The Need for a Revision of the Concept of Musical Professionalism

Text by Dawoud Kringle

Bern NixSeveral weeks before this writing, guitar master Bern Nix passed away. He was an elder master with astonishing musical abilities, and an impressive resume behind him. Yet he was in poverty, living in dire straits for years. His is an old story that seems to keep repeating itself. 

This myth of the inevitability of the “starving artist” is self perpetuating. It seems that people on all sides of the equation have it so ingrained into their subconscious that it’s almost expected that musicians be impoverished, ignored, and mistreated. 

Musical ProfessionalismAnd I call “Bullshit!” I don’t know about you, but I’m not having it. 

I’m assuming you, my respected reader, are a musician. How many times have you had difficulty making someone understand that you actually make your living (or at least part of your income) through music? How many times have you met people who simply cannot understand that music is a profession? How many have you spoken to that find the idea that you – or any musician outside the ranks of Drake, Beyonce, or the like – actually earn your daily bread by playing music to be incomprehensible?

How many times were you not only asked, but expected, to give away the music you create, using the skills and knowledge you fought for years to cultivate, for no remuneration? How many bookers, venue owners / managers, record labels, producers, etc. not only expected you to work for nothing (or some insulting arrangement that’s a degree or two better than selling your soul to the Devil), but couldn’t even understand that you deserve to be paid for your valuable skills and efforts? 

Now, here’s the most horrifying question of all: how many of them were musicians?

musical professionalism

It’s clear that a revision of the cultural zeitgeist surrounding musicians needs to be implemented, and implemented now. This is one of MFM’s goals. But activist foundations can only do so much. What is really needed is for this change to happen in people’s minds. 

And it must happen in yours. You have the power to make the vow, not to your friends, not to MFM, or anybody, but to yourself that this insanity ends now. If you are a musician, you must demand what your work is worth. if you are a band leader, you are honor bound to find a way to pay your musicians what their work is worth (or at least something that lets them know that you respect their work). This is not always easy; many times I had to reach into my pocket to pay musicians for playing my music. Yes, I took a loss; such is the risk of this, or any business endeavor. But if you develop your skills in business and band leading, this will be a temporary loss. You will make up for it later, – and you will have permanently earned the trust and respect of your colleagues. 

#MakingMusicIsAProfessionThere is nothing acceptable about the so-called poetic romance about starving artists slaving away in service to their muse; and dying without so much as a thank you, let alone a living wage. We have to stand our ground. We have to believe that we are entitled to a fair remuneration for our work. And we have to fight against the psychological mindset that keeps us enslaved to the lie that we are destined to be poor – especially in our own minds.

MFM is here to help. It’s in its beginning stages, and the foundation is forming and developing. But while you are not alone (or perhaps more specifically, as alone as you thought) there is something I must advise you to keep in mind. 

In the beginning, and in the end, if you want to find the person who will lead you to this “promised land” of musical professionalism, and an acceptable career, you don’t need to look for some business person, you don’t need to seek a community to change your mind and validate your worth. 

You only need a mirror. Believe it in your own heart of hearts, and follow it with courage, sincerity, love, and a warrior’s spirit, and all else will follow.