The discussion of music available today primarily presupposes the listener’s point of view, even when the musicians themselves talk of it. This holds true for creative or art music–what musicians both make as their individual work and have little expectation of immediate reward. This essay will attempt to correct this, and take the musician’s point of view.

Musicians might say “I’m not in it for the fame or money,” yet no one makes music in a personal vacuum. Music is the most socially-oriented of all the arts, more today than ever before, functional to people’s working and private lives. By definition self-made music means something to its makers, and they have at least the long-term hope that it will mean something to others as well, that however small the audience it will evoke a response. The expected measure of audience response in a commercial society is a financial transaction and not merely the applause of friends and well-wishers. Even if money is treated as a minimal concern it is still there as a factor, a reassurance to the musician that what they create has value for others and justifies what they have committed themselves to as their most significant life activity. That audience is fantasized and may never exist, but to put time, emotional commitment, and resources into music creation depends somewhat on an expected real response. Reality however is what hits us in the face when we’re not expecting it. It is mostly out there beyond the musicians’ control–how the music and the musician gets categorized, what other music it is associated with, and what it is that listeners feel they need to hear. For all their independence (“artistic autonomy”) that reality can’t help but have a counter-effect on what they choose to create.

A very significant reality is the total number of musicians relative to the listeners able and willing to pay attention to them. In this regard, the present situation of North American musicians is one of an open labor market flooded by increasing arrivals and decreased income per player. This has been the case ever since the relative decline of live music performance and of the musician’s union, and the growth of individual entrepreneurship in a neoliberal society. The situation would have been unimaginable fifty years ago and is now in an acute stage. What might seem hopeless and depressing conditions, however, has actually produced something quite promising.

We are in the midst of a massive irony that is also a social contradiction, and contradictions are a good place to look for change. To elaborate: demand for music has increased to the point where most people’s lives are surrounded by what musicians have produced, yet consumer payment and attendance at events, divvied out among the vast number of musicians, is practically nil. On the one hand there has been an egalitarian emancipation of historic significance—music has escaped the traditional caste of musicians and can be produced by virtually anyone; similarly, it is available to all with little regard to class or income. On the other hand, and partly as consequence, the vast bulk of musicians are now basically unemployed hobbyists, as far as their creative life is concerned. This is due to many factors–the reduced cost of the technological means of supplying music, the optimistic promotion since the 90s of “the creative society,” and the actuality of a steadily declining economy. These factors are not about to go away or be reversed.

For the professionally oriented, the expectation of obtaining a net annual gain from playing music is a common joke, especially if the investment in music education, equipment, and the time organizing and promoting one’s own gigs is included. Essentially musicians are supporting each other. (A quip I just heard: “Improvisation means, I give you five dollars and you give me five dollars.”) Only a tiny proportion of musicians, walled off from the rest, earns significantly more than they pay out for their creative work. Teaching, administration, and production–not playing music–is what pays the bills. Playing music is no longer a “real” job, as it was for almost all the currently held musical heroes. It is traditional for vocational musicians to think that if their music is any good they will earn enough from playing to secure the necessities of a modest middle class lifestyle. However, hardly anyone today actually achieves the success promised by their professional training, but that hasn’t discouraged enrollments nor non-career players from pumping more music into the swelling pipeline.

As in society generally, the gap between the few and the many has been increasing, as well as the awareness of it and the reshaping of lives accordingly. For those who want to play music, the many have been dropping out of the long lines hoping to become the few. For the non-professionals the urgency to play can’t wait for the nod from above; they see no point in holding out for gigs in respectable venues that pay a guarantee or favors from the media.

As their proportion to vocational musicians increases, the submission to hierarchical values (“artistic standards”) and to the well-policed genres (jazz, classical music) has been declining. With that the high-status venues, funded art events, and critical authority have been losing the ability to enforce their protected register of the best representatives of creative music. The authority of “name” musicians inevitably suffers a loss when those who would have been mere consumers break through the mystique and start playing themselves. Especially with a non-expert music such as improvisation, they start making instruments out of junk, inventing their own techniques, and of course play and organize for each other, whenever and wherever they can.

Meanwhile, many career musicians are curtailing their professional strategies in order to play with anyone interesting to them, whether gigs or free (non-rehearsal) sessions. They are accepting pass-the-hat gigs without complaint, and touring just for the fun of it. In doing this they implicitly abandon the pretense that they represent the cutting edge of culture. This claim, common to music world promotion, has not been effective in drawing attention to themselves, given the long list of musicians competing for limited slots, the small audiences, and the arbitrariness of media attention. As in the rest of society, the promise of entrepreneurship has simply not panned out. “Dedicated musicians” can either conclude they’re just not very good or can return to their original motivation, their love of playing and need to do it for their own pleasure, if not sanity. Instead of the non-career players upgrading to career expectations, as happened a decade ago, the reverse is coming about, and the unashamed hobbyists are being reinforced by lapsed professionals.

The larger economic situation has contributed to this situation. Many career musicians have been forced out of the large cities by gentrification and the poor income from music, or the availability of teaching jobs elsewhere. They are de facto outside the centers of “serious music,” and develop a more relaxed perspective. On the income side, especially in the states, funding for the arts is being rationalized in terms of their relative contribution to the local economy, a neoliberal trend accelerated by the crash. In this formulation art is no longer idealized as a utopian or impractical extra to life (“non-commercial”) as in the more prosperous economy of yore. No more handouts; art must support the bottom line of the general economy. The City of Philadelphia, for instance, promotes art through the “Office of Art, Culture, and the Creative Economy,” and together with the corporate wealth of the Pew Foundation, very active on its home turf, the focus is on art tourism. Art that doesn’t promise a significantly well-heeled audience is not likely to thrive through funding. Henceforth it must rely strictly on its own resources—primarily the artists and musicians themselves, working collectively, and not wasting excessive time chasing grants.

In this situation, why should the player go to the trouble of securing credentials—associating with those of higher reputation, kowtowing to self-important curators, getting into selective festivals and venues, honing their music to cautious labels’ requirements, building a resume, etc.—when the success rate of supported musician per applicant is negligible? One can avoid all this and still get an audience and a wide range of willing and able partners. Those who follow this route make money some other way, replacing so-called liesure time with playing music. Moreover, labels have been appearing that operate without the caution of profitability or trying to break even but sheer enthusiasm for the music. As the trend has been gaining ground since at least the late 90s, such outsider musicians have been gaining experience and expanding their musical range and judgment. A full musical life is available to people outside the system, where one can work critically on one’s art and associate with anyone, without considering career advantage. One can be respected by listeners directly, for what one actually plays and not for music world achievement. Isn’t that what musicians today say they want most?

As a final incentive, there has been this: What works outside the hierarchy is a collectivity, and not competitive individualism.What do it yourself comes down to is do it ourselves.