I'm a jazz pianist, nearly 50, and I need to make some real money!

I can't believe how little one makes practicing "America's only original art form."

Published April 17, 2007 10:26AM (EDT)

Hi, Cary,

I'm approaching 50 years old. I've been a jazz pianist for nearly 30 years. I'm not anyone you've ever heard of. I'm good but not great. I never thought I would be famous, and that doesn't bother me. I've had lots of hotel and restaurant gigs, accompanied hundreds of lame wannabe singers (and some good ones, too) and done thousands of gigs in jazz clubs, some with incredible musicians and some where nobody was listening. I always thought if I stuck with it, I'd be able to make a living. I think I read somewhere that the average jazz musician these days makes about $17,000 a year. A 50-year-old making that seems pathetic. I do better than that, but not by much. I've spent my life climbing this ladder of musical success and found out when I got near the top that the ladder was against the wrong wall. I'm not married and don't have kids. Never would have been able to afford them. That would have been nice.

How can a person like me change into something different? It seems impossible and I don't know where to begin.

We always hear heart-warming stories of people who followed their dream and never gave up and so forth, but what of the people who followed their dream and failed? We don't want to hear about them.

I'm an intelligent person. I have two master's degrees. One in music, the other in fine arts (another useful degree). Yet I have absolutely no idea about how to go about making money.

Yes, that is what I want. Money. I want health insurance. I want a decent place to live. I want to think maybe I won't have to be taking lousy gigs at age 80 to buy a meal.

I don't think I've been totally naive. I didn't strive for fame, à la "American Idol." I studied hard. I know music theory inside out. I checked out the history of jazz piano from Jelly Roll Morton to Keith Jarrett. I thought being true to your art was satisfaction enough. I guess it's not. I want the satisfaction of making a decent living. I'm tired of taking every $100 gig that comes my way to play for a tone-deaf singer. After I drive an hour each way, and pay the IRS its cut, and I end up with $50. This is what practitioners of "America's only original art form" have to deal with.

I really think I could leave it all behind. I could be happy playing the occasional gig for fun. Or playing for myself and friends. I'd like to do some more composing just for self-satisfaction. But I have no idea how to make a living! This revelation just drives me nuts. The thought of starting from scratch at my age is mind-boggling.

I know these questions are very broad. Most people look at me and think I'm lucky, that playing music for a living must be great. Other people in other occupations must feel the same. I'm just barely making a living. Is it possible for me to change?

Musically Frustrated

Dear Musically Frustrated,

I, too, was frustrated this morning when I sat down to answer your letter. Nothing was coming. I went to the regular place where I go to get words and there were no words there. Weird. Am I running out? I had to leave my house and walk around. I went to a meeting of the type I often attend. It was somewhat comforting but did not really help.

Then, standing on the street corner waiting for a train, I noticed a bumper sticker on an old Toyota Camry sedan. It said "Real musicians have day jobs!"

I felt that my prayers had been answered -- yours too, actually.

It was a needed reminder: Your music does not have to support you. In fact, your music might be happier if you were supporting it.

You have done the almost impossible by supporting yourself as a jazz pianist all these years. It is a remarkable, heroic and admirable feat. That doesn't mean that at a certain point you can't sit out a few sets.

You may find it hard to change; deep down you may feel that what you are is a musician, end of story.

I felt at one time that I was a writer, end of story. But it wasn't end of story. Was more like beginning of story.

I did not gain freedom to write with fluidity and ease until I stopped believing that I had to be a writer.

I mean this in a big way. The import of it stems from the power and the invisibility of my belief that I did indeed have to be a writer. I had to! I believed not only that I had to be a writer, but also that I was my writing. I thought this stuff I put on paper was me. Literally. I thought it was me. At the same time, I did not know that this was what I thought until I heard myself saying "Yes, of course I am my writing!" But I learned, after some work with a helpful therapist, to see myself as a person who plays many roles. Yes, I write, but I also am a husband, a homeowner, a friend, a family member. I am also a person who deserves to take a rest now and then. I was killing myself trying to prove this hypothesis every day: I am a writer, end of story.

It's not the end of the story. It's more like the beginning of the story.

You sound like you are ready to make some changes.

What I suggest, again speaking from personal experience, is that you make some adjustments, but avoid making a sudden, cataclysmic break. Instead, first try augmenting your income with related activities. Create new but related income streams to incrementally improve your income: Sell a few CDs at gigs. Teach a class or two. Repair instruments now and then. Do a little booking. Do some engineering or production. Consult with club owners. And also make yourself useful in ways without demanding payment. Use some of your knowledge about the booking scene and find out how valuable your knowledge and your contacts are. When you see that your Rolodex, for instance, is valuable, think about ways you might use it, for booking or publicity. With your many contacts and your experience, you have valuable knowledge.

But again, my advice: Do this gradually. Do a little of everything. You may discover in this way that one of the ancillary activities seems to be the right model for a career change. If so, transition into it. But start small. Pay attention to percentages at first, not dollar amounts. If you can increase your income from one gig by 10 percent, consider that a victory. If you're only netting $50 on a gig, selling even two CDs at a $5 profit each is an increase of 20 percent for the night. If you keep your expenses at their current level and increase your income, your situation will start to improve.

At the same time, think about major changes. Maybe you will find that you really want to go into a totally new field. You could go into law or finance. It's not too late. You could do that. You could make major changes in the next year or two. But for now I think it is better to move gradually, using what you already have. And keep your eyes open for a new career that attracts you.

Over the weekend I found myself rereading "Straight Life," the Art Pepper story. That guy had a hard life. He was out boosting construction tools from building sites in L.A. with his poodle named Bijou! To feed his heroin habit. And he's not alone. So many jazz musicians have died early deaths because it is so hard to be an artist and maintain sanity.

At least you don't have a heroin habit. (You don't have a heroin habit, do you? You couldn't have a heroin habit. You wouldn't be writing to me if you had a heroin habit!)

So congratulations! You have done well to keep yourself healthy all these years. You are an asset to our culture. You ought to be rewarded. But it is terrible what musicians have to go through. We ought to take better care of musicians. It's a terribly hard life.

So you're going to make a change. That's clear. You can teach. You can repair. You can do sales. You can get into booking. You can do engineering and production. You can do sound for movies.

All these things you can do without really a whole lot of extra education. You could learn on the job. And you can keep playing music while you make these changes.

Good luck. I'd like to say more, but I have a deadline, which is sort of like going onstage. You go up there with whatever you've got.

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