Do Real Musicians Play Commercial Gigs?

I found a really cutting op-ed article today about musicians that play commercial gigs.  It’s well-written and possibly the best argument I’ve read on what is a very common topic among musicians.

The idea is that you cannot be a real artist and play commercial gigs.  Commercial gigs in this case are, basically, gigs that pay relatively well.  That includes musicals, jingle sessions, and similar gigs that pay musicians to be, as the author says, musical “mercenaries.”

Let me say first that I am a commercial player.  I am one of these mercenaries that the the guy writing this op-ed finds so intolerable.  I would think that there are a LOT of guys that probably feel this way about commercial musicians.  So I might easily find the article insulting, but I don’t see in like that.  This guy has a very good point, and it’s something that I think about all the time.

Frankly, I mostly agree with the guy.  As a commercial player myself, I would admit that the great majority of the music I play is not creative in the way that he defines creativity.  The shows I play don’t change the world, the cocktail sets I’ve played in the past have probably all been forgotten by most, if not all, of the people that listened to them.

I would also agree, I guess, that my creative output has decreased considerably since I started playing commercial music exclusively.  I would say there’s no way around that.  I’m busy working, and it takes away a lot of my interest in writing or producing my own music.

What I don’t agree with, though, is that there’s anything wrong with being a commercial musician.  I never really wrote much of my own music anyway, and when I did, it was just a private little thing I did for fun between me and friends.  I never wrote music to create a legacy, I just wrote for fun when something came out of me.

Everyone is good at different things.  I’m not good at being the type of musician this writer idolizes.  I’m a really good hired gun, a mercenary.  I have a wide range of styles and grooves and ideas and mimicry and other things in my head that people hire me to bring to their project.

I think there is a value in knowing your place.  There are too many delusions of grandeur amongst most musicians.  I know what I’m not and I take pride in what I am.

I don’t wish I was more of an artist – at least not in the narrow definition of “artist” that this guy uses.  I feel really excited and proud to be able to work so much.  I think about the kind of life that this guy is advocating – working a day job, taking low paying gigs in order to play only the music that you want, never making any money at music – I think it sounds awful!  That is exactly the kind of musician I don’t want to be.

My ideal music career, lost somewhere between unicorns and leprechauns, looks like this: I teach one lesson a day, for $100 a lesson.  Tuesday thru Sunday I play one show a day in a Broadway pit.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays I play jingle sessions in the afternoons at a nearby studio.  I take all Mondays off.  In my spare time I arrange charts and arrangements for bands and singers and volunteer for organizations having nothing to do with music.

That completely imagined existence comes in at around $120,000 a year.  I’d settle for half that as long as I was playing music.  What’s wrong with that?

I’ll tell you want I wouldn’t want.  Working a job I hate in an office I can barely stand to be in from Monday to Friday, getting all my fun in at one single jazz gig on Saturday night that 3 people came to and I made $20 and a beer.  Starting it all again on Monday.  No way.  This is life!  Remember that at some point it ends!  Live it while you’ve got it!

So anyway, I see this guy’s point, and the point of thousands of musicians like him, but it is not for me.  I’m good enough to get paid to play so when I play, I want to get paid!

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David J. Hahn

David J. Hahn

David J. Hahn (@davidjhahn) is the co-founder of and a former Broadway conductor. He grew up near Chicago, lived in New York City, and settled in California. In 2012, he left the music business to found California Surfcraft, a San Francisco-based start-up that makes high-performance surf gear out of fiberglass-reinforced cork. He is the inventor of the Bodypo®, a sustainable alternative to the traditional bodyboard. He is a cancer survivor, an advocate for unlikely career paths, and, beginning in spring of 2015, a father.

2 thoughts on “Do Real Musicians Play Commercial Gigs?”

  1. Agree. Some musician emphasize on versatility, loves music in general, loves everything related to any music. Some musician emphasize on unique style, ideas. Some loves to do both, and so on. At the end of the day, we just have to question ourselves, are we fulfilled?

  2. That means YOU are a real musicial. Because nobody could be called a professional if they don’t get paid for what they do. If art doesn’t sell – then it’s talentless. And musicians who work in an office all week and play sometimes in bars for free are called amateurs, not professionals.
    There are so many guys in the streets singing for change into their hats. Are they singers? No, just wannabes. You can be whatever you want – in your head, and real life starts when other people are involved.

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