Photo by Beth O'Brien

Photo by Beth O’Brien

Text by Craig Shepard (on Foot Production)

“In the short-run, the market is a voting machine … but in the long- run, the market is a weighing machine.”  –  Warren Buffett, 1993 Letter to Shareholders.

One simple definition of success in music is from my colleague Ralston Darlington was “earning a living making the music one wants to make”.

In the US, and perhaps elsewhere as well, it’s very easy to fall into thinking that how I earn my living defines who I am. There have been so many times when I meet someone and say that I am a musician, and they immediately ask how I pay my rent. When I was working as a freelance musician, earning my living from commissions and concerts, I would get a look of incredulity and awe. When I earned my living from something besides music, the person asking the question would often relax, and I could see my esteem go down in their eyes. At the same time, when meeting musicians and other artists, especially those who are gigging, if we are introduced as musicians, the first five minutes of the conversation is very often a question of where I as a musician fit on “the ladder”. Am I above or below them? Will I be able to help them get a gig? Will it help them if they can drop my name?

The idea that money equals success is very strong in our culture and very difficult to root out of my own internal thinking. One problem is that the market is inherently unreliable as a measure of value, and may remain so for very long periods of time. I think most of us recognize this intuitively, even without considering the insane sums paid to pop stars (and pro athletes).

The problems equating money with value become clear when we consider paying for activity that is inherently valuable. Do we think sex is more valuable when we pay for it? Motherhood? Prayer? Of course not. Even when I understand that music has inherent value, I have a hard time shaking the shame around earning my living from what others refer to as a “day job”.

Photo by Beth O'Brien

Photo by Beth O’Brien

What to do?  Taking a closer look at the meaning of some terms from the Oxford online dictionary:

Profession: 1. A paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification. 2. An open but often false claim:

To profess: 2. Affirm one’s faith in or allegiance to (a religion or set of beliefs). 2.1 (be professed) Be received into a religious order under vows. Origin: Middle English (as be professed ‘be received into a religious order’): from Latin profess- ‘declared publicly’, from the verb profiteri, from pro- ‘before’ + fateri ‘confess

Vocation: 1. A strong feeling of suitability for a particular career or occupation. 1.1A person’s employment or main occupation, especially regarded as worthy and requiring dedication. 1.2A trade or profession

Avocation: A hobby or minor occupation. mid 17th century: from Latin avocatio(n-), from avocare ‘call away’, from ab- ‘from’ + vocare ‘to call’.

Hobby: 1) An activity done in one’s leisure time for pleasure. 2) A small horse or pony. Origin: Late Middle English hobynhoby, from nicknames for the given name Robin. Originally sense 2 (compare with dobbin), it later came to denote a toy horse or hobbyhorse, hence ‘a pastime, something done for pleasure’.

Note that the definition of hobby is connected to a children’s toy, the “hobby horse”. (How many times have I felt that letting go of the music and getting an office job was an “adult” thing to do?) Leaving aside a discussion of the seriousness of children’s play and value of interests, we can distinguish between something engaged in for personal enjoyment from something engaged in out of a purpose or calling. Note that acovation has within it the idea of being called away from one’s “real” occupation. Where the mainstream culture is itself (increasingly) meaningless, those things that call us away from it are very valuable.

Photo by Beth O'Brien

Photo by Beth O’Brien

In the western monastic tradition, there is a long history of communities supporting themselves through the work of their hands. There, the daily singing of the Psalms, called the “Opus Dei” is the primary vocation of the monk. To support itself, the community of monks engages in what is called an industry, such as bread-making or farming. This tradition recognizes that there is a spiritual freedom in the separating one’s calling from earning one’s living.

There are other activities that have functioned outside of the marketplace, such as folk music. While there have long been traveling troubadours, most folk music has been composed, performed, and handed down outside of the market.

Understanding this helps me to honor a music practice as a calling, and to honor that calling when it does not have a market. In this way, we can slightly repurpose the term  avocation, honoring this practice. When I am honest with myself, I still desire a vocation, a music career which will support a comfortable living. Each year since moving back to the US, I have earned more money as a musician. In the meantime, I can let go of the shame around how I pay my rent.

Craig Shepard’s label: Editon Wandelweiser  (Germany)

Beth O’Brien’s website: www.bethobrien.com