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The Brave New World of Today’s Music Professional

November 16, 2010

In 1995, Zoe Keating quit her day job so she could practice her cello for six solid months for her audition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. She loved playing in orchestras, and thought that a master’s degree would get her a step closer to a coveted seat in a cello section.

But at the audition, the confidence she entered with disintegrated quickly after some judges looked at her askance for not having a current teacher. Stage fright kicked in. “My hands shook, my bow shook, I couldn't remember the music. I could barely scrape the bow across the strings. I even dropped the bow,” she recalls. Someone stopped her after a few minutes, just as she felt she was getting over her shakiness, and suggested “condescendingly, patronizingly,” that she come back when she was more prepared.

“It was so incredibly humiliating,” she says. “It was the moment I turned my back on a classical music career.”

Featured Video

Zoe Keating performs "Escape Artist"

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Little did she know it was the best thing that could have happened to her. The loss of a traditional classical music career forced Keating to think of new ways to make a living with her passion for cello playing.

Fast forward 15 years. Keating is a resoundingly successful cellist — a one-woman orchestra who uses her cello and foot-controlled electronics to create music a reviewer recently described as “swoon-inducing. Like taking a triple-shot of Absinthe before stepping outside of the bar just in time to see the sun exploding.”

Her album, One Cello x 16: Natoma, rose to #1 on the iTunes classical charts four times, and to #2 in electronica. She describes her style as a mélange of classical minimalism, experimental electronica, and steampunk. She has more than 1.3 million Twitter followers. Her signature vibrant red dreadlocks, sumptuous outfits, and groundbreaking compositions and playing style have helped bring the cello out of the musty closet and into the vibrant mainstream. “She is awesome! God, I love the cello now!” is typical of comments about her videos on YouTube.

Keating is the poster child for today’s successful musician.

“To succeed these days, musicians have to be willing to diversify, to branch out, and take chances as never before,” says Michael Aczon, a Bay Area entertainment attorney and talent manager who teaches classes on the music business at local universities. “You have to learn the industry as much as you learn your instrument.”

The Savvy Musician

So what does a music career look like today? One thing most experts agree on is that it doesn’t look like music careers of previous generations.

“Gone are the days of being purely a jazz saxophonist or classical string player,” says multidimensional musician David Cutler, associate professor of composition and musicianship at Duquesne University and coordinator of the school’s music entrepreneurship program. “Today’s musicians have to diversify and to be more entrepreneurial than ever.”

That’s because the playing field has changed in just about every square foot of the music landscape. The traditional model of the commercial music business has been in crisis for years, points out Lenny Carlson, instructor in the Music Department at City College of San Francisco. Much music can be downloaded freely; many record labels have downsized, or even gone out of business. “A big part of what a lot of people do for a living in the business doesn’t exist any longer,” says Carlson.

Featured Video

TILT Contemporary Dance Company perform "Vango Tan Gogh" set to music by David Cutler

Adding to the pain, in the classical world the number of orchestra jobs continues to dwindle, while highly qualified musicians saturate the market. Competition for orchestra jobs is fiercer than ever.

“The chances of getting one of the major metropolitan symphony gigs in the U.S. can be compared to trying to make it on a major league baseball team,” says Aczon, author of The Musician’s Legal Companion. “It’s not impossible, but the odds certainly have to be taken into account.”

Sure, some lucky and talented souls do make it into long-term orchestra gigs, or manage to make a living doing what they were trained to do without putting a lot of extra time in, beyond practicing their craft. But increasingly, the musicians who don’t have to resort to a day job are the ones who diversify and become highly entrepreneurial.

Take Cutler. He’s a classically trained pianist and composer with all the talent, dedication, and advanced degrees that in the past could have kept him in a single music job for decades. But now, his poster could hang right beside Keating’s for the prototype of the entrepreneurial, diverse, socially relevant, successful musician.

On his bio on the Duquesne Web site, instead of a more traditional description like “pianist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra,” we find this intro to him: “... jazz and classical composer, pianist, educator, arranger, conductor, collaborator, concert producer, author, blogger, consultant, speaker, advocate, and entrepreneur.”

“My brand is that I’ll play anything and I’ll do anything,” says Cutler, who, among his current undertakings, is working on a two-person show with a dancer. They explore music and movement. He even wears a superhero costume for one number he wrote and she choreographed.

His is definitely not your grandfather’s music career.

