians (along with their parents with worried faces!) approach me seeking guidance on prospects of pursuing music as a profession. This is one very serious question and little information about the music industry is available to someone who is just starting out. At this stage they don’t even know what they need to know! Here are my reflections on the topic:
Music is not yet considered a mainstream career option, in fact Music does not even enjoy the status of an ‘industry’ in India. However, people, like myself, choose to do music without planning and worring about the future. Such people are only sure of one thing that they want to do music, period! A very passionate statement and I appreciate the enthusiasm but we need to realize few ground realities before plunging into the world of music, which often is without a possibility of going back and doing something else.
Music starts in anybody’s life with identifying a talent at an instrument or singing. If they are fortunate, they get good gurus and nurture their talent to a good level. At this point in life they are faced with a question, do they want to go professional or pursue a regular profession like most of the ‘normal’ people around them? All they have done so far is learnt an instrument and the first impression of music profession typically is to become a performer, make a band, record albums, etc. I don’t have a data of how many albums flop in India everyday, but I am sure it will be a huge number. Maybe only 1 in a 1000 succeeds. However, There are other areas in music that allow equal and often more creative freedom and satisfaction as a musician. These include music arranging, direction, music education, music production, studio synthesis, music therapy, etc. to get into any of these fields is a process. Your skill as a performing musician does not qualify you to be a professional teacher, arranger or producer. They require different learning path and experience.
Students firstly should make a base in music performance and in the mean while explore what areas of work exists in music. After reaching early advanced level in performance, which is typically 4-5 years of learning, they should explore and choose the a field of their interest. They now need to interact and possibly get an internship at one of the work places, i.e. if they are interested in teaching, work as an assistant with teachers, if they are interested in music production, spend time working at a studios and practice sessions of bands, etc. Some of these fields do have professional courses but internship is still a must to understand the practicalities. If such focus is not there, they stand a good chance of becoming jack of all and master of none. Music industry has little space for half-baked professionals!
Having said all this, how is a life of a musician anyway? Oh boy, do I dare ask myself this question? Ok, here is goes… it is difficult! Not being a thorough professional at what you do makes it worse. The industry, an unrecognized term I am using to refer to music circuit in India, is at it’s best… disorganized. There are no defined rates for work of a musician; you can get a song recorded for 5 thousand or 10 lakh. There are very few job opportunities that pay well compared to the corporate world. When was the last time I saw a non-bollywood musician driving a Merc? Never!
Musicians choose music because they can’t do anything else, i.e. their love for music is so strong that it doesn’t allow them to do anything else but music. Hal Crook, author of ‘Ready, Aim Improvise’ (book on jazz improvisation) wrote ‘Take up jazz only if you cannot do anything else, if you can sell parking tickets, do that, don’t take up jazz’. This pretty much applies to music. Don’t get me wrong, music is a fantastic option but for those who have the discipline, hard work and perseverance to take it all the way. It is not for those who think they can slit open their jeans from 10 places, grow their hair like a mongrel, carry an ‘I don’t give a damn’ attitude and think they’ve landed! Music industry has changed since the days of Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana. I don’t see how the industry can discover another Bob Dylan or Rolling stones today; they would hardly stand a chance to get noticed. Today is a fast world where the levels of professionalism are very high; the skills as a musician are no longer adequate to succeed in this competitive world. One needs to know how to network, package, sell and make their space in the market. Music business has become one indispensable skill for all musicians, even if they are not running their own show.
This article may not have answered your concern directly but definitely will help you make a more aware choice if you are standing at that crossroads of choosing a career and music seems to be an obvious choice. I would end by saying, ‘If you are a dreamer, dream on… because dreams do come true’.