Don’t Go to Music School
By BERT STRATTONJUNE 12, 2015
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
HOW many bands are there? Almost 7,000 musical acts entered NPR’s recent Tiny Desk Concert Contest, vying for a slot on national radio. Nobody knows the exact number of professional musicians. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says there are about 68,000 musicians, but that’s “employees,” like orchestra musicians. Most musicians I know are self-employed.
I’ve played in bands for decades, and always with self-employed independent contractors — hyphenated guys (landlord-musician, schoolteacher-musician, warehouse worker-musician). I know few full-time musicians. “Full time” is the highest status — and often the lowest pay.
My 27-year-old son, Jack, is a full-time musician. That’s my fault. When he was 8, I gave him $5 to play “Wipe Out” at a Hannukah party. Everybody in my klezmer band told Jack not to go into music. “Do not apply to music school,” said the trombone player, who had attended the Eastman School of Music and has hustled freelance gigs ever since. His biggest payday was with the Caracas Philharmonic during the 1970s oil boom.
My son listened to us. He went off to the University of Michigan, to the liberal arts college, and lived in a dorm where the residents spoke Spanish — or some other foreign language — at lunch. Spanish seemed a useful skill, at least to me. But halfway through Jack’s first year, he said, “I have to go to music school.” He absolutely had to transfer into the music school.
I didn’t discourage him. I once told my father I wanted to be Cannonball Adderley (I played alto sax). My dad, who owned rental property, liked to ramble on about radiator valves and air vents. I said: “Cannonball Adderley is the best. He’s not far out, Dad. He’s solid.”
“Are you pulling my leg, son? Tell me, so I won’t get mad.”
I was half-pulling his leg. I liked to upset him — not drive him crazy, just rile him.
“The arts is one big ego trip,” my dad said. That hurt, and still does. I became a hyphenated guy: landlord-musician.
Jack loaded up his Chevy after college and drove to California. I wrote him a letter — an old-fashioned letter — which I told him to open in Nebraska, because it’s a long state. I wrote: “It’s better to try something and fail than not to try. When you look back on the risk/adventure in 40 years, you might not find it a failure after all.” I skipped the ego trip part.
Jack pays his rent on time in Los Angeles. He has toured with Darren Criss (who played Blaine Anderson on the TV show “Glee”), traveling across the country in a cushy tour bus with beds. That beats a couch. I slept on some couches into my 50s. Finally, in 2008, I told a festival organizer in Middletown, Ohio: “We’re not exactly college kids. We need beds!”
Jack’s band, Vulfpeck, uploads its new recordings and videos to the Internet, then performs the tunes live. The group has developed a following — possibly every 500th hipster in the world has heard of them. Their music is in an iPhone 6 commercial and is on SiriusXM radio.
Every band is its own label and YouTube channel. Market yourself. The songwriter Kenny Gamble said there are 100 pennies in a dollar, and where is each one going? In Vulfpeck’s case, 70 cents go to the band, and 30 cents to iTunes.
Jack wrote “musician” on his self-employment/Schedule C tax form this year. So did I. I also wrote “property management.” Jack is a bandleader who plays bass, drums and keyboards. That’s him, period.
Sales of digital albums dropped 9 percent last year. Sales of digital songs fell 12 percent. You can stream almost any song in the world free of charge.
You can pay Spotify $10 a month for listening without commercials, or listen free with commercials. Spotify has 15 million American subscribers, and grew by more than five million subscribers last year. Will Apple Music’s new streaming service kill Spotify? Not likely, unless Apple Music signs the Beatles, who have resisted streaming so far.
Last year Jack and his band put out a silent record, “Sleepify,” which was 10 silent cuts (“Z,” “ZZ,” “ZZZ,” “ZZZZ”, etc.) that fans played all night at one-half cent a play. Vulfpeck made $20,000 before Spotify shut them down.
In the 1960s, my wife took the bus to the Lazarus department store in downtown Columbus, Ohio, to buy “C’mon and Swim” by Bobby Freeman. That record and her bus ride were a big deal, she said. In the 1970s she lined up for new LPs outside the record store by Ohio State University. Now she sits on a bar stool in the kitchen and clicks on her laptop for the latest songs from iTunes and Bandcamp.
She heard about Bandcamp from Jack. It pays musicians eight times what Spotify pays. Musicians love Bandcamp; nevertheless, many musicians dutifully pay Spotify $10 a month for commercial-free listening. Spotify is almost unavoidable. Twenty thousand new songs go up on Spotify every day. At least four million have never even been listened to.
“Don’t go to music school.” That’s what I told my son. He didn’t listen. I hope somebody listens to him. And pays.
Bert Stratton is the author of the blog Klezmer Guy: Real Music and Real Estate.