Cutler also penned a book, The Savvy Musician: Building a Career, Earning a Living, and Making a Difference. (Jeffrey Zeigler, of the Kronos Quartet, called the book “Hands down, the most valuable resource available for aspiring musicians.”) In the book and in his music entrepreneurship classes, he highlights the myriad ways musicians can succeed in today’s changing climate.

What surprises him most is that he still sees students who believe that if they practice really hard and get good grades, life will work out for them. He says many teachers still impart this antiquated model.

“But these days, being a great player is not the goal — it’s the minimum,” he says.

Improving the Odds

So, beyond being exquisitely good at your craft, and being passionate about it, what does it take to make it as a musician today? Fine-tuning your entrepreneurial skills is key to adapting to the changing marketplace, say experts. Here are some of their tips for ways to make this work for you:

“Get outside your music ghetto,” advises Keating. That means thinking of unconventional venues for playing your instrument. For instance, if you’re classically trained on the French horn, look beyond auditions for orchestras and classical ensembles. “Maybe you have friends in a rock band. Talk to them about playing your French horn with them,” says Keating. “It’s unique, and something most people haven’t seen, and it can open many doors.” Aczon concurs that crossing genres is one of the best ways to diversify. “It’s an absolutely huge opportunity.”

“Take advantage of the Internet,” suggests Cutler. The Internet has helped even out the playing field for musicians, who no longer need to have the backing of a major record label to create a national profile. “With the Internet, entrepreneurial musicians are in control of their destinies,” he says. For instance, showcasing your music on YouTube and iTunes can cost nothing and lead to picking up a strong fan base and sales.

“Be really good at building relationships,” says Keating. It’s not new advice, but it’s particularly essential today. Both online and in “real life,” connecting in a genuine way with your audience and other musicians is an essential ingredient in cooking up a successful career. Keating’s 1.3 million Twitter followers are there because of her music, of course, but also because of her outreach to those who are interested in her music —not because of some slick SEO publicity machine. In a recent tweet before a performance at Yoshi’s jazz club in the Bay Area, Keating wrote: “I hope I remember (1) how to play the cello, (2) all the parts at the right time, (3) what button to press when.” Fans love the down-to-earth inside look she provides.

“Be willing to wear many hats,” remarks Cutler. The hats he wears could fill a hat shop. Likewise for Keating. As busy as she is on the musicianship end of the business, she does her own publicity and marketing, produces her own albums, arranges her own tours, and is available at the drop of yet another hat to deal with anything related to her music.

“Realize that TV is the new radio,” says Aczon. Thanks to the tremendous number of channels, there’s a big need for programming and for music to support the programming, he says. “Session recording, production music, composing for TV are all very viable options for the musician who thinks outside the box,” he says.

“Take a marketing class,” advises Aczon. Business courses in marketing can help today’s musician learn about marketing opportunities and come to understand the all-important role of branding in the arts. If you can get hold of an arts or music entrepreneurship class like Cutler’s, better yet.

It may seem like a fatiguing amount of work just to be able to have the joy of making a living as a musician. But while the challenge is certainly great, the potential benefits are even greater.

“Musicians have a job to do that doesn’t always mean playing the music of long-dead white people, in the same concert hall, to the same audience,” says Cutler. “Once you embrace what it takes to be a musician today, you open Pandora’s box, and it’s a whole new world of opportunity for musician and audience.”

Maria Goodavage is a journalist, news editor for, and the author of the book Soldier Dogs: The Untold Story of America’s Canine Heroes.


Dear Maria,
I must take issue with your article as it completely ignores a HUGE sector of the musical world--the vocalists (both solo and choral in the operatic and classical fields). How about including those of us who are musicians too--but are too often left out of discussions like these because we can't put our instruments in a box and carry it out of the room? Do you think that we don't have anything to add about OUR experiences trying to make it in a musical landscape that is changing around us?

Interesting. I also am a vocalist. I interpreted this article totally differently. As I read it I felt included in the term 'musician.' If I was a percussionist I wouldn't feel left out, even though my particular instrument was not called out by name in the article. As I see it a composer, cellist, and a few other industry professionals were used as examples of the greater community, of which I as a vocalist am a part.

Vocalists: Partner with an instrumentalist or learn to play an instrument. Your objection to this is an example of the old limited thinking that's keeping you from making a living as a musician.

Vocalists are by nature included in this article, as I read it. AND, they are in perhaps a better position to contribute to various genres of music. Think of all of the great vocal music there is to participate in, including community choirs. Of course the paying gigs are still illusive, but the article challenges vocalists and everyone to think outside the box. Also, there are huge career opportunities in digital music these days!

O.k. folks. The standards of being a professional orchestral player have gone beyond you. No, that doesn't mean you are worthless. That just means that the standards are unbelievably high. I've survived that environment and chose to quit it. I don't want to pay that price, but I qualified.... I'm capable. Go there, do that, suffer.... you'll be a better musician and person for it. Then, and only then, do you deserve to have a different voice, to dissent. You'll learn more than you could ever imagine "going the distance". Your voice will be clearer, and, you'll have something meaningful to say... otherwise, you'll always have that question mark.

Author of "a different voice"...everyone has a different voice and deserves to express it--regardless of whether they choose to subject themselves to the path of orchestral auditions or not. I find it very disconcerting that you think a person only deserves to express themselves after they've been down a path that perhaps isn't best for them. Hopefully I misinterpreted your post. After all, where would we be without innovators like Debussy (whose teachers were not so fond of his approach to composition).

If all the birds in the forest sang the same song, a walk through the woods would not be nearly as beautiful as it currently is. I don't particulary enjoy the calls of Blue Jays, but I woudn't want them to disappear because much of their beauty is in their coloring. We all have somehting to offer--the challenge is to figure out what that thing is, and then to have the courage to spend your life doing that thing. Bravo to Keating.

On another note, the marketing piece of this really bothers me.

We need to cultivate a younger audience. But there's a danger in bringing "classical" music to the bar or corner cafe. Playing serious, art music requires a very particular venue in order to succeed. The sanctuary of a quiet, focused space is an important part of really HEARING Feldman or Beethoven. Let's face it, in the battle of art v. entertainment, art will never garner the audience or dollars that Britney brings in. We've got to be OK with that.

The only way to attract and retain a new audience is through education and providing a meaningful connection with that audience. Does wearing leather pants and playing at the Hotel Utah really do that? Or does it contribute toward dumbing down the music that we play? Do we focus on being hip and current or do we concentrate on elevating our field artistically? Cultivating a life-long audience isn't likely to be successful unless the artistic piece of this equation ALWAYS trumps the desire to be popular.

Like many other businesses, I think there's simply not a lot of money left to be made in music these days. Everyone needs to make a living, but some of the best paying gigs are the lamest, how'd you like to play a corporate party or a wedding? ... Furthermore musical education is necessary and vital, but what are we educating for when there isn't viable employment for musicians? Educating more educators I guess. I can't help but become somewhat political here, when the world is run like a corporation and the overriding value system is profitably it's just a matter of time before music is under funded and suffers. It's a good thing that the human spirit requires expression and will transcend these conditions.

Yes diversity is key, teaching lessons, playing multiple styles, learning various musical skills like audio production, composing, even computer programming is a good one to pair with music. I think there can be creativity with being a DJ but it's taken away lots of work for live bands, the ubiquity of downloads is another big problem for musical distribution. It's almost as if musicians don't even want to go through the trouble off producing a real CD, good luck selling the 1000 copies of your physical product in today's market. You'll have to be on tour to move all those CDs.

While it's good to be aware of the business climate that surrounds the working musician, I think the arts have always had a difficult time making money. Art creates something that is above and beyond commodities, which might explain some of the disconnect between market forces. Another question to ask is how can young artists make better art besides the fact of selling their skills and watering down their musical vision? Since money options are tough for the young musician, why not go in the opposite direction of catering to the market, and instead focus on one's creativity and personal vision. That's what seems to have happened to Zoe and other successful musicians, reinventing their role. I think that this article makes that point.

@ Leatherpants, have you heard of the group called "classical revolution" it's a local SF organization that plays music in cafes as well as many other venues, it's great because it brings classical music to venues that wouldn't otherwise hear it, however it sucks when people are talking I admit. But hey I'll hear some Mozart and Brahms for free any day of the week.

I obviously think so but I remember being a guest singer in an opera at a music conservatory. The conductor said, "Musicians over here. Singers over there." as we broke for notes.

@ Leatherpants
As an instrumentalist who "made it" into a big league orchestra, I have seen its limitations. Because it is very stable, paradoxically the industry is also very RIDGED, being heavily invested in maintaining the HIGH road by competing indirectly with other major orchestras. This leaves little room for pursuing the young audiences that respond to the "low road" of PERSONAL (and RAW) expression. In fact, I can understand that a full symphony orchestra, despite the fantastic sounds and broad scope, will at times to newcomers seem like watching a platoon of soldiers marching in formations. Pomp and circumstance be damned!

So I say, let's do BOTH... both high AND low roads, because as an industry we have enough players interested in clam (classical music) to OFFER both. I have suggested before that established orchestras cannot change suddenly into the ideal wider-community-relevant animal... but it CAN grow new LIMBS by ADOPTING such musicians that are ALREADY "dumbing down" classical instruments, works and hybrids. THESE musicians could be employed FULLTIME to warm new audiences up to more traditional concerts.
Long live the classical revolution!

@SUNSETKID. I've also heard the phrase "musicians, and singers" and perhaps I'm no longer offended by the distinction. Perhaps the distinction acknowledges that my enterprise looks substantially different from the intrumentalist's enterprise in the pit. I have to act, I have to hit my mark, I have to travel with my instrument across uneven footing. I have to interact with my conductor past lighting and barriers. I have to dress up my instrument in costumes and itchy makeup and sometimes I have to play my instrument substantially under-clothed. I have to personally connect with an audience and simultaneously stay connected to the orchestra and my colleagues. I have to feed my instrument good food, good thoughts - I can't stow my instrument in a case until I need it. My instrument needs me. It goes with me wherever I go. So, dear SUNSETKID, the distinction is well received and well deserved. Musicians in the pit and singers on the stage share overlapping skill-sets - musicianship and with luck, musicality.

What interests me most about this discussion is that everyone except blogger/composer Chaput is posting anonymously. People with handles are responding to Anonymous A, B, or C, with no one questioning why no one is coming out of the closet. I would love to see some of you who are posting comments speak to why you're not disclosing your identities.

I would also love the author to answer one question definitively: were you writing this piece with ALL classical artists in mind, or were you thinking only about instrumentalists.

I grew up and went to college studying clarinet and voice. I had a symphony job for a couple of years and realised that singing was my true passion. As a professional vocalist, even I felt the twinge when I read this article. I greatly appreciate the general message and information; I found it to be very helpful. But it IS decidedly focused on instrumentalists and since most instrumentalists do not take singers seriously it feels a bit exclusive of vocalists.

In reference to AKON's very insulting and condescending comment: "Vocalists: Partner with an instrumentalist or learn to play an instrument." Our voices ARE our instruments. And the suggestion that we can only be validated or taken seriously as musicians if we "partner" with an instrumentalist or learn to play an "instrument" is just indicative of this pervasive, negative attitude towards vocalists amongst instrumentalists.

And while I understand why many instrumentalists take this stance, their reasons for this opinion don't apply as often as they believe. You are born with your voice. You work with the instrument you have. You cannot simply "purchase" a new one once your knowledge and ability increases. You cannot take it to the repair shop and have it "worked on" or "tweaked". And I think that since instrumentalists do not completely rely upon their voices as their primary instruments, they have difficulty, perhaps, understanding what it takes to literally build and maintain a beautiful instrument from the materials you are given at birth.

Once you've heard the statement "musicians and singers" a few hundred times, it is understandable why vocalists would have this reaction to this article. Vocalists, or traditional music jobs for vocalists are never mentioned.

And I don't think that enough stress was given to practising and truly mastering not only your instrument, but your art. As in all things creative, learn everything you can to imitate perfection, THEN, through that journey, you have all the tools necessary to prepare you to forge your own path.

Based on the two video clips that are posted here, (supposedly representative of their work?) it seems that the legitimacy of a performer's work is not determined by the level of artistry, but rather the level of "successfulness".

Of course... Whatever sells MUST be good. There's a tremendous respect for success. "They would have the same respect for you if you were a successful used-car salesman"...

SF Musician wrote "@ Leatherpants, have you heard of the group called "classical revolution" it's a local SF organization..."

More than local these days. There's a "chapter" in Cleveland that was established last year by violist Bill Johnston, and CR's are cropping up in a number of other places as well. Last Sunday's CRC session at Prosperity Social Club in Tremont (organized by Shuai Wang, the new coordinator) brought a varied menu of music to a really interesting crowd that included football fans trooping in after a Browns game. Check it out here:

The next session is on December 14 at the Happy Dog in Gordon Square, a venue where Joshua Smith and his Cleveland Orchestra buddies have already played twice this year.

I'm quoting from a community leader here in the Midwest.
"As a community leader, physician and [public school] Board member, I should support music and the arts because:
o They positively help develop the brain in all of us and especially our children to think creatively with imagination and confidence.
o They expose children living in poverty to see and hear possibilities that are available to them and thus begin to prevent generational poverty.
o They are fundamental blocks in building a strong, healthy and economically vibrant community. Just think of our region if all the arts and cultural organizations did not exist --- think what it would look like --- think of the blight and crime --- think of the ultimate cost to society if we had such an empty and intellectually deprived community.
• Without the "basics" of music and the arts, typically mentioned "basic needs" of our community would ultimately be greatly underfunded and swamped because of ever increasing poverty, lack of intellectual curiosity and knowledge of what it means to be a truly happy and productive human being. All of this because we did not pay enough attention to the basic cultures that breed community success."

Talent aside, don't forget that a major part of any successful marketing effort is your branding. Just as a beat up (but perfectly running car) is harder to sell, you must consider what your brand as a whole looks like.

You should present yourself with a well designed website (not HTML 1.0 that your little brother put together) with audio & video of your performances, business cards that match, and quality photography all around. Never send out a CD of your music just Sharpie on it, invest in a Stomper or other label maker. Everything should match and have a professional look.

Keep in mind that professional doesn't mean you have to be clean cut, make no mistake, Zoe Keating's dreadlocks are as much a part of her brand as her music.

@Jason Victor Serinus - I absolutely consider the voice an instrument. It's just more portable than most. :) I didn't think there was a need to put vocalists in a separate category. A musician is a musician, regardless of the instrument.
Hope that helps!
Maria Goodavage

Indeed- I'm a vocalist and this article describes exactly where I'm at and what I am trying to do in my career. I found it very helpful and shared it with many other musicians of which vocalists are included. I think the article is sort of getting at how we must move away from narrow-mindedness which is holding classical music back. I think the comment from the singing detractor is sort of part of that old guard of thinking.

For Heaven's sake give me the dead white guys!

Will this age of ugliness never end? I watched that Zoe Keating video. The verdict: - Dreadful boring drivel from someone with zero talent. Same for that TLT dance more boring ugly music.

I've been dragged to those sort of events by musician friends who would be better off just having a day job. If it wasn't for the beer, the evening would have been a waste.

If the orchestras die, I will retire to my studio and just be content with my huge music library.

Please spare me this drivel from these talentless pretenders.

The voice IS an instrument. A pianist, or cellist, e.g., can perform even if s/he has laryngitis, can't speak a note. I was amused, once, when a singer performed sitting down because he was recovering from a fractured hip. I spent years as a professional opera singer. Once upon a time, I would've gladly sung the Manhattan telephone directory had someone asked. (Mercifully, no one ever did! A pop group DID sing it once as a lark--Serendipity Singers?)

A gentleman named Philip (forgot his last name, sorry!) billing himself as A "Singer" performed some extraordinary selections including "songs" by Philip Glass at NY's St. Luke in the Field's church last summer. He's part baritone, part tenor, part countertenor. Much of it was a capella, "atonal" perhaps defying the limits of the human voice. I was entranced depiste my legendary abhorrance of "contemporary music." He thought outside the box if I may be forgiven the hoary cliche.

This article misses a huge point, which is that to make it into a full-time orchestra, you have to be incredibly single-minded and dedicated. You have to sacrifice a lot (social life? ha!), go into tons of debt (instrument and audition travel expenses), and give up any hope of choosing where you live. You also have to be able to take rejection and criticism -- a lot -- which is where Ms. Keating obviously failed. (I remember reading about a Boston Symphony trumpet player who took over 40 auditions before winning his current job. It's very common for players in full-time orchestras to have taken over 20 auditions before getting a job.)

No one -- NO ONE is naturally talented enough to make it into a full-time orchestra without hours and hours of consistent practice and hard work. EVERYBODY hits a wall at some point before they make it... those who fail are those who try to find a way around it rather than rolling up their sleeves and climbing.

I know that parents everywhere think otherwise, but if you want to play in an orchestra professionally, trying to simultaneously maintain a plan B is a horrible idea. Paraphrasing Napoleon Hill, you have to burn all bridges behind you until playing in an orchestra becomes the dominating obsession of your life.

Anon, if Zoe Keating "failed," I'd love to fail the way she did. I don't call bouncing back from a rejection with a massively successful, groundbreaking career a failure